Village Voice reviews Sokal-Bricmont

Frances Bolton (PHI) fbolton at
Sun Dec 6 07:52:03 PST 1998

On Sat, 5 Dec 1998, Rakesh Bhandari wrote:
> There is a whole history of how the critique of science has been
> substituted for the critique of bourgeois society or how the denigration of
> science is understood as an attack on the highest form bourgeois society
> and thus a root and branch critique of it(from Croce to Marcuse?) To me
> this is what is at the heart of the debate, not the division between
> equally idealized and mythified Old and New Lefts (the substitution of
> science for bourgeois society as the object of critique goes back much
> further than the New Left--well at least back to Martin Heidegger?)
Heidegger critiques technology, not science. I'm not entirely sure of whom you are writing regarding the substitution of science critique for social critique. If we can break the science critics down into cultural and political, you must be referring to the former? I'd put in this camp the anthropolgists of science & technology (LAtour, Traweek, Bijker, Pickering). You're right in that they are interested in the culture in which science "happens." But all of them have also spent substantial amounts of time "in the field" and they've done pretty detailed studies of the particular "scientific tribes" they visted.

(BTW, who is Croce?)

Personally, I am more sympathetic to the political critics of science and tech., who make connections between S & T, capital, and political power.I am particularly partial to the early 70s science for the people folks who out out two fine volumes--*The Political Economy of Science* and *The Radicaliszation of Science*--(edited by Rose & Rose). Their contributors always connected science and capital, arguing that capital created the conditions within which corporate science could take place. The folks doing this stuff today don't offer *as* incisive a critique--I can't think of any Marxists who do this stuff (as Marxists)

> At any rate, to the extent this substitution has been made and positivism,
> empiricism, science, reason, verification, and objectivity have become
> dirtier words than wage labor, capital and the state (note how Lott
> capitalizes the former kind of words as if such a juvenille act constitutes
> a criticism), then it is farcical that these critics don't even understand
> the science they have made the focal point of their attack.

Well, I think there is important critique to be done apart from critique of capital. Feminist biologists have done really important work unconvering masculinist biases in research programs, feminist philosophers of science and epistemologists have done the same. If taken seriously, such critique would strengthen rather than destroy (strong word) science & technology.

Nor do we seem
> to be keeping clear the distinction between a critique of science and the
> critique of technology; of course Aronowitz does refer to techno-science as
> his object of critique (and I do think there is a lot of value in his book
> The Jobless Future--here I may disagree with Doug).
Who is "we"? There is a rather substantial literature out there which addresses this question...Aronowitz's book on this is, I think, undistinguished. I'm sort of familiar with the literature, and I don't think this conflation is a real problem.

> But why isn't anyone getting mad at the "anti science" left professors for
> having taken critical intellectual work down this path and built academic
> centers for it (no doubt at the expense of other kinds of criticism and
> centers) and absorbed critical graduate students into them and then
> jeopardizing the whole venture--as well as the integrity,if not the
> careers, of their own graduate students--by a profound ignorance in the
> very field on which they *decided* to concentrate?
Once again, i think you're mischaracterizing the project of science critique, but I'd like to know to whom you're referring as "anti science". Again, I refer you to Traweek, Pickering et al.

> ((SNIP)) The sad truth is simply that the
> left is as responsible for the weakness of oppositional thought and
> politics as the right.
> At any rate, if by showing up their scientific ignorance Sokal can
> stimulate a debate about whether the left should go on identifying or
> collapsing these forms of critique of science and bourgeois society or
> science and technology or even stimulating more rigorous critiques of
> science, then I think the enduring effect will have been salubrious.
Again, Sokal admits that much of stuff he criticizes is not central to the projects of the theorists he looks at (other than Latour). Again, he isn't taking on the serious science critics (unless he has a chpt. on Harding). Lacan and Irigaray might be important, but not in science studies. Does Sokal take on Longino, Fuller, Ihde, etc...? They (among others) are the folks doing the real work. Incidentally, Lewontin or Levins, can't remember which (I am pre-coffee at the moment) takes on Gross & Levitt for a rematch in the Dec. 3 New York Review of Books--I think it's a carryover from the last issue.

> I offer my apologies once again. And since I have been unable to download
> your Science and Society review of Lifelines, I will track down the hard
> copy so I know what the real Frances Bolton thinks.
Apology accepted, of course. Shoot, I had told you I would fax that to you, didn't I. I don't think the thing is published yet, so let me try to get it to you the end of the next week. I liked *Lifelines* but I thought Rose was a bit coy about his own ideological commitments. That would be ok, but he's criticizing the ultra-Darwinists for their own ideological commitments. But, damn, his science is elegant.


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