Is the Enlightenment out of fashion?

Jonathan R. Cole

One of the scholarly community's less prestigious ceremonies, the announcement of the Ig Nobel Prizes, sometimes offers as much illumination as comic relief. These mock-awards are bestowed annually by the Annals of Improbable Research (successor to the notorious Journal of Irreproducible Results) for research that "cannot or should not be reproduced." Some researchers, on finding that their work merits an Ig, take it in stride or even bask in the cockeyed publicity; other parties -- such as President Jacques Chirac of France, who received an Ig Nobel Peace Prize for testing nuclear explosives in the Pacific on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima -- are presumably less amused. When the editors of Social Text received the 1996 Ig in Literature for "eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless, and which claimed that reality does not exist," the hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal, author of that notorious paper,1 may be said to have reached its absurdist apogee. But what exactly did Sokal satirize?

Strong winds are blowing through many universities, bringing with them attacks on the values that lie at the foundation of modern science and technology. In some quarters, facts have fallen out of fashion. As I have noted elsewhere,2 research universities are facing a set of choices about their prevailing organizational axioms, or presuppositions: the fundamental principles on which these institutions have been built. In one form, the attack is leveled against the presuppositions of rationality, of objectivity, of truth, of "there being a there out there," among other epistemological and metaphysical values that have guided discourse through most of Western history, and certainly since the 17th century. I have called this a struggle over who owns the null hypothesis: who, through language, power, and reason, controls the basic definitions of merit and evidence against which new ideas are measured. The challenge to the correspondence theory of truth too often involves a leap from the well-traveled idea that all knowledge is contextualized to the belief that all knowledge is merely a text, entirely socially constructed, that what passes for fact translates simply into a set of power relationships. The stakes are actually quite high, at least in the academy, since this is a conflict over the fundamental bases on which we develop and evaluate knowledge. What happens at the universities will also affect the links to their partners in government and industry.

Sokal's parody of the pure social-constructivist perspective has brought this attack on objectivity to wider public attention, much of which takes the form of derision. But the passing of the null away from the correspondence theory of truth -- presumably, to some criterion of identity or ideology -- is no laughing matter. These non-trivial and widely divergent epistemological perspectives on science and technology are being debated by some heavy hitters, including distinguished scientists like Max Perutz, Steven Weinberg, and Gerald Holton and their opponents, intellectuals such as Stanley Fish, Bruno Latour, Stanley Aronowitz, and Richard Rorty. These debates are tied to deeper anti-scientific and anti-technologic strains present in American society. Dissent and challenges to received wisdom are of course part of the growth of knowledge, but when dissent is combined with an extraordinary level of ignorance, if not illiteracy, among the public, the diffusion effects can lead to public distrust of, and reduced support for, science and technology.

There are those who would find such an outcome desirable on social, ecological, or political grounds, believing that the benefits derived from science and technology do not justify the costs technological power has imposed on the environment or the disenfranchised. Luddism has a long and complex political history, but wherever one may stand in relation to power, the renunciation of rational discourse itself is hardly likely to bring about positive change. No less committed a political dissenter than Noam Chomsky has said that we ultimately learn the most about human nature from literature, not science, yet he steadfastly resists equating a respect for the truth-value of texts with a disrespect for facts: "It strikes me as remarkable that [antirationalists] should seek to deprive oppressed people not only of the joys of understanding and insight, but also of tools of emancipation, informing us that the 'project of the Enlightenment' is dead, that we must abandon the 'illusions' of science and rationality -- a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use."3

It is time for educators to begin informing the American public (not just the segment of it that has a professional need to know, but the populace as a whole) about the achievements of science and engineering, the fruit of the creative process of organized skepticism that we call the scientific method. The shockingly low level of scientific literacy in the United States worsens the tension between the Two Cultures and leads to fear, if not outright hostility, toward science -- and perhaps toward any publicly available standards of merit or rationality at all. Those who have misused the tools of the Enlightenment have much to answer for, but those who would reverse the Enlightenment altogether, in the name of a false sense of liberation, risk ushering in a future marked by primitive gullibility, unchecked power, and little that could be called progress: an era most of us would consider ignoble indeed.

Related links...

  • Skeptics Society

  • Nancy Maull, "Science under Scrutiny," The Browser, Harvard

    1 "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Social Text 1996;46/47: 217-252.

    2 "Balancing Acts: Dilemmas of Choice Facing Research Universities." Daedalus 1993;122:1-36, esp. pp. 11-23.

    3 "Rationality/Science." Z: A Political Monthly

    JONATHAN R. COLE, Ph.D., is Quetelet Professor of Social Science, Provost and Dean of Faculties at Columbia University, and Publisher of 21stC. Parts of this editorial are adapted from "'Science: The Endless Frontier' Revisited," an address presented to the National Academy of Engineering, October 3, 1996.