A limited Excalibur

The Flight from Science and Reason
April 24, 1998

This is an important book, requiring serious review. But I cannot say whether it is a good one. There are short chapters about everything - quantum theory, Shakespeare's folios, the drug laetrile, post-colonial feminism, you name it. Who knows enough to assess such a hotch-potch? It was compiled by rounding up 40 authors of well-known works condemning certain developments in their respective disciplines - and asking them to present their well-rehearsed arguments. Not surprisingly, some of these read very persuasively. One would have to be a genuine expert on each subject to decide fairly between the arguments presented here and what is apparently being attacked. What then might be the verdict of a grand jury of all the requisite specialists? My guess is that each would report that what is presented here is already common knowledge in his or her field. So I doubt whether this work adds anything to the sum of human understanding.

What makes this large tome worth review, however, is its proclaimed coherence. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt are already well known for their polemic against Higher Superstition - their characterisation of "the quarrels with science" of "the academic left" that they published in 1994. Now they are trying to turn this into the manifesto of a movement, in which they have enlisted these many bonny fighters for "the truth". In spite of its heterogeneity, their cause is united in its belief that intellectual life needs to be defended against systematic treachery - against a new manifestation of the trahison des clercs.

The threat is often described as "postmodernism", although this evidently takes different forms on the many different fronts where it has to be combated. So what is at stake? What is the priceless treasure left unguarded in the central citadel? This is what I sought in this book, and its predecessor, but with little success. Here, briefly, is what I found.

First, according to the title, this treasure includes "reason". Now there's an intellectual Crown Jewel not to be abandoned lightly. Is this really what a great proportion of our academic colleagues have done? The metaphor needs deconstruction. "Reason" is only used as a noun amongst consenting metaphysicians. In ordinary usage, it mainly occurs in the second person of the negative form of the verb "to agree": "I disagree, you are being unreasonable; she is talking nonsense". This book amply demonstrates that academia is overflowing with unreasonable notions, and that each of them is unreasonable in its own way: it does not tell us in what respects all reasonable notions resemble each other, so that we could be sure to find and hold on to them.

In practice, the best we can do is to argue boldly against views that seem to us to be false. That is often futile, especially against people who cling to downright nonsense, such as that Noah's ark could have carried specimens of all life forms, or that Aristotle's teachings were cribbed from the, as yet, unbuilt library of Alexandria. To fight for truth we have to share with our opponents a modicum of respect for logic and fact, not only quite generally but as they happen to frame the chosen arena of conflict. In each such arena, "reason" is our skillful use of such mental weapons as we have to hand: it is not an all-purpose shield or sword.

Of course, the other word in the title - "science" - is deemed to be just such a weapon. It is spoken of with awe, as a cognitive Excalibur that can always ensure victory for anyone strong and pure enough to wield it. Now let it be quite clear that I do not in the least deny the cognitive power of science or the reliability of the knowledge that it produces. But it is not all-conquering, and cannot be used under all circumstances. Not all the supporters of this campaign seem to believe in science as if it were an omnicompetent religion - although there are still many such. But the weakness of their manifesto is that they convey no indications of how or why its powers are limited.

Indeed, no coherent image of "science" emerges from these pages. Mostly it is referred to as a familiar activity, like shopping, that surely does not require definition. But science as practised does not completely exclude unreason. Remember that Rutherford condemned the idea of nuclear power as "moonshine", and that perfectly good evidence for continental drift was rubbished by the geological establishment for half a century. And when the purveyors of "creation science", or "paranormal science", apply for membership of the practitioners' guild, we have to give plausible reasons for blackballing them. So I trawled what sociologists call the "boundary work" in this volume, on the lookout for philosophical "demarcation criteria" that might provide such reasons.

The catch was very meagre. Mathematical modelling is mentioned at times, on the naive assumption that all science ought to be reducible to physics. "Scientific method" is duly invoked without explanation, as if its nature and efficacy were beyond questioning. A term that occurs frequently is "empiricism", which would ground scientific knowledge in observation, experiment, and other forms of direct experience. Unfortunately, science is also irredeemably "theoretical", and most of the authors must be aware that philosophers have conspicuously failed to prove that hypothetical scientific entities such as quarks and genes can be inferred logically from even the most contrived of "sense data". Some more up-to-date contributors still put their faith in Popperism, glossing over such difficulties as the impossibility of refuting conjectures about the past.

Apart from two rather weak chapters by essentially like-minded metascientists, this whole work thus lacks any serious analysis of its own central doctrine. It is held together by little more than the traditional practical realism of the working physicist or chemist, laced with half-sincere professions of modesty and corrigibility. And yet philosophers have known for thirty years or more that this mix of pragmatism and positivism has significant logical defects. For active researchers in the natural sciences, this is seldom a handicap. But most of the views attacked in this volume relate to behavioural, social and other human phenomena, where serious epistemological questions cannot be avoided. They simply cannot be dealt with by the methods that work well enough for quarks, genes, tectonic plates and weather systems.

Indeed, it was just this weakness that attracted the sociological attack on the traditional philosophy of science. Unfortunately, this attack has been pressed to such lengths of scepticism, cynicism and relativism that it threatens to destroy the very activity that it claims to be reforming. This is sad, because I believe - along with quite a number of excellent philosophers and sociologists who get no mention in this book - that the epistemological challenge could be met by a revised understanding of the nature of science. I would describe it, for example, as a peculiar type of social institution, devoted to the production of public, communally acceptable knowledge about the natural and social worlds through a delicately balanced tension between originality and criticism. And that is why I believe that this book is essentially wrong-headed, and that its editors and authors should be deploying their collective eloquence against more sinister enemies. In fact, at several points they do recognise that the vital issue is the maintenance of a free and open polity where disputatious communities and pluralistic intellectual institutions - like genuine universities, for example - can continue to flourish. That is the banner under which all the friends of "science and reason" should be uniting.

John Ziman is emeritus professor of physics, University of Bristol.

The Flight from Science and Reason

Editor - Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt and Martin W. Lewis
ISBN - 0 8018 5676 0
Publisher - NY Academy of Sciences and Johns Hopkins Uni Press
Price - £16.50
Pages - 593

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