Friday, October 14, 2005

Teaching Anti-Science: "Intelligent Design" and Postmodernism

As noted in an earlier post, the New England Journal of Medicine last week featured a commentary by Robert S Schwartz that worried that the "anti-science movement" of "intelligent design" would soon infect medical schools. [Schwartz RS. Faith healers and physicians - teaching pseudoscience by mandate. N Engl J Med 2005; 353: 1437-1439.]
Schwartz wrote:

the movement to teach intelligent design has spread from school houses to college campuses and university postgraduate programs. I fear that it will soon reach medical schools.
Some might ask why physicians should care about how we educate our children, and what difference it would make if we taught children intelligent design as a counterweight to evolution.... But acquiescing to this anti-science movement would have far-reaching consequences for the development of future generations of physicians, for the likelihood of discovering new therapies, and for understanding health and disease.
I agree with Schwartz that we should worry about students being taught anti-science in K-12 education, college, and graduate school. But if we should worry about the prospects of students being taught "intelligent design," maybe we should worry even more about them being taught post-modernism. After all, intelligent design has not been introduced into many curricula, yet postmodernism now dominates the humanities, and sometimes the social sciences at our most prominent universities.
Epstein provided a useful summary of postmodernism, shorthand for "the amalgam of postmodernism, poststructuralist theory, deconstruction, and political moralism, ... [which] has come to hold sway in large areas of academia." Postmodernism "has its origins in the writing of a group of French intellectuals of the 60s, most preeminently Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Francois Lyotard." "Postmodernism rejected aspects of the structuralism legacy, particularly its emphasis on the stability of social structures but retained its focus on language, the view that language provides the categories that shape self, society. This could be extended to the view that all reality is shaped by language; it could suggest that language is real, everything else, constructed or derived from it." "In the latter part of the 70s, many young people whose center of attention was shifting from the movements of the 60s to intellectual work, often in the academy, were avidly reading Foucault. Many were also reading other French intellectuals, including French feminists such as Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, the eclectic theorists of society and psychology, Gilles DeLeuze and Felix Guattari, the Marxist structuralist, Louis Althusser, the psychoanalytic structuralis, Jacques Lacan. Through the works of these writers and the debates in which their work was embedded, the poststructuralist ideas that had come to dominate French radical intellectual circles in the late 60s and 70s filtered into parallel intellectual circles in the U.S." So, "there are many academic departments and programs that associate themselves with progressive politics in which the subculture of postmodernism holds sway. This is especially the case in interdisciplinary programs, especially those in the humanities; postmodernism is most likely to be the dominant perspective if the institution is relatively prestigious and if the faculty has been hired since the 60s."[1]
In the central core of postmodernism are radical skepticism about the existence of external reality, and the notion that all truth is socially constructed. For example, postmodernism has been described as questioning "the fundamental philosophical and political premises of the West. It argues that many of the concepts we take for granted - including truth, morality, and objectivity - are culturally 'constructed.'"[2] Lyotard has suggested that postmodernism is a "disbelief in metarecits, or philosophical metanarratives, such as 'Science' and 'Truth'...." So, "everything is contingently good or bad or true or false."[3]
Postmodernist extreme relativism is antithetical to science. As Epstein stated, "because all perception of reality is mediated, because what we regard as reality is perceived through discourse, there is no truth, there are only truth claims. Since there is nothing against which these claims can be measured, they all have the same standing."[1]
Some postmodernists may be frankly hostile to science. Thus in the same issue of Social Text that contained Sokal's famous parody of post-modernist writing about science,[4] Levins wrote, "Modern European/ North American science is a product of the capitalist revolution." "Like bourgeois liberalism in general, it is both liberated and dehumanized. It proclaimed universal ideals that it did not quite mean, violated them in practice, and sometimes revealed those ideals to be oppressive even in theory."[5]
Other postmodernists have challenged fundamental aspects of science education. They have suggested "that students be explicitly disabused of any ideas they might have picked up about the epistemic desirability of reproducible experiments, controlling variables, statistical analysis, and all the other methodological staples of modern science."[6]
Postmodernists have more specifically challenged biomedical science, and its methodological basis. Levins wrote, "We can approach the dominant modalities of chemical therapy in medicine and farming as expressions of the commoditization of knowledge by the chemical industry."[5] Berkwits argued that "the preeminence of clinical epidemiologic research in medicine derives not from its ability to reveal the truth about clinical phenomena, but from an agreement within the medical community for a variety of reasons that it will grant greater authority to statistical expressions of evidence over others." So, the randomized clinical trial (RCT) has achieved its favored status is not that it more likely to produce results that approximate the truth than can other research designs, but because it "emerged from social circumstances to become its own standard of objectivity." So, "in this way, a method which initially served pragmatic social purposes became a self-authenticating criterion for objective clinical truths."[7] Similarly, Kaptchuk argued "In a self-authenticating manner, the double-blind RCT became the instrument to prove its own self-created value system."[8]
Finally, postmodernism undermines logical and rational thinking which is the foundation of science. As Gergen put it, "the texts of postmodernism find the concept of individual rationality deeply problematic, if not oppressive, in its function."[9] Then consider the argument by Social Text editor Bruce Robbins, "truth can be another source of oppression. It was not so long ago that scientists gave their full authority to explanations of why women and African-Americans (not to speak of gays and lesbians) were inherently inferior or pathological or both. Explanations like these continue to appear in newer and subtler forms. Hence there is a need for a social constructionist critique of knowledge."[10] Thus Robbins argued that because some people may say false things, there is no such thing as truth. As Sokal said, "this error is, unfortunately, repeated throughout Robbins' essay: he systematically confuses truth with claims of truth, fact with assertions of fact, and knowledge with pretensions to knowledge." [11] Bouveresse suggested that the tactics of postmodernists include: "start again by making a flamboyant assertion that is either illogical or unsupported by evidence: then, when challenged, pose as a victim and accuse your opponents of being 'flies de la pensee,' [thought cops], 'gendarmes,' and 'censeurs' [censors]." So that "when criticisms, even the most well-founded ones, are directed against intellectuals [postmodernists] of a certain stature, they are considered ipso facto prosecutorial and inquisitorial...."[12]
Anyone with doubts about the reach of postmodernism should look at the descriptions of humanities courses at nearly any highly ranked US college or university.
Schwartz suggested that "leaders of professional societies and prominent academicians should start speaking up" about the prospect that intelligent design may be taught in schools and colleges. In the 1990's, they should have spoken up about post-modernism. A few in the physical sciences and mathematics, such as Alan Sokal and Norman Levitt begin objecting to post-modernism then. It's time for leaders in the health sciences to catch up.

1. Epstein B. Postmodernism and the left. New Politics, 1997; 6.[link]
2. Rothstein E. Attacks on the U.S. challenge the perspectives of postmodern true believers. New York Times, September 22, 2001.
3. Sarchett BW. What's all this fuss about this postmodernist stuff? In Arthur J, Shapiro A, ed. Campus Wars: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. Pp. 19-28.
4. Sokal A. Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Social Text 1996; 46/47: 217-252. [link]
5. Levins R. Ten propositions on science and antiscience. Social Text 1996; 14: 101-110.
6. Koertge N. Postmodernisms and the problem of science literacy. In Koertge N, editor. A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. 257-271.
7. Berkwits M. From practice to research: the case for criticism in an age of evidence. Soc Sci Med 1998; 47: 1539-1545.
8. Kaptchuk TJ. Powerful placebo: the dark side of the randomised controlled trial. Lancet 1998; 351: 1722-1725.
9. Gergen KJ. Psychological science in a postmodern context. Am Psychologist 2001; 56: 803-813.
10. Robbins B. Anatomy of a hoax. Tikkun 1996; 11: 58-59.
11. Sokal A. A plea for reason, evidence, and logic. New Politics 1997; 6: 126-129. [link]
12. Bricmont J, Sokal A. Modesty, rigor and irony: some remarks on Prodiges et Vertiges de L'analogie: De L'abius des Belles Lettres dans la Pensee by Jacques Bouveresse. Agone 2000; 24: 115-122.[link]


Anonymous said...

The notion that postmodernism is taking over the university is probably overplayed. Brian Leiter has re-posted his comment on this recently at

Roy M. Poses MD said...

But Leiter only addressed "traditional" departments. In my experience, post-modernism has made the greatest inroads into the newer, non-traditional departments, whihc often have a name that includes "Studies," e.g., here at Brown, Africana Studies, French Studies, Gender Studies.
Of course, both Leiter and I are only talking about personal experience. There is a dearth of quantitative, social and behavioral science data about post-modernism and its effects. One would almost think that social scientists are afraid to study it (perhaps because post-modernists are not known to shy away from ad hominem attacks on those who criticize them).
The only study I know is Losing the Big Picture, on English Departments, by the National Asssociation of Scholars (

Anonymous said...

You should read Michael Berube's blog. He's definitely po-mo, but not anti-science.