Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

May 20, 2017

Winning the battle against post modernism by losing the war for the soul of science

Filed under: Epistemology,Science Wars — Razib Khan @ 1:18 am


Over 20 years ago Paul Gross and Norman Leavitt wrote Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. To me the book was revelatory and a shock; my own experience with “anti-science” was mostly with Creationists. This was only a few years before the Sokal affair.

In the wake of that it seems that the excesses of the “post modern” Left receded. When you review the “science wars” it is also notable that it is an elite affair, with a strong French inflection (Sokal’s book Fashionable Nonsense was actually originally published in French!).

With the rise of “big science” like the Human Genome Project the fuss about social constructionism in science seemed a bit silly. Onward and upward!

But change is in the air. There is a “new Sokal affair,” A new academic hoax: a bogus paper on “the conceptual penis” gets published in a “high quality peer-reviewed” social science journal. The abstract goes like so:

Anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity. Through detailed poststructuralist discursive criticism and the example of climate change, this paper will challenge the prevailing and damaging social trope that penises are best understood as the male sexual organ and reassign it a more fitting role as a type of masculine performance.

The whole paper is pretty amusing.

First, I have to admit that this is not equivalent to the Sokal Affair, because the journal is far less reputable than Social Text. Part of the story are lower standards in academic publishing, and the fact that “peer review” is a lot sloppier and error prone that many in the general public think. The authors made up citations, and the peers did not catch them.

Another element of this may be that these sorts of fields are so diffuse that it’s hard to get good peers who understand what you are saying. One reason specialist journals of reasonable prestige get good peer reviews is that the reviewers work in basically the same field. You can’t make up citations in that situation.

But ultimately the fact that people like Jerry Coyne are promoting this also highlights that twenty years after Alan Sokal’s hoax the science wars were not won. The problem with the tactics of the social constructionists in the 1990s is that they were too showy and swung for the fences. Over the past twenty years the way that this sort of constructionist narrative has succeeded is that first it has to colonize and dominate disciplines outside of science, and then leverage progressive causes which scientists on the whole are onboard with in any case. Instead of undercutting science, the new tactic is to be pro-science rhetorically, but to constraint and delimit. Accept the idea of scientific reality, but simply demand it conform to your one’s own preferences (this by the seems to be the stance of Creationists).

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