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Is postmodernism really anti-science?

Postmodernists like to question the very foundations of our modern society. Does this make them anti-science?

  • Postmodernism is often accused of being anti-everything.
  • The questions that postmodernists raise about objectivity put them on a collision course with science.
  • The problems of how postmodernism looks at science remind us that not every critique can be applied to every discipline.

Postmodernism is often presented as an intellectual boogeyman out to destroy truth, the west, movies, and everything we hold dear. In reality, it is a system that originates in the work of a few French thinkers from about 50 years ago. It is based around several ideas but is commonly said to be the rejection of overarching narratives or universalized interpretations of the world. This has led to many claims that Postmodernism is "anti" everything we hold dear.

In particular, the claim that postmodernism is anti-science is a common one. The debates had during the science wars in the 1990's between scientific realists and postmodernist thinkers over what science really was and what its findings meant brought the idea to the popular consciousness. More recently it has been a staple of Jordan Peterson's lectures.

While these debates have largely died off and nobody in physics has changed their rhetoric as a result of them, the idea that postmodernism is anti-scientific remains.

But, is it?

(JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images)

The French postmodernist Jacques Derrida as he appeared in 1982. His misuse of scientific terms was criticized by many scientific thinkers.

In a general sense, it is not. No postmodernist is saying that your smartphone shouldn't work or that it will only work inside of a specific social construct. They don't think science is a racket or fundamentally evil.

What many postmodernists do argue is that we should be skeptical of claims of objectivity, absolute access to truth, or overarching narratives. Science, which attempts to find objective facts in an impartial way, was perhaps doomed to be the target of a postmodern critique questioning what it does and how it is doing it. These criticisms, which range from the reasonable to the absurd, are what drive people to call postmodernism "anti-science."

Many postmodernists have different ideas on the philosophy of science than most people. Some postmodernists look to Thomas Kuhn and his ideas on "paradigm shifts" being a source of major advances in scientific thinking. These shifts, which involve one way of looking at data taking precedent over all others, are at least partially social in nature. This has allowed for allegations of relativism, which Kuhn denied, and an opening for postmodernists to question how social factors influence the findings of science.

Some of these thinkers have sincerely tried to explore the sociology and politics of science. Others have tried to examine how these things affect the truths scientists discover. They run into trouble when they do this though, as the attempts to look at scientific facts as social constructs or blame the problems of science on the inherent biases of scientists often encounter issues compounded by the failure of those philosophers to understand what they're looking at.

So, what does this look like in practice?

The results are mixed. On the one hand, some of these critiques can be well applied in the world of academia and work just as well for the hard sciences as they do for the social sciences or literature. For example, pointing out that our understanding of woman's health was held back by the tendency to keep women out of the medical field is accurate. The fact that power structures can influence what gets studied is a fact demonstrated by history [i].

Even today, the need to pursue funding and ensure publication influences what gets studied. A recent report suggested that the most analyzed sections of the human genome are studied to death by scientists trying to guarantee funding and professional success while other areas are utterly ignored. The postmodernists' observations that the decision on what gets studied and when isn't as free from special interests as we would like to imagine is an important one.

However, the goofy stories are far more numerous than the sane ones. Postmodern thinkers often try to apply critiques that work well on literature, ethics, and sociology to the hard sciences with insane results. Same of them are so absurd as to be hilarious.

Luce Irigaray, a French philosopher, has a bizarre notion of why fluid dynamics are not as well understood as the movement of solid objects. This is explained in this translation of her ideas by Katherine Hales:

The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, (Irigaray) attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood…. Although men, too, flow on occasion… this aspect of their sexuality is not emphasized. It is the rigidity of the male organ that counts, not its complicity in fluid flow. These idealizations are reinscribed in mathematics, which conceives of fluids as laminated planes and other modified solid forms. In the same way that women are erased within masculinist theories and language, existing only as not-men, so fluids have been erased from science, existing only as not-solids. From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.

However, physicist Alan Sokal and French philosopher Jean Bricmont point out in their book Fashionable Nonsense that this worldview is based on factually incorrect presumptions:

Irigaray's claims about solid and fluid mechanics demand some comment. First of all, solid mechanics is far from being complete; it has many unsolved problems, such as the quantitative description of fractures. Secondly, fluids in equilibrium or in laminar flow are relatively well understood. Besides, we know the equations— the so-called Navier-Stokes equations— that govern the behavior of fluids in a vast number of situations. The main problem is that these nonlinear partial differential equations are very difficult to solve, in particular for turbulent flows.

Perhaps the funniest attempt to apply a postmodern critique to a scientific claim was when French philosopher Bruno Latour claimed that the statement "Rameses II died of tuberculosis" was anachronistic and that our conception of tuberculosis was time constricted. He said in an article published shortly after the king's mummy was examined in Paris:

Let us accept the diagnosis of "our brave scientists" at face value and take it as a proved fact that Ramses died of tuberculosis. How could he have died of a bacillus discovered in 1882 and of a disease whose etiology, in its modern form, dates only from 1819? Is it not anachronistic? The attribution of tuberculosis and Koch's bacillus to Ramses II should strike us as an anachronism of the same caliber as if we had diagnosed his death as having been caused by a Marxist upheaval, or a machine gun, or a Wall Street crash.

Sokal and Bricmont again explain why this is absurd:

(Latour) dismisses the common-sense notion that Koch discovered a pre-existing bacillus as "having only the appearance of common sense." Of course, in the rest of the article, Latour gives no argument to justify these radical claims and provides no genuine alternative to the common-sense answer. He simply stresses the obvious fact that, in order to discover the cause of Ramses' death, a sophisticated analysis in Parisian laboratories was needed. But unless Latour is putting forward the truly radical claim that nothing we discover ever existed prior to its "discovery"— in particular, that no murderer is a murderer, in the sense that he committed a crime before the police "discovered" him to be a murderer— he needs to explain what is special about bacilli, and this he has utterly failed to do.

None of these ridiculous statements should be seen as malicious. They are the result of taking an idea that worked well in one area, the claim that some ideas are social constructs or that the biases of the workers in a field can influence the things that come out of it, into an area where it doesn't quite work as well. The result is strange arguments with bizarre conclusions.

Many postmodernists have backed away from their previous statements. Bruno Latour has even apologized for having reduced people's trust in science as much as he did and has taken steps to help restore it. More recently Douglas Green, a Professor of English at Augsburg University, explained that "In retrospect, the anti-scientific vein of postmodernism was a blip." While some journals still accept and print nonsense, they are doing it out of a fundamental disagreement over certain ideas rather than a spiteful distaste for science.

Postmodernism isn't the monster people say it is. It does, however, have a difficult time trying to analyze scientific claims in a meaningful way. The idea that these lackluster attempts to critique modern science reveal an inherent anti-scientific bias is greatly exaggerated, however. They rather show us that what works in one area doesn't always translate well in another.

[1] On the other hand, Noam Chomsky points out that statements like "science is influenced by institutional factors that reflect power structures" or "most scientists have been male" are truisms that hardly require a brilliant mind to figure out.

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