How go the Science Wars?

This week’s debatable relates not only to the history of science, but also to the history of the history of science, the history of philosophy of science, and the history of the sociology of science. It’s also related to the present day: I want to know what everyone thinks the current state of the ‘science wars’ is.

Remember back in the 1990’s, when there was that huge, mutli-faceted debate happening between working scientists, realists, and rationalists on the one hand, and anti-realists, skeptics, postmodernists, relativists and sociologists of science on the other?  There was a time when scientists were so angered by the things that some sociologists of science and other science critics were saying that they attacked on all fronts: many working scientists and other “anti-postmodernists” would vitriolically and categorically condemn the work of science critics as nonsense. They would associate such critics, for example at their own relatively exclusive conferences, with creationists and UFO-theorists. And perhaps most famously, in a special issue of a sociological journal meant to be an assessment and evaluation of the “Science Wars,” Alan Sokal, a trained physicist, famously published a hoaxed article made up of near-gibberish strings of fancy words, “arguing” for many conclusions about which the editors of the journal were known to be sympathetic.1

Are there places where the debate still rages? Has it migrated out of journals and the media into the popular discourse and cyberspace?2

Has a ‘propaganda war’ against science critics succeeded in quelling all resistance to uncritical images of science?

Have scientists actually taken up what is valid and worthwhile from their critics, and begun to practice their craft within a more adequate self-image?

Did everyone just get sick and tired of partaking in intractable argumentation? What happened, and where are we at?

  1. Less well known, when compared to the “Sokal Affair” is the so-called “Bogadanov Affair”, which some science critics claim demonstrates how physicists, too, can have the wool pulled over their eyes, as the editors of Social Text were when Sokal published in their special issue.
  2. We might have had that happen right here on The Bubble Chamber, when Steve Fuller, a prominent sociologist of science, commented on Mike Thicke’s review of his recent book, and what seems to be an online enemy of his retaliated with some very angry comments.


  • Dan Hicks Reply

    It’s not too hard to find rants (of greater or lesser quality) against “relativists” and “social constructivists” in the work of scientists and philosophers, and similarly against “scientism” and “objectivism” in the work of scholars of literature and culture. Still, there seems to be much less outright hostility than fifteen years ago. I realized over the course of PSA 2010, for example, that feminist philosophy of science as such is now taken quite seriously by non-feminist philosophers of science. And certainly much of the philosophical literature on science and values is much, much better than it was in the ’90s.

    Among philosophers of science, I think a lot of the credit for this goes to folks like Helen Longino, Ian Hacking, et al. — thinkers who are respected by mainstream philosophers of science (even if they’re not always “one of us”), seriously engage with work on the “other” side, and try to identify reasonable middle-ground positions on many of the Science Wars controversies.

  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    I think you’re right, Dan, that the wars have trickled out of academia, and that realist and rationalist philosophers of science have taken on many aspects of science criticism that they were once hostile to (e.g. feminist philosophy of science, though I still perceive hostility in some quarters).

    I guess I was thinking more in terms of whether that’s even considered a substantial debate to be had anymore. It seems like there was a lot of disagreement due to confusion at the outset, and I wonder if books like Kukla’s, Longino’s, Hacking’s, and Jim Brown’s on this topic at the beginning of the 21st century really quelled all the squabbling. If it’s that simple, I find it quite heartening to know that sometimes philosophical debates do reach conclusions and consensus.

    On the other hand, I suspect that there are contemporary issue that are really a continuation of the science wars debates under different titles and agendas, e.g. contemporary debates about the nature of evidence, or the epistemic value of consensus. At least the vitriol and pranks have stopped.

  • Matthew Wallace
    Matthew Wallace Reply

    I didn’t live through the science wars and, perhaps out of ignorance, haven’t read much in terms of a recent in-depth “autopsy” (“biopsy”?) of them in the same way as what has been done for scientific controversies (perhaps it is too soon or thaty historians/sociologists are not “detached” enough?). It does seem, however, that even though they may not have been resolved as such, we can identify some positions from the Science Wars that have gained mainstream acceptance and others that have all but disappeared. I would agree that a few important figures have contributed to defining a new middle ground. I also wonder if new political realities (or new perceptions of them) involving science have forced some opponents to share more common views.

    There is no question that the bitterness and the most polarized exchanges have basically vanished. But, following-up on Curtis’ last comment, I could also imagine that the Wars may have, to some extent, simply changed shape — just as they moved in the mid 1990s from areas of the sociology or philosophy of science to a broader academic (and public) sphere. To get a better sense of the debate’s trajectory, it would be interesting to take a closer look at how the language, strategies, actors and arenas of the Science Wars have evolved.

  • Rebekah Higgitt Reply

    I think Matthew makes a good point about new political realities, or perceptions of them. There are debates relating to science – climate change, evolution – on which most liberal, left, educated people are likely to come down on the same side. While historians, sociologists and philosophers of science may entertain critiques of some of the rhetoric coming from science’s spokespeople on these issues, they are perhaps likely to prefer this to the politically much more distasteful views coming from the other side.

    If the debate is between science and fundamentalist religion or the anti-intellectual right, surely most erstwhile science critics know where they stand (politically and personally if not intellectually). Not many of us feel it is socially responsible, in this climate, to stick to our guns as Steve Fuller does.

  • Kieron Flanagan Reply

    There’s plenty of the blogosphere devoted to the post-Sokal phase of the “science wars” but I’m not sure there’s much new being added to these sites.

    Somehow I’d missed the Bogdanov story. When I want to make my students think about what the Social Text hoax paper really tells us, I contrast it with the case of the Warda Han paper accepted in the journal Proteomics, which some suspicious readers found to be largely plagiarised from a previous published paper – and which famously remarked that the results suggested the existence of a “mighty creator”. Remarkably both the plagiarism and the line about the “mighty creator” got past the journal’s peer review process. The paper was eventually withdrawn, not because of the “creator” remark but only because of the alleged plagiarism.

  • John Wilkins Reply

    That’s an interesting observation. A few years back I was at a talk by a once-significant philosopher of science who gave a keynote address that basically reprised the complaints and bitchiness of the late 60s and early 70s, and the general response was “how sad”. Where he was attacking relativism, it seemed most had come to grips with the fact that we do have relative epistemes, like it or not, and we have to come to terms with being fallible as well.

    Likewise, I find that more and more of the younger generation of analytic philosophers of science appeal, as you say mostly via feminist philosophy, to what was once considered “continental” philosophers, such as Foucault, obviously, but also critical theory and phenomenology. A rapprochement seems to have been achieved more or less by accident. I think there is still a substantial difference in style, but many of the concerns overlap, and if an analytic PoS can make use of Habermas or Delueze, they will without shame.

    At the same time, so-called (I so want to write sogennant) postmodernists have retreated from the pure constructivism of the 80s and 90s, becoming rather more like the internal realists of analytic tradition. Not all, of course – there are still English departments where pure constructivism reigns supreme, but philosophically that view is increasingly rare in Anglo universities.

    A while back I was asked to address a postmodernism course, in which I basically said that we (postmodernists and philosophers of science) have a large overlap in issues of interest – epistemic relativism, theory dependence, phenomenalism, and so on. And this was greeted as if it were obvious. Some progress seems to have been made.

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