Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Postmodernist Critique of Science

If you can call it a “critique,” that is.

From the postmodernist Sandra G. Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism (1986):
“One phenomenon feminist historians have focused on is the rape and torture metaphors in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon and others (e.g., Machiavelli) enthusiastic about the new scientific method. Traditional historians and philosophers have said that these metaphors are irrelevant to the real meanings and referents of scientific concepts held by those who used them and by the public for whom they wrote. But when it comes to regarding nature as a machine, they have quite a different analysis: here, we are told, the metaphor provides the interpretations of Newton’s mathematical laws: it directs inquirers to fruitful ways to apply his theory and suggests the appropriate methods of inquiry and the kind of metaphysics the new theory supports. But if we are to believe that mechanistic metaphors were a fundamental component of the explanations the new science provided, why should we believe that the gender metaphors were not? A consistent analysis would lead to the conclusion that understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was equally fundamental to the interpretations of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. Presumably these metaphors, too, had fruitful pragmatic, methodological, and metaphysical consequences for science. In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’ laws as ‘Newton’s rape manual’ as it is to call them ‘Newton’s mechanics’?” (Harding 1986: 113).
On the very next page of Harding’s book we are told that the heliocentric theory of the solar system was problematic in terms of its “gender symbolism” (Harding 1986: 114). Why? Because it displaced the older geocentric view that placed “mother earth” at the centre of the universe and put in its place the “masculine” sun (Harding 1986: 114). Make of that what you will.

Though many Postmodernists would tell us that basic standards of logic are just a “narrative” amongst other legitimate “narratives,” I would submit to you that the idea above is the logical culmination of a philosophy that says there is no objective truth, that texts cannot have a fixed meaning intended by the author, and that objective knowledge is impossible.

The result? We have a person telling us – apparently with a straight face – that it is just as meaningful and legitimate to refer to Newton’s Principia as “Newton’s rape manual.”

Is it even remotely convincing? No. There are apparently a few metaphors in Bacon about science taming nature that could be interpreted as rape metaphors (Soble 1998: 4). But why should Newton be tarred with the same brush as Bacon? As far as I am aware, there are no metaphors of rape in Newton’s Principia.

Even as some loose metaphor for “male” science taming or understanding “female” nature, the “Newton’s rape manual” comment insults the intelligence, and slanders the scientific method.

For those of you who would like a careful and rational expose of the Postmodernist abuse of science and the irrational hatred of science that can be found in modern Postmodernism, I direct you to these fine works:
Gross, Paul R. and Norman Levitt. 1994. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. 1998. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. Picador, New York.

Koertge, Noretta. 1998. A House built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science. Oxford University Press, New York.
Finally, here are some reviews of Sokal and Bricmont (1998), a celebrated work:
Richard Dawkins, “Postmodernism Disrobed,”

Danny Yee. 1999. “Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science,”

John Sturrock. 1998. “Le pauvre Sokal,” London Review of Books 20.14 (16 July): 8–9.
Soble, Alan. 1998. “In Defense of Bacon,” in Noretta Koertge (ed.), A House built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science. Oxford University Press, New York. 195–215.


  1. You rant against postmodernism is really boring. I think your point is clear and you will find many, many more obscure texts. Why not leave it at that?

    What do you think about Andre Orlean (+Michel Aglietta)? I think they share some ideas with postmodernism but are also interested in Keynes. There are also some theories on money from ethnology and anthropology that are influenced by postmodernism.

    1. Those economists and anthropologists who think they can be serious intellectuals and hold the core tenets of Postmodernists are delusional fools.

      If there is no objective truth, then nothing you say -- no theory or idea -- can be taken as rationally justified or worth believing over some other ridiculous nonsensical alternative.

    2. And I'll just add: I do not even think many intelligent people who might be sympathetic to Postmodernism even properly understand it or its core ideas.

  2. This is quite obviously absurd.

    However, what do you think of the weaker, though similarly themed, type of post-structuralism, which emphasises the inevitable judgements involved in the scientific method and disputes the fact/value distinction? It seems to me you're attacking easy targets with the 'science-is-rape' strand of post modernism, but there are other, more relevant strands which have something worth saying.

    1. Unlearningecon,

      I am astonished that you suggest that meaningful discussion of the possible moral/ethical judgements involved in science and the fact/value distinction are original to Postmodernism or even sensibly discussed there.

      In fact, analytic philosophy has a long and glorious history of being concerned with these things -- far more sensible and intellectual than Postmodernist ramblings.

      And on the original French poststructuralism: it is utterly infected with outrageous rubbish and pseudo-science:


      (1) Freudian psychoanalytic babble, which has been totally refuted and discredited by modern scientific psychology and neuroscience, yet was frequently done in the babbling of Jacques Lacan, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze.

      (2) the idea that we can ignore authors of texts and pretend that texts can mean anything -- no matter how crazy -- via deconstruction, e.g., Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. I seen this myself in my own academic field: how it corrupts good history and literary criticism.

      (3) that not even words can have stable fixed meanings, e.g., as in Derrida's theories

      (4) that there is no objective external reality or objective truth;

      (5) everything is just a "narrative". In extreme cases: that holding one narrative (e.g., germ theory of disease) is just "privileging" dead white male science that oppresses others who don't believe it, etc. etc. You can see how this can have horrible real effects on real people in the Third world:


      (6) that "truth" is just made by power, and all power is illegitimate, so nothing in modern society can be defended, e.g., as in the way Foucault is very frequently interpreted. This has sinister similarities with right-wing anarchism and conspiracy theory thinking.
      These ideas are appalling and wrong -- and have caused utter catastrophe on the Left.

      They will actually undermine and destroy any coherent Left economic or political program -- even a Post Keynesian one.

      I want a Left that rejects these ideas and stands up for objective truth, critical rational thinking, and science, not this horrible perversion of the Left I see in so many parts of the humanities and social sciences facilities of universities today.

    2. I guess I would restate my position more strongly as endorsing at least a weak version of Foucault's theories: science does have an element of narrative, and tends to push out evidence or arguments that are inconvenient. Think of physics with its mysterious 'dark matter/dark energy'. I also think there's truth to the idea that 'justice' is a way to enforce class divisions: just look at how asymmetrically the rich and poor are punished for their respective crimes.

      I don't know much about different interpretations of Foucault's work, but I've always found the man himself quite reasonable on this. Have you seen the Foucault/Chomsky debate?

    3. "science does have an element of narrative, and tends to push out evidence or arguments that are inconvenient."

      I am not sure what "narrative" means here, but ignoring evidence is just bad science. It is not part of the scientific method.

      If *some* scientists do this, it is because they are individuals with their own biases and flaws.

      Do not let this blind you to how science is the best, most successful, most powerful method for getting to the truth about the world.

      Also, regarding dark matter, you are wrong.

      The physicists are working hard to explain it. And in fact, it was the theoretical physicists who first postulated its existence in their abstract models.

      The empirical evidence that has now been found for its existence is actually a clear and important confirmation of the scientific method!:

      "Astrophysicists hypothesized dark matter because of discrepancies between the mass of large astronomical objects determined from their gravitational effects and the mass calculated from the observable matter (stars, gas, and dust) that they can be seen to contain. Dark matter was postulated by Jan Oort in 1932, albeit based upon flawed or inadequate evidence, to account for the orbital velocities of stars in the Milky Way and by Fritz Zwicky in 1933 to account for evidence of "missing mass" in the orbital velocities of galaxies in clusters. Adequate evidence from galaxy rotation curves was discovered by Horace W. Babcock in 1939, but was not attributed to dark matter. The first to postulate dark matter based upon robust evidence was Vera Rubin in the 1960s–1970s, using galaxy rotation curves.[7][8] Subsequently many other observations have indicated the presence of dark matter in the Universe, including gravitational lensing of background objects by galaxy clusters such as the Bullet Cluster, the temperature distribution of hot gas in galaxies and clusters of galaxies and, more recently, the pattern of anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background. According to consensus among cosmologists, dark matter is composed primarily of a not yet characterized type of subatomic particle.[9][10] The search for this particle, by a variety of means, is one of the major efforts in particle physics today."

    4. I'm no physicist, but I still say dark matter is an example of 'label the residual', where physicists' models are making them conclude that there must be something that we cannot see or understand, but which exists to balance the equations. I anticipate that many of the puzzles in physics, such as dark matter, will eventually be solved with new frameworks which look at the world in a different way.

      None of this is to say that science is useless, arbitrary or that all approaches are equally valid. It's just that science necessarily forces observations into certain frameworks, which often contain assumptions and judgments, and which often throw up unique puzzles depending on the framework.

      Whether you want to call this postmodernism, poststructuralism or whatever isn't important. I actually don't think it's a particularly controversial position. Here's an article from a theoretical physicist which is far more eloquent and informed on the subject than I am:


  3. Wow. Feminist Postmodernists critiquing science. That's everything wrong with the world.

    1. Clearly it isn't. But it says more about you that you want invent that stupid lie and throw it at me.

  4. LK, please stop blaming Postmodernism for the left's failure to develop a coherent, viable and persuasive alternative to capitalism.

    1. Actually, it already has an alternative to neoliberal or laissez faire capitalism: a social democracy run on Post Keynesian lines.

      And, yes, Postmodernism and its diversion of thinking academic intellectuals into deconstruction, word games and gibberish writing has had a terrible and pernicious effect on the left.

  5. LK, unfortunately social democracy has little political traction and neoliberalism is alive and well and thriving, despite the terrible cost.

  6. >>and put in its place the “masculine” sun

    Not withstanding those cultures where the Sun is considered as female (for instance in Shinto, the Sun is considered as a goddess).

    1. That line of thinking is dangerously close to cultural appropriation.

    2. What I wanted to point at, is that the whole idea of the "masculine sun" is utter nonsense. My point was not to suggest that the idea of a "female" sun actually has any currency.