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and The Hidden Agenda of Social Constructivism
By Norman Levitt
Mathematics, Rutgers University
Posted February 19, 2006
The recent, notorious confrontation,
embodied in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, between Creationism (in the
guise of "Intelligent Design Theory") and biological science was notable for
many things, not least among them the dissolution of standard political
categories. The decision itself
confronted us the startling image of Judge J. Jones, a conservative Republican
and a recent Bush appointee to boot, coming forth with an opinion that in its
unquestioning deference to the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment,
its pervasive concern for civil liberties, and its determination to maintain a
materialist, naturalistic definition of science, seemed to have come straight
out of a secular-humanist handbook.
There were some assertions with which a hard-core monist might quibble,
specifically, that there is no real conflict between science, evolutionary
and otherwise, and religion as such.
But these were minor diplomatic gestures, and did little to shield
theocratic pretensions from the decision's thrust.
On top of that, the post-trial school
board election that preceded the decision by a few weeks revealed the massive
defection of a largely conservative and Republican community to the Democratic
column and to an explicitly liberal view of church-state relations, clearly
rejecting the theocratic bullying of the previous board. Moreover, the case itself had the
effect of prying some prominent conservative thinkers away from their
previously unquestioned allegiance to the Christian Right.
Yet the trial itself put on display a
contrary anomaly, slight in its overall legal significance yet striking in its
reversal of familiar dichotomies.
That anomaly, to give it a personal name, was Professor Steve Fuller, an
American academic now in the sociology program of the UK's University of
Warwick, who provided an aggressive and cocksure rationale for the Dover
Board's position and for the "Intelligent Design" program in general.
Philosopher turned sociologist
Fuller, who has a degree in philosophy of
science, has long been a strident, insistent voice in the "science studies"
movement that has insinuated itself into the European and American scholarly
community. By the sole criterion
of page counting, and leaving aside questions of accuracy, soundness, and
irredundancy, he has been massively prolific. With entrepreneurial acumen, he early on founded his own
journal, Social Epistemology, to tout the supremacy of his own
doctrines. He has nimbly climbed
the greasy pole of academic prestige, at least insofar as British redbricks and
a field like sociology can generate it, rocketing upward on a ceaseless stream
of words, most of them inflected by more than a hint of self-praise. As is almost inevitable in the prevailing
climate, he positions himself on the supposed left of the political
spectrum. Indeed, he has
repeatedly resorted to "lefter
than thou" rhetoric to bolster his claim to theoretical primacy. For instance, his book on Thomas Kuhn,
probably the best known of his works, propounds the peculiar thesis that Kuhn's
all-too-famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was at heart a
Cold War scheme to lull western scientists into accepting their assigned role
as accomplices of anti-Communist militarism. This is Fullerism at its slyest; the author simultaneously
dethrones a figure who has been (rightly or wrongly) the philosophical demigod
of left-wing science studies, while seizing the crown for himself.
In Fuller's mind, working scientists are
in an important sense intellectually deformed. They constitute a narrow, cloistered, inbred hierarchy of
myopic specialists largely blind to the "true" nature of science and oblivious
to its future trajectory. Science,
on this view, maintains its prestige, authority, and access to resources by
playing the power game, bullying and intimidating the rest of society. It is "an arrested social
movement in which the natural spread of knowledge is captured by a community
that gains relative advantage by forcing other communities to rely on its
expertise to get what they want." In other words, what we now think of as "science" does not truly
comprehend nature, but rather constructs from its own idiosyncratic perspective
a limited image of nature, while using the prerogatives of a privileged
mandarinate to nullify or suppress all rival knowledge claims that impinge on
fear not! Paladins (most notably,
Steve Fuller!) have arisen from the socially oriented disciplines to overthrow
this view of things. Specifically,
Fuller regards himself as a leader in the movement to "open up" science by
nurturing and canonizing ways of "doing science" that differ radically from
practices currently endorsed by the professional scientific consensus. This is a theme that plays well on the
academic left, since it explicitly includes such notions as "citizen science"
and "people's science," projects that Fuller gives leave to confront and reject
the findings of established science.
There is an obvious nod to the epistemic relativism that is central to
the postmodernist view of things, notwithstanding the fact that Fuller
indignantly refuses the "postmodernist" label.
This bizarre project is
propped up by Fuller's dogma that one need not actually understand standard
science to criticize it or to pose profoundly different alternatives. The specific content of standard
science, its internal logic, the empirical results that buttress it, are not
crucial elements in understanding "Science" as he maintains it should be
understood. What, then, authorizes
those who, like Fuller, do "social studies of science" to claim that supposedly
superior understanding? "We
study them [scientists] as people, not minor deities. We observe them in their
workplaces, interpret their documents, and propose explanations for their
activities that make sense of them, given other things we know about human
beings." This, presumably, gives
Fuller and friends the Archimedean leverage to condemn professional science as
a hermetic cult and to toss aside its findings when ideology so dictates. "If a theory 'forced' one to assent to
politically distasteful, depressing, and counterintuitive claims, then one
could regard those consequences as in themselves good reasons to find the
theory implausible," says feminist philosopher Sandra Harding; Fuller would
doubtless agree, as evidenced by his sympathy for the War Against Darwin.
In tone and substance, Fuller is arrogant
and condescending in the highest degree.
But is he justifiably so? Do the underlying philosophy and the practical methods of
Fuller and his school actually lead to results solid and penetrating enough to
compel one to accept this take on things, notwithstanding its unconcealed
contempt for the sensibilities of scientists? Frankly, I think this is not only improbable but ridiculous
outright. I shall argue my
case -- briefly -- by appeal to anecdotal evidence, farcical but telling. The reader is advised that I am the
source of my own anecdote, and that I pass it on in a spirit of gleeful
malice. It serves the bastard
right, say I, especially now that he's thrown in his lot with a pack of
I have been aware of Steve Fuller and his
antics for about a dozen years.
From the first, I found him not worth taking seriously except as
evidence of the institutional inability of the academy to filter out
pretentious nonsense. I soon
discovered that I had, in effect, joined a subterranean society of
Fuller-bashers, a cadre of scientists and philosophers who discern in Fuller's
posturing the reductio ad absurdum of social constructivism and joyfully
compete to unearth his most outrageous and egomaniacal claims. In a more public context, I have
debated him a few times. Indeed,
in one such case I was driven to perpetrate poetry (well, alright, doggerel) in
order to respond to him aptly in the pages of an august journal of philosophy
of science. But the incident I
shall now resurrect occurred in the context of the celebrated Sokal Hoax. Fuller, be it remembered, was one of
the contributors to the "Science Wars" issue of Social Text, a project
initially intended to salvage the reputation of "left" critics of science from
the attacks of such churls as Paul Gross and the present author. But physicist Alan Sokal turned the
tables by inveigling the editors into printing his intentionally ridiculous
piece, thereby raising the more appropriate question of whether the left's
embrace of anti-science and postmodernism in general constituted a species of
Fuller's own essay dealt with the supposed
blow to European scientific vanity delivered by Meiji Japan's rapid acquisition
of scientific and technical skills.
Leaving aside the merits and flaws of this piece, it provided me with
the opportunity to create a joke of my own within Sokal's larger joke, that is
to say, a slight extension of Sokal's "experiment," with Fuller as experimental
subject. As soon as the fatal
issue of Social Text came out, with the hoax still unrevealed, I sent
Fuller an e-mail, ostensibly to challenge a minor historical error in his
essay. This ruse afforded me the opportunity to ask, without being too obvious,
what Fuller thought of the curious Sokal article and its author. Fuller replied that he deemed the piece
an earnest, if labored, attempt on the part of a politically progressive
physicist to come to terms with the stunning new political critiques of
science. There was no hint that he
smelled a rat. My suspicions
confirmed, I kept the correspondence going for a few more rounds, progressively
adding more and more heavy-handed suggestions that there might be a joker in
this particular deck. After four
or five go-rounds, my hints having become positively day-glo blatant, the penny
finally dropped for Fuller! By a
curious coincidence, this happened at the exact moment the Social Text
crowd learned the awful news that they'd been had.
But what does this all demonstrate, aside
from my own insufferable smugness at having played an effective round of Gotcha!? Undeniably, it shows at least that
Fuller, for all his reputation within the science studies Mafia, was unable to
detect deliberate nonsense, coarse and silly blather easily pegged as a
sophomoric joke by anyone with an ear for scientific discourse. By extension, it lays waste to his
claim that by "observing scientists in their workplace" and "interpreting their
documents" he is empowered to propose persuasive explanations for their
activities. He can't. He sees too little and knows too
little; his intellectual radar is on the fritz. However the wind blows, Professor Fuller seems, on the
evidence of the Sokal Affair, quite unable to tell a hawk from a handsaw. Given, then, that he is demonstrably
blind to the blatant, why in the world should anyone trust his discernment when
matters get subtle or deep?
The blind theory-maker
Going well beyond this incident, a search
of Fuller's manifestos reveals that he knows little, if anything, about the
content or logic of biology or physics. Mathematically, he seems to be quite illiterate. On the other hand, as the cited
incident shows, he is easily gulled.
To put it another way, he is not a very astute judge of human nature, at
least when the human in question is a scientist representing himself through
scientific (or fake-scientific) rhetoric.
Fuller simply can't be trusted to make psychological sense of such
people, which fact utterly vitiates his self-proclaimed project.
Perhaps some readers will think that I am
being unfair to the man by inferring such sweeping incompetence from such an
ephemeral incident. I can only
respond by assuring readers that solecisms -- scientific, historical, and
philosophical -- are Fuller's stock in trade. They permeate his writings, as thick on the ground as
dandelions in a lawn unvisited by 2,4-D.
Reading through his stuff brings to one's ears a series of dull thuds,
the sound of one's own dropping jaw repeatedly hitting the floor as howler
after howler catches one's eye.
The core of Judge Jones's decision was
based on the history of the ID movement and the Discovery Institute in
particular, the roots of that movement in an explicitly theocratic political
agenda, and the dishonesty of the movement in its recent clumsy attempts to
conceal those roots. Most of the
court's insight was derived from the testimony of philosopher Barbara Forrest,
as fleshed out by her book, Creationism's Trojan Horse, written jointly
with Paul R. Gross. (Here, I am
honored to point out that Forrest's co-author was the fellow with whom I wrote Higher
Superstition a dozen years ago.
I also note the contribution of the late Stephen Sacks who drafted the
one pro-evolution amicus brief that the court consulted. Paul Gross and I as members of the
editorial board of Sacks's journal Scipolicy had the privilege of
approving that brief; Steve Fuller, another member, emphatically
Fuller, however, made his own backhanded
contribution to the outcome.
Jones's opinion is a telling commentary on Fuller's tin ear for his own
voice. Fuller's connection with
the ID crowd is a rather old one.
He signed on as a fellow-traveler as early as 1998, embracing
Intelligent Design Theory as a ploy in his more general campaign to challenge
the hegemony of standard science and to compel scientists to accept the
legitimacy of "local knowledges" of the sort that fail when confronted with
scientific standards of rigor. But
despite his long familiarity with ID and its rationales, Fuller utterly failed
to sway Judge Jones to take a more kindly view of the movement. Jones's decision refers frequently to
Fuller's testimony, but only to find further damning evidence that ID is, root
and branch, a theological imposture lacking scientific status. In other words, Fuller, as "expert"
witness for the defense, proved to be one of the plaintiff's most effective
Needless to say,
Fuller's sycophancy toward the ID movement has drawn considerable criticism,
even from folks who are inclined, on the whole, to a favorable view of the
"science studies" movement. The
primary objection is that a supposed champion of the left is lending his
services and his rhetorical skills to a deeply reactionary project. The
ultimate aim of the ID movement is not only to replace secular science by a
zombie simulacrum deferential to fundamentalist myth, but further to exploit
that anticipated achievement in order, ultimately, to turn this country into a
fundamentalist Christian commonwealth.
This is perfectly clear to anyone who has paid attention to the
pronouncements of ID godfather Phillip E. Johnson. Fuller's rather blithe defense is that he is trying to keep
the ID movement from falling completely into the hands of the religious
right. He advises his critics to
"Mainstream these guys [ID advocates] now, so that they don't have to depend on
the religious right for material support." This is rather like advocating support of the SS in order to
prevent it from falling completely under the sway of the Nazis! Fuller is too feckless to perceive that
ID belongs to the religious right, body and soul. It was dreamed up by the religious right, and continues as
an arm of that movement. It is
religiously pluralistic only in the sense that a spectrum of right-wing
fundamentalist views is to be found among its prominent spokesmen (the standard
hellfire Protestantism of Dembski, Behe's ultramontane Catholicism, Berlinski's
affiliation with the Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism of the Commentary
crowd, and, weirdest of all, the Unification Church fanaticism of Moonie
Jonathan Wells). If nothing else,
this shows that despite his self-portrayal as a sophisticated political
theorist, Fuller lacks the plain-vanilla common sense to discern the elementary
facts of life concerning American politics.
ID as alternative
It's a good guess that
Fuller first veered into the ID orbit because it provided him with a concrete
and ongoing example of what he took to be serious "alternative science,"
science that rebels against the methodological constraints as well as the
metaphysical assumptions of the orthodox variety. Crucially, it also provided him with a cast of "rebel
angels", presumptive credentialed scientists who had taken arms in defense of
the defiant new mode of "science".
Thus, he repeatedly refers to the Discovery Institute's well-known
legionnaires as serious working scientists, guided by a teleological
metaphysics opposed to materialistic naturalism, but aboveboard and
straightforward in their experimental and theoretical rigor. He ignores extensive and damning
criticism of these purported scientists, assuming, that is, that it doesn't
simply go right over his head. To
take perhaps the most prominent practitioner of ID "science," consider William
Dembski. Mathematician Jeffrey
Shallit, who has exhaustively studied Dembski's work, finds that it "is riddled
with errors and inconsistencies that he has not acknowledged; it is not
mathematics, but pseudo-mathematics."
Dembski's long history of trying to demonstrate "mathematically" that
undirected Darwinian evolution is virtually impossible provides us with an
instructive example of tendentiousness and special pleading. A basic pattern infuses his work;
Dembski-watchers have seen it in action over and over. Typically, Dembski constructs a
"mathematical" argument supposedly proving the impossibility of evolution by
random variation and selection, and declares that only by positing an
Intelligent Designer can we "save the phenomena." That argument, when it gets into the hands of mathematically
competent critics, is torn to shreds, undone by non sequitur, linguistic
ambiguity, and outright fallacies.
At that point, Dembski, without making any explicit concessions, quietly
puts that argument to one side and goes back to his desk to construct another. The endpoint remains the same, however:
another "refutation" of "Darwinism," another vindication of the Designer. It is as clear as these things can be
that Dembski has no real interest in exploring the mathematics of evolutionary
models, per se, but is solely concerned with finding a pretext to gild
religious dogma with the hijacked authority of mathematics.
Fuller is blind to this
entire risible history. For one
thing, as a mathematical duffer, he lacks the intellectual resources even to
follow the debate. But beyond that,
he is wedded to the idea that ID involves serious, if philosophically
unorthodox science, and ignores the obvious fact that Dembski is not a
scientific inquirer at all, but rather a tractarian with a gimmick, using his
credentials (rather meaningless by now) to promulgate a conventional religious
dogma. Fuller tries to deny that
Dembski is even a Creationist; but Creationists themselves, at least of the Old
Earth variety, have no trouble embracing him as one of their own without any
protest from Dembski. Mutatis
mutandis, Fuller's attitude to the rest of the bloody crew -- Behe, Wells,
Berlinski, et al -- is pretty much the same.
Perhaps Fuller lulls
his conscience by dreaming up these lame excuses for ID, but the curious fact
remains that he has thrown in his lot with a pack of full-bore,
no-holds-barred, reactionaries who can prosper only at the expense of the
political causes and ideals Fuller claims to uphold. Frankly, I think that for once he has made a bad career
move. His unremitting hatred for
the prestige and authority of conventional science has carried him over a brink
that most of his science studies colleagues are too prudent even to approach.
nostalgia of postmodernism
It might pay, at this
point, to inquire a little more deeply into the question of motivations, that
is to say, the motivations of those proponents of science studies who have,
like Fuller, spent the past two decades or so beating the drums for epistemic
relativism and cognitive pluralism, making social constructivist doctrine bear
the weight of their argument. I
want to explore the possibility that their deepest guiding impulses don't
derive from an intellectual conversion to social constructivist theory, but
rather from a profound and rather frantic discontent with the world-view
science forces them to confront.
Most of the visitors to this site have accepted that view to a great
degree, regarding the knowledge of the natural world that science affords and
the consistency of its knowable laws as adequate consolation for the eclipse of
a vision of the universe as governed by divine purpose, moral equity, and
ultimate justice. Most people in
the world, however, are unenthusiastic about the trade-off. Where those who are most comfortable
with science see it as "a candle in the dark," to use Carl Sagan's memorable
phrase, they are far outnumbered by the mass of those who, at one level or
another, harbor bitter feelings toward science for revealing just how pervasive
and complete that darkness is.
The world of
professional intellectuals is hardly immune from these resentments, even though
religion as such, with its burden of highly arbitrary doctrine, is muted within
its precincts, if not wholly absent.
The desire to re-enchant the world, to shape a vision that brings the
workings of the greater universe closer, once again, to the realm of human
purposes and values, takes many forms.
Some of these visions are ancient, some newly sprung from the human
imagination. Often, they are
rather inchoate, consisting of a generalized sense that some higher or deeper
or kinder purpose lurks behind the world of direct appearances that science
accesses. In the scholarly domain,
these feelings often take the form, not of specific positive doctrine that
clearly confronts science, but rather of ideological tenderheartedness toward
the social phenomena -- sects, cults, ethnocentric tall-tales, unorthodox belief
systems -- that actually mount such challenges.
I propose that such
sentiments underlie much of the pugnacity toward science exhibited by science
studies, radical cultural anthropology, feminist epistemology, and so
forth. I think that the persistent
popularity of the notion that science is a historically contingent social
construct, a narrative not necessarily superior to other accounts of the world,
a kind of cognitive imperialism devised by the western ruling caste to humble
and demoralize subaltern cultures, stems not from the philosophical
plausibility of social constructivism as such, but rather from the deep
discontent with the death of teleology to which I have alluded. This unhappiness fastens upon the
explicit doctrines of social constructivism, forging them into a cudgel with
which the hegemony of orthodox science can be repeatedly belabored.
Something like this, I submit,
lurks beneath the pompous and scatterbrained epistemological latitudinarianism
that Steve Fuller offers in defense of Intelligent Design Theory. That in itself won't save him, I
believe, from the disdain of most social constructivist colleagues. He is giving aid and comfort to too
dire an enemy. His career is
probably headed for some fairly rocky shoals. Nonetheless, he is merely extending to a nasty gang of
right-wing religious nuts the logic that has led the science studies community
and its hangers-on to speak up for tribal shamans, UFO cultists, and homeopathists.
echo those of many other science studies luminaries. Collectively, these give the game away. Andrew Pickering notoriously tells the
readers of Constructing Quarks that physics need not be taken seriously
as a ground for one's world-view.
Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch in The Golem slyly damn with faint
praise, averring that science is above all a "craft". From this doctrine, we are to infer that scientific theories
are merely variously clever intellectual gizmos cobbled together according to
the guild's rules -- a very different thing from a body of reliable and
universally valid knowledge.
On his own hook, Collins rages against CSICOP and the Amazing Randi for
their deadly accurate debunking of the paranormal. Meanwhile, Michel Callon and Bruno Latour boast that, "The field of science studies has been
engaged in a moral struggle to strip science of its extravagant claim to
authority." "We have challenged the assumption that
there is only one way of doing things right, that there is only one way to
investigate our social worlds or to investigate the earth and the universe
where we live," claims Sharon Traweek likewise. "How can metaphysical life theories and
explanations taken seriously by millions be ignored or excluded by a small
group of powerful people called 'scientists'?" Andrew Ross chimes in.
None of this, needless
to say, will lead science studies to join Steve Fuller in a passionate embrace
of Phillip E. Johnson and company (although Harvard's Sheila Jasanoff once
briefly flirted with the idea).
But it does illuminate the primal source of Fuller's folly and the
overall surliness of the practitioners of science studies, which, to speak
brutally, consists of a subterranean desire to bring about a world in which superstition,
in one form or another, has clawed its way back into respectability. For all its progressive posturing,
"postmodernism," at bottom, reflects a deeply reactionary cast of mind. Steve Fuller's enthusiasm for the
Intelligent Design movement, therefore, is not a contradiction so much as it
is a consummation.