Myths About Science

Noretta Koertge (ed.) A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodern Myths About Science. Oxford University Press, 2000.

The essays in this volume address a variety of critical approaches to science which have got labelled together as 'postmodernist'. One strand of this is the so called 'strong programme' of the sociology of science, developed by David Bloor and Barry Barnes at the University of Edinburgh. This argues that the paths that scientific developments take are profoundly influenced by cultural, economic and political factors. Implicit in this viewpoint is the possibility that science might have taken some quite different paths.

Clearly many working scientists are unhappy about this, and feel that such approaches lead to a kind of relativism, in which all scientific accounts are nothing more than texts, and tell us nothing about the real world, indeed they suspect that the strong programme denies the existence of the real world at all. Several of the essays in this volume seek to refute some of the main articles in this programme, and to argue that the critics often got their historical facts wrong. Of course the lay reader is not in position to judge between the parties, and some of these essays are very technical.

While in the case of most of the supporters of the strong programme, this is probably not their view (sociologists as working sociologists might `bracket' or put to one side the question of whether a particular claim is `true', both for the reason that as sociologists it's not their job to adjudicate on the truth or otherwise of scientific claims, and that such judgements can often only be made with the benefit of hindsight. My feeling on the dispute between sociologists of science and their critics is that the jury is still out. Both sides make valid points and both can make extreme statements.
However there are other approaches which are far more radical, and a fair proportion of this book is devoted to critiques of deconstructionism and forms of feminist and ethnocentric science. Much of this stuff is a good deal more entertaining because nonsense, whether the empty verbiage of many deconstructionists, or the sheer absurdity of some 'feminist' attacks on science, is always good for a laugh. Sadly some of this stuff can be rather more sinister when it escapes from its confinement in American academe.

As the last chapter by Indian writer Meera Nada shows, radical relativism and notions of culturally specific sciences are grist to the mill of radical rightist anti-modernist politicians the world over. Yes, there are people on the fringes who would deny the world is actually spherical, and not a flat disc lying on an endless regress of turtles.

It will be an interesting topic for future sociologists to discover why a number of people who imagine they are radicals of one sort or another came to adopt what are essentially High Tory views of culture and society: cultures are sacred institutions, the product of the immutable wisdom of the ancestors, and must not be challenged. Any change must at best be slow and gradual: each culture is the product of the special genius of a particular volk and each volk has its own brand on reality, etc., etc.

The end product of this kind of reasoning must be the revisioning of Jefferson Davies as a third world liberation leader protecting the southern cultural authenticity against the Imperialist, Capitalist North and its myth of universal human rights. "Slavery may be wrong in New England culture, but you can't impose your cultural values on us in Dixie, we have our own cultural reality." And of course we in Europe would be too busy burning witches at the stake to care either way.  -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 81, May 2003

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