Postmodernism and the History of Science


#1

There have been a few threads lately in which the subject of postmodernism has come up, usually in the context of people comparing it to the “post-truth” tactics of the modern American right.

We also have a few folks here who push back on that; sometimes by denying the analogy altogether, sometimes by denying a causative link between the phenomena.

Personally, I’m not rabidly opposed to postmodern academia; I think that it’s an approach that can provide useful insights in certain areas. However, my background in this area comes from the Philosophy of Science (dual major in my undergrad degree, turned down a doctoral slot to do neuro instead), and that does not seem to be an area where postmodernism is particularly useful.

To explain why, I need to give a quick skeletal description of the history of the philosophy of science.

The modern field kicked off with Karl Popper, best known for Conjectures and Refutations. The focus of his work was “the demarcation problem”. Basically, it’s “how do you tell science from non-science? Why is astronomy science and astrology bullshit?”. It also leads into related questions like “if science is a special way of doing things, is it better than other ways? Why?” and “is science only one thing, or is it a group of things?”.

Popper proposed a system that was elegant, logical and appealing. He argued that science functions by a logical process involving the creation of hypotheses which are in turn tested against reality. There is no such thing as an absolute proof, but our confidence in the accuracy of any given hypothesis should increase with time, as it survives more and more attempts at refutation. If a hypothesis is experimentally contradicted, it should be immediately abandoned.

For a few decades, this was pretty much accepted as fact. The Phil of Sci field successfully concentrated on finding demonstrations of Popper’s theory in action (e.g. Einstein and the Michelson/Morley experiment).

Unfortunately, there were some problems with Popper’s theory, all arising from the fact that Popper was originally a physicist. Firstly, he failed to notice that the way things are done by physicists is not at all typical of scientists in general. Secondly, he wasn’t a historian.

Thomas Kuhn was. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he demonstrated that although Popper’s theory is lovely and logical, when you look at the real world you notice that science isn’t done like that, never was done like that, and wouldn’t work if you tried to do it like that.

Instead of an elegant logical process, Kuhn correctly saw science as a messy, human endeavor, subject to both social and individual biases. He noted that the result of an experimental refutation was most typically not “Eureka! The theory is disproved!” but is instead “oh, shit, what did I do wrong?”.

Theories persist beyond refutation; it is not until a sufficient mass of discordant experimental data accumulates that a theory is overturned, in a pattern more reminiscent of oppression and revolution than of neat, mathematical logic. Even when a refutation is accepted, the solution is not obvious; any result may have a myriad of different causes, and any hypothesis is only one of an infinite number of possible explanations. Our choices of hypotheses are more a function of psychology and sociology than logic.

Because of these arguments, Kuhn is often described as the first postmodern philosopher of science. I have absolutely no problem with Kuhn; I agree with him almost entirely. My only quibble is that he focuses a bit too much on the revolutions and a bit too little on the day to day research that he calls “ordinary science”.

After Kuhn came Imre Lakatos. His main contribution was an attempt to save Popper by melding him into Kuhn’s theories, but all he really achieved was an unconvincing Frankenstein. Much more important was his drinking buddy, Paul Feyerabend

Feyerabend is best known for the infamous Against Method, and he’s the first of the hardcore Phil O’Sci postmodernists.

Against Method is basically a litany of historical scientific errors mixed with a description of the difficulties encountered when attempting to resolve the demarcation problem. From this, Feyerabend jumps to the conclusion that all science is irretrievably tainted by social biases, and that therefore science has no more claim to authority than any other “system of knowledge”.

Feyerabend claimed that all knowledge-seeking traditions are epistemologically equal, and that there is no reason to privilege any one form of knowledge over another. He explicitly states that, for example, the medical expertise of a pre-industrial shaman and a modern biochemist are identical in the validity of their claims to truth.

Basically, Feyerabend was a disingenuous troll; he was infatuated with the game of argumentation, and very fond of creating a stir. It wasn’t so much that he was dishonest, more that he didn’t care if his conclusions were bullshit so long as they drew attention and irritated his opponents. But in doing so, he laid the groundwork for the Counter-Enlightenment.

Feyerabend was eventually blown out of the water by Helen Longino’s Science as Social Knowledge, where she demonstrated that although science is susceptible to all of the issues of bias and influence raised by Kuhn, it nevertheless approaches truth and objectivity when viewed collectively over the long term. She also argued that the social factors so problematic to Kuhn were in fact the driving force behind this long-term trend towards increasing accuracy.

However, in the meantime, Feyerabend’s nonsense had spread. Over in the Sociology of Science, Barnes & Bloor and Bruno Latour (Scotland and France respectively, all hardcore postmodernists) got working on the SSK Strong Programme. This was a response to an observed problem in the historiography and sociology of science: there was a tendency towards Whiggishness.

Whiggism is a view of history that frames it as an inexorable march towards progress. It’s something many historians are prone to, but they tend to be very wary of it these days. In the history of science, it manifested as a tendency to explain scientific advancement with no reference at all to social factors; “the theory changed because the old theory was false and the new theory was true”.

This is obviously a problem, but the Strong Programme folks took their response way too far. Declaring that they would now deliberately ignore the influence of the natural world on the history of science, they proceeded to analyse every scientific event as if it were motivated purely by social biases and individual prejudices.

Their writing is mostly just insufferably tedious, but in the process they provide lengthy justifications for casually discarding any piece of scientific knowledge that one dislikes. And this is a problem.

Science, overall, is arguably the greatest humanitarian and intellectual achievement in history. Science is the reason why the average lifespan is now longer than twenty years. Science is why we know that our universe is bigger than the horizon. Science is why famine and poverty are no longer an inevitability. Science is why we have the wealth and technology to sit around thinking about things like “what is science, anyway?”. Science is why a sick kid like me didn’t die a dozen times over before I was five years old.

But the power of science to do what it does fundamentally relies upon its position as a trusted source of relatively accurate knowledge. Medical science is useless if no one believes their doctor. Climate science is useless when it’s all just a conspiracy invented by the Chinese. When you needlessly damage the authority of science, you reduce its ability to save lives.

I could go on, but you get the idea. That is my experience of postmodernism; tediously longwinded bullshit that willfully ignores standards of reason and evidence in order to manufacture conclusions that attend more to fashion than truth. Some of it is just laughable gibberish (e.g. Lacan on “the mind is a torus”, Kristeva explaining why the theory of relativity is misogynistic…), some of it is actively destructive.

However: I’ve known plenty of smart people, people I respect, who do find things of value in postmodernist writings. And among the writers cited as the inspiration for postmodernism are some who I greatly respect (e.g. Kuhn).

So: what’s your experience with postmodernism? Do you like it or not? Why? What is it that you do or don’t find of value, and what is your reaction to the issues that some readers find problematic?


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#2

I thought it was when enough of a mass of old fogies die who supported the previous order?


#3

Much the same thing. No theory is ever truly dead until the last professor who was taught it as an undergrad is gone. :slight_smile:


#4

Elsewhere I posted these links on the subject, but didn’t get much response… IMO this is an enlightening angle.

TL;DR - po-mo lite is purest bullshit, while proper po-mo exists to illustrate that a purely logical approach will only get you so far; some intuitive leaps are necessary to continue developing.

And that folks who don’t get the point of po-mo basically propagate it as nihilism, which erodes the progress achieved so far, and that society needs a way to facilitate development beyond a purely rational standpoint to something that peeps can recognise as a valid perspective that’s more evolved.


#5

Can you expand? What do you see as PoMo-lite, what do you see as “proper” PoMo, what makes the difference?


#6

For what it’s worth, I read both articles when you posted them before, and found them interesting, if a little puzzling. I didn’t reply then because I kind of went down the rabbit hole, reading more and more articles before finally giving up and not coming back.

I’m a self-taught programmer, with about two decades of professional experience. I don’t have the formal STEM training that the links take as their starting point, but I pretty much self-taught the material to myself before reaching university.

I guess my real concern with these articles is that there isn’t much that’s concrete in the discussion of the purported “fluid” mode, or the difference between it and the more “systemic” mode; the examples that accompanied all the previous modes have been omitted in the comparisons between systemic and fluid, which makes me worry that the whole “fluid” mode thing is perhaps moving into “woo” territory.

I mean… nobody engaging in systemic-style thinking actually thinks that there’s just a single system which universally works in every context, right? There are always several competing systems in different domains, with different strengths and weaknesses, and working out which ones are most appropriate for the problems being solved at any given time is part of systemic thinking, right? This “being willing to select from multiple available imperfect systems” isn’t what’s being talked about as being the “unbridged” gap between stages 4 and 5, is it?


#7

I hadn’t twigged before, but your talk of "fluid"and “systemic” reminded me: have y’all read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? The fluid/systemic thing is strongly reminiscent of Pirsig’s Romantic/Classical dualism.

OTOH, while I’d recommend Zen and… as a fun and interesting read, I wouldn’t hold it up as a serious philosophical work. Good for a stoned argument, but a bit lacking in depth.


#8

I haven’t read it!

When I was a kid, I remember my father reading it, and then setting it away on a shelf, telling me that it was something I’d appreciate when I was older. And then I never returned to it. I wonder whatever happened to that copy of the book.

(He still does that to this day, incidentally; recommends me books which he tells me I’m not ready for yet, but will probably be ready for in another ten years or so. …and I’ve realised at just this precise moment that the whole “you’re not ready for this yet” thing was probably meant to be reverse psychology. Has been going right over my head, this whole time!)


#9

this is actually a(n) (over)simplification of kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift in “structure.” after i read the kuhn book many years ago i awoke from a dream with an idea for a poem about his ideas. i got as far as writing–

in academe did kubla kuhn
a stately paradigm decree
where science the noble project ran
to limn us in its own logicality.

at that point i was interrupted by someone knocking at the door, a guy named porlock who had business with the person who had lived in the apartment before me. by the time i got rid of him i had lost the rest of the dream and never wrote any more of the poem.


#10

in the early 90s a friend of mine took a class in epistemology as part of his masters in political science. the readings consisted of popper, kuhn, lakatos, feyerabend, and longino. after he finished the course he sent me a box with all the readings which i pored over for weeks. i found myself sympathetic to popper but agreeing with kuhn. over time, i have come to see the program of science as popper portrayed it as being the way science changes at the margins but that major changes in points of view occur much as kuhn portrayed them. as for the rest, my synthesis is that science is a social activity, yes, but that it is a social activity with different rules and different goals than most other social constructs.

i am also convinced that there are statements in science which are not provable, that is not falsifiable. i am lef to this by godel’s theorem that, simplified, states that any set of axioms which is strong enough to represent the properties of the natural numbers can also generate unprovable propositions and that the consistency of such a system cannot be demonstrated within the system itself. admittedly science is not the same as arithmetic but i think my extension is reasonable enough to work as a rule of thumb.


#11

Postmodernism in the history of science strikes me as being somewhat analogous to the reaction to Silicon Valley’s preening claims of being a meritocracy doing the most important and productive work of the world; if that reaction had promptly gone off into the weeds and ended up going on about how all software behaviors are equally valid; and use of binary logic gates is a rejection of wholistic ways of knowing masquerading as a design decision.

There is a great deal of wrong to work with in Ye Olde Triumphalist History of How We Went From Ignorant Darkness to Truth; but that just makes the move away from working with it, in favor of cute arguments about how all truth claims are flimflam more of a wasted opportunity.


#12

As a person who builds and uses analog computers, I can relate to this somewhat. When it comes to realizing a certain type of application, others I talk with are often binary zealots who won’t entertain any other solution, and if pressed upon “why” the answers invariably are that the binary implementation is cheaper and easier to design and “should be accurate enough”.


#13

There is a lot for me to read up on here, so thanks for that! From what admittedly little I know of this, the cohesive picture I distil from it is that the strength of science lies in methodology, a system for observing phenomena and testing knowledge that anyone can use. But science as an institution is worse than useless, because it discourages the common person from performing science themselves in favor of establishing consensus. And consensus is a social/political problem.

The most insidious problem of conducting science is overcome biases and belief in favor of detached observation and analysis. Yet at an institutional level the drive for consensus then causes people to use evidence to engender yet more biases and beliefs in others. In this way the institution of science really is as imperialist as other European institutions, insisting upon the right and responsibility to force certain views and conclusions upon others rather than simply giving them the tools and letting them draw their own conclusions.

Another complicated area I think is that the institution of science, being the branch of natural philosophy, tends to be hostile to other forms of philosophy and strives to supplant them whenever possible. The problem with this being that these are usually completely different conceptual domains. Many human decisions still depend upon subjectivities which are then ignored, rendering members of a society unable to ask simple questions, answer, and act upon them. Such as “How do I define and measure wealth?” or “How long optimally should I live?”. But as problems they are tangential to physical science, so they are difficult to address in a society which has become metaphysically blind. Despite being rather fundamental they are treated as non-questions.

Rejecting the totalitarian view of science in terms of “We know…” or “Science has shown us…” is actually more accurate, because there is no “we” or “us”. It is not evasion and bias to acknowledge that people do not all know the same things to be true, and it is simply another bias to declare otherwise. Persuasion has no place in science - nor indeed anywhere else. Do your own work, and help other people to do theirs.


#14

Wonderful post. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

Yes scientists are humans with all the failings that come along with the condition. Growing up with two parents of the profession, I got to see how both the academic and corporate cultures can be just as much a pack of asshole gnawing hyenas as the worst of the music business. For every whackjob tenured social alchemist in the Ivory Tower of Babel there is a matching pointy haired boss head of R&D in the world of Megacorp LLC. Bandwagoning to trendy bullshit theories happens everywhere as well.

Of course coming up with any model of behavior as a be all and end all is nonsense. At least economists have the decency to refer to their profession as the “dismal science”. Though “human nature” may well exist, every attempt to model it is like trying to nail a blob of mercury to the wall. Which is to say post modernism is toxic waste which leaked out and spread sickness through various other areas beyond the history of science.


#15

THIS is why I read the BBS!

I have one small quibble:

Today I perform a piece written in 1741 (Handel’s Messiah). Here’s what was happening in science that year: 1741 in Science. Meager pickings, whereas we’re still marveling at the brilliance of Handel’s music.

Science without Art is as incomplete as Art without Science. Think of them as a Yin/Yang symbol. We need both, always.


#16

Considering Linnaeus (probably the second greatest biologist of all time next to Darwin), was born in 1741, it’s actually quite an important year for science. The notion of hierarchical categories of biological classification that Linnaeus introduced revolutionized biology (and arguably created biology as an actual science). Without the way for naturalists to express the biodiversity they observed, Darwin wouldn’t have been able to formulate natural selection.

Edit – Actually, 1741 was the birth of Linnaeus the Younger, who did continue his father’s work but wasn’t obviously as revolutionary. Still, the idea that wasn’t important science going on then isn’t true.


#17

A have little to add but a personal disclosure. I was a dual Classics/Philosophy undergrad (with a Religious Studies minor), then shifted to Classics for MA/PhD, but with a focus on Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. Philosophy departments tended to loathe PoMo thinkers back then since the literary critics were encroaching on philosophy and doing a ridiculously sloppy job. Classicists also were caught in the fray since there was a thread of PoMo thought that had a weird obsession with the Greeks that was also a serious mess - Derrida’s writing on Plato is basically so incredibly bad they’re just trolling classicists. On Aristotle he’s even worse.

I was doing my MA when the Sokal Hoax happened, and it was for me one of the high points of the year to watch since I was deeply unsympathetic to that kind of loose reasoning ungrounded in method and general acceptance of bullshit provided it’s got the right rhetorical trappings that is the hallmark of PoMo thought. To my eyes, I saw the field of Classics developing by a more scientific historiography, more careful/scientific/rigorous linguistics, developing analyses by computer analyses of texts to aid philology, and significant advances in archaeology made by a scientific approach, it was being dragged down by an encroaching PoMo that undermined the basis of all that.

I do think some thinkers like Foucault dig into important questions, and don’t think the whole enterprise is a sham, there’s things to be said for applying some of those techniques to power structures to tease out patterns of exploitation, and to some kinds of actual texts (though even then it’s complex). It’s just that there’s so much that is a sham that it’s really disheartening, and applying techniques of PoMo literary criticism to the world as a whole is a misguided project. The world is not a text. I left the PhD program at UT in part because I realized that this was what I’d be wading through at the department (though mostly because I was poor, had kids, and didn’t want to drag them along my life as a rootless and endlessly exploited adjunct which was the fate for most). Once I left I promptly stopped caring about Postmodernism, and it was a massive relief, like finally escaping a tedious, confused, aggravating conversation with a blustering solipsistic weirdo.

FWIW, even in the humanities, the PoMo program isn’t accepted everywhere. So far as I’m aware current philosophy departments still fight it (they’d laugh it off if they could, since it’s seen as akin to Objectivism in its ridiculousness), and so far as I know, in history departments it’s generally looked at with great suspicion since it doesn’t cohere with modern historiography.


#18

I didn’t say important science wasn’t going on then, just that that particular year is more memorable for its lasting impact on the Arts than the sciences. My point was not to belittle science --when do I ever do that? – but bring up the Arts as being an equal partner to the importance of human development and civilization.


#19

Yes! Thank you so much for starting this topic, and for doing it with an in-depth post of such clarity and quality. I’m not going to match that in this response, but here goes.

I suspect that I’m one of the people you’re referring to in your post because I have often dropped my opposition towards the postmodernist counter-enlightenment in my bbs postings. (Actually, we might need to distinguish the postmodern counter-enlightenment from the 18th and 19th century romanticist and religious backlash against Enlightenment thought. My modest proposal would be to use the term Alt-lightenment" for the newer phenomenon)

So let’s make an attempt at answering your question. Here are some things about the vague collection of loosely related things that go under the heading of “postmodernism” that I think are damaging (Hmmm. I might have to add that very vagueness and insubstantiality of the central idea to the list)

  1. Obscurantism

Academic postmodernism has turned to blizzard of dense theory and terminology to hide the utter insubstantial nature of a lot of the work that goes on. The jargon extends to redefining commonly known concepts, then kicking up a fuss when people use them out of the new redefined context, in what appears to be little more than an attempt to make the theory immune to criticism by being so incoherent that nobody can put together a coherent response.
In other words, it devolved straight into mumbo-jumbo:

2. As @Wanderfound mentioned, a rejection of the Scientific Method.
This is probably the most worrying aspect. A rejection of the concept of evidence, and refutation leads to Postmodernism detaching itself from reality entirely. When theories do not have to make predictions and do not need to pass the test of being an accurate description of reality, they become completely hermetic, theological systems that can do nothing but reflect back their initial assumptions as conclusions. This tends to be masked by 1, above. and ends up in a similar place to Economics- if the theory cannot describe reality accurately, reality must be changed to fit the theory, or denied entirely.

Another aspect of the rejection of the scientific method is the proliferation of the idea of “realities” and “narratives” which allow blatantly incorrect conclusions and personal anecdotes to be given the same weight as physical laws. Anecdotes are not data, but they can be turned into data with rigour and statistics.

The opening of the door to “multiple truths” also leaves the door wide open to Anti-knowledge from other sources, because if we allow ourselves to be fooled into conceding that Science and reason are only one of many forms of truth, then the way is open to place climate denialism, creationism, holocaust denial, religious fundamentalism and other such woo into the mainstream and into schools. Accepting Feyerabend’s ideas renders you powerless to complain against the tide of unreason being pushed as another set of truths. Corporatists love this as well. For hey, if there’s no such thing as one definite truth, then why not introduce our marketing narrative as another one of these multiple truths, and get it taught in schools.

3. The embrace of stale relativism
It only took a matter of decades for postmodernism’s embrace of moral and cultural relativism to undermine some of the 20th century’s greatest achievements- The concept of Universal human rights and international law as codified in the UNHDR:


(which won’t onebox for some reason)

The postmodern embrace of relativism has given an easy out to reactionaries and cultural conservatives everywhere to say that the ideas enshrined in the UNHDR do not apply to their culture in their context, (as if human culture could be owned, anyway) and places a roadblock in the way of a large proportion of the word’s population attaining the rights that we thought we had claimed on behalf of all humankind. And this has real world effects. Whenever there is oppression in a non-western context, there are always useful idiots of postmodern relativism to decry valid criticism of violations of universal rights.

4. the overuse of deconstruction
This is a huge one. deconstruction as a technique is sometimes useful in the analysis of language, but it has been over-used and over generalised to an absurd degree. Some things simply do not yield to an attempt to impose a framework of opposed and hierarchical binaries on them, but this lack of coherence is not a problem, because as we have already seen, a lack of evidence or predictive power is no barrier to interpreting events this way.

I have seen people argue that in their deconstructed world view, there is always a structural bias of A over B. When presented with evidence of real-world biases that went in the other direction, no contradiction was even noticed. The theory magically gained epicycles to explain any inconvenient realities.

5. Hypocritical absolutism
Despite all the embrace of relativism, many people who are strongly influenced by postmodern theory drop their relativism as and when it suits. Attempt to use a word in its conventional manner when they have given a new meaning to it within their "theory? Watch out! They will insist that you use their words with their meanings in an attempt to present their conclusions as self evident, which they only are within their hermetic framework.
Attempt to interpret an event in a way that contradicts their theory, or merely ignores it. Again, no deviation from the official line is acceptable.

6. Political dissipation and division
Lastly, one of the most pernicious effects of postmodernist theorising has been its tendency to undermine any universalist political movement towards replacing our current systems, by encouraging and embracing divide and rule.

In short, postmodernism hobbles us against the untruths of reactionaries, treats fashionable nonsense as truth, gets in the way of understanding the universe, and facilitates the political swamp we find ourselves in. It will go down in history as one of the most pointless intellectual cul-de-sacs of all time.


#20

I think that’s true of some work, for sure. Plenty of (especially guys) like to use obscure theories to really hide the fact that they have nothing substantial to say to the world. Then again, I’ve read plenty of stuff that’s certainly complex, but if you dig into it, it’s really helpful in illuminating reality. Just like any other field of work/knowledge production, jargon can become elevated to a position of importance over actual substance. Academia isn’t unique in that, of course.