How Did the Academic Left Become Anti-Science?

Frowning bald man with finger pointed like a gun at his head
Engin Akyurt on Unsplash

In 1986, University of Delaware (now UCLA) philosopher Sandra Harding wrote The Science Question in Feminism, a pioneering work of feminist theory still taught today in Women’s Studies courses across America. There, Harding asks what value science has to women when it “serves primarily regressive social tendencies [that are] not only sexist but also racist, classist, and culturally coercive…” For scientists, says Harding, “the best scientific activity and philosophic thinking about science are to be modeled on men’s most misogynistic relationships to women — rape, torture, [and] ‘choosing ‘mistresses…’” According to Harding, Newton’s Principia is “a rape manual.” She wants to replace it with a “unified field theory…that can account for both gender differences and dichotomized Africanist/Eurocentrist world views…able to chart ‘laws of tendency of patriarchy,’ [and] ‘laws of tendency of racism.’” For Harding, science is social work. It should have nothing to do with the study of nature, what it does or how it does it. Notice the strong resemblance of feminist theory on the left to creationism on the right, where for creationists, Darwin is responsible for every “ism”: Socialism, Communism, Stalinism. Harding is just one soldier in an army of anti-science, anti-humanist, and anti-Western civilization academics that now crowd American universities.

Not long ago, on this blog, we asked if the academic left were anti-science, anti-reason, anti-rational. A position now held by the radical right, it was surprising to find University of Virginia biologist Paul R. Gross and Rutgers University mathematician Norman Levitt’s book show us that the answer is an emphatic yes, for a sizable fraction of that demographic. Their early work stimulated a chain of other examinations and publications about the Academy — within and without — that continues to this day. All the while, the anti-science left expands its reach and power from academia to the wider public and government policy. We found a powerful element of resentment among the academic left (which fuels the New Left), the consequence of a felt devaluation in the humanities compared to the towering achievements of science, not unlike the way religion felt threatened since the time of Galileo.

For the academic left, the goal is to “demystify” science as just another opinion. Since the humanities are based on opinions — some remarkably well founded on historical, archeological, and written evidence — they are nonetheless opinions forever to be debated. Only the hard sciences provide irrefutable truth claims that can be proven, remembering that the social ‘sciences’ within the humanities are not science; they are ‘studies.’ By demoting science to an opinion, the humanities — based on opinions — can narrow the gap from high to low. But this anti-science posture is new to the humanities. The humanities of old generated philosophers and historians of world renown: from the ancients of Plato, Aristotle, and Herodotus to the more modern Rousseau, Voltaire, and Peter Gay. Though the ancients made no distinction between the humanities and science, all was philosophy, and there was no modern science of experimentation until Galileo in the 1600s.

So, what happened to the humanities that made a dominant fraction of them irrational? Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories and Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut’s French Philosophy of the Sixties, teamed with Gross and Levitt’s historical account, help trace the evolution. Gross and Levitt see this faction as having links to the emergence of explicit socialist activities of the 1880s and 1890s and, ironically, with labor struggles of the populist movement championed by William Jennings Bryan of later Scopes “Monkey Trial” fame. Unlike today’s fascist populism in the U.S. and Europe, late 19th-century populism was an agrarian and labor populism responding to abuse of the banks and industrial Robber Barons. Demands for radical social change competed with historic shocks supported by some and rejected by others in the splintering movement. Shocks like WWI, expectations for the Bolshevik Revolution, disillusionment by the Hitler-Stalin Pack, and Stalin’s purge all discouraged the program’s advance. Remaining radical hopes were then dashed by FDR’s welfare initiatives of Social Security and the 40-hour work week followed by a postwar expansion of the middle-class thanks in part to the GI Bill. Despite these setbacks, there was a lingering sense among some that Western thought was responsible for or could not stop the barbarisms of the 20th century. A replacement was needed.

Along came Vietnam. “It was the Vietnam War…that truly revivified the American left and gave it the sense that a mass constituency receptive to its views was about to coalesce,” says Gross and Levitt. A sense most pronounced on college campuses, “particularly elite schools where a tradition of intellectual independence had always been encouraged.” In a few short years, weak sectlets rallied a new generation of recruits, like SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, who went from cautious reformers to “full-blown Maoism.” Vietnam, civil rights, the riots, Kent State shootings, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations, and the counter-culture movements of drugs, the sexual revolution, and rock and roll as expressions against authority coupled outrage to promises of “liberation from the machine.” Elements within the academic left felt history was on their side; radical social change was in the offing.

With corruption, lies, and monumental mismanagement of the Vietnam War ending in 1975, the left’s assumptions of moral high ground in Third World revolutions from China to Cuba, Cambodia, and North Vietnam itself revealed themselves for what they were: monstrous atrocities. With that, “American radicalism became an ideological orphan… the surviving squad of theatricians of a nonexistent mass movement.” But not without having achieved some gains in civil rights, feminism, and labor. “Nonetheless, the radical style of the sixties left traces that persist,” write Gross and Levitt. “The campus constitutes the only environment in which recent radicalism became naturalized. Even as leftist rhetoric denounced higher education as the breeding ground for unquestioning servants of the bourgeoisie… The scholarly community was the inevitable refuge to which activism retreated as its concrete political possibilities melted away.”

Then a shift in focus occurred on the left. Without substantial and readily apparent causes to rally around, causes made apparent by actions like war and lynchings, beliefs were elevated, a new orthodoxy was born. A “sort of firm conviction associated with religious adherence,” writes Pluckrose and Lindsay. Like any religion, claims can be made for the cause of events or conditions with passion and commitment. Such claims are, however, vacant in their need for measurable, quantifiable proof upon which all practitioners of reason are compelled to agree by their observation of reality. While the old humanities required a semi-scientific method of investigation, evidence, and tacit conclusions based on that evidence, the New Left discarded this paradigm. Powered by their insecurities, disgust with consumerist society, and witness to what they saw as products of Enlightenment thought — WWI, the Great Depression, WWII — extremist liberals in the humanities prioritized feelings over analysis. They launched impassioned political polemics clothed in obscuration from the university pulpit. With the carnage of Marxism ever more apparent and its eventual collapse in the USSR, they needed a philosophic ally. But radical liberal academics rejected everything Western, including Western thinking. They didn’t want a philosophic retread. As nutty as it sounds, they wanted a kind of thinking in opposition to rational thought. Hence, the birth of postmodernism, which fit this need nicely. Infecting American universities from France in the 1960s, postmodernist aficionados accustomed “their readers and listeners to the belief that incomprehensibility is a sign of greatness and that the thinker’s silence before the incongruous demand for meaning was not proof of weakness but the indication of endurance in the presence of the Unsayable,” write Ferry and Renaut. Postmodernist pioneer Jacques Derrida called it a philosophical practice “which means nothing,” while Louis Althusser said it was “a non-philosophical theory of philosophy.”

Huh?

You can already see a problem here. Postmodernism was going to be a new way of thinking that violated the most fundamental aspect of human cognition: reason. This capacity, combined with speculation leading to innovations, all based on accurate assessments of reality outside our skull, is why such a weak-bodied, slow species with lousy eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell survived among superior predators. In the hominid line, reasoning first showed itself by the creation of Oldowan tools 2.6 million years ago in Ethiopia, perhaps as early as 3.4 mya by Australopithecus afarensis, the so-called Lucy. Postmodernism had a strong current to swim against. But it did, thanks to scientific illiteracy outside the sciences but still within the Academy, some linguistic jujitsu, and a public embrace of one of its creations as a moral pose: what became authoritarian political correctness.

Postmodernism’s hostility to Western Enlightenment modernity is wholesale, targeting not science and reason alone but all knowledge, objectivity, language, and reality itself as a mere construct of culture and power hierarchies that set the rules for what’s true. Of course, postmodernism’s project is executed via “reasoned” arguments communicated via language as “objectively” true and seen as the basis of “knowledge” in their respective “cultures” from within the university. In order to defeat reason with “reason,” postmodernism had to establish itself as self-contradictory by nature. Hence the need for obfuscation and the Unsayable. One suspects such a project would be harmless but for the sandbox of obscure departments on campus. This turned out not to be true. This makes postmodernism an urgent matter because “it radically rejects the foundations upon which today’s advanced civilizations are built and consequently has the potential to undermine them.”

So, has the postmodern academic left been able to do this, and if so, how?

Next time.

References:

Paragraph 1: “serves primarily…” Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Cornell University Press, 1986, p. 9. “the best…” Ibid. p. 112. “a rape manual.” Ibid. p. 113. “unified field…” Ibid. p. 186

Paragraph 5: “It was…” Gross & Levitt, p. 30. “full-blown…” Ibid. p. 31

Paragraph 6: “American…” Ibid. p. 32. “Nonetheless…” Ibid. pp. 32,33

Paragraph 7: “sort…” Pluckrose, Lindsay, p. 18. “their readers…” Ferry and Renaut, p. 14. “which means…” Pluckrose, Lindsay, pp. 5, 4

Paragraph 10: “it radically…” Pluckrose, Lindsay, p. 23

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Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com

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Brett Alan Williams

Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com