Handbags and the History of Science: ‘Higher Superstition’

A large, thinly-carpeted space populated with low soft chairs, everything in shades of faded green, lit through slightly grimy windows. In one corner sprawl the loud student elite, boys mixing with girls – the latter a special, even awesome presence, parachuted fully-formed at 16 into the stuffy, Lynx-and-B.O. infested classrooms of an otherwise all-boys institution. In another corner, fraying ponytails draped over bulky, barcode-striped blazers, stand small clusters of girls too shy or too savvy (or possibly too confidence-drained by their appalling apparel) to mix with the opposite sex. The rest of the room is home to mostly male collectives formed around shared obsessions – guitars, films, soft drugs, role-playing games, the state of their virginities. All of this is sharply defined: groups scornful and uncomprehending of one another, the whole thing largely unchanging across two years of semi-adulthood.

Higher Superstition (1994)

Such was my old sixth-form common room. And if you can picture it in your head for a moment, you have before you in microcosm the vision of university academia that came through in the 1994 book Higher Superstition: the Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Different departments and disciplines sharing a common space, but little else. To the outside world a single institution, but on the inside a constellation of barely compatible independent elements.

Higher Superstition functioned in its day as a large-ish paperback-shaped missile, hurled from one corner of this imaginary common room by a group of scientists (trajectory and aerodynamics impeccably calculated) at a bunch of preening, pseudo-Marxist shysters in languorous pursuit of that self-aggrandising work avoidance scheme they call the ‘Humanities and Social Sciences’.

I’d like to finish off TBP’s science series by looking at this book across three blog posts, spread over the next fortnight, because it says a lot about where academic and public debates about science have gone in parts of the English-speaking world over the past generation, especially in the US, and where they might be heading in the UK. These debates have to do with what we think science really is, how it’s pursued in the real world, and what everyone from schoolchildren to the adult general public ought to know about it.

Higher Superstition came out at a time when opinion and feeling clashed so powerfully that people talked about the ‘Science Wars’ in the US – connected with their polarising conservative-vs-liberal ‘Culture Wars’. Happily, the UK doesn’t appear to do ‘wars’ of this sort. But in the news, media, and university life there’s no shortage of grudge and antagonism: over popular scientific literacy – whether you can consider yourself ‘cultured’ if you know your Plato but not your Planck; over the shortage of scientists in Parliament, and the manipulation or ignorance of scientific evidence when it comes to policy-making; and over the persistence of allegedly ‘unscientific’ modes of thought or behaviour – everything from religion to homeopathy. Cuts in UK academic budgets since 2010 and the re-thinking of university funding have helped to heat up related debates amongst journalists and academics. And more and more, scientists and right-thinking comedians find themselves arm in arm, from The Infinite Monkey Cage to Mitchell & Webb:

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Higher Superstition focuses its fire on what goes on within the walls of the university: amongst students but mostly amongst certain sorts of academics in the humanities and social sciences – the ‘Academic Left’ of the book’s subtitle.

The essence of an Engineering degree

Where students are concerned, there’s long been a vague antagonism between science types and literary types. One of the first friends I made at university as a new undergrad in 1996 was an engineering student. I was shocked to hear about his 9-to-5 lecture and lab-work commitments – had he missed the point of being at university? I vaguely imagined him milling around a lab in white coat and goggles, hammering away at a giant Meccano set, day in day out.

For his part, he thought history was a joke degree, full of silly pontificating followed by last-minute winging it to fulfil a ludicrously light one-essay-per-week requirement – it was well known that the easiest means of meeting tutors’ eternal demands for ‘originality’ was to keep mere historiographical convention at bay by not reading any books.

More recently, as a tutor, I hear about my students’ friends and flatmates in science or engineering degrees, who see history, religion, and psychology all as utterly useless. Faced with the notion of combining these by studying the history of religion and psychology they don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

The essence of a History degree

But the main targets of Higher Superstition are the academics, and particularly sociologists, anthropologists, and historians engaged in a new-ish field of research called ‘Science and Technology Studies’, or STS for short. True to the common-room imagery, the book’s writers – Paul R. Gross (a biologist) and Norman Levitt (a mathematician, who passed away in 2009) – pick out four groups in particular (while allowing for some overlap) within STS: Marxists, feminists, multiculturalists, and environmentalists.

Such people, claim Gross and Levitt (let me call them GL, for simplicity’s sake), have failed to pursue their agendas via politics, and have instead stormed the rather less challenging barricades of university academia, setting up shop abusing scientists for being bourgeois, chauvinistic, naively obsessed with ‘facts’, and generally tone-deaf both to cultural diversity and to the beauty and moral value of unmolested ‘nature’. GL take care of each of these Leftie constituencies – more or less in the mafia sense of ‘take care of’ – in separate chapters throughout the book.

Although Higher Superstition was trashed pretty severely in many quarters, scientific and non-scientific alike, GL’s anger about the academic left was nevertheless representative of a fair-sized constituency in university science, concerned about what they saw as the arrogance and preposterousness of fashionable, under-informed, and self-legitimizing critiques of science.

Bruno Latour: French AND a sociologist...

GL have three central concerns. Firstly, STS seems to them to be about challenging the substantial reality and universal validity of what science does: science is viewed not so much as an ever-expanding account of what there is in the world, and how it all works, but merely as a language, a set of concepts, invented by human beings in particular times and places. As such, these concepts have only a tenuous correspondence – or perhaps no correspondence at all – with the way material reality actually is.

Secondly, they see STS people going about this devastating critique with a distinctly holier-than-thou attitude: a combination of the long-standing cultural superiority of the literary over the technical (rightly or wrongly) and – as GL put it, in characteristically cantankerous prose – ‘the moral authority with which the academic left emphatically credits itself’. Worse, this attitude is expressed in the infuriating ‘verbal tinsel’ characteristic of postmodernism, of sociologists, and of French intellectuals (in GL’s prose, ‘Gallic’ becomes a byword for mischievous obfuscation).

Finally, leftie academics have a thoroughly inadequate understanding of basic scientific subject matter: ingeniously, their claims about science are so lofty and ethereal that they manage to denigrate science and scientists by undermining the latter’s claims to specialist expertise rather than engaging head-on with that expertise in its own terms. Put these things together, and you have the gist of the book’s argument: Leftie humanities types, with a penchant for moralizing and meaningless jargon, are threatening the life of universities, western democracy, and the human species at large with their nonsensical wittering about science and scientists.

Over the next two posts I’ll take a look at these three concerns, and ask what STS academics say they are up to and where they see GL as having misunderstood their take on science. In the meantime, where GL can sometimes be angry and unpleasantly ad hominem, this brilliantly tongue-in-cheek Postmodernism Generator gives you a sense of the lighter side of the Science Wars: a brand new postmodernist essay every time you hit the ‘refresh’ button on your browser…

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