Is the Academic Left at War with Science and Reason?
Why do so many university sociologists of the New Left claim science is in fact “bourgeois science”? Is there a communist science, a socialist science? Is science a social product, “a mere set of conventions generated by social practice” and prevailing social prejudice as postmodernist academics assert? How do all those equations describing the laws of nature and the devices built from them work if that were true? What do the postmodernists know that scientists and engineers don’t? Are the Cultural Studies professors correct in declaring that science is racist because imprinted on its demography is society’s failure to educate inner city minorities? It is true that few inner-city minorities are found in the sciences. Why do feminist theorists see science — and, yes, even those mathematical equations — as corrupted with masculinity, gender, and sexuality bias? Do those mathematical descriptions of nature and the laws of physics not function in the Women’s Studies classroom? Is there a feminist science, a queer science? Is science bigoted because of its Eurocentric, white male origins, incapable of perceiving a full range of cultural perspectives as though there might be an Asian science, an African science? Perhaps there’s a science for every ethnicity and gender — a White science, a Black science, an L-science, G-science, B-science, T-science. For full equity, inclusion, and due diversity, should everyone have a science of their own? Free Choice Science, perhaps.
To those in the sciences and engineering these sound like products of the conspiracy theory industrial complex. “There is something medieval about it,” writes professors Gross and Levitt, “in spite of the hypermodern language in which it is nowadays couched… irrationality is courted and proclaimed with pride. All the more shocking is the fact that this challenge comes from a quarter that views itself as fearlessly progressive.”
But really? Are there members of the academic left who are anti-rational? Anti-science?
University of Virginia biologist Paul R. Gross and Rutgers University mathematician and self-described liberal Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition delineates how the New Left — led by the academic left — is no less hostile to science than the New Right. While the New Left chooses different aspects of science to oppose, it has nonetheless created a church dogma, engaging in propaganda to attack science that threatens the New Creed. While the New Right has FOX, talk radio, and QAnon on the Internet, the New Left has the university humanities departments which publish to spread the virus of postmodernism, get interviewed and quoted by media, and still garner respect by their proximity to the hard sciences, engineering, and medical departments on campus.
While reason was intentionally untethered from creed during the Enlightenment in its search for truth and as a response to dogmatism of the scholastics who forced a narrow conformity to the Bible and Aristotle, creed has returned to half of the Academy. It took a century for the development of Enlightenment reason and its attempt to apply the scientific method to human affairs before scholasticism was dethroned. Not by force or politics, but by the success of Enlightenment’s great ideas. Ideas in the arena of human freedom of conscience, freedom from institutionalized abuse, with ideas in trade and commerce that enriched growing numbers of people. Now, politics is being used to attack Enlightenment and it’s not coming only from the right.
Like the New Right, the New Left desires to unify all in like-minded accordance with their tribe under politically correct authoritarianism, but the target of their retribution is different. For the New Right, science is an accomplice to truth and thus a threat to dogma and conspiracy theories that garner power over the credulous. For the New Left, science is an accomplice of Western civilization. They have a gullible audience too: teenagers away from home, fresh in the college classroom, and a national populous, including many with non-technical college degrees who know as much about science as its New Left assailants. The New Left reviles science “as an ideological prop of the present order, which many of them despise and hope to abolish,” writes Gross and Levitt. The time is past “to get even with the West” for the ills it committed through its march to capitalistic, militaristic (the two are a matched set), and cultural imperialism that other cultures want to emulate simply by the glitz of its success. It’s little wonder that so much of the academic left’s attack uses Marxist tropes. The New Left’s hope is “to demystify science, to undermine its epistemic authority, and to valorize ‘ways of knowing’ incompatible with it.” The way Berkely professor Paul Feyerabend elevated voodoo, witchcraft, and astrology as equal or superior to science. Anyone who attacks science with a “view to vindicating the oppressed, no matter how quixotic the method, is seen to be fighting the good fight.”
Reporting from within the Ivory Tower, Gross and Levitt show that never in all the assault journals, books, and university courses in postmodernist humanities do we find critiques with a working knowledge of science. The academic left feels justified in bypassing the grimy prerequisites of discovering how science seeks what it seeks, knows what it knows, and validates itself through the success of its predictions and technologies built by it. It is the academic left’s self-pronounced moral authority that makes their critiques valid — to them. “Thus we encounter books that pontificate about the intellectual crisis of contemporary physics, whose authors have never troubled themselves with a simple problem in statistics; essays that make knowing reference to chaos theory, from writers who could not recognize, much less solve, a first-order linear differential equation; tirades about the semiotic tyranny of DNA and molecular biology, from scholars who have never been inside a real laboratory, or asked how the drug they take lowers their blood pressure.” All manifestations, Gross and Levitt note, of an intellectual debility afflicting the modern university. One that attempts to conceal not only ignorance of science through diversion but an abject weakness of fact and logic. Surrender of the intellectual high ground for nurtured ignorance is not only a professional pursuit of Trump’s inner circle of favored constitutional lawyers and advisors, proven liars by the House January 6 Committee. Science has no such defender on campus where postmodernist professors assert any wild notion, teach any conspiracy, support any bigotry or bias under protection of absolutist academic freedom, much as the New Right wants absolutist free speech to spread lies unhindered.
Beside the polemics are scores to be settled by a longstanding incentive as potent as the demotion of religion since Newton: jealousy. The colossal success of science has made those in the postmodernist humanities seethe in their irrelevance, as bitter as any young earth creationist. The “hard sciences produce reliable knowledge, assembled into coherent theories,” writes Gross and Levitt. “The more theoretical the social ‘sciences’ are, the less respect they get…subjective beyond hope of redemption, thus outside of the running for the epistemological sweepstakes.” Sad. While the hard sciences, engineering, and medicine chug along with headline grabbing discoveries, seizing annual grants in the collective billions of dollars. Such advances in knowledge spill over into lifesaving cures for COVID-19 or Webb’s imagery plucked from the edge of our universe, while New Left academics huddle in their towers depleted of ivory with catchpenny titles declaring their status.
Which is not to say postmodernist academics have no impact. While the expansion of knowledge is no longer their thing, politics is. The academic left at university are headquarters for influence and correct thinking every bit as much as Breitbart is for the New Right. “In terms of their relations with this country’s formal institutions of higher education…left-wing thinkers have never enjoyed anything remotely close to the current hospitality,” say Gross and Levitt. “Prestige-laden departments in the humanities and the social ‘sciences’ are thickly populated — in some well-known cases, we might say ‘dominated’ — by radical thinkers. Despite all protestations to the contrary, entire programs — women’s studies, African studies, cultural studies — demand, de facto, at least a rough allegiance to a leftist perspective as a qualification for membership in the faculty.” But for those remaining holdouts of the old school, the humanities are no longer inhabited by humanists. As Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut make clear in their French Philosophy of the Sixties, the university humanities are now home to extremists and their “antihumanist position.” But it’s not only the departments that have been debased. “Administrators who are also prominent left-wing figures are no longer anomalous,” write Gross and Levitt. “Often, when administrators take official positions on social issues — particularly those involving race, ethnicity, and gender questions — the tone, and the jargon as well, is indistinguishable from the militant left.” Naturally, valid academic disciplines are now being pressured to conform to the diversity of surface features, not substance, in hiring and student admissions. While the postmodernist humanities dismiss the pursuit of knowable things in other valid departments (after all, “all knowledge is relative,” including that produced by those who make this claim?), the administrators, however, are less vociferous in this regard because they know where the money comes from, and they very much adore those million-dollar chairs.
Gross and Levitt won’t make any friends in the humanities because they are humanists. They wish for the elevation of all by what all have the power to participate in: reason. Their inclusion does not exclude everyone but select victims. They oppose militant segregation of feminist theorists, identity politics, the polite sounding bigotry of multiculturalism in their application to the debasing of science. In short, they are for truth, not tribe, which of course makes them a threat to both left and right.
Paragraph 1: “a mere set…” Paul R. Gros, Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, John Hopkins University Press, 1998, p. 11
Paragraph 2: “There is something…” Ibid. p. 3
Paragraph 6: “as an ideological…” Ibid. p. 3. “to demystify…” Ibid. p. 11, italics in the original. “view to…” Ibid. p. 11
Paragraph 7: “Thus we…” Ibid. p. 6
Paragraph 9: “In terms…” Ibid. p. 34, inner quotes added. Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, p. xxiii. “Often, when…” Gross and Levitt, p. 34