Postmodernism and the “Science Wars”

Larry Gilman. Scientific Thought: In Context. Editor: K Lee Lerner & Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Volume 2, Gale, 2009.


In the second half of the twentieth century, a loosely-defined school of thought termed “postmodernism” gained many adherents in some university departments, especially those devoted to the non-scientific study of culture. Postmodernism is a style of thought that tends to reject the belief that any qualities possessed by human beings are inherent in their nature (an idea that postmodernists call “essentialism”). It also emphasizes that all belief systems, including science, are profoundly shaped by relationships of “power,” namely, the power held by some human beings over others.

Some extremist postmodernists have suggested that science is a construct shaped entirely by power relationships, rather than a system of statements about a real physical world that is equally valid everywhere and at all times. In this view’s most extreme form, DNA, gravity, and other entities discussed by science are not real, but are arbitrary products of a predominantly white, European, male subculture. Many scientists have reacted angrily to such claims.

Starting in 1996, the debate between scientists and postmodernists received a burst of public attention when American physicist Alan Sokal (1955-) published a lengthy, fake article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the postmodernist journal Social Text. Sokal wrote deliberate nonsense dressed up in postmodern jargon to prove that it could be published as serious postmodernist scholarship. When the editors found out that they had been fooled by Sokal, they accused him of unethical deception and argued that he did not understand the ideas he was criticizing.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Modernism is a style of thought, closely associated with art, literature, and architecture, that arose and flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Modernists tended to assume that ongoing improvement of the human condition (“progress”) was possible through logical thought, applied science, and the construction of rational, unornamented buildings. Following World War II (1939-1945), with its large-scale proof that progress is anything but inevitable—two of the most culturally and scientifically advanced countries on Earth, Germany and Japan, had shown themselves capable of savagery on a global scale, resulting in scores of millions of deaths—many thinkers reacted against the simple storyline assumed by modernism. In the 1950s, this reaction fed the movement known as existentialism. In the 1960s, many young thinkers and radicals in Western countries tended to reject the culture of the Establishment (the way of life and thought associated with the dominant military-political-cultural order), which included mainstream science. Starting around 1970, these tendencies took new form in the intellectual movement called postmodernism.

Postmodernist thinkers were at first concerned mostly with literature, but soon extended their criticism to all forms of culture, including beliefs about morals, gender, and science. Postmodernism’s central assertion was that there is no such thing as “truth”: all beliefs are constructs and might have been constructed differently. In 1975, Austrian-American philosopher Paul Feyera-bend (1924-1994) published Against Method, the first major work to extend the postmodernist critique to scientific thought itself, particularly the scientific method. Some of Feyerabend’s claims—such as that working scientists do not, in fact, always operate according to some rigid recipe for producing new knowledge—are now commonplace among philosophers and sociologists of science; other claims, however, seemed to call the validity of science itself into question. For example, in his concluding chapter Feyerabend wrote that science is dominant because scientists have “the power to enforce their wishes … just as their ancestors used their power to force Christianity on the peoples they encountered during their conquests. Thus, while an American can now choose the religion he likes, he is still not permitted to demand that his children learn magic rather than science at school.”

By the early 1990s, a number of postmodern theorists had made pronouncements about science that struck scientists as outrageous. For example, in 1990, Mark and Deborah Madsen wrote that to be postmodern, science must be “free from any dependence on the concept of objective truth” (Madsen and Madsen, 1990). Scientists responded that this sort of thing was nonsense, and the “science wars,” as the dispute was quickly dubbed, were on.

In 1996, a prominent postmodernist journal of culture studies, Social Text, announced that it would publish a special issue entitled “Science Wars” that would be devoted to the postmodernist view of science. One physicist, Alan Sokal (1955-), convinced that the more extreme postmodern views of science were meaningless, decided to submit a learned-sounding article full of deliberate nonsense. If the journal published the article, Sokal reasoned, it would prove that at least some prominent postmodernists could not tell the difference between sense and nonsense.

The article was accepted by Social Text and published. In it, Sokal pretended to argue for the extreme postmodern position that “physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct, [and] that scientific ‘knowledge,’ far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it.” Toward the end of the article, Sokal asserted that the content of science must be controlled by leftist or progressive political strategies in order to become “liberatory.”

As Sokal himself described his parody article in the issue of Lingua Franca, released at the same time as the Social Text special issue on the “Science Wars,” “[n]owhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought: one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.”

Although scholars targeted by Sokal’s attack were politically left-wing, he emphasized in Lingua Franca that he was not attacking left-wing politics as such: quite the opposite. He said that he considered himself a leftist or socialist and was grieved that postmodernists were undermining any possibility of radical social change by undermining the idea of an objective, real world about which it is possible to learn and which it is possible to change. His goal, he said, was “to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself.”

Sokal’s act of intellectual guerrilla warfare received huge publicity, being covered by major newspapers in several countries. Dozens of editorials and letters to the editor followed, along with TV and radio appearances by persons with pro and con opinions. Although there is no way to measure the effect of such an event on intellectual trends, it is likely that the influence of the postmodern critique of science was diminished by the Sokal affair.

Defenders of postmodernism and Social Text argued that Sokal had acted unethically by violating academic trust and that he did not understand the postmodern critique of science. For example, American scholar of law and literature Stanley Fish (1938-) replied in an editorial in the New York Times (May 21, 1996) that what “sociologists of science” really say is “that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc.” The co-editors of Social Text wrote in a letter to the same paper that “disbelief in the existence of the physical universe” was of course “nonsense,” and that what they really advocated was “questioning … the scientific community’s abuses of authority, its priestly organization and lack of accountability to the public” (May 23, 1996).

However, such defenses avoided mention of the many bizarre-sounding attacks on the idea of physical reality that Sokal had quoted from postmodernist literature. Instead, they fell back on defending an uncontroversial idea from mainstream sociology and science studies: the view that all knowledge is “socially constructed,” namely, discovered or invented and then learned by human beings, who are always embedded in networks of human relationships (societies). However, Sokal was not attacking that view, which is accepted by most scientists. When mainstream sociologists say that a belief is “socially constructed,” they do not mean that the belief is necessarily arbitrary or unreal: for example, we must be taught arithmetic socially (by other people), and the symbolic language we use to work arithmetic might have been constructed any number of different ways, but this does not mean that 2+2 could, in some other society, equal anything but 4.

What Sokal claimed was that postmodernism (not mainstream sociology) had reduced itself to chronic nonsense in its quest for ever-more-radical rhetoric. Various scholars came to Sokal’s support with horror stories of scholarly conferences where they had been asked by fellow scholars if they really “believed in DNA” (Ehrenreich and McIntosh, 1997) or of classrooms where they were scolded by students for even allowing discussion of the idea that there are innate biological differences between men and women (Epstein, 1996).

Modern Cultural Connections

After 1996 and 1997, when the Science Wars were at their public height, those who favored postmodernism continued to do so, for the most part, as those who disliked postmodernism continued in their view. Few minds were changed, as is normal in such disputes. In the early 2000s a new twist appeared, namely, the appropriation by some creationists of aspects of the postmodern view of science. Creationists are persons who deny that natural processes such as evolution can account for the existence of life, or at least for some complex structures in living things.

In 2005, in the legal case Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al., parents challenged a school-board rule that students in science classes must be read a statement calling evolution into doubt and recommending Intelligent Design (a form of creationism) as an alternative theory. At the trial, philosopher Steven Fuller (1959-) testified on behalf of the defendants from a point of view that some have characterized as postmodern. Fuller argued that Intelligent Design is scientific, not religious, and can therefore be legally taught in U.S. public-school classrooms, stating that scientific theories are socially produced and non-absolute. When asked during cross-examination, “If you contrast the higher-order claims made by evolutionary theorists with the claims made by intelligent design, do you see a comparative or a different situation with respect to testability?”, Fuller, who is not himself an Intelligent Design creationist, replied: “Well, frankly … the theoretical frameworks in which both evolutionary theory and intelligent design operate are largely both metaphysical,” that is, not testable against a definite physical reality. Some advocates of Intelligent Design, such as U.S. law professor Philip Johnson (1940-), have explicitly advocated an approach to science based on a “relativist approach to knowledge claims,” (, 2005) recalling some of the more extreme postmodern views of science.

Primary Source Connection

The following speech was delivered by Bertrand Russell, on receiving the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science, at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Headquarters on January 28, 1958. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), a prolific English philosopher, historian, and author, also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

The Divorce between Science and Culture

The modern tendency of treating science and humanities as separate specializations only started in the 19th century. Before that period, such as in the era of the Greek philosophers and the Renaissance, both fields were considered compatible and worth pursuing together by dedicated lovers of knowledge.

There was a time when scientists looked askance at attempts to make their work widely intelligible. But, in the world of the present day, such an attitude is no longer possible. The discoveries of modern science have put into the hands of governments unprecedented powers both for good and for evil. Unless the statesmen who wield these powers have at least an elementary understanding of their nature, it is scarcely likely that they will use them wisely. And, in democratic countries, it is not only statesmen, but the general public, to whom some degree of scientific understanding is necessary.

To insure wide diffusion of such understanding is by no means easy. Those who can act effectively as liaison officers between technical scientists and the public perform a work which is necessary, not only for human welfare, but even for bare survival of the human race. I think that a great deal more ought to be done in this direction in the education of those who do not intend to become scientific specialists. The Kalinga Prize is doing a great public service in encouraging those who attempt this difficult task.

In my own country, and to a lesser degree in other countries of the West, “culture” is viewed mainly, by an unfortunate impoverishment of the Renaissance tradition, as something concerned primarily with literature, history and art. A man is not considered uneducated if he knows nothing of the contributions of Galileo, Descartes and their successors. I am convinced that all higher education should involve a course in the history of science from the seventeenth century to the present day and a survey of modern scientific knowledge in so far as this can be conveyed without technicalities. While such knowledge remains confined to specialists, it is scarcely possible nowadays for nations to conduct their affairs with wisdom.

There are two very different ways of estimating any human achievement: you may estimate it by what you consider its intrinsic excellence; or you may estimate it by its causal efficiency in transforming human life and human institutions. I am not suggesting that one of these ways of estimating is preferable to the other. I am only concerned to point out that they give very different scales of importance. If Homer and Aeschylus had not existed, if Dante and Shakespeare had not written a line, if Bach and Beethoven had been silent, the daily life of most people in the present day would have been much what it is. But if Pythagoras and Galileo and James Watt had not existed, the daily life, not only of Western Europeans and Americans but of Indian, Russian and Chinese peasants, would be profoundly different from what it is. And these profound changes are still only beginning. They must affect the future even more than they have already affected the present.

At present, scientific technique advances like an army of tanks that have lost their drivers, blindly, ruthlessly, without goal or purpose. This is largely because the men who are concerned with human values and with making life worthy to be lived, are still living in imagination in the old pre-industrial world, the world that has been made familiar and comfortable by the literature of Greece and the pre-industrial achievements of the poets and artists and composers whose work we rightly admire.

The separation of science from “culture” is a modern phenomenon. Plato and Aristotle had a profound respect for what was known of science in their day. The Renaissance was as much concerned with the revival of science as with art and literature. Leonardo da Vinci devoted more of his energies to science than to painting. The Renaissance artists developed the geometrical theory of perspective. Throughout the eighteenth century a very great deal was done to diffuse understanding of the work of Newton and his contemporaries. But, from the early nineteenth century onwards, scientific concepts and scientific methods became increasingly abstruse and the attempt to make them generally intelligible came more and more to be regarded as hopeless. The modern theory and practice of nuclear physicists has made evident with dramatic suddenness that complete ignorance of the world of science is no longer compatible with survival.

Bertrand Russell. “The Divorce between Science and Culture.” UNESCO Courier. Feb 1996: 50 (1).