Conference calls attention
A pattern of attacks on science is beginning to draw return fire from scholars at Columbia and other universities. The scientific method is widely dismissed by New Agers and others who describe themselves as postmodern. Scientifically based medicine is denounced in the name of spiritual healing. Reason is discounted as one inadequate "way of knowing," among many. Democracy, which assumes that citizens can act rationally, is debunked in the name of fundamentalism or other extreme ideologies.
Members of the Columbia community, including Barnard College chemistry professor Leslie Lessinger, Ph.D., research scientist Dr. Carole Vance of the School of Public Health, and Christine Irizarry of the Columbia University Press, participated in a June conference, "The Flight from Science and Reason," conducted by biologist Paul R. Gross, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia, and mathematician Norman Levitt, Ph.D., of Rutgers (authors of the caustic academic bestseller Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994]). The New York Academy of Sciences sponsored the three-day conference.
Columbia is in the vanguard of science's defenders on other public fronts as well. Provost Jonathan R. Cole, Ph.D , writing in the summer issue of Columbia magazine, called upon scientific and academic colleagues to join in the battle. "If the sophisticated critics of science are to be answered and the case for science and its brilliant discoveries is to be made effectively, then scientists will have to expand their concerns beyond the bench and laboratory to their colleagues in the academy and to the public and its representatives beyond our ivy walls."
The New York Academy of Sciences conference provided an important contemporary platform for science, reason, and democracy. Scholars and universities now have the obligation, as Provost Cole has indicated, to spread this message emphatically within and without the institutional walls. The press and the public are beginning to see the problem.
Media interest in the conference was great. The Academy had pre-registration inquiries from more than three dozen reporters, a spokeswoman said, and a similar number attended the meeting; seven weeks later, 21 stories had appeared in print, and others were still trickling in. Most were supportive: Nature (June 8) headlined its account "Science and Reason forum finds enemies all around" and quoted Harvard Nobel laureate in chemistry Dudley Hershbach, Ph.D., as saying science should be "a partner of the humanities in the search for wisdom of all sorts." The New Yorker (July 31) noted that the assembled scholars "deplored the rising tide of mush washing over the public mind, from astrology and religious fundamentalism to the blithe disregard of truth in postmodern epistemology; some participants urged that a hard line be taken against all this drivel."
One of the strongest stories was a front-page report in the New York Times (June 6). Reporter Malcolm W. Browne wrote that "many scientists believe their backs are to the wall" and that the "worried . . . participants in the meeting . . . resolved to start fighting back."
Browne reported, "There is growing danger, many [conferees] said, that the fabric of reason is being ripped asunder. And if the scientists and other thinkers continue to acquiesce in the process, the hobbling of science and its handmaidensmedicine and technology among themseems assured . . . [T]he same cognitive disease. . . could eventually even unravel democracy, which depends on the capacity of citizens to reach rational estimates."
David R. Zimmerman
DAVID R. ZIMMERMAN, adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is the editor of Probe, a newsletter of science and media criticism. He has taught at the New School for Social Research.