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Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt

Science Is Increasingly the Target of Would-Be Revolutionaries and Regicide

FEBRUARY 01, 1999 by THOMAS F. BERTONNEAU, RICHARD CUTLER

Johns Hopkins University Press • 1997 • 314 pages • $35.95 cloth; $16.95 paperback

Thomas Bertonneau is the author of Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities and teaches literature at Central Michigan University. Richard Cutler is president of the Michigan Association of Scholars and a former vice president of the University of Michigan.

Science, along with the technology that develops out of it, is a unique and vital source of the high civilization in which we dwell. Science is enthroned as the reigning model of Enlightenment thought; the methods of science represent an epistemology involving objectivity, real-world absolutes, and the pursuit of truth through hypothesis, observation, validation, replication, and prediction. Science presents an ordered, reasoned, rigorous world marked by precision, unambiguous definition, and the established rules of logical argument.

If science is the monarch of our worldview, however, it is increasingly the target of would-be revolutionaries and regicides—members of what Paul Gross (professor emeritus of life sciences at the University of Virginia) and Norman Levitt (professor of mathematics at Rutgers University) identify as the “academic left,” who insist that there are no absolutes, that objectivity is a fiction used by vicious oppressors, and that the world is essentially chaotic.

Higher Superstition is a defense of science against attempts by badly informed non-scientists to dethrone and discredit the Western tradition of scientific investigation. They were not satisfied with their deconstructive waste-laying among the treasures of Western art and literature. They make the same claims, say, for Newton and Darwin as they do for Shakespeare and Melville: all authority and claims to truth are but shams whose only purpose is to protect the unjust distribution of power that earmarks our “oppressive” society. Feminists, for example, indict Newton for attempting to master the universe by constraining it under “patriarchal” laws and Darwin for his “male” notion of the survival of the fittest.

Gross and Levitt note that claims of this type are not entirely new—prototypes may be seen in Rousseau and Blake—but they argue that in America’s colleges and universities the anti-science ideology has grown dangerously influential. Academic careers are now built on jeremiads against “sexist” canons of proof-through-replication and the alleged exclusion of women (that is, feminists) from scientific debate. Ideas that used to be regarded as the rantings of reactionaries now find fulsome praise in the tracts of academicians who claim to be in the vanguard of radical liberation.

When one remembers the distortions that Soviet biology suffered under Lysenko’s Stalinist genetics, it becomes clear that the real conflict is not between reactionism and science but between power-mongering and science. It is no coincidence that the left-wing professors who think that they can play the same games with the third law of motion that they do with Virgil and Shakespeare generally follow Michel Foucault, a pseudo-Nietzschean who claims that there is no knowledge, only power, and that those who have power are, a priori, evil. That this position entails a claim of knowledge and that its exponents themselves wantonly seek the very power that they denounce never enter the argument.

Nuttiness among intellectuals flourishes perennially. So tight is the grip of the left on institutions of higher education, however, that Gross and Levitt fear an impending struggle in which affirmative action will force science departments to change their practices under naked political pressure. The authors also see another problem. Real science is so badly taught to undergraduates that many get only “science studies” courses concocted by the postmodern anti-scientists. Gross and Levitt decry the trendiness of schools of education that have embraced anti-science and that send into K-12 schools newly certified teachers whose knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology is nugatory.

In their penultimate chapter, the authors speculate on the psychological origins of anti-science. They trace the pretensions of the feminists, earth-worshipers, and “deep ecologists” to resentment. Precisely because science succeeds, and because it so impressively informs the daily reality of modern life, the intelligentsia feel diminished; they exercise no similar influence. A feeling of inferiority breeds petulance, manifested in puffed-up vocabularies, moral posturing, and a need to disparage. Those who hate the West because they despise their own paltriness naturally attack science and scientists as ready scapegoats.

Representatives of the sciences, Gross and Levitt say, have too long stood on the sidelines, amused perhaps by the display of folly. The time for that is over; the folly portends real danger. Science must begin to answer the absurd but pernicious claims of anti-science, if only to remind the public that the strutting peacocks of postmodernism are not free from chastisement, and that their fantail of claims collapses—epistemologically speaking—at the pressure of a glance.

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February 1999

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