Aired April 15, 2020
GORDON: Check, check, check. Testing, testing, one two three.
Alan Sokal: They saw themselves as generals in the science wars. Of course, they had forgotten about the Trojan War.
GORDON KATIC: I’m Gordon Katic. And this is Cited.
SAM FENN: I’m Sam Fenn. Um, and I am talking to you, Gordon, from the office/baby room in my house, because there is a global pandemic and it’s dangerous to be outside.
GORDON: I am talking to you from my closet with its doors pulled off and a blanket nailed to the back wall. So I’ve created a studio in my bedroom here. And I think it’s working okay. Do I sound okay?
SAM: I think it sounds fine. But you said this is show called Cited. [Laughs] What the hell does that mean? What is this? What are we doing?
GORDON: It’s been a minute, right? I mean, maybe we should re-introduce ourselves. So, like I said, I'm Gordon Katic. I have been hosting this show with Sam, and created this show with Sam, what-- three, four years ago now?
SAM: Yeah, we've been making radio for a long time. And the radio that we've been making has been basically about the story that we're going to be telling, And Gordon that you're going to be telling us, over the course of several weeks now. Which is the story of expertise.
GORDON: Absolutely. Our documentaries, if you've been with us this whole time, they focused extensively on public health, climate change, income inequality. But generally, the slant has been to look at those issues through the lens of who are the experts, broadly defined, that are shaping those issues. So be that researchers, scientists, bureaucrats, data nerds, intellectuals. And this season is sort of clarifying it. We are making a season of programming that is exclusively looking at the politics of science and the politics of expertise. Which now, is more important than ever.
SAM: So I think that it was possible, maybe 10 years ago, eight years ago -- when you and I were sort of a young people starting, wanting to make radio documentaries for the first time-- to look at all these smart people in universities, and these smart people who would be hired by governments, and think, "Oh, these people are going to fix the problems around us?" Right?
Like, climate change seems challenging, but they'll come up with something.
And yeah, income inequality seems to be growing, it kind of going in the wrong direction. But you know, some smart person is going to come up with something about that.
Mass incarceration. Oh, I don't know, someone will take care of it.
And I think that now, in the world of Trump, and Brexit, with all of us quarantined during a global pandemic... I think like, does anyone believe that anymore? That the smart people are actually going to solve the problems?And if they can't solve the problems, I think the question becomes like, "What happened?" What went wrong? Why did these people fail so spectacularly?
GORDON: I'll tell you my read of the general politics of the moment. So I've been following, obviously, as everyone has been following, the Covid news. But I have been particularly focused on Covid distrust and misinformation. So I go on these YouTube channels by these right-wingers who say that Covid is a Deep State plot. And I think that it's just such a nice little case study of what people call our "post-truth" moment. Because there are so many people, especially conservative Republicans, that just aren't willing to accept the enormity of the challenge that Covid presents us.
And what I've been thinking about a lot in the that context, is exactly how did we get here? Where did all this distrust come from? Like, people talk about post-truth a lot, but does it have a historical antecedent? Does it have a cause? And it made me think about this little known, now mostly forgotten historical episode called The Science Wars.
[MUSIC: Up tempo, driving beat]
GORDON: It happened in the early '90s. The battleground was in scholarly journals and elite publications. But I don’t think the Science Wars had much relevance to regular people. At least, not then. But today, I think they might just explain a lot. Some people even say they explain climate denialism, Brexit voters, and even the election of Donald Trump.
So who fought these Science Wars? On the one side, you had scientists. Mostly physicists and mathematicians. On the other: humanities scholars, and mostly left-wing ones. These scholars were criticizing science. Now, that might confuse you. You might think: Wait, isn't it usually the Right who criticizes science? Well, there was something a little different about the early '90s.
Steve: The way I would look at the Science Wars, I think, okay, you have to go back to the Cold War.
GORDON: This is Steve Fuller. He’s a sociologist of science, and he’s one of the science warriors. I went to him to help me understand where this all began.
Steve: okay so the Cold War was in a certain respect a golden age for the funding and support of science technology across the world.
GORDON: In many ways, the Cold War was a scientific battle. You had the space race, the nuclear arms race. These are big science projects fueled by big government money. It worked out pretty well for scientists.
Steve: So the cold war ended right? The Cold War ended. And this is where the problem starts. This then leads people to ask in kind of fundamental ways they hadn't been asking before about why should we our taxpayers be supporting science and technology. okay?
GORDON: The US doesn’t need big science projects to battle the Soviet Union, because there is no Soviet Union anymore. This is an opening for left-leaning scholars of science. Now they can start asking some important political questions about the purpose of science. One of the fields that does that is called Science and Technology Studies -- or STS.
Steve: You know, it didn’t get invented as a result of the end of the Cold War. Science Technology Studies had already been around for a generation at the end of the Cold War. But now the kinds of things that cience Technology Studies was saying were starting to have a kind of salience that it didn’t have during the Cold War. Because now people were asking the kinds of fundamental questions that our field asks. Namely, what’s science for exactly?
GORDON: Science and Technology Studies is not just about explaining scientific methodologies or formulas--no. It asks much bigger questions. Like, what should science do? How is it organized? Who does it serve?
Steve: You see this is where the skepticism begins. And Science and Technology Studies is a field, in a way, was the discipline that actually studied this stuff. Right. So in other words it didn't come in to the study of science, assuming that science technology was wonderful. It assumed that it was just an ordinary kind of work that did ordinary kind of things. And therefore, for it to be justified in larger society, it had to make additional arguments.
GORDON: By the way, it is not just STS. There are lots of kinds of scholars that are asking these sorts of questions. STS is just one major subfield. So for the sake of being more representative, I’m going to say “Science Studies.”
I’ve read a fair amount of this work. And it’s made me think of science in a new way. I learned that science has a kind of group think: it’s a collective enterprise that organizes itself in a very particular way. In scientific paradigms. And within those paradigms, there’s a lot that troubled me-- a lot that should trouble you. When you read the history of science, you read of eugenics and scientific racism. You'll read of medical experiments on prisoners, slaves, and Indigenous communities; You'll read of psychologists who called women hysterical, and of biologists who called LGBTQ people abnormal.
Scientists have this self conception that they serve the search for truth, and truth above all else; but just as often, it seems to serve a different purpose: it seems they serve racism, war, and corporate greed. At least, that’s the kind of picture that emerges when you read Science Studies.
GORDON: There’s a parallel story going on. Science studies is in the one corner, and they’re debating what science is and what science should be. In another corner, politicians are doing just the same.
George H.W. Bush: And when you talk basic research, this is the Louvre, the pyramids, Niagara Falls, all rolled into one.
GORDON: You’re hearing President George H W Bush in 1992. He's on the campaign trail. And he’s supporting the Superconducting Supercollider Project. This is sort of like that Large Hadron Collider -- you know that thing in Switzerland? They found the Higgs Boson there. Well, decades earlier they were building a Supercollider in Texas. And in true Texas fashion, this project was a lot bigger.
George Bush: Where once we reached for the moon above, to explore new frontiers of our universe, soon we’ll begin to tunnel below to learn about the fundamental questions of science: How our universe began?And I will fight hard, and continue to fight hard for the Supercollider, and call anybody necessary to do what is right by science and technology.
GORDON: This is a monumental project. The Department of Energy had been planning it since the '80s, and they’ve already spent about $2 billion dollars on it. But the new Democratic Congress, they were debating whether to cut the funding before the Supercollider was even complete. This is the House Floor, 1992.
Congressperson: I said to the president’s scientific advisor, and to this long list of scientists, I said, excite us about the Supercollider. Excite us about this! I asked him, what will you hope it will do? He couldn’t tell me. What might it do? He couldn’t tell me! They couldn’t define -- he said it’s pure science. It's pure science! We’ll just discover things!
GORDON: This was an era of austerity. An era defined by Bill Clinton and the centrist democrats. Here on the house floor, they're deciding if they want to keep funding the Supercollider.
Congressman Slattery: This project is all about money. In the final analysis, we’re talking about 10 billion dollars. That we don’t have. And we shouldn’t be spending it on a project that we don’t need. This is your first real test. Are we going to vote to cut spending? Yes or no? Tonight is the first real test. And I’ll be curious to see how we do.
Speaker: Question now comes on the amendment from the gentleman from Ohio. Those in favour will say aye. [Aye] Those opposed will say nay. [NO] In the opinion of the chair, the noes have it.
GORDON: No more Supercollider. This was a big deal. Imagine you’re a scientist. You start this huge project-- this Supercollider investigating the nature of the universe. You spend years on it, and then it’s just canceled, right out from under you.
Steve: Now Science Technology Studies thinking at least the kind of thinking that science technology studies people do, was in fact implicated in that congressional decision. And this is one of the things especially that got the physicists really riled up about this.
GORDON: Steve Fuller says that scientists were looking for people to blame. So Science Studies became one of their targets. And this is when the science wars began.
Physicists thought that these left-wing scholars were part of the problem because they bred public distrust of science. But here’s the funny thing--Science Studies didn’t have much to do with Supercollider. Most of the arguments in Congress were pretty conventional small-government austerity arguments. Science Studies was totally scapegoated.
Still. Steve Fuller says that scientists wanted somebody to blame. And when they found Science Studies, they thought it was a threat. So they went on the attack. There’s a flurry of articles about Science Studies right after the Supercollider. So this obscure academic discipline -- briefly -- it goes mainstream. And the most full-frontal, prominent attack on Science Studies was a polemical book called Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. It was written by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, a biologist and a mathematician.
Alan Sokal: Well I remember, I remember that I read a notice that mentioned it. I thought it was in physics today. [ Fades out]
This is Alan Sokal. He is a mathematical physicist from New York University. He looks just like you might think. Wears wire-rim glasses, and a button-up shirt. He’s a math guy-- he doesn’t know anything about Science Studies. So when he found Higher Superstition, he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Alan: And my first thought was, "Oh no, not again. Another one of these right-wing diatribes about how the Marxist-feminist-deconstructionists are taking over the universities and brainwashing our children." But my second thought was, "The academic left and its quarrels with science?" That’s a little weird? I’m an academic leftist, I don’t have any quarrels with science. I didn't know the academic left did have a quarrel with science.
GORDON: Alan is a left-wing guy. Not just in name, he’s the real deal. He actually volunteered with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He taught students mathematics and engineering. Because he thinks that science is a force for good. So why would these people, who are supposedly on his side -- these left-wing intellectuals -- why would they be attacking science? He just can’t believe it. Did Paul Gross and Norman Levitt have this right?
Alan: So the first thing I did was run to the library. And I looked up some of the articles and books that they had cited that they were criticizing. And, I found, in my judgement, in about 80 per cent of the cases, they were being fair. These things were just as bad as they said. In some cases even worse.
[Off mic] But if you hold on a second let me quote a few of them.
GORDON: Remember, Gross and Levitt’s book is a polemical attack against Science Studies. Alan wants the source, so he spends weeks in the NYU library reading the original stuff. And he pulls together a list of the arguments that he finds in Science Studies.
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Alan: okay so let me give you let me give you some examples of what prominent people in Science Studies have written. okay? First, "The validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence." That it's Kenneth Gergen a prominent psychologist and sociologist .
Second, try this one. "The natural world has a small or nonexistent role in the construction of scientific knowledge." That's Harry Collins, a very very prominent sociologist of science.
Finally, here’s one from Stanley Aronowitz. "Science legitimates itself by linking its discoveries with power. A connection which determines, not merely influences, what counts as reliable knowledge."
GORDON: Epistemic Relativism. That’s what Alan says that these quotes show. The basic argument with Epistemic Relativism, is that none of the knowledge we have is true in any objective or universal sense. It’s all socially constructed, and that includes science. So, science is purely power, ideology, and social convention. In other words: science is politics by other means.
To be fair, I have to say, nobody in Science Studies actually calls themselves epistemic relativists. To understand what they're doing, I would put it like this: It's more of a question of their focus. Where they put their attention. It's not that these scholars deny the existence of the material world, or capital T Truth. It's just that in their work, they focus on how the social world impacts scientific findings. Not the material or natural world. They generally disregard that element when they do their work. But, maybe I’m splitting hairs here. For Alan, that still amounts to a kind of defacto relativism. So whatever they want to call themselves, they are relativists.
Alan: That struck me as bizarre.
[Laughs] Now, 25 years later it still strikes me as bizarre!
Gordon: What was it about these arguments that didn’t jive with you?
Alan: They think that that kind of critique is somehow political useful to the Left. That it somehow will help the Left. To defend the interests of oppressed groups, minorities, women, the working class, and so on. It seemed to me, and still seems to me, that that’s exactly wrong. It seemed to me that Epistemic Relativism was a suicidal philosophy for the Left.
[Laughs] It’s ironic now. I mean, basically, Epistemic Relativism comes down to: You have your facts, I have my alternative facts. And my alternative facts are equally valid. Have you heard that before, somewhere ?
GORDON: This is when Alan’s story really begins. Science Studies is questioning Alan as a scientist, and as a leftist. They've undermined everything that Alan has ever done professionally and politically. Why should Alan study science, even? Why should he do something that runs counter to his politics? And so I asked him over and over: Does Science Studies feel like a personal attack?
Alan: I didn't take it personally in that way, as I said. I didn't feel personally attacked mainly because, I thought that these critiques were rather absurd. It wasn’t important enough as a threat, even an emotional threat to science or to my self image of a scientist to worry about it that way. My worry was primarily political, that here are my political allies taking a line which it seems to me is suicidal for our shared political project. And so I wanted to try to do something about that
GORDON: So Alan has a political mission. He wants to convince the Left to abandon epistemic relativism. He wants them to go back to a more old-school, enlightenment view of science. That goes something like this: Science can reveal truths of our world. And politically, it can be a tool of liberation, because it can speak truth to power. But before Alan can convince the left to take that position, he’ll have to go through Science Studies.
[MUSIC: Alex’s Detective Song]
GORDON: So he’s sitting there in the NYU library. And he starts to come up with a plan.
Alan: I could write another article criticizing these writings. And if I did, my article would be put in a black hole and be completely ignored. Just like many other critiques - in fact, just like the critiques of Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich before me. They were known by very few people.
So I was trying to think, what can I do that they can’t ignore? And the blow that you can’t ignore is self-inflicted. So I wanted to give them an opportunity to self-inflict a blow.
GORDON: He decides to plan an academic caper. You know, like a con. A swindle. Or a hoax.
Alan: Instead of writing an article criticizing these people why didn't I write an article praising these people.
GORDON: Here’s his plan. He wants to write a bad article-- one that he thinks is definitely wrong. It’s a hoax paper. And then he's going to see if that hoax can get published in one of the trendy journals fighting the Science Wars. If the journal publishes the hoax, then it will be obvious to everyone: They’re just a fraud. He finds his target. It’s called Social Text.
Alan: They saw themselves as generals in the Science War. And of course, what they forgot was the Trojan War.
GORDON: Alan also tells me that another reason why he picked Social Text is because they quote, "flirts with postmodernism". Particularly the rock star French intellectuals: Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Latour. These names might not mean anything to you, but if you’re in the academic left, you probably have heard some of these names. At this time they were very trendy. And I want to say they weren't all of Science Studies, but they were a particularly popular part of Science Studies. So Alan wants to take them down.
Alan: And so I constructed the article, I basically it's like I put down on the page the worst quotations that I want that I wanted to quote, and of course praise. And then I invented a nonsense argument connecting them all together..
So after the introduction, I soften the reader up with a little bit of Niels Bohr s bar and Werner Heisenberg about quantum mechanics.
GORDON: “Science no longer confronts nature as an objective observer, but sees itself as an actor in this interplay between man and nature.”
Alan: And then I go from Derrida about relativity....
GORDON: “The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability-- it is, finally, the concept of the game.”
Alan: to Jaques LaCan about topology and the human psyche....
GORDON: “You can perhaps see that the sphere, the old symbol for totality, is unsuitable. It explains many things about the structure of mental disease.”
Alan: And then of course to come out in the end with the conclusion that quantum gravity, the theory of quantum gravity, provides profound support for the progressive political project.
Alan: Which is of course ridiculous. First of all, because we don’t have a theory of quantum gravity . That’s the big open question in fundamental physics, and may remain so for quite a long time. And secondly, even if we did have a theory of quantum gravity, it would be a theory of the universe at sizes, well, roughly, a billionth of billionth of billionth of billionth of a centimeter. And that is unlikely to have practical implications for even the other sciences, and political implications -- I doubt it.
GORDON: Alan finishes his article. He calls it “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”
I’m Gordon Katic, and you’re listening to Cited. After the break: Alan submits his paper to Social Text.
[CITED THEME ]
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GORDON: This is the part of the program where I sell you mattresses. But you know, I just don’t want to do that to you. So I'm not going to. There won't be any ads, at least for now.
The only thing I ask of you, is that you do me the occasional favour. Really--it’s the least you could do. We make this for you, it takes months, we don't charge you, we don't even play ads.
So do me this solid: Today, I want you to send Cited to a friend. A friend that actually might actually it. Maybe you’ve got a nerdy co-worker or a classmate who is really into the politics of science. I know there’s someone in your life that would want to listen to Cited. So hit the little share button on your phone, or start writing an email or a Facebook message to them. I’ll wait….
okay, are you done yet? Maybe not. Maybe you need a bit more time. So why don’t you just save that email as a draft or something and do it after you listen to this episode. But don't forget!
I’ll tell you what, if you do this for me, and your friend gives it a listen, maybe I'll send you a lil' somethin'. Take a screen grab of your phone and that message, email it to email@example.com, and the first three people that do that, maybe I'll give you a little bit of swag.
GORDON: Okay, back to regularly scheduled programming. Before the break, Alan was finishing his article and sending it to Social Text. Now, let’s meet Social Text.
Bruce Robbins: Social text is a kind of cultural journal of the Left.
GORDON: This is Professor Bruce Robbins. He’s an editor at Social Text, and he also teaches literature at Columbia University in New York City. That’s not far from Alan. Alan’s at NYU. Actually, everyone in this story-- they’re either at Columbia, NYU, or the City University of New York. Two of the Social Text editors are actually next door neighbours. So really, this story is the story of a small subculture of New York intellectuals.
Bruce: So it was really local. Right? And it met in people's kitchens. You know, local in that sense.
GORDON: Social Text is a leftist journal: a Marxist one. But it’s not the old school class politics you might think.
Bruce: The inspiration for it was cultural. The thing that the three founders had in common was a sense that there is stuff going on in the domain of culture that is more politically valuable than other people are recognizing
GORDON: If you know anything about the academic left, and the Left in general, you’ll know that this is a big contentious debate. It was especially fiery in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it’s not really over today. Should the Left be focused primarily on culture and identity politics, or should it be focused on class struggle? Social Text was on the frontlines of working that out. But for them, this wasn’t a mere intellectual debate. They were a bunch of activists. One of their founding editors was even a union organizer. Bruce says that Social Text had a real political bent to it. It had the feeling of being like a political party.
Bruce: I mean there were arguments over all sorts of things. Maybe the funniest was the argument that we had over what the cover of Social Text should look like. And you know, what, how much of a political statement we wanted to cover to make. So at a certain point, we had a red line down one of the margins which was supposed to indicate that everything we did was somehow related to the politics of being Red.
GORDON: Of course, Red means Marxism.
Bruce: And then some of the more design-oriented people said, “It doesn't look good. It looks kind of clumsy. Let's get rid of the red line.” And others said, “Oh no, we can't get rid of the red line, you know, because that would mean sort of turning our back on our political commitments.” And this will sound comical, and maybe it is comical, but we argued about it.
GORDON: So, I think Alan has picked the right target here. The people at Social Text are committed, left-wing, activist intellectuals. Just like Alan. They’re on the same side. Alan thinks these are just the people that need to reject this emerging epistemic relativism and social constructivism, and come back and stay true to that old-school enlightenment view of science.
But Social Text hasn’t dug their heels in on this. They don’t actually have like, an official position. They are not primarily a Science Studies journal; they haven’t figured this out.
So Bruce and Social Text convene a meeting. The other person at that meeting that I want you to know about is Stanley Aronowitz. Stanley Aronowitz is the most senior member of the Social Text editorial collective.
Bruce: But Stanley was, was exhibit A of -- you know, he was the agenda for that meeting.
GORDON: They’re here to debate Stanley Aronowitz’ book, Science as Power. The book argues that science is socially constructed. And it further argues that science is a kind power. It seeks and attains its power by asserting the supposed ‘truth’ of it’s methodologies.
Bruce: And we were talking about, “Okay, to what extent is science our enemy?” And I said, “Well, you know in certain ways yes, and in certain ways not at all.”
GORDON: There’s a lot that Bruce and Social Text have to say about science. Bruce is particularly critical of a kind of thing you might call biological reductionism. The idea that men or women are a certain way because of their biology -- well, that way they’ve been portrayed has so often been just blatant sexism, or homophobia.
And in this particular meeting, they talked about homophobia. They talked about it a lot.
Because this was the ‘90s. This is the AIDS crisis. Politcians and public health officials were blatantly homophobic. They dragged their feet, so so many people died.
AIDS entered the scene in the U.S. in the early ‘80s. But there wasn’t really a decent treatment for it until the mid-'90s. So clearly, there’s something wrong with scientific priorities.
Bruce: Who is setting the agenda? Who is distributing the research money? There is an enormous politics to what scientists get allowed to do and what scientists don't get allowed to do. And that's hugely political. And it needs to be addressed as such. That wasn't really Stanley's point. Stanley's point was more about epistemology. There are scientific ways of understanding the world. I was very clear that the majority of people on Social Text did not agree with Stanley’s sort of epistemological critique of science. The idea that scientific epistemology is our political enemy.
GORDON: Stanley’s argument really surprises Bruce. So they debate and debate and debate— and Stanely doesn’t seem to give any ground. So at the end, Bruce asks him a kind of unfair question. He says: Listen Stanley, you say that science is the enemy? Well, if your daughter gets an ear infection, would you take her to the doctor and give her antibiotics?
Bruce: I mean it was a rhetorical thing, of course he'd give his daughter antibiotics. I just wanted him to draw conclusions from the fact that he would give his daughter antibiotics, and he wasn't drawing that conclusion.
GORDON: Stanley is totally unmoved by this rhetorical question. And so Social Text is divided: Bruce thinks that science has problems, but it’s not our enemy; Stanley thinks it is. The meeting ends without much of a resolution. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach Stanley to hear his side of the debate. Bruce says that Stanley is unwell and unable to speak to me.
[MUSIC CUE 20]
GORDON Then Alan’s paper arrives to the editorial collective of Social Text. Stanley likes it.
Gordon: Do you know why Stanley liked it? The paper?
Bruce: [Laughs] There's a sort of cynical reading that it quoted Stanley a lot. I think 13 times. People have been known to be swayed by being quoted positively in pieces that they read. But Stanley was also sort of the most uncompromisingly kind of anti-science person.
GORDON: This part of the story is a bit difficult to piece together. Despite my repeated requests, Bruce is the only editor who would talk to me. So here’s what he told me. He told me that he didn’t read it. He told me that a couple of the other editors did read it, but they didn’t really like the paper. It was only Stanley liked it, and Stanley who really wanted it to go in.
My read of the situation is that Stanley was an easy mark for Alan. Alan clearly tried to flatter him and play into his staunchly anti-science views. But I also think it would be unfair to just blame Stanley. First of all, I haven’t heard his side of the story. But second of all, even if what Bruce is telling me is completely true, it’s also true that none of the editors stopped this. And here’s why -- to Stanley and to rest of Social text, Alan looked like a true believer. He was a living, breathing scientist defecting from his side of the Science Wars. And that was huge, that’s was all they wanted.
Bruce: Yeah, that was totally true. We needed a living, breathing scientist, exactly as you say. Even if that person was overenthusiastic about the sort of philosophical gobbly-gook. Who was sort of on our side. Even if he didn’t quite understand our side, he wanted to be on it.
Steve: To me, I thought, you know, t it struck me as a guy who would went over the top with regard to his conversion.
GORDON: Again, Steve Fuller. Steve had an article, but he wasn’t an editor. Somebody sent him an advanced copy of Alan’s submission.
Steve: Right? The way, you know, Born Again, like a Born again Christian being more Christian the real Christians? I thought this was a born again guy ,who some in some sense, you know, got converted in some way to some sort of larger socio-cultural understanding of science.
So I treated to Sokal thing a bit different. I didn't think it was a big deal, to be perfectly honest. I thought I thought it was interesting in a way, it was kind of curious. You know, I received it in a relatively positive manner, you might say. I certainly didn't think it was a hoax. let's put it that way. That's also true.
GORDON: And so, Social Text accepts Alan’s article. His incomprehensible paper riddled with basic mathematical and scientific errors-- it passed muster. The giant wooden horse has just entered the gates of Troy.
GORDON: But, after an academic article is accepted, it might take months or even years before that article is published. So if Alan runs out there and says what he did, Social Text might actually pull the article before it hits the printers. So Alan has to keep this a secret. But that’s hard to do because, like I said, this is very local. One of the editors works just down the street from Alan.
Alan: I had to find some excuses to avoid all of his kind invitations to have lunch together, because you know it's one thing to write a parody article and dissemble in emails. It’s another thing to dissemble over lunch. You have to be a good actor, and I’m not.
GORDON: Alan manages to escape the lunch. But he still can’t stop talking about his little caper. He brags about it.
Alan: Well I almost gave it all away- but it wasn’t mostly my doing! [Laughs] As I say, it was mostly friends of friends of friends. The circle gradually widens. If I have 10 friends, and they each have 10 friends [Laughs]. The circle grows pretty fast! That’s how exponential growth works.
GORDON: Exponential growth. That’s the mathematical excuse Alan gives for his own blunders. Clearly, he’s math professor at heart, not a con man. So, eventually some news gets out. And that’s when Allen gets a call from a journalist named David Glenn. He’s from an academic magazine called Lingua Franca.
Alan: And so I played dumb to this journalist and I said, “Oh, so you want to, you know you, you're interviewing the authors of the upcoming Social Text issue. And he said, “Yes but I think in your case it might be a bit more delicate”. I said, oh, I said to myself, what's going on here?
GORDON: Have you subscribed to our podcast feed yet? If you like this story, you’ll like the rest of Cited. This season, we’re playing weekly documentaries about the politics of expertise in the post-truth era. Here’s what you’ll hear next week.
[TRAILER: REPEAT AFTER ME]
SPEAKER 1: If this paper were true, our understanding of the entire world, the universe, physics, psychology for sure, would be completely different.
SPEAKER 2: The one which I’ve specialized is precognition
SPEAKER 3: I’d grown up a scientist, believing in the scientific method, and the tools we used, and all of the sudden, this one replication made me question everything.
SPEAKER 1: That gold standard of, it’s been published therefore it must be true just does not apply
SPEAKER 3: What was real, what could I trust? The things I was studying, were they real?
GORDON: Psychology's replication crisis- and what it means, for science.
GORDON: Before the break, you heard journalist David Glenn call Alan.
Alan and David plan to meet at the New York Public Library.
Alan: And I basically resolved that I would play dumb for five minutes. And if after that he said, You know I think your article is a hoax, I would say you're absolutely right. Congratulations.
So when I met him, indeed after five minutes he came out with, you know, I think your article is a hoax, and I said you're absolutely right.
GORDON: But Alan came prepared. Alan tells David something like this: David, you could blow this up. But then, when you publish your article, then Social Text won’t publish mine.
You see, it’s just a simple journalism thing. If Lingua Franca decides to go forward with the story, they’ll have to call Social Text for comment. But then Social Text would just stop the publication. So Lingua Franca would kill its own story by going ahead with it. So Allen says, David, maybe there’s another way.
Alan: Let's walk the three blocks to the Lingua Franca offices and talk to your editors.
GORDON: They leave the library and head over to the magazine offices. Then Alan gives a different them a different article. This article is not a hoax. It’s a reveal! It explains in detail what Alan did, how he did it, and why he did it. Alan says they should just publish the reveal, the day after Social Text publishes the hoax. That way, Lingua Franca would have the story.
Lingua Franca agrees. They wait. Social Text goes to presses in the spring of 1996, and Lingua Franca publishes Alan’s reveal right after.
Alan: And I guess somehow National Public Radio heard about it. And then… and then, all hell broke loose
Linda Wortheimer [NPR ARCHIVAL]: This is All Things Considered. I’m Linda Wortheimer.
Robert Segal [NPR ARCHIVAL]: And I’m Robert Segal. In the Spring/ Summer issue of a journal called Social Text, there is an article by NYU Physics professor Alan Sokal.
Bruce [Reacting to NPR] I think the kids were watching television and I sort of stopped them and I said, “Guys! Guys! We're on NPR! You know. Look at that!”
Robert Segal [NPR ARCHIVAL]: The issue in question is devoted to Science Wars. So professor Sokal’s contribution might have seemed appropriate.
Bruce: My first reaction was sort of pleasure and excitement. Like, wow! Somebody out there in the larger world knows that we exist.
Robert Segal [NPR ARCHIVAL]: Professor Sokal reveals that his journal article, even though it was accepted by the editors of Social Text, was a put on. The thesis we heard a moment ago, although reinforced by several pages of endnotes and 200 bibliographical entries, is, in Professor Sokal’s view, for all its opaque prose, transparent nonsense.
Bruce: I mean the pain did not pervade me until later. But then the pain lasted for a very long time, because we, of course, became a sort of byword for stupidity.
GORDON: Nearly every major paper writes articles mocking Social Text. “ A Physics Prof Drops a Bomb on the Faux Left”, says the Los Angeles Times.” Hokum for High-Brows”, reads the Boston Globe headline. From the New York Post: “When Pretension reigns Supreme”. It is a veritable media pile on.
Alan: Well that was, that was a total shock to me. I mean, I assumed that this would be a significant scandal in a relatively small academic community. You know, maybe page 10 of the Chronicle of Higher Education. I had no idea that it would be on the front page of The New York Times. I mean admittedly on a slow news day. But still, I had no idea.
Gordon: Why do you think it struck a chord?
Alan: Well, I guess I would say there are good reasons and bad reasons, right. The bad reason is there is a traditional anti-intellectual thread in American society. But I think another reason why it got so much attention was maybe I underestimated how much interest there is in the general educated public in scientific and philosophical and political questions. So there's a significant cohort of people who may have taken one literary course or cultural studies course or women's studies course, that it was a bit too full of this postmodernist jargon and they may have even doubted their own intellectual competence, and now they're, you know, they're happy to hear: Maybe I didn't understand it because it wasn't understandable.
GORDON: Alan thinks this is a classic ‘emperor has no clothes’ story. He thinks his hoax has revealed how little there is to this trendy brand of epistemic relativism-- It’s nothing more than intellectual posturing. But Bruce doesn’t think that’s fair. He tells me that he feels misrepresented by the media.
Bruce: You know, I continue to think that at a certain philosophical level they were not adequately representing our position. They might have said: For a long time in many ways people have claimed to speak in the name of nature. And in fact what they said when they talked about the facts of nature was ideology. So, about relations between the sexes, for example um, about sexual identity for example. About lots of things. And really the only thing that our group probably agreed on is, let's be really ,really suspicious when anyone claims to speak in the name of Nature. So yes, they were presenting us as really dumb, and completely disconnected from reality, and they weren't even making an effort to say maybe there is a reasonable common sense version of this, which is what these people actually think.
GORDON: Still. Bruce says that Social Text has a lot to atone for. They screwed up, flat out. And Bruce thinks they should apologize. But that’s not really what happens. Social Text doesn't apologize. They go on the attack. They question Alan’s motives.
The mainstream press and the elite journals of public opinion… they are overwhelmingly supportive of the hoax. They just love Alan’s little stunt. So I think it’s fair now to say Alan and the scientists, they won the Science Wars. The left-wing intellectuals lost.
But what does it mean to say that Alan ‘won the Science Wars’? Not much! Because that's not even what Alan wanted to do. He wasn’t in this to win a war. Remember, he had a political mission. That mission was that he wanted to convince the Left to take up an old-school, optimistic view of science. He wanted them to abandon Epistemic Relativism and Social Constructivism.
On that level, did his mission succeed? No, it didn’t. He might have actually made things worse. Because Social Text digs in their heels. And outside Social Text, not much else happens. Postmodernism doesn’t go away. Science Studies doesn’t go away. Everyone keeps sort of doing what they’re doing. But then, things do eventually change. And they change in a way that nobody expected.
NEWS HOST 1: You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving-- Sean Spicer, our Press Secretary -- gave alternative facts to that.
NEWS HOST 2: Wait a minute, “alternative facts”?
TRUMP: Two-years-old, two-and-a-half-years-old, a child, a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine, and came back. And a week later, got a tremendous fever. Got very very sick. Now is Autistic.
MAN 1: This is the domed version of the Flat Earth model. The South Pole, it’s like 200-foot wall of ice, straight up, Game of Thrones style. And the sun and the moon are just lights in the sky.
ALEX JONES: I don’t like them putting chemicals in the water that turn the friggin’ frogs gay! Do you understand that?!
GORDON: Twenty five years later, we revisit the Science wars. Does The Left finally heed Alan’s message? Did they abandon Epistemic Relativism? Or does a new group of people embrace it?
Alan: I confess... so, so I foresaw back in 1996 but it could be bad. I did not foresee how bad it would become twenty five years later. I did not foresee that the pseudo-populist extreme right-wing would be using the same kind of ideas to push, to push their own politics.
GORDON: Here’s our ad break again. No mattress ads yet-- I promise. Because I know you’ve held up your end of the bargain. You’ve sent our podcast to a friend, right? Wait, you haven’t? PLEASE, don’t make me do this….
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[CLIP STOPS ABRUPTLY]
I’m just kidding. I know you did-- because you’re not an ingrate. You helped me out. But you know what, I’m not even going to ask you for another favour this time. I’m just going to do a little housekeeping. First, we’ve got a completely, brand new website. Check it out--tell me what you think. We’re experiment with having more content on it this year. Including some blog posts and essays. You’ll find it at citedpodcast.com.
Two: You can find us on Twitter if you’re not already following us, it’s @citedpodcast. Plus, you can follow me @gordonkatic. That’s G-O-R-D-A-N K-A-T-I-C. Send me your hate tweets--I relish them.
GORDAN: Alright, back to our regular scheduled programming. Before the break, you heard Alan Sokal talking about the reactionary post-truthers of today. Do the Science Wars of the 1990s have anything to do with the politics of today?
[TRUMP MASH UP RE POST TRUTH]
GORDON: Alan always thought Science Studies would weaken the Left. But he says it’s done more than that: it’s armed the anti-science Right.
Alan: They've served up hanging curve balls to the cultural Right who have proceeded, alas, to hit them out of the park.
GORDON: Alan is quoting Gross and Levitt, the authors of Higher Superstition. That’s the book that inspired Alan.
Alan: [Reading] [Laughs] In my book I have I have to put a footnote, I apologize to non-American readers who may not share my and Levitt’s fondness for baseball metaphors. But of course that's exactly what some of these people who call themselves Leftists have done. They've they've served up hanging curve balls. And not surprising that the right-wingers have hit them out of the park.
Steve: I mean, I think it’s true. So Gross, who you mentioned earlier, who says that Science and Technology Studies arguments can be mobilized by the Right --
GORDON: Again, sociologist and science warrior, Steve Fuller.
Steve: -- Yes, it’s happened. It’s happened not just in this particular field, uh, climate change. But with Creationism, with alternative medicine. With everything! Yes, of course! Of course!
GORDON: Science studies has gone mainstream. You’ve heard the arguments before: climate change is fake, but scientists can’t question it because it would be career suicide. Vaccines are unsafe, but pharmaceutical companies hide the evidence because it’s just not in their interest. Steve says these are a kinds of vulgar Science Studies arguments. And, surprisingly, he’s is actually okay with his ideas being reappropriated by his political opponents.
Steve: That shouldn’t be an embarrassment. That should be a given! I mean after all, right, chemistry gets you you know... It's almost the same chemistry that produced artificial fertilizers is produced you know poison gas. Okay? You just have to change a couple of molecules and it’s pretty much the same stuff. I mean, you know, science is full of this stuff, right. Anything that works can be used for good or for ill. This includes STS.
And we have to live with that, in so far as we claim to be Democrats! There is no reason to think that as people get more and more educated, and more and more informed, they are going to end up coming to some kind of consensus with what the elites in the past have already believed. There is no reason to believe that!
GORDON: I should say, Steve is the minority. Others in Science Studies are in fact worried are worried how their tools may be leading to an anti-science slide. So they’re starting to re-think things. There have been a few high-profile articles, and countless panels on this subject. And they all ask this same question: Did the Left mess this up? Did Science Studies give us all of this distrust of science? But Steve doesn't like these… mea culpas.
Steve: It’s embarrassing! It’s embarrassing/ It’s self-debasing. It’s unnecessary. Because look - The publics -- the general public. They are already on the STS ticket. All of these movements that I’ve suggested: we’re talking about creationism, we’re talking about alternative medicine, we’re talking about climate scepticism. All of these movements, and many others, are movements that actually have a lot of basis in the non-scientific community. The lay community, you might say. Right? In the grassroots of the population. And these people are not illiterate, they are not stupid. In fact, we know they are the most educated people we’ve run across. And yet they are able to think for themselves: they may have some up with some Science and Technology Studies ideas along the way. And that’s democracy for you.
GORDON: But I’m not sure if Science Studies really armed anti-science thinking. Bruce tells me flat out: this is just bullshit. And I wonder if that’s true. I wonder if this is Science Studies… self-aggrandizing. If these scholars would rather live in a climate-denying hellscape in which their ideas had some influence, even for ill, than a world in which they actually didn’t have much influence at all.
Steve: I actually don't. I don't…. I think there's a different way to think about Science Technology Studies people. I'm not talking about myself. But I’m talking about most of my colleagues. But I think most of my colleagues would prefer to see themselves as something like the smart kid sitting in the back of the room laughing at everybody. That's kind of more their self-image. They're not trying to self-aggrandize, because if they did they wouldn't have given up so easily on things like the Science Wars. They would have stuck to their guns if anyone's self-aggrandizing, it would be someone like me.
Gordon: Do you think you’re self-aggrandizing?
Steve: Lets put it this way. When historians look back at this period intellectually, and try to figure out the reasoning, the arguments, the mindsets of the people that would lead them to take the kinds of views they did– I think they will definitely go back to Science and Technology Studies as some kind of intellectual framework.
GORDON: I don’t completely agree with Steve. I’ve looked high and low for right-wingers offering compelling Science Studies arguments. There are some, but there’s really not much there. The best you’ll find is some vulgar version of a Science Studies argument. Basically, an anti-science conspiracy theory that would never pass muster in an academic journal. I just don’t think it’s fair to blame Science Studies for this. It would be like blaming Marx for Stalinist gulags. The links are just too tenuous.
.But I agree with him up to a point. If you are a postmodern Epistemic Relativist, you should be comfortable in post-truth times. How can you call out your political opponents who say things like, “well, I have an alternative way of knowing.” You’ve spend decades celebrating alternative ways of knowing. You’ve just got nothing to stand on.
Alan thinks there’s a really easy way out of this trap: Just go back to the way things were. The Left should have an enlightenment optimism for science. Not an uncomplicated one, we can still be critical of science. But at the end of the day, Capital T Truth is what we’re all about.
Alan: The traditional view of the Left was always, we should speak truth to power. We should speak truth, and use it to challenge the powerful people in our society. And that’s what I still think the way the Left should be.
GORDON: So on the whole, Alan thinks the last few decades of Science Studies work has really been politically disempowering.
Bruce: Ummm. Yeah, interesting. I think I disagree.
GORDON: Again, former Social Text editor Bruce Robbins.
Bruce: You know. one thing I think that the last three or four decades have taught people, and that's what I'm talking about, so it's the period of Social Text almost exactly. It's sort of become common sense in the world that things that were up to that point, often taken to be “natural” are not really natural. And what's not really natural can be changed. Now, in certain domains, especially around gender, sexuality and race it's been very empowering.
GORDON: Bruce says it was crucial to question the authority of science. Because that authority legitimized oppression.
Bruce: You have to remember, this is before your time, but the days when people were sort of claiming the authority of biology for you know all kinds of what turns out to be sort of capitalist ideology. Natural competition. Natural superiority. Natural hierarchy -- all that stuff. Well, the fact that that really doesn't pass anymore is I think a kind of, you know, an achievement of this generation, or two generations. So I think it’s been politically very empowering. And in a way, it’s the opposite of what Alan believes.
GORDON: When I read Science Studies work now, it’s not like the work Alan hoaxed. Most of it isn’t postmodern posturing that rejects rationality and denys the existence of truth. That’s really out of fashion. Instead, most of what I see is trying to reform science. How do we make science trustworthy? How do we combat denialism? How do we make science diverse? How do we regulate and organize science? How do we make science serve our interests, and not just the interests of a few.
So, at the end of the day, maybe Alan did get what he wanted. Because the Left is rethinking it relationship to science. But not because of his hoax. It’s because they’re responding to the anti-science Right.
Surprisingly, Alan and Bruce have become friends and political allies. They’ve even sone some activism together. And they both tell me they have a new appreciation for each others’ struggles. Scientific research and humanities research continues to face cuts and attacks from the right-wing. That’s the new Science Wars. And this time, they’re both in the same boat, and they both have the same common enemy.
Gordon: Who won the science wars?
Bruce: With Trump as president, it's a very interesting question. Who won the Science Wars? I think, in a sense, the Science Wars are still being fought. I hope there is no one silly enough to think in the era of Trump, that science is their enemy. Because boy-oh-boy-oh-boy, do we need the scientists in all kinds of ways if we're going to oppose Trump, as he badly needs to be opposed. So from that point of view, you could say more power to Alan Sokol. Please cut line [Laughs].
Gordon [off mic]: [Laughs] I’m not going to cut that line, that’s a good line.
This episode was produced by Gordon Katic and edited by Sam Fenn. Further support from from Polly Leger, Alex Kim, Adam Zendel, and David Tobiasz.
Music by our composer, Mike Barber. Dakota Koop is our graphic designer. And David Tobiaz is our production manager.
Cited’s executive producers are myself, Gordon Katic and Sam Fenn.
If you like what you heard, do us a favour: give us a rating or a review on iTunes--or wherever you found this podcast.
Cited is funded in part by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council. This episode was made possible with a grant to discuss public distrust of science. The project was advised by Dr. Dave Ng at the University of British Columbia, with further research advising from Professors Alan Richardson, and Heather Douglas.
Cited is usually produced out of the Centre of Ethics at the University of Toronto -- today, out of my bedroom because of this global pandemic. But both of those places are on the traditional land of Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat Peoples.
We’re also produced out of Vancouver, in particular, at the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia -- That’s the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
Thanks for listening. Tune in next week.
ROBOT VOICE: You have been listening to a Cited Media Production. C-I-T-E-D. Find out more at citedmedia.ca