the age of foolishness, the epoch of incredulity
June 19, 2015 7:02 AM   Subscribe

Lee McIntyre writes The Attack on Truth for The Chonicle of Higher Education
posted by the man of twists and turns (47 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
I read the comments. I tangled with the commenters.

Somebody shoot me.
posted by ocschwar at 7:06 AM on June 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


I rather like John Oliver's take on representing the "skeptics" in the media: make it a mathematically representative debate, not a "balanced" 1 on 1. Still, there's the desire to root for the underdog, even when the underdog is backed by major corporations and/or politicians who don't want to deal with the implications of reality.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:17 AM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Non-mobile link
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:24 AM on June 19, 2015


I hate this article, and the comments. I have been looking at it all week.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 7:24 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh good, yet another proclamation that so-called "postmodernism" is to blame for the decline of truth as a governing precept. Sure, he suggests, the Internet is causing even more problems, but it's those darn pomo leftist academics who primed the pump of disbelief. It must be nice to live in a world in which causality and the transformative power of academic humanities writing are so clearly observable.
posted by hank_14 at 7:27 AM on June 19, 2015 [40 favorites]




I'm with hank_14. The attack on truth began not in the humanities, it began in the "divinities," so to speak, in the church, from where it was co-opted by big business.
posted by JHarris at 7:30 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


This goes off into fantasyland by the second paragraph:

Humans have always held some wrongheaded beliefs that were later subject to correction by reason and evidence.

Yeah, back in the day, nobody clung violently to their superstition- and identity-fed beliefs in the face of scientific counterevidence.
posted by aaronetc at 7:31 AM on June 19, 2015 [12 favorites]


I thought that postmodernists in science studies weren't interested so much in whether there was something like "objective truth" or even whether humans had access to it, but rather in looking at how the community of scientists worked. The takeaway, for me, was that "science" lied to itself about the extent to which is was "objective", and value-neutral.

There are wacky scientists, and there were wacky postmodernists, and the element of "play" in science studies in no way could be seen as leading toward the climate change deniers of today. Those folks are deadly serious.

We can be strongly skeptical about the ways in which the scientific community functions to find "truth", and still believe that some things, like human-produced (influenced?) climate change is going to wreck humanity, are true. We can also hope that the scientific community (those who actually learned something from science studies, and I know of more than a couple such folks) might slow that process down.
posted by allthinky at 7:41 AM on June 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


It's not even the media's insistence on BALANCE and PRESENTING BOTH SIDES that's the problem -- it's when one of the arguments is simply "Nuh uh" and is given equal credence.
posted by delfin at 7:44 AM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Is there truly a substantial link between the anti-rigor inclination in some academic disciplines that Sokal exposed and climate change denialism? Much as I dislike the first and strongly dislike the second, it's not clear whether this article makes the case that such a link exists. In fact, the article is pretty non-rigorous itself.
posted by splitpeasoup at 7:51 AM on June 19, 2015 [6 favorites]



There are wacky scientists, and there were wacky postmodernists, and the element of "play" in science studies in no way could be seen as leading toward the climate change deniers of today. Those folks are deadly serious.


Some people need to think carefully about how their ideas would be used in the hands of mercenary K-street parasites.

Some people needed to think carefully about that 20 years ago.
posted by ocschwar at 7:52 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Unintended consequences are a bitch.
posted by echocollate at 8:03 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


What I find so vexing is this: most of what we typically grouped together under the label "postmodernism" was itself a response to a perceived decline in facticity - a sense that facts existed, were observable, were immutable, that the appearance of fact was the same as the reality of being a fact. It turns out that that's not true at all, though that's a somewhat predetermined judgment, because it's based on the idea of truth as verisimilitude, as a measure of how well actual reality corresponds to what we know reality is (or should be).

We didn't always think of truth that way. We can blame Plato for that shift (who argued back in The Republic that truth as understood as epiphany or revelation - a temporary condition - should more profitably be replaced by the reasoned assessment of how well something we observed or discoursed about corresponded to the ideal version of itself), and we can thank the two millennia of metaphysics that followed for enshrining the idea.

And that idea was productive - when we added Aristotle's respect for the natural world back into the mix, we got the Enlightenment in the West, and eventually modern science, which gave us all sorts of cool shit. We killed diseases, improved human rights and the overall human condition, mastered indoor plumbing, and developed new communication media that revolutionized what we could know and how we could relate to our fellow human beings. And thus we felt this sense that things were moving up and to the right, the trendlines all tilted in the proper direction, and history was going to turn out great. We call this the Whig fallacy of history, that human civilization is moving over time to a better and better place. We could also look to Hegel, who in a mercilessly long book that makes the worst excesses of George R.R. Martin seem trivial, suggests that the epic history of philosophy is really the unfolding of a world spirit, where people will be free and happy and enlightened, and it will be great. We had techno-utopians from multiple periods after Hegel suggest that technology would be a big part of that (think of Teilhard du Chardin's noosphere, where the second coming of Christ is cast as a planetary consciousness, a claim that influenced a lot of McLuhan's thinking).

But you know what? The 20th century sucked. New diseases showed up. Even the so-called civilized world ran into real resource limitations in ways it hadn't before, and the price for keeping "civilization" ticking along suddenly became more notable thanks to those same, awesome communication media. And then we fought a world war where we gassed a pantload of European countryside. That ended in a global economic catastrophe, which itself ended because we started fighting another war. And in this second great war, one of the bad guys, who also happened to be one of the most rigorously philosophical countries in the world, set about killing 11 million people who just didn't fit the genetic mold needed to keep their population's elan vital moving up and to the right. And then one of the good guys made good on an interesting scientific theory, translated it into a working prototype, and then proceeded to use those prototypes to wipe two Japanese cities off the face of the earth. And when that second war ended, thanks in part to those atomic explosions, one of the other good guys turned into a bad guy - because communism - built its own nuclear weapons, and then spent decades having a somewhat chilled conflict with the first nuclear bomb maker. Together, the two spent decades threatening the world with mutually assured destruction.

Oh, and we started to understand the environment around us, only to realize that all of the amazingly awesome stuff that had let us conquer disease and install indoor plumbing and drive fancy cars had basically screwed up the environment and there was a decent chance we were all going to die in our own filth.

So we spent the 20th century kind of waking up from the dream that history would deliver us, just by dint of being born when we were born, into ever more awesome days. The result was, and I think this is pretty reasonable, what Lyotard called an "incredulity toward meta-narratives" - we could no longer believe that history or science or human reason would, invariably and on balance, make the world and those who live in it better. That's what postmodernity was, at the beginning, btw, a discussion of a sociological condition in which we had lost our faith in the values and tenets and structures of the Enlightenment.

Not surprisingly the 20th century also saw the displacing of metaphysics in the Continental tradition with more phenomenological approaches, and the splitting of certain philosophical questions into a more straight-jacketed analytical tradition, which could focus so intently on logical structure and supposition that it didn't need to deal extensively with the messiness of the world we actually lived in. We saw the rise of existentialism, the growing popularity of eastern philosophy in the west, and of course, postmodernism and poststructuralism - those damn Frenchies! - and these movements arose not as a cause of the decline of facticity but because of it. They are philosophical answers, albeit different ones, to how we should live in a world in which our faith in the meta-narratives of the past have declined or fallen into disrepair. Which is to say that these movements are symptomatic, not causal.

And it didn't help at all that our understanding of science, and the complexity of computing, were moving into territory that defied reasonably comprehension - quantum mechanics is even more messed than electromagnetism in terms of intuitive grokking by laypeople, and we're surrounded by complicated computing devices that work in ways that we don't understand, and that are technologically advanced enough that they might as well, as Arthur Clarke once noted, just be magic.

It's not, in other words, that science is somehow poorer or less capable than it used to be. Far from it. But it's advanced in ways that are increasingly difficult for us to comprehend, and that require in many instances a certain "leap of faith" in what we assume to be the case about the models of physics, chemistry, and biology. This was Baudrillard's larger point about the third stage of simulacra, where value is derived from a model, and not the pre-existing thing, things, or conditions being modeled. And the models are so complex - for all sorts of valid reasons - that we can't just grasp them with out limited human intellect, and if we can't grasp them for ourselves, how are we supposed to believe them? Especially after that last century. Especially after the horrors and the side effects and the cost of modern civilization became apparent. Especially after science has been so fantastically wrong on so many things, even if it was wrong for all the right reasons.

So yeah, we can call all that an "attack on truth," or we could try to do the really difficult work of understanding how to build actionable consensus in a world that has moved beyond a more narrow, metaphysical conception of truth as reasoned verisimilitude.

But I suppose that's a pretty challenging riddle to solve, so it's probably easier to just blame those who have been trying to think through that conundrum as being the ones who caused it in the first place. That doing so is so easy, and routine, for a number of contemporary "philosophers" should tell us quite a bit about why postmodernism as an intellectual endeavor was doomed to fail.
posted by hank_14 at 8:11 AM on June 19, 2015 [83 favorites]


Is there truly a substantial link between the anti-rigor inclination in some academic disciplines that Sokal exposed and climate change denialism? Much as I dislike the first and strongly dislike the second, it's not clear whether this article makes the case that such a link exists.

Both liberals and conservatives have a long history of noting which of their opponents tactics work and adapting them toward their own ends. Is it so hard to accept that a certain type of conservative, battered by relativist philosophies against claims of absolute truth, ended up appropriating relativist positions against facts they find ideologically inconvenient? Does that really require a comprehensive body of peer reviewed study to be proffered as likely?
posted by echocollate at 8:18 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh good, yet another proclamation that so-called "postmodernism" is to blame for the decline of truth as a governing precept.

There's no doubt, I don't think, that this is confusing the lines a bit. But what is interesting is that postmodernism as a development regarding truth claims more often than not relate to moral truth claims, where you can't speak objectively about particular actions in a metaphysically real sense. Morality is a development of communities, social contracts, etc., rather than some platonic ideal of the good and an action's relation to it.

You can think of truth in one of three different ways:

1. Pragmatic: truth is what works.
2. Coherenence: truth is whether something fits with other things you've already adopted into your belief structure.
3. Correspondence: truth is whether a claim corresponds to an objectively true thing in reality.

#1 and #2 can go together in some sense, and #2 and #3 as well. Someone who holds responsibly to #3 would also probably be thinking about one's noetic structure being properly aligned under #2, for example.

When truth claims come from science (setting aside certain discussions of realism in the philosophy of science), persuasion comes under the guise of #3, while at the same time many who are not religious would often claim that moral truth falls under #1 or #2 (by and large developed in the last generation through studies in the humanities; many religious scientists over the centuries would have put moral truth claims under #3, as well).

What is interesting is that when miguided religious groups want to discount science, they do one of two things: 1) they operate under #3, but it is often with misinformed data that they absorb from likewise misinformed authority figures (although you don't have to be religious to fall into this trap). Or 2) they do it under #1 or #2, although they would often hold tenaciously to #3 when it comes to moral claims.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:21 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


One thing that would help would be if people would stop calling their immediate experience their "reality", as if we each get our own.
posted by thelonius at 8:38 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


LOL @ anyone thinking that postmodernism has any purchase in the academy.

In the social sciences, no one cares, no one gives a shit, it has no influence, blah blah blah. Why? Because its core claims are well known and kind of accepted. For example, who said this:

"Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a "correct" one by excessive elaboration."

Derrida? Butler? Nope, it was prominent statician George Box in 1976.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:39 AM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


echocollate : Both liberals and conservatives have a long history of noting which of their opponents tactics work and adapting them toward their own ends.

I've been on the receiving end of this rhetorical judo by a hardcore anti-choice family member who pointed out that millions of black babies are aborted every year and don't you libs LIKE black people?? See, you're the real racists.

Once you get past the obnoxious concern trolling, how do you even maneuver out of that trap?
posted by dr_dank at 8:52 AM on June 19, 2015


That's nothing to do with postmodernism - it's just an admission that "the map is not the territory" and a statistical model is invariably a simplification of what it's trying to represent.

Box's famous quote was "all models are wrong but some are useful". There are other connected notions about the limits of what statistical models and machine learning can do, such as the "no free lunch" theorem and being able to prove that for some inputs a model will give a worse than random answer, so you should have a good understanding of the range of values you can typically expect as inputs.

None of this is connected to postmodernism or a socially constructed notion of truth.
posted by kersplunk at 8:59 AM on June 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


The Michael Berubé article linked in Lee McIntyre's article is actually a lot more interesting and nuanced than McIntyre's article itself, and I encourage people to read it. One of the concluding paragraphs:
So these days, when I talk to my scientist friends, I offer them a deal. I say: I’ll admit that you were right about the potential for science studies to go horribly wrong and give fuel to deeply ignorant and/or reactionary people. And in return, you’ll admit that I was right about the culture wars, and right that the natural sciences would not be held harmless from the right-wing noise machine. And if you’ll go further, and acknowledge that some circumspect, well-informed critiques of actually existing science have merit (such as the criticism that the postwar medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth had some ill effects), I’ll go further too, and acknowledge that many humanists’ critiques of science and reason are neither circumspect nor well-informed.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:04 AM on June 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


The fact that CHE allows any neanderthal to register for comments on Disqus is a shameful abrogation of their publication's ethos and mission.

The comments section used to be a place, where, yes, it bent liberal, but there were some eloquent right-wing academics on it who always liked stirring the pot, and they were usually worth tangling with. Now it's half an inch above the incoherent ranting of a local newspaper comment section.
posted by lalochezia at 9:09 AM on June 19, 2015


No discussion of this is complete without a reference to The Wedge Document and all it represents. And while its purpose is evangelical it won't escape your notice what a comfortable environment it makes for profit-motivated denialism.

I submit that this is no accident: science denialism doesn't have its well-funded megaphone because it is intrinsically attractive and grandpa's mailing in his pennies; someone's spending a lot of money to promulgate it. Ask yourself why.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:25 AM on June 19, 2015 [12 favorites]


Well, I haven't got to the end of the thread yet but that was such a sharp and thorough (and thoroughly opinionated) precis, hank_14, I had to stop to applaud for a minute.
posted by glasseyes at 9:26 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


You'd think someone specializing in the philosophy of science would know the difference between his favored epistemological account and capital-T Truth. But then I guess on the evidence of this piece he's one of those types who basically got into science studies not to understand things but so that he could feel good about himself by culture-warring on behalf of capital-S Science. I mean, clearly this writer is quite averse to learning truths of the wrong kind about the history of science, to say nothing of his aggressive rejection of philosophy — all the foot-stomping about Truth is probably most interesting as a symptom of overcompensation.
posted by RogerB at 9:29 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


So these days, when I talk to my scientist friends, I offer them a deal. I say: I’ll admit that you were right about the potential for science studies to go horribly wrong and give fuel to deeply ignorant and/or reactionary people. And in return, you’ll admit that I was right about the culture wars, and right that the natural sciences would not be held harmless from the right-wing noise machine. And if you’ll go further, and acknowledge that some circumspect, well-informed critiques of actually existing science have merit (such as the criticism that the postwar medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth had some ill effects), I’ll go further too, and acknowledge that many humanists’ critiques of science and reason are neither circumspect nor well-informed.

This isn't up for negotiation. Science study did give fuel to ignorant and reactionary people. And the natural sciences have not been held harmless. Pretty pomo to describe things in this way.
posted by ocschwar at 9:32 AM on June 19, 2015


The article is onto something, I think.

Conservatives and religious fundamentalists (in both the West and the developing world) have successfully weaponized relativism.

The more progressive-minded people of the earth have no defense against relativism, because when we invented it we assumed that it would be the One Weapon To End All Discussions. Relativism is a rhetorical weapon that literally undermines the foundational basis of every possible idea. Intellectual anti-matter.

Everything from "Homosexuality is bad" to "The Holocaust was bad" to "Jesus is the Son of God" to "God is Dead" to even "the Earth was created billions of years ago". Relativism just vaporizes everything, and leaves nothing but smoking rhetorical craters in it's wake.

We are living in an area that can best be described, I think, as an ongoing thermonuclear war between ideas. All sides have deployed The Ultimate Weapon against each other and, in the aftermath, have discovered that only ashes remain.

New ideas and ideologies cannot be constructed because, as soon as one starts to form, the Relativism Bombs (R-bombs?) start dropping. The result is a kind of blasted wasteland, where no ideology or intellectual idea is capable of taking root and growing. Relativism has salted the ground of human innovation, leaving only stagnation and nihilism behind.

I would offer some reasons for why this situation is bad, but I have no honest rhetorical means of doing so.
posted by Avenger at 9:34 AM on June 19, 2015 [17 favorites]


Human need for gratification leads to denialism. It's baked into the species. But I suppose as The Tragedy of the Commons has already been written. This writer had to make a Secret Humanities Demon
posted by angrycat at 9:38 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm a postmodern mathematical scientist. Yes, I embrace that "contradiction", that "truth". I wish more people could do the same. But reading this article, and then the comments, just makes me despair. A pox on all of their houses. There are so, so many, multidirectional points of departure for ranting I just... can't. "When my fist clenches, crack it open--before I use it and lose my cool."

Conservatives and religious fundamentalists (in both the West and the developing world) have successfully weaponized relativism.

EXACTLY.

My snarky version of this is that postmodernism has presented as an autoimmune disease of the left.

I don't think anyone expected this to happen. Even now, it's almost impossible to discuss it. The humanities academics find it preposterous and insulting to their radical self-image, and the STEM folks don't even know what I'm talking about.

For an intellectual enterprise that's about attacking established power relations and their effect on language and culture, one that in its origin, academic practice, and demography is so clearly at least nominally leftist... it is a supreme, heart-bursting irony that it's the contemporary hydra-headed right-wing "movement" that has most successfully put the ideas of cultural theory into practice.

George_Spiggott astutely pointed us to the infamous Wedge Document. For me, a more visceral ur-document is Ron Suskind's quotation of an unidentified aide to G. W. Bush regarding the "reality based community":
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:05 AM on June 19, 2015 [13 favorites]


weaponized relativism.

This thread is so good . Jpg
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:17 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't find it that surprising that various elements of the right are adept at adopting ideas from continental postmodern theory, despite it being developed by former Marxists. Postmodernism isn't so much a prescriptive philosophy for living life, but rather a way to describe experiences under the globalized capitalism that defines our present moment. Postmodernism is the "cultural logic of late capitalism" to use Jameson's formulation. Why wouldn't the right be fluent in that particular mode of thought, especially regarding an issue like climate change. Admitting to anthropogenic climate change threatens the primary precept of global capitalism: boundless consumption.
posted by codacorolla at 10:20 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


A 2009 survey by the California Academy of Sciences found that only 53 percent of American adults knew how long it takes for Earth to revolve around the sun. Only 59 percent knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs.

I don't know whether I disbelieve the California Academy of Sciences or whether I disbelieve the writer in the Chronicle Higher Education, but I definitely do not believe only 53 percent of American adults know that it takes a year for the earth to orbit the sun.

It's orbit you stupids. Astronomers call it an orbit. The revolving is the thing the earth does daily.
posted by bukvich at 10:24 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


you know who else perverted modern cutting-edge philosophy into a fearful anti-life justification for a facist dictatorship? That's right, Alcibiades.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:26 AM on June 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'll give it a go - is it 365 days? Wait, no leap years aagh - 365 and a quarter? Wait no, Gregorian adjustments - is it 365 days, 5 hours and 54 minutes? Wait are we accounting for milankovitch cycles or not?

The question isn't as easy as you think! I think what the question really showed is that 47% don't really understand the word 'orbit' which is not totally surprising
posted by BigCalm at 10:49 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Really, the whole move of characterizing "postmodernism" as a loose synonym for "relativism" and attacking it as a creature of the left is a whole-cloth fabrication of '80s right-wing culture warriors and it's weird to see how much continued traction it has among liberals and even some leftists. "Weaponized relativism" as idea and tactic in pre-1970s philosophy was virtually entirely confined to the philosophers of the far right, fascists and near-fascists (Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, etc). Not to dispute that there's a later left track record of adapting many of those guys' ideas, and obviously not always with success, but still: the greatest trick the right pulled in the post-GI Bill US university was convincing outsiders that it was ever the side of Enlightenment.
posted by RogerB at 10:50 AM on June 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


I research innovation in a business school, and I had training in both science and technology studies (STS), but they are similar beasts) and in the sociology and economics of innovation and science, so I played both sides of the field.

I think there are a couple of fundamental points of interest here. One is that, originally, science studies and social constructivist approaches were a revelation. It opened up innovation to sociological inquiry. Some of the most insightful empirical work in the last 20 years on innovation ran with this tradition: Hughes explaining electrification through reverse salients, Hargadon on why Edison won with the electric light, or even the Austrian economics approach of Shane in explaining why everyone who saw a 3D printer thought of it only as a way of solving their own problems.

On the other hand, once that lesson (society shapes and is shaped by innovation in complex ways, determinism is stupid) was learned STS has become a bit of a dead-end. Its methods are great for tearing down certainty but undermine any effort to do normal science. Everyone in my field who eventually wants to publish just reads the one big book in the field and then goes on to do other things because nobody really believes in actor-network theory. If you want to actually figure out how to improve innovation, or how to increase scientific productivity, then there is nothing there for you. The entire STS subfield has seemingly walled itself off from mainstream work on innovation and science.

On the essay itself, I really appreciated the quote, "That is the price one pays for playing with ideas as if doing so has no consequences, imagining that they will be used only for the political purposes one intended." Academia can be a bit academic, and its worth noting that ideas do actually matter. We can argue over how correct the link between STS and right wing attacks on science are, but the point remains.
posted by blahblahblah at 11:27 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


...greatest trick the right pulled in the post-GI Bill US university was convincing outsiders that it was ever the side of Enlightenment.

So, RogerB, you're saying that the academic humanities left has been "on the side of the Enlightenment?" It's been attacking the Enlightment (as an establishment construct) for decades, has it not? I'm not saying this critique is without merit, but entropy was generated that those in the humanities rarely cop to. Another example: the academic left led the charge against public education. Again, I've read and enjoyed and learned from Paolo Freire, am against "indoctrination" and for "critical thinking", and so on... but facile bashing of public education as merely being some sort of institutionalize propaganda engine has clearly played into the right's hands.

I will never understand this idea that the humanities is above the fray in some cultural sense. The fact that humanities proponents almost never acknowledge that sometimes it results in culturally negative outcomes is infuriating. Are ideologues and policy bureaucrats trained in engineering schools? Not usually. Are the masters of semiotic manipulation trained as scientists? Almost never. It would be like me not being willing to acknowledge the negative consequences of industrial production or big data.

In my meanderings in and around my campus I occasionally encounter callow humanities types with axes to grind, who accuse me of being "essentialist" or "positivist" or some such, without even knowing me or how I think, and I am sure while smugly assuming I won't understand what those words mean. The fact that this comes from someone apparently so uncritical about a "liberal arts" curriculum that started from a perspective of extreme classism (as in "real gentlemen don't make steam engines--they study the classics!") really irks me. I mean, why the hell isn't technology-making a "liberal art"? That segregation, that sort of violation of the wholeness of knowledge and human experience, was the original sin, academically speaking.

There are a lot of layers here. It's really a hot mess. There's plenty of blame to go around. On my side, I see the co-optation of STEM fields by corporate and oligarchic forces as a major threat to the academy and the wider culture, especially when so many of my colleagues seem obliviously willing to buy into it. But can we at least not pretend that the humanities intellectuals haven't at all negatively contributed to the current sorry state of affairs?

P.S. Berubé's level-headed and honest article, posted by Johnny Assay, is quite good. Thanks!
posted by mondo dentro at 11:34 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Oh good, yet another proclamation that so-called 'postmodernism' is to blame for the decline of truth as a governing precept."

Yeah, that's where I stopped reading. I'm embarrassed that this writer is a philosopher of science.

And I'd also like to point out that the Sokal article has been mythologized just like the McDonald's hot coffee case has been -- the popular narrative about it is false. He submitted the paper to a special issue of a humanities journal, the editors sent it back saying that it included substantial amounts of actual physics which they felt the referees and the journal were not authoritative to evaluate or publish, and his response was that he's a physicist. So they published it, and included an editorial note clarifying the context.

Sokal's stunt was entirely dishonest and its publication didn't even remotely support the critique that he and others claim that it did.

It's fabulously ironic that in an article like this one, about people creating false narratives that contradict empirical evidence for ideological purposes, it would refer to the Sokal hoax as evidence of this.

"The revolving is the thing the earth does daily."

No, revolution is the orbit and is not the rotation. Astronomers are pretty clear on the distinction between revolution and rotation -- these are technical terms, although in common parlance it's understandable that there is differing usage.

"Really, the whole move of characterizing 'postmodernism' as a loose synonym for 'relativism' and attacking it as a creature of the left is a whole-cloth fabrication of '80s right-wing culture warriors and it's weird to see how much continued traction it has among liberals and even some leftists."

Yeah. It's dumb and it's tired. But we're also seeing a resurrection of "PCism gone mad" lately, so maybe in certain quarters it's the 90s all over again.

What I noticed back then was that almost without exception the folk who used Foucault and Derrida (it was always Foucault and Derrida) as their go-to examples of the plague of continental postmodernism that was infecting academia hadn't read any of these writers, knew almost nothing substantive about the related topics, and were all parroting each other's convenient caricatures and strawmen.

One of my favorite things ever was a Q&A after a lecture at the liberal arts college I attended -- this is an intellectually conservative and unique school which had then and unfortunately still has a lot of the kind of academics who are prone to the sort of thing I described in my previous paragraph. Because of the topic of the lecture, the interest in it and the Q&A was almost exclusively faculty and there was an exchange between the lecturer and a few others that descended into a back-and-forth mutual mischaracterization of postmodernist thought. And then a member of the faculty who had specialized in, I believe, Derrida, stood up and systematically eviscerated the wholly ignorant assertions about his work that people had been making and accepting as received wisdom. It was a beautiful moment.

I had sort of hoped that all of the kind of intellectuals and academics who were so enthusiastic about pursuing this contrived feud had all retired or died.

I do agree with a portion of the underlying argument -- it is really remarkable that, back then, it was the right-wing which was pretty much the warriors against relativism and yet now, twenty years later, you can see the structure of pop-relativist arguments all across conservative propaganda.

If you look at the history of the popular and civil discourse about science, what you'll see is that there are alternating periods where empiricism and the institutions of science are embraced by one side of the left/right divide, and scorned or treated with suspicion by the other. And at all times this has been a function of the political implications of the most widely popularized scientific ideas of the day.

That is to say, it's usually that there is a dominant political ideology that appropriates selectively some useful portions of the contemporary scientific consensus in service (and as a stamp of authority upon) some broader social goals, and which then places the political opposition in the position of reflexively becoming hostile to both that appropriated science in particular, and, often, the institution of science in general.

Mid-century America was one in which science was equated with technology and progress of the forms that conservatives approved (economic, mostly), and not incidentally with the success of the prosecution of war, and so for a time was identified with right-wing ideology despite some counter-examples such as evolutionary science. Then we went through a twenty-year transition, beginning in the seventies and ending in the nineties, that ended with the beginning of the period we're in now, where in many respects the situation has reversed. And that's why we see that the right has increasingly become hostile to science.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:41 AM on June 19, 2015 [15 favorites]


Every academic I know who is serious about post-modern theory is a conservative, politically. This being a Scandinavian Socialist Utopia, they may vote to the left (or may pretend to vote to the left). But when asked about their more specific political opinions and basic values, they will answer as radical, science- and reason-denying anti-democratic conservatives in the tradition of Leo Strauss and his followers. Which is completely sensible, given the tradition post-modern theory is built upon.

Mostly, these people are good friends, and I respect their scholarship and their views, and I can see how they have arrived there, and why I didn't. Often, I think it is very productive to discuss this with them in seminar-settings with students - because it clearly demonstrates how scholarly reading and research can have political consequences on the personal level, and the students can recognize how the scholarly discussion is reproduced in political discussion.

For a few former scholars I've met, their studies has led them to cynicism. They turned the social studies on their head, and used them as a power-grabbing device. Obviously, they have left academia as a consequence. If you are greedy and power-hungry, both humanities and social studies at universities are bad career choices.
posted by mumimor at 12:09 PM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Disclaimer: I do not in any way imagine that my particular circle of friends and colleagues is representative for the global community of academics. But I do think it is a relevant anecdote
posted by mumimor at 12:11 PM on June 19, 2015


New ideas and ideologies cannot be constructed because, as soon as one starts to form, the Relativism Bombs (R-bombs?) start dropping. ...

Since if relativism is true, relativism itself is relative and therefore not true, relativism is irrelevant (and irrevelant), and all R-bombs merely implode with a faint pop, leaving everything exactly as it was before, except perhaps a little further along the timeline because we were silly enough to pay attention to them in the first place.
posted by jamjam at 12:12 PM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


As a philosopher who regularly teaches on truth and epistemology, please don't lump us in with the rest of the humanities. Truth is doing just fine with us. Our only issue with the rest of the humanities is a near total inability to understand what is being said when it starts doing its own philosophical theorizing.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:28 PM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I quickly recall why "close tab on sight of the word 'postmodernism'" was a better default plan.

you're saying that the academic humanities left has been "on the side of the Enlightenment?" It's been attacking the Enlightment (as an establishment construct) for decades, has it not? I'm not saying this critique is without merit, but entropy was generated that those in the humanities rarely cop to.

I'm not saying anything remotely like what you seem to think I'm saying, but your wild misreading and overgeneralizing is certainly symptomatic of the culture war in question. "The academic humanities left" is incoherent; humanities scholars have many different political ideas and philosophical positions, and no single position even approaches hegemony apart from the mildest bien-pensant liberalism. Culture warriors who froth at the mouth about "postmodernism" (for which you seem to be making "the humanities left" a rough synonym) usually deliberately and radically overstate the prevalence of relativist ideas, and misattribute them wildly, to the extent that often just anyone in possession of a French surname seems to qualify, simply because it's in their interest to do so in order to represent their themselves as fighting a powerful (or even existent) opponent rather than a spectral fear. You seem to have bought this overstatement and this fear hook, line, and sinker. The fact is that actual strong relativism is subscribed to by virtually no one. Indeed my own sense is that even when it comes to the mildest, weakest social-construction positions about scientific knowledge-production, many more scholars within STS subscribe than do specialists in other fields in the humanities and social sciences, but you'd never know it from this kind of scaremongering about what everyone in the humanities purportedly believes.

And yet it's impossible to talk rationally about this because, as in any good culture war, the evidence is completely chimerical. It's guaranteed in any discussion like this that you always end up arguing about a personal anecdote about that guy from the English Department who once said something dumb about science over lunch. And yeah, that certainly happens frequently enough, but is not actually revelatory. People often have dumb ideas about fields far outside their training; the most important differentiating factor here is that the Heritage Foundation doesn't fund a new media campaign every time a physicist at a cocktail party says something naive about aesthetic theory.

Are ideologues and policy bureaucrats trained in engineering schools? Not usually. Are the masters of semiotic manipulation trained as scientists? Almost never.

If you are really proposing that the architects of neoliberal policy or cultural politics are trained by and subscribe to the ideas of "the humanities left," then, to say the least, your analysis of institutional and intellectual politics is so imprecise as to be useless.

What this whole endless science-war Kulturkampf really represents, at its root, is the reinvention of "tenured radicals" anti-intellectualism for an era in which red-baiting is no longer politically viable.
posted by RogerB at 12:28 PM on June 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's orbit you stupids. Astronomers call it an orbit. The revolving is the thing the earth does daily.

In common parlance, yes, "revolve" means "rotate". But that's not what it means in astronomy, as Ivan Fyodorich points out. Revolve properly means to circle at some radius, hence its use in the cylinder of a revolver (the chambers revolve around a spindle), a turntable (the stylus point revolves, relatively speaking, around the center of the disk).

But that does make you wonder how the question was phrased -- a person who understood perfectly the period of Earth's orbit but understood only common usage terms could easily have got this question wrong.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:34 PM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


What this whole endless science-war Kulturkampf really represents, at its root, is the reinvention of "tenured radicals" anti-intellectualism for an era in which red-baiting is no longer politically viable.

I will completely cop to how sloppy my use of language is/was. And, yeah, there's a lot of diversity at universities. But, you know... it's a blog comment thread. So sue me.

I really do recommend the Bérubé essay. It sheds much more light on the topic than my overly anecdotal, overly emotional (and, yes, unlettered) take on it ever could. In it he quotes Bruno Latour from his 2004 article Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern:
Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth…while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?
I felt such empathy for Latour, and at the same time gratitude for stepping up, at some cost to himself, to say these things. Latour goes on to say:
Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weapon at hand, naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them? Should we apologize for having been wrong all along? Or should we rather bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and do a bit of soul‐searching here: what were we really after when we were so intent on showing the social construction of scientific facts? Nothing guarantees, after all, that we should be right all the time. There is no sure ground even for criticism. Isn’t this what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anywhere? But what does it mean when this lack of sure ground is taken away from us by the worst possible fellows as an argument against the things we cherish?
posted by mondo dentro at 1:07 PM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Indeed my own sense is that even when it comes to the mildest, weakest social-construction positions about scientific knowledge-production, many more scholars within STS subscribe than do specialists in other fields in the humanities and social sciences

I'm not sure why this is supposed to be against expectation? Because they are presumed to have more actual exposure to the history and practice of science? I think a lot of people on the "science warrior" side - I'm not saying I agree with them here - see STS as positively riddled with non-scientists bent on attacking science.

the most important differentiating factor here is that the Heritage Foundation doesn't fund a new media campaign every time a physicist at a cocktail party says something naive about aesthetic theory.

Are you meaning to imply the Heritage Foundation ever cared what anyone said about physics? I think the Right invokes the relativist boogyman over what's said about the humanities more than what's said about the sciences. And I don't know if someone like Sokal was motivated by a fear of relativism as much as a realization that the Left would not do well to take Lacan seriously - unfortunately for him, after that sort of thing was already on its way out. Though Norman Leavitt at least did end up taking a distinct right turn around things like sexual harassment policies in his fight with the "new" Left.
posted by atoxyl at 8:47 PM on June 19, 2015


hank_14, that was tremendous. Thank you for your words.

I'd like to add that 'postmodernism' per se is generally regarded in the humanities as the last critical reaction to the 20th Century, a significant legacy but a legacy all the same. Even then, it wasn't a unified leftist front across all aspects of the humanities: philosophers, archaeologists, art historians and media theorists all had different 'postmodernisms', drawing on many different threads. Many 'postmodern' positions on things like mass culture, cultural appropriation, the decline of 'grand narrative', or meaning in everyday life date from as far back as the 1930s and the Frankfurt School philosophers. Furthermore, many key theorists of postmodernity (like Jameson, mentioned above) theorised it explicitly to reject it.

The idea that 'postmodernism' stands entirely for 'moral relativism' and the destruction of all that is 'true' is born of a deliberate and disingenuous failure to comprehend theory: the thinker that is trotted out as the enemy of all that is true, Jean Baudrillard, actually writes with a deep melancholy and sense of loss regarding 'the real'. He writes with real prescience about the way corporate interests and ideologues refigure history and the world around their representations, and that those representations come to take the place of what we experience as the real world. They do not replace the observable, measurable world. Disney can't change the speed of light. But Disney can change the speed and nature of thought.
posted by prismatic7 at 11:38 PM on June 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


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