Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Fighting the relativist right

/ science wars / rewound /
In a piece written by Seed magazine's Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal, of Sokal Affair fame, they discuss how the torch of science relativism was passed from the Western academic "left" (or indeed left), to the rather non-academic folks in and around the White House:

"HOW AND WHY did the science wars move out of academia and reemerge in Washington, with political poles reversed? During the Clinton years, many of the worst science abusers — such as anti-evolution fundamentalists — remained politically out in the cold, at least at the federal level. That began to change in 1994, as the Gingrich Republicans, highly sympathetic to the party's emerging socially conservative 'base' and to the interests of private industry, laid claim to Congress.

They proceeded to attack evidence demonstrating a human role in climate change, all as well as in the depletion of the ozone layer as part of a sweeping attempt to undermine environmental regulation. Simultaneously, they dismantled Congress' world-renowned scientific advisory body, the Office of Technology Assessment, which had provided our elected representatives with reliable scientific counsel for more than two decades. "

The piece refers to Bruno Latour's doubts about the whole science studies field, in light of the use that some of its tools have been having (Latour being among those in "Science Studies" most mercilessly ridiculed by Sokal's and Bricmont's work). In an impressively self-critical article of his, published in 2003 (it seems) in Critical Inquiry, Latour has this to say about the kinship of modern conspiracy theories' core mentality with the kind of critique he quite rightly identifies as part of the arsenal of the science studies field:

...Let me be mean for a second: what's the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable, version of social critique inspired for instance by a too-quick reading of, let's say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu–to be polite I will stick with the French field commanders? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because "of course we all know" that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio on their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is "really" going on, in both cases again, it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we, in the academy, like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep Dark below. What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse, had outlived their usefulness, and deteriorated to the point of now feeding also the most gullible sort of critiques?8 Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but I am worried to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland, many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trade mark: MADE IN CRITICALLAND.

His are of course valid concerns: the sort of boundless social constructivism that was brought to the academic forefront during the past few decades in western universities, was indeed a rather blunt and indiscriminate tool, a weapon that obviously fit perfectly with the sort of religious and market fundamentalism, conspiratorialism and the likes that was far more a dominant feature of the modern Western societies than any sort of commitment to "scientific rationality". But, I have to add, what was obvious, was that the more vapid sort of relativism that became immensely popular in the Anglo-Saxon and French universities (mostly), was the perfect philosophy for advertisers and the PR industry - and not incidentally it was widely taught in most of the US communication schools: certainly not because of its emancipatory qualities but rather for its quite comfortable fit with the marketing ethos and the spin generation that a substantial part of corporate communications requires.

Although there is an interesting debate waiting to be had somewhere about this, let me suggest that the reason of PoMo's academic dissemination and popularity was the fact that it served as a perfect ultimate and literate philosophy for the many Pepsi generations and their consumer habits and addictions, as well as a pretentious and revered excuse and justification for bold, shameful lies.

Because of course, as someone said, it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness - and their ideological roles I might add.

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