by Andrew Jewett
Harvard University Press
368 pp., $41.00
I came of age intellectually during the academic science wars of the 1990s. I was just beginning my dissertation when physicist Alan Sokal created a scandal for leftist postmodernist enemies of science by getting his hilariously obvious hoax article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” published in one of their journals. I remember the relief I felt reading it. At last, it seemed, the far left attempt to smuggle in patently crazy ideas about science under the cover of so-called critical epistemology from Europe was being effectively challenged. Proper science would be defended from the barbarians!
A quarter-century on, it is clear that my sense of relief was premature. The universities are now filled with a new species of anti-science ideology that is even more clever and insidious. It pretends to be scientific while advancing absurdly unscientific claims. Moreover, this effort at a political hijacking of scientific rhetoric has extended beyond the campuses and is now influencing the broader American culture far more thoroughly than the academic postmodernists of the 1990s ever dreamed possible.
Science Under Fire is a representative example of this evolution in the leftist effort to undermine science in the name of science. The book presents itself as an even-handed attempt to explore how science has been illegitimately attacked by forces outside the ranks of scientists. The even-handed rhetoric is but a façade. Far from an objective study of the history of modern politicized enemies of science, it is a partisan work situated within the camp of the contemporary academic progressive left. It levels virtually all its fire on nonprogressive critics of science and presents a blind eye to the damage done to the world’s scientific knowledge by those who share its progressive politics.
There is a central problem with the book and with the leftist position on science that it represents. It makes no effort to draw or even to recognize the existence of the stark line that separates the natural and physical sciences from social science. The latter is a collection of fields in which the term “science” can scarcely be taken as more than an aspiration. As an academically-trained sociologist with a quarter-century of experience dealing professionally with others of this same human subspecies, I know only too well that much of what is claimed under the mantle of social science has just about nothing to do with rigorous scientific theory and method.
above left: a scientist in a lab, right: a social scientist (Adobe Stock)
To advocate then, as Jewett does, for the claims of mainstream academic social science as though they have the same status as the knowledge produced in the natural and physical sciences is to fail to understand very basic things indeed. Both science and social science are published in academic journals and taught in universities, yet they differ profoundly. Do sociologists sometimes mime the language of science? Certainly. Do they put together frameworks of peer review that superficially mimic those in scientific fields? Yes, they do. But there is overwhelming ideological uniformity in most social science disciplines. All lean seriously to the left, some overwhelmingly so. This ensures that much that passes institutional muster here will have avoided real scientific scrutiny.
The concept of systemic or structural racism is one current and important example of the vast distance between most social science and science proper. The structural racism idea has been widely adopted in the academic social sciences. Now it has expanded throughout American culture due to the supposedly scientific expertise of the social sciences.
The concept of “structure” has been an object of long and fervent debate in the social sciences. Historically it has been used to refer only to empirically demonstrable features of social hierarchies, such as socioeconomic positions. This structure consists of the array of different positions defined by occupational type and level of income. Recognized as a long-lasting feature of societies, the division of labor between different occupations with different incomes is unlikely to disappear even under conditions of socialism. Different individuals can occupy the different positions at different times, but the structure itself does not change much over time. No matter what you or I do in our economic lives, the class structure pre-existed and will outlive us.
Inventions such as structural racism are another kind of concept entirely. The American racial caste system that emerged around the institution of slavery largely collapsed when that institution did. Some elements lingered in various parts of the country into the 20th century, but it was entirely gone by the end of the 1960s, and there is no hierarchy of racial groups in American society today. Members of different racial groups can now be found in every conceivable position in America’s social hierarchy, from the highest to the lowest.
Advocates of the concept of structural racism use the term to explain all disparities that exist along group lines by claims of racism. Yet evidence of antiblack prejudice grows harder to find every year. The causes of existing racial disparities are nearly always exhausted by examining individual-level variables such as educational attainment. These variables are not clearly related to any long-term structures, such as the division of labor mentioned previously. This all suggests that the concept of structural racism is motivated by ideological desires, and has little relation to the findings of empirically verified science.
Jewett’s ideological motivations are on display in Science Under Fire. He is correct that science—again, so long as we are talking about the natural and physical sciences—“produces remarkable outcomes.” He also recognizes that the remarkable outcomes produced are inevitably subject to moral evaluation and conflict in their applications. But he has an entirely partisan view of those moral frameworks that should evaluate science and of those that are the constitutional enemies of science.
There is much in Science Under Fire on conservative criticisms of science. Long discussions can be found on the efforts of Russell Kirk and Henry Regnery to counter the mechanistic homo economicus of the economists. Jewett also spends a lot of time with scholars such as Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson, who criticized the hubristic presumptions of the leftist mainstream of the social science disciplines in which they worked. Conservative critics of science, it would seem, must be confronted and defeated, in the interests of science.
Tellingly, though, there is little in this account of anti-scientism over the past 100 years that deals with leftist criticisms, denunciations, and rejections of science. One chapter focuses on postmodernist efforts to relativize scientific knowledge. It was this group which characterized the science wars of the ’90s. But this group is not at all the face of contemporary leftist anti-science, its more formidable successor permeating higher education today.
Virtually every institution of higher education in this country currently employs large numbers of scholars in the humanities and social sciences who write and teach about science in a new, politicized way. In these accounts, science is racist, sexist, homophobic, heteronormative, and transphobic, and the history of science is little more than an account of white supremacist imperialism. Black studies writers claim that genetic variation of the human population consistent with regional heritage is an invention of racists. Radical feminists in women’s studies departments assure their students that the sex difference is a misogynist fiction. Queer theorists denounce as genocidal arguments that our species is biologically sexually binary.
This is the current face of left-wing anti-science that is fast becoming the dominant view of American elite culture. Yet Jewett has not a word to say about it in a book about challenges to scientific authority.
A common aspect of contemporary leftist science criticism is to bash the notion of objectivity in science. This criticism they share with the postmodernists, though they are not content with the full-blown relativism that follows from the latter’s arguments. Science is done by humans, the contemporary anti-science leftist argument goes, and so it cannot be neutral.
Conservative critics of science rightly reason from this observation that we need more than just pedigreed claims from sociologists about how we should organize our societies. Jewett instead asserts that we ought to stop worrying about the biases of scientists and simply “learn to value scientific findings for their reliability.”
But how are the claims of social scientists to be judged? From what other social scientists say about them, according to Jewett. This is like imagining that the best way to investigate a crime is to interview the criminal and his prison cohort.
A book that carefully and even-handedly examined benighted ideological attacks on scientific knowledge from all sides of the political spectrum would be a useful thing to have at the present moment. Ignorant feminist pronouncements about sex and gender, as well as the illiteracies about medical science being propagated in some parts of the populist internet, would each merit critical attention in such a study. Science Under Fire is not that book.