Is science multicultural? Taking sides in the science wars.

The so-called “science wars” generated more heat than light in the ’90s. They did, though, encourage you to work hard to figure out what you actually thought about science. I do recall working quite hard (as I’m a poor philosopher) on this piece, which tries to adjudicate between two authors who’d normally be taken as on opposite sides of the dispute about the nature of scientific truth. I wasn’t so sure…

Susan Haack is pretty despondent about academic life. Good old words like truth, reason, objectivity, facts and reality are only allowed out these days in scare quotes, she says. This is both irritating and alarming. It shows how many are influenced for the worse by irrationalism and relativism, and how much inquiry is designed to shore up prior commitments rather than discover the truth of the matter at hand.

Sandra Harding is dubious about truth, reason, objectivity, facts and – at least some of the time – reality. She sees them all as terms that underpin the global domination of the West, a domination in which science and technology are deeply implicated. She believes they all need to be rethought. She hopes she knows how they can be improved upon. Haack thinks Harding’s ideas are deeply misguided.

At first look this is a sharp divide, as sharp as any in the science wars. But how different are these writers? Not, I think, as sharply different as this suggests. Their disagreements are real, but they have more in common than either is inclined to admit.

They are both committed to the academic enterprise. Both are philosophers – Haack British-born, Harding American – with professorial appointments in US universities, published by American university presses. Both claim a role for philosophy in setting standards for the rest of the disciplines. And both are feminists and epistemologists. One strong disagreement is over whether those two commitments can be linked. Haack says no. For her, the notion of feminist epistemology makes no sense. It is by turns insulting, misleading, and anti-emancipatory.

Their most basic philosophical difference is that Haack denies that Quine’s thesis of the underdetermination of theory by observation leaves enough “slack” for social interests to enter science, if the social groups that elaborate knowledge are working properly. Harding affirms the opposite. Yet Haack concedes that there is always scope for “judgement” in theory choice, so there remains room for argument about what counts as good judgement. Like Harding, in fact, she claims to occupy the middle ground in a polarised and oversimplified debate.

A final similarity is that both here offer poor books. Harding’s is tightly organised but her style tedious. She covers a lot of ground while being extraordinarily repetitious.

Haack is a clearer and more engaging writer, but her essays here overlap far too much. Arguments, examples, metaphors and quotes – especially her favourite lines from C. S. Pierce – reappear so often that anyone expecting a book’s worth of material will feel short-changed.

To be fair, there is also some diversity in the individual essays. The first two take their inspiration from Pierce, her main influence, and show that, while Richard Rorty often takes Pierce’s name in vain when he claims to be a “neopragmatist”, Pierce would abhor Rorty’s doctrines. And the book closes with a fairly routine discussion of the weaknesses of affirmative action in US academic appointments, and a trenchant account of how the Anglo-American publication explosion erodes intellectual standards and promotes pseudo-inquiry.

Harding’s book restates her case for a “standpoint” epistemology that, by starting from the point of view of the marginalised or disempowered, would show how to acquire a “more rigorous and accurate” picture of nature’s order. Rhetorically, she is as fond as Haack of the notion of objectivity, so fond that she wants to reinvent it as “strong objectivity”. This idea, which Haack dismisses as “preposterous”, is a rather large extension of the intuitively plausible founding argument of standpoint theory – that only the slave can have real insights into the master-slave relationship. Maybe so, says Haack, but what on earth has that got to do with particle physics?

Harding, I think, still does want to claim that it has something to do with particle physics, but this time around she works up to it gradually, through a review of post-colonial histories of science, and especially of the voyages of discovery and the scientific revolution. On the face of it, her view that all knowledge is local knowledge would be anathema to Haack, but much of it seems unexceptionable. The literature that shows how western science rode on the back of colonial expansion, incorporating ideas from other cultures and appropriating new-found resources for creating knowledge that served imperial interests, is historically interesting, even important, but not epistemologically earth-shattering. It only seems so if, as Harding appears to maintain, the idea of science as universal knowledge entails believing that because scientists know some things, no one else knows anything. Harding works hard to refute this assertion: but I wonder who believes it?

Haack is certainly not among the believers. We need to go right to the end of the argument Harding builds to find what the contention is really about. As she writes in one of her many summaries: “There is nothing controversial about observing that social interests shape what gets to count as interesting scientific questions. What is controversial here is to claim that science, real science, includes the choice of scientific problems; to point out that the cognitive content of science is shaped by and has its characteristic patterns of knowledge and ignorance precisely because of problem choices; and to argue that different interests produce not just different pieces of the puzzle of nature’s regularities and their underlying causal tendencies, but fundamentally incompatible knowledge claims.”

Let us take this one step at a time. Certainly, there need be nothing controversial in the first statement, nor in the related suggestion that scientific theorising is both enabled and constrained by the cultural resources available in a particular time and place – that each culture has a different conceptual toolbox, in Harding’s nice term. The second does not seem worth arguing about in the sense that, whether or not you call it part of science, scientific problem choice is clearly important in precisely the way suggested. Even the proposal that different interests produce fundamentally incompatible knowledge claims would probably not raise Haack’s hackles. But she would undoubtedly respond that, if so, one (or both) of the claims is wrong .

Does Harding deny this? Frankly, it is hard to tell. Some of the time, she seems to come close. Yet she also insists repeatedly that some versions of nature’s order are better than others, and that “in many respects modern sciences obviously are much more powerful cognitively and politically than older European knowledge systems and than the knowledge systems of other cultures”. If we leave aside that “politically”, this seems to say that modern sciences know more than what went before. And if they inevitably bear the imprint of their local origins, Harding does not then establish that they contain no universally valid knowledge. While the conditions for successful inquiry may be studied historically, denying that we can ever transcend local knowledges simply defines one of the most interesting problems in understanding science as a non-problem. There may not be a satisfactory answer to how science ever achieves this improbable feat – and Haack’s own favourite metaphor of the crossword puzzle, while helpful, is not the complete answer either – but it seems a shame to stop trying.

Nor does Harding’s unswerving commitment to emancipatory politics entail this position. Why not settle for the idea, which her evidence strongly supports, that if there is universal knowledge, it is always necessarily complemented (though not necessarily contradicted) by local knowledges – where local is a shorthand for all kinds of positions outside “official” science? Thus Aids patients know things that doctors designing clinical trials do not, third world farmers know things that western agricultural or environmental scientists do not, and so on.

This is a useful thing to know, but it will not solve all the world’s problems. We are left with scope for optimism or pessimism of the same kinds as those seen in a notable earlier dispute about science – between J. B. S. Haldane and Bertrand Russell in the 1920s. Haldane, the optimist, argued that applied science amplifies injustices until they are too terrible to be borne. Russell, mindful that knowledge is power, thought that it always gives some people power over others. Harding would dearly love to find ways of elaborating knowledge that do not confirm Russell’s view. In fact, she turns out to be doing the opposite of what Haack would claim. She is not trying to resolve epistemological issues politically, but to resolve political issues epistemologically. I think this is unhelpful, but it is not the crime against the academy that Haack alleges. (1999)

P.S. The redoubtable Paul Gross was one of two letter writers who chided me for this piece. As he concluded,

Only an adept of the favoured kind of science studies, convinced to the marrow that “science is social”, could find these two on common ground.

Well, maybe so.

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