Science Studies:
Beyond the Social Text hoax

Janet Atkinson-Grosjean

In 1994, molecular biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norm Levitt published a blistering polemic against "progressivist" academic views of science. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science provoked a firestorm of debate. Two years later, a special "Science Wars" issue of the cultural studies journal Social Text assembled leading figures in science studies (also termed Science and Technology Studies, or STS) to rebut Gross, Levitt, and all who stood with them. Among the contributors was quantum-field physicist Alan Sokal. His essay1 appeared to draw postmodern philosophical, cultural, and political conclusions from mathematical and physical theories. Many critiques of science adopt similar strategies and reach similar conclusions, but Sokal's essay struck some readers as particularly significant. Sokal is, after all, a leading physicist-someone from "the other side."

Shortly after the "Science Wars" issue hit the streets, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that his Social Text essay was a put-on, a parody of anti-science rhetoric. "I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject." Social Text had indeed published the essay without external review. As Norm Levitt says, "They invited disgrace and it descended on them in spades."

Discussion of the hoax polarized scholarly discourse and even penetrated the popular press. Web pages were set up, conferences called, and symposia struck. The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement weighed in with pro-Sokal articles by physicist Steven Weinberg and philosopher Paul Boghossian. Meanwhile, some commentators, like Columbia anthropologist Gary J. Hausman (1996-97 Hinduja Fellow), perceived an irony. "Science studies, in the sense I find useful, is not represented by the articles in Social Text," Hausman says. "Social Text editors do not speak for most sociology of science studies of the past two decades." Perhaps, then, Sokal aimed at the wrong target?

Confusion is understandable. "Science studies is a broad church," explains Steve Fuller (B.A., Columbia, '79), chair of sociology and social policy at England's Durham University. "It is united only by a demystifying attitude towards science." While the field is far from uniform, what Fuller calls "demystification" often involves empirical case studies of localized "cultural" practices -- science in situ, rather than science writ large. Hausman cites as especially useful the research of Latour, Lynch, Collins, Pinch, Pickering, and numerous others, which has convinced some scholars that much of science is socially constructed.

Since few scientists maintain that their work is context-free or value-neutral, why has STS evoked so much animosity? Fuller cites progress as a crucial contested term. "Generally, science critics believe that the ideal of scientific progress is little more than a well-ingrained myth. Among scientists, however, it remains an article of faith. Scientists may accept most of what science studies has to say about science, but still cling onto progress for reasons not entirely clear to me." Sokal protests, "Is it a myth that Einsteinian mechanics is a better description of the world than Newtonian mechanics? Which is, in turn, a better description than Aristotelean mechanics?"

Fuller responds, "The tougher question is whether Newton would accept the larger explanatory framework in which we now embed the science he initiated and whether he would accept as legitimate the applications to which we have put that science? I seriously doubt this." Sokal says Fuller evades the issue.

Speaking with 21stC, however, Sokal seems conciliatory. It would be silly, he says, to interpret his hoax as an attack on STS in general. "I have always said that science is a human endeavor and should be studied by sociologists and historians as such. Scientists are not perfect. They do sometimes violate their own canons as a result of social prejudices. Good studies would be useful in trying to clarify the social conditions under which errors can be minimized or caught as quickly as possible."

The question is, what constitutes a good study? Would the empirical studies valued by Hausman and others qualify? According to Sokal, the answer is no. To him, these studies are contaminated by extremes of subjectivism, relativism, and social constructivism. As one example, he cites Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (1984). "It's a very well-informed history of modern elementary particle physics sandwiched between five pages of bad philosophy at the beginning and 15 pages of bad philosophy at the end."

Anders Stephanson, associate professor of history at Columbia and member of the Social Text board until the early 1990s, agrees that many critiques have been marked by "crude constructivism." Yet the defense of science, in his view, is often no less crude. "There is a good deal of critical prattle about science by people who know next to nothing about it. This disturbs, rightly, the practitioners of science, but knee-jerk foundationalism -- epistemological orthodoxy -- is not the right response." All things considered, says Stephanson, "it would be good for science to ponder more seriously its context. A brief moment of historical inquiry is enough to realize just how profoundly the conceptual framing of science has been related to its social and institutional setting."

But who has time for reflection? There's a war on! Science's critics are busy repairing their fortifications, while its proponents mobilize for what they hope will be a final, fatal attack. Says Noretta Koertge, Indiana University philosopher, a new collection of essays she is editing,2 featuring contributions by Sokal, Gross, Levitt, Boghossian, and others, will focus on those famous empirical case studies and reveal their "terribly shoddy scholarship." Case studies do present a particular problem, Fuller admits, but not the one Koertge et al. have in their sights. "The case study method so cherished by science studies practitioners often appears as carping from the sidelines; the research is so focused on particular cases, it seems to have no implications for the 'big picture.' Yet the public understanding of science seems to demand such a picture, which in turn helps explain the lingering lure of the myth of progress." Progress renders the history of science coherent and compelling, says Fuller; STS has yet to offer an equally compelling alternative. Consequently, "the overall impression is that science studies has abdicated any responsibility for constituting the future of science."

Fuller suggests that one solution is to frame the argument differently and ask "Does science studies have anything positive to say about the future of science?" In Fuller's view, STS urgently needs an alternative "grand narrative." This isn't a new theme for Fuller; he's built his project of social epistemology around it, partly by reconstructing the distinction between contexts of discovery and contexts of justification. Fuller envisions a positive future for this embattled field in writing a new story of how scientists produce their accounts of the world.

Related links...

  • Jeffrey Shallit, "Leftist Science and Skeptical Rhetoric," review of Levitt and Gross, Higher Superstition, in Skeptic 1994; 3(1):98-100.

  • Tom Athanasiou, "Science Wars?" Review of Higher Superstition and NY Academy of Science conference "The Flight from Science and Reason" (May-June 1995), archived by Red Rock Eater Digest

  • Thomas W. Durso, "Sociologists of Science Cautiously Optimistic on Jobs." The Scientist 11(3):1,9, February 3, 1997.

    1 "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Social Text 1996; 46/47:217-252. 2 Koertge, Noretta, ed. A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science (NY: Oxford UP, 1998, forthcoming).

    JANET ATKINSON-GROSJEAN is an interdisciplinary doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia, focusing on STS issues. Her work has appeared in World Futures, CGA Magazine, Seattle Weekly, Saturday Review, and other publications.