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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?
The French postmodernist Jacques Derrida as he appeared in 1982. His misuse of scientific terms was criticized by many scientific thinkers.
(JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images)
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.
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.
 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.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
A team of scientists managed to install onto a smartphone a spectrometer that's capable of identifying specific molecules — with cheap parts you can buy online.
- Spectroscopy provides a non-invasive way to study the chemical composition of matter.
- These techniques analyze the unique ways light interacts with certain materials.
- If spectrometers become a common feature of smartphones, it could someday potentially allow anyone to identify pathogens, detect impurities in food, and verify the authenticity of valuable minerals.
The quality of smartphone cameras has increased exponentially over the past decade. Today's smartphone cameras can not only capture photos that rival those of stand-alone camera systems but also offer practical applications, like heart-rate measurement, foreign-text translation, and augmented reality.
What's the next major functionality of smartphone cameras? It could be the ability to identify chemicals, drugs, and biological molecules, according to a new study published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
The study describes how a team of scientists at Texas A&M turned a common smartphone into a "pocket-sized" Raman and emission spectral detector by modifying it with just $50 worth of extra equipment. With the added hardware, the smartphone was able to identify chemicals in the field within minutes.
The technology could have a wide range of applications, including diagnosing certain diseases, detecting the presence of pathogens and dangerous chemicals, identifying impurities in food, and verifying the authenticity of valuable artwork and minerals.
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies are techniques for discerning the chemical composition of materials. Both strategies exploit the fact that light interacts with certain types of matter in unique ways. But there are some differences between the two techniques.
As the name suggests, fluorescence spectroscopy measures the fluorescence — that is, the light emitted by a substance when it absorbs light or other electromagnetic radiation — of a given material. It works by shining light on a material, which excites the electrons within the molecules of the material. The electrons then emit fluorescent light toward a filter that measures fluorescence.
The particular spectra of fluorescent light that's emitted can help scientists detect small concentrations of particular types of biological molecules within a material. But some biomolecules, such as RNA and DNA, don't emit fluorescent light, or they only do so at extremely low levels. That's where Raman spectroscopy comes into play.
Raman spectroscopy involves shooting a laser at a sample and observing how the light scatters. When light hits molecules, the atoms within the molecules vibrate and photons get scattered. Most of the scattered light is of the same wavelength and color as the original light, so it provides no information. But a tiny fraction of the light gets scattered differently; that is, the wavelength and color are different. Known as Raman scattering, this is extremely useful because it provides highly precise information about the chemical composition of the molecule. In other words, all molecules have a unique Raman "fingerprint."
Creating an affordable, pocket-sized spectrometer
To build the spectrometer, the researchers connected a smartphone to a laser and a series of plastic lenses. The smartphone camera was placed facing a transmission diffraction grating, which splits incoming light into its constituent wavelengths and colors. After a laser is fired into a sample, the scattered light is diffracted through this grating, and the smartphone camera analyzes the light on the other side.
Schematic diagram of the designed system.Credit: Dhankhar et al.
To test the spectrometer, the researchers analyzed a range of sample materials, including carrots and bacteria. The laser used in the spectrometer emits a wavelength that's readily absorbed by the pigments in carrots and bacteria, which is why these materials were chosen.
The results showed that the smartphone spectrometer was able to correctly identify the materials, but it wasn't quite as effective as the best commercially available Raman spectrometers. The researchers noted that their system might be improved by using specific High Dynamic Range (HDR) smartphone camera applications.
Ultimately, the study highlights how improving the fundamentals of a technology, like smartphone cameras, can lead to a surprisingly wide range of useful applications.
"This inexpensive yet accurate recording pocket Raman system has the potential of being an integral part of ubiquitous cell phones that will make it possible to identify chemical impurities and pathogens, in situ within minutes," the researchers concluded.