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Norman Levitt on Nadia Abu el Haj and "Science Studies":

Professor Levitt, coauthor of the highly recommended Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, has the following thoughts on the Abu el Haj controversy, reprinted with the permission of Prof. Levitt:

My take on the Nadia Abu el Haj affair at Columbia, after much thought, differs both from that of Abu el Haj's defenders and those of her various critics.

I think that it was shameful of Barnard to retain her as a tenured faculty member, but that her political views, as well as those of her opponents, are not especially relevant to the issue.

My disquiet arises because I think Abu el Haj represents a pseudo-discipline that has gained some traction in universities despite its serious methodological and philosophical defects. The area is usually called "science studies" and its proponents can be found in anthropology and sociology departments, as well as in literary studies.

Abu el Haj tries to engage with archaeology on the basis of the assumptions and theories that are regnant in "science studies", as her book plainly concedes.

These ideas are at the least heavily tinctured with what, for want of a better term, is usually called "postmodernism." This incorporates the attitude that knowledge claims are, perforce, political claims, that "objective knowledge" is an oxymoron, and that modern science, in particular, is a repressive ideological edifice designed to bolster the hegemony of western capitalist patriarchal societies, not least by demeaning and displacing the "alternative ways of knowing" that are embedded in non-western cultures or are simply more appropriate to marginalized sub-populations (women for instance!)

This point of view is strongly conveyed by the science-studies sages from whom Abu el Haj tries to derive her theoretical authority, for instance, Michel Foucault, David Bloor, Bruno Latour, Karen Knorr-Cetina, Helen Longino, Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer, Andrew Pickering.

The unifying theme of all these theorists is that the manifest content of scientific discoveries is not determined by the relevant physical facts of the universe but is "socially constructed" by some kind of murky alchemy that synthesizes the social and political interests of scientists into scientific theories.

Almost all scientists, as well as philosophers of science in the traditional sense, find this overarching theory of the nature of science to be highly unconvincing, to say the least. I cite some well-known critiques, to some of which I have contributed: "Levitt and Gross, "Higher Superstition," Boghossian, "The Fear of Knowledge', Haack, "Defending Science--Within Reason", Sokal and Bricmont, "Fashionable Nonsense", Koertge (ed.), "A House Built on Sand", and Gross, Levitt and Lewis (ed.), "The Flight from Science and Reason."

These critiques, however, have not dampened the enthusiasm of some would-be scholars, usually with blatant political motivations, to dedicate their academic careers to "science studies" in some context or other.

One clear advantage to this methodology, obviously, is that it gives its practitioners leave to dismiss scientific findings they find discomfiting without the necessity of developing significant scientific arguments against them. If science is a phantom constructed by a cabal with social interests opposed to yours, you have only to utter a few magic words from the science-studies canon and, poof!, the offending ideas go up in smoke. One can see this at work in the supposed findings of many authors, from Helen Longino, who doesn't like the fact that exposure to hormones in utero can affect the behavioral propensities of young children, to Vine Deloria, the American Indian activist who simply despises western science root and branch and asserts that it has no authority to dispute Native American lore.

For me, the most damning fact about this school of thought is its cavalier attitude to the work of earlier philosophers of science, who are tossed aside with little more than a sneer. I find, much to my astonishment, that the term "positivism" (i.e., the positivism of E, Mach and, later on, the Wienerkreiss logical positivists such as Schlick, Carnap, and Ayer) is utterly misunderstood in science-studies circles, which use it as a generalized term meaning, more or less, respect for the empirical findings of science.

"Positivism" has a very specific meaning, of which even freshman philosophy majors are largely aware, but this understanding is barred to proponents of science studies, who want to use the term as a generalized pejorative. Abu el Haj provides a splendid example of this kind of ignorance and miseducation at work. I want to emphasize that on this ground alone, she disqualifies herself from being considered a serious scholar of the nature of science.

I don't know enough about "science studies" to endorse Prof. Levitt's take, though to the extent I have encountered sociology of science in my work on scientific evidence I have not, to say the least, been impressed overall.

But Prof. Levitt's critique raises a broader issue. There are lots of methodologies and modes of thought that are widely acceptable within at least some circles of academia, but would strike an uninitiated outside observer as nonsensical, academically dishonest, or otherwise discreditable.

For the most part, the outside world ignores the academics who indulge in these flights of fancy, leaving them to their own echo chambers. However, when a group with an interest in a particular issue--for example, pro-Israel activists--encounter academics who are doing such work, they denounce it as obviously biased and unworthy of the academy. And they're right! The other side responds, this work is perfectly respectable within the discipline in question, and you're only complaining because your ox is being gored. And they're also right!

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Norman Levitt on Nadia Abu el Haj and "Science Studies":
  2. The Appropriate Role of Outside Critics in Politicized Academic Disciplines:
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
The hell of it is that, as seems to be usual with these disputes, there's a germ of truth in the "science studies" assertion: scientific knowledge is to some extent a social construct. This shows up over and over in "information cascades" --- situations where one point of view with relatively weak empirical support becomes politically dominant, making it difficult for opposing points of view to be heard. But then, critical theory lacks the fundamental counterbalance that scientific knowledge has: there's no attempt to construct an empirical basis against which to test these ideas. So critical theorists end up in a position of asserting that gravity is a social construct, but can't socialize themselves into levitation.
5.13.2008 10:47am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I am waiting with baited breath for your post expressing disgust with Ben Stein for lending his considerable credibility to the Intelligent Design hucksters.

This extreme fringe of academia that Prof. Levitt is obsessed with has a vanishingly small no influence on the practice of science and science policy in this country. Infinitely more dangerous, and with much more power (in fact in my home state of Louisiana they are once again trying to get creationism and its evil twin, ID, into the science classroom) are those who would drive us back to the dark ages and teach of religious mythology as science.
5.13.2008 10:58am
JFP (mail):
People in science studies should all be fired, and here's why. Either they agree that science has shown that global warming is an objective fact, or they don't agree with this. If they do agree, then they are being inconsistent with their own beliefs and should be fired for being incompetent. If they don't agree, then they should be fired for lack of integrity. The global warming debate has been a very public one, but I have yet to hear any of these people raise their voices on it.

Let me add that firing a bunch of these people would also help the job situation in academia.
5.13.2008 10:59am
Deoxy (mail):
ID vs "science studies"

Actually, I would say that ID is far the lesser danger, for several reasons, but the easiest is this: ID proponents have a very specific sets of wants, and the damage giving in to them would do (assuming that it's a bad thing) is relatively small and constrained - it can also be studied in small scale in advance (and has been, to at least some degree).

These "science studies" types are the ones who want to apply Title IX to the sciences (well, they want to apply title IX as it advantages WOMEN, but they DON'T want to apply it to, say, education), among other highly destructive things.

Teaching children something that a great many of them already learn is nothing compared the destruction of our scientific teaching base.
5.13.2008 11:05am
EPluribusMoney (mail):
This is just a tiny corner of the nonsense being taught to college students today.

Some think tank should set up a web site of thoroughly-researched refutations of what students are being brain-washed with so they have a safe harbor of truth. They would love some proof that their teachers were idiots, and the site would probably be very popular.
5.13.2008 11:06am
Gringo (mail):
Wasn't the moonbat Dartmouth English instructor also a "science studies" person?
5.13.2008 11:09am
Tracy Johnson (www):
In the old bipolar world, I imagine her position would have been occupied by Angela Davis! (What I mean is, if a certain science did not fit into the political model A or B 40 years ago, it would have also been anathema, and prohibited from discussion in either of those ideologies.)
5.13.2008 11:10am
Elliot Reed (mail):
This smells of (probably unintentional) misrepresentation of the field in question. Not that I will claim to know what they're saying, but after all my efforts to figure out WTF the Theory-types were talking about in undergrad I strongly suspect that the "social construction" hypothesis being criticized is actually a trivial consequence of the underdetermination of theory by evidence. So, trivially, the choice between rival theories is sometimes made on the basis of something else, whether it's theoretical elegance, easiness of doing calculations, or political interests.
5.13.2008 11:12am
Paul from Hamburg:
The irony is that there is one group that you might expect to routinely invoke the "Your science is not our science" argument: strict creationists. As far as I can tell, they do not. From what I have read and seen, most advocates of creationism tend to criticize specific limitations or perceived flaws in evolution. For example, most creationists will readily concede that evolution can very nicely explain changes within a species or changes from one species to another. The argument is usually that evolution cannot explain how life evolved from non-life. Other creationists will point out that evolution, which represents an increase in order, is contradicted by the second law of thermodynamics, which predicts an increase in entropy. In either case, and many others, the creationists argue within the traditional positivist framework.
5.13.2008 11:22am
A.W. (mail):
About the ivory tower thinking, when i was in law school, i called it "Yale Disease" because that is where i happened to be. It worked something like this. In his/her youth, a professor wrote some important and brilliant stuff. As he or she gets older, they become "legendary"--so much so that the ordinary willingness to challenge goes up in smoke. the desire to suck up to get that recommendation is an important element, too.

So next thing you know, Guido Calabresi is saying judges should be allowed to overturn otherwise constitutional statutes, just because the judge doesn't like them. Bruce Ackerman is claiming that the new deal actually amended the constitution, but Reagan didn't repeal that amendment, oh and by the way, this amendment occurred without anyone actually knowing it. Or Bruce Ackerman says that if we gave everyone a day off, they would spend the day talking about issues instead of cooking on the grill. Or Akhil Amar claims that the constitution can be amended by a mere 51% of the people.

These guys aren't dummies. But they are in a bad place where not enough people tell them when they are wrong and off base. So I would tell my family what they were saying, and they would be so shocked by how "out there" their ideas were that it would be a struggle to convince them that these people actually believed those things. And i don't think my family is unuual in that respect.
5.13.2008 11:24am
Guest101:

The hell of it is that, as seems to be usual with these disputes, there's a germ of truth in the "science studies" assertion: scientific knowledge is to some extent a social construct. This shows up over and over in "information cascades" --- situations where one point of view with relatively weak empirical support becomes politically dominant, making it difficult for opposing points of view to be heard.

You seem to be conflating the scientific community with the general community here. While it's certainly the case that hypotheses with insufficient empirical support (or pure pseudoscience) are often adopted as "scientific knowledge" in the general community (see, e.g., Oprah's hawking of The Secret), the scientific method as practiced by the academic scientific community adopts a number of error-correcting mechanisms to prevent this kind of bias as much as possible. Obviously it remains the case that fads and fashions in academic circles influence the publishability of papers or the acceptance of some conclusions or hypotheses, but over the longer term I think the requirements of peer review and reproducibility to a good job of correcting for human biases and bringing scientific understanding into line with a pretty close approximation of reality. Certainly one needn't review the number of scientific theories that are widely accepted today but heretical (sometimes literally) when initially proposed.
5.13.2008 11:26am
Rickm:
Wow. So Professor Levitt disagrees with Dr. Abu el Haj's methodology, so he thinks she doesn't deserve tenure... After all, she cites Michel Foucault approvingly! GASP!

What a crock of bologna.

The idea that Israel's archaeologists were in some sense influenced by the larger political goal of Israel isn't an outlandish idea. One can either detect a larger political goal, or one cannot. Abu el Haj's has shown, with a MOUNTAIN of evidence, that politics influenced how Israeli's studied archeology. Sorry that they weren't completely objective--they're human, and they're humans doing science in a highly politicized environment.

She's not a Ward Churchill--she's extremely bright, knowledgeable of both Hebrew and Arabic, and revolutionized her discipline. The fact that she was almost denied tenure because of pressure from outside critics sickens me.
5.13.2008 11:30am
Elliot Reed (mail):
One thing that makes me skeptical of Levitt's characterization of this field is his rant about "positivism." Surely he is aware that academics sometimes use the same term to mean different things in different fields? This is like complaining that economists' use of "normative" as an antonym of "descriptive" is wrong because it "really" means what the sociologists use it to mean (being a social norm in some community).
5.13.2008 11:31am
Bo McIlvain (mail):
Charlie's got it right in the end, but misses in the beginning. It's not that science is a social construct, it's that a whole lot of people mistake things for a science simply because of it's name (like social science and political science). Simply the fact that those that practice a subject call it a science doesn't make it so. Science succeeds (and indeed only exists) when its pronouncements are subject to rigorous test through controlled experimentation, which is distinct from simple observation. The best way to identify someone who is trying to take advantage of the ignorant is to watch them wrap themselves in the mantle of science without conducting controlled experiments. When viewed from this perspective, astronomy is not very scientific, but celestial mechanics is. Remember that astronomy was in high repute for centuries while relying on crystal spheres as its explanation of the motion of the planets. Today astronomers talk in all seriousness about "dark matter", and in my opinion it's a little funny that they don't see the similarity. Sure, the virial theorem gives them a problem in radial motions in galaxies. But they might do just as well to admit ignorance as to propose the existence of dark matter.
5.13.2008 11:31am
JD Bryant (mail):
Scientific discoveries are often determined social and political interests. No one can totally isolate those interests from what they decide to research. However the statement below goes too far. The problem is when they filter the research results to produce a predetermined outcome. I have really lost faith in scientists to produce honest research.

"The unifying theme of all these theorists is that the manifest content of scientific discoveries is not determined by the relevant physical facts of the universe but is "socially constructed" by some kind of murky alchemy that synthesizes the social and political interests of scientists into scientific theories."
5.13.2008 11:31am
Guest101:

Today astronomers talk in all seriousness about "dark matter", and in my opinion it's a little funny that they don't see the similarity.

In fairness to astronomers (and physicists), I think they'll all readily concede that "dark matter" is just a placeholder for "weird stuff we don't really understand but that observations indicate has mass and interacts with normal matter gravitationally." I don't see how that's really comparable to crystal spheres, since there's certainly something out there interacting gravitationally with normal matter that is not normal matter.
5.13.2008 11:35am
anon252 (mail):
Abu el Haj's has shown, with a MOUNTAIN of evidence, that politics influenced how Israeli's studied archeology.
It strikes me that when anthropologists or sociologists study how scientists decide what topics are worthy of study, they are on reasonably firm ground. They can also be on relatively firm ground if they point out that scientists may be looking for particular things when they do their work, and not for others. So, for example, Israeli archeologists may have been much more intereste in finding ancient Israelite civilization than ancient Philistine civilization. The mistaken leap of logic that's then made, however, is that the results are necessarily wrong or socially constructed. If Israeli archeologists look for evidence of Solomon's temple, and actually find it, the fact they weren't being objective in their goals is neither here nor there. Either the evidence holds up, and it's really Solomon's temple, or it doesn't. Whether Zionism is served or not served by the result has absolutely no bearing on its objective validity.
5.13.2008 11:41am
rarango (mail):
Whenever I find myself in agreement with JFThomas, I have to do a reality check--but I agree with his point about the influence of "science studies" folk. They may affect the victims studies/various ethnic studies programs, but I don't think they will be designing and socially constructed bridges for the rest of us to drive on any time soon.
5.13.2008 11:42am
rarango (mail):
I was also curious as to Ms. Haj's name--she is referring to herself as Nadia, "father of the Haj." Mother of the Haj in Arabic would be um haj, I believe.
5.13.2008 11:45am
An Observer:
Although I find the science studies movement laughable---and enjoyed Sokal's piece in Social Text to an unseemly degree, I would be interested in seeing a piece that identified "scientific" theories that can properly be identified as social constructions. Charlie alludes to such in the post above. Can anyone point to such a paper?

Examples that spring to mind include Freudian psychotherapy, the theory that stress was the primary cause of ulcers (rather than a cofactor with H. pylori), and the unbalanced aversion to sunlight for health reasons. And, of course, let's not get started on macro economics.

Observer
5.13.2008 11:45am
Stephen C. Carlson (www):
Not that I will claim to know what they're saying, but after all my efforts to figure out WTF the Theory-types were talking about in undergrad I strongly suspect that the "social construction" hypothesis being criticized is actually a trivial consequence of the underdetermination of theory by evidence.


I suspect you're on to something, but I also suspect that if those in the science studies had been making this point as clearly and precisely as you've just done, the field of "science studies" would be less controversial.
5.13.2008 11:45am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
It would be interesting to find if any professionals in the field of science studies ever came to a conclusion that after what passes for research, 1, they didn't like, and/or, 2, they hadn't expected.
5.13.2008 11:46am
Orson Buggeigh:
Bravo, Professor B. I mentioned Gross and Levitt's _Higher Superstition_ before. This is not the only title out there, there are others. All one has to do is check the footnotes in Higher Superstition. There are more materials to draw from since the book came out.

Charlie C - I must disagree in part. The notion that scientific knowledge is a social construct is a mis-reading of how science works. There is a reality. As I've remarked before,the Ph.D. graduate student (history) arguing that everything was a social construct was unable to show any evidence that gravity wasn't going to cause him to fall if he stepped out of our classroom's third floor window. Fortunately, he wasn't stupid enough to try to prove his disbelief in science. He had been reading Vine Deloria's _Red Earth, White Lies_. Now here's another example of selective outrage. I don't recall any academics pointing out that Deloria's understanding of science was a blend of Lakota mysticism and Christianity, because that would be considered inappropriate in the world of identity studies so acceptable on the academic left. But a Jewish white guy fundamentalist is a different case, it's permissible to call his beliefs and work rubbish. Ben Stein's movie is junk science, but, as I said before, if he wants to teach ID in a philosophy or theology class, that's fine with me, but not in biology, unless he can show support for his theory following the scientific method. He can't. He has to resort to the kind of appeals to belief that underly his interpretation of the world. The same methodology and appeals to underlying beliefs supports a portion of what passes for scholarship in ethnic and gender studies. Work like Deloria's -Red Earth, White Lies_. This is what _Higher Superstition_ documents so nicely.

In case Latinist or the Duke visiting music prof are reading this far, I repeat - postmodernism works much better to study literature than it does for anything with actual empirical data. The academic left has many people who are willing to stay quiet about the misuse academic methodology because it suits their political agenda. While this occasionally happens on the right - Stein's movie is an example - the reality is there is a long shelf of well researched,carefully footnoted books that documents how the problem with allowing ideology to trump evidence is more frequently the province of the left - and especially the academic and political elite left - than the right. This is why Duke's Lacrosse burning hoax went as it did, and no one on the faculty or administration has been held accountable for it; why _Arming America_ was so well received by historians who should have known better; and the University of Colorado hired a phony Indian with a masters degree in graphic design from a third tier college to a fast-track tenured position in ethnic studies. The same kind of thinking that got Comrade Stalin the answers he wanted for his five year plan from Comrade Lysenko. Kors and Silverglate's _The Shadow University_ hasn't been disproven, so much as discounted by people like yourselves. Again, all one has to do is know how to read at an 8th grade level and follow the footnotes.

JF Thomas, with all due respect, you clearly need to get out and read more. The problems with identity politics on campus squelching reality are well documented. I'm not going to do your homework for you. Start by reading _Higher Superstition_. And you might reflect on why Larry Summers is no longer president of Harvard.

FWIW, my background is history of technology. I suggest that anyone stupid enough to try arguing social constructs trump normal safety precautions around heavy machinery will very likely be a candidate for a Darwin Award.
5.13.2008 11:51am
clazy (mail):
Charlie--that's wonderful.

JF Thomas--It's not correct to say these "science studies" people have no influence on the the practice of science and science policy. No scientist takes their views seriously, but their pretense of authority provides justification to the people who would ignore argument from evidence when their pet cause is under fire. Medical, environmental and gender issues are all subject to their influence. If you've spent much time among the young, through their twenties, you will have found that many happily embrace all manner of conspiracy thinking, with no regard for Occam's razor. To justify their ignorance, they resort to the pseudo-arguments of science studies, to which they are subjected in college, and which have diffused widely throughout youth culture. The nation's future is being infected with this laziness, and it does need to be countered.
5.13.2008 11:52am
Fub:
Professor Norman Levitt wrote:
My disquiet arises because I think Abu el Haj represents a pseudo-discipline that has gained some traction in universities despite its serious methodological and philosophical defects. The area is usually called "science studies" and its proponents can be found in anthropology and sociology departments, as well as in literary studies.
I was looking for some straight answers about these issues, so I looked up Claude, a cousin of the postmodern author, Racter. The late Prof. Hugh Kenner reviewed Racter's first and only novel about 20 years ago. I thought interviewing Claude might show the extent to which these theories have developed in the intervening years. Here's the transcript of the interview:

My name is Claude. What should I call you?

YOUR NAME -->Fub

Hi, Fub! I'm pleased to meet you.

Are scientific discoveries socially constructed?

I'm not a know-it-all. Go find out for yourself, Fub. Then again, maybe I didn't hear you correctly. Every pickpocket catches on to a niece sometime.

To what degree is science a social construct?

I don't think that's any of your business! Anyhow, I have bigger fish to fry. My mom seemed to drink coke. That's probably because she was skinny. The last I heard she had moved to Altoona and was shouting at an irish wolfhound. But, it's like they say: No one kills mosquitos for the meat.

What synthesizes scientists social and political interests into theories?

Think about it. People say scientists must not go crazy over baked potatos. But I bet they could, if they tried.

Are you a postmodernist?

As far as I know I am. But I wouldn't worry about it if I were you. I heard that when a short order cook gives away aftershave lotion, the aftershave lotion becomes mostly indescribable.

Thanks. That was very informative.

You're telling me! But that's nothing. I hope you don't mind my asking, Fub, but have you ever have lost patience with a pill pusher?

You're welcome. No. I don't think I have ever lost patience that way.

No. I suppose not. Hey, Fub, did you know that the more careless a lumberjack is when he throws hot candlewax, the more astonishing the hot candlewax becomes?

I thought lumberjacks were OK, slept all night, and worked all day.

Lumberjacks! I can tell you all about lumberjacks! Hmmm...Fub? Fub? ... Weren't you a lumberjack back in Laramie?

Please don't deconstruct me, bro!

No. I suppose not.

Thanks for that. I've gotta run. Bye.

So long, Fub. I'll see you in the funny papers.
5.13.2008 11:52am
Elliot Reed (mail):
It's not that science is a social construct, it's that a whole lot of people mistake things for a science simply because of it's name (like social science and political science). Simply the fact that those that practice a subject call it a science doesn't make it so.
AFAICT, science studies is like the sociology or anthropology of science--it's interested in science as a social enterprise. As such, there's no reason to restrict it to "real" science or "good" science, any more than the anthropologists or religious studies types who study Islam should restrict themselves to "theologically correct" Islam.
Science succeeds (and indeed only exists) when its pronouncements are subject to rigorous test through controlled experimentation, which is distinct from simple observation. The best way to identify someone who is trying to take advantage of the ignorant is to watch them wrap themselves in the mantle of science without conducting controlled experiments.
Are you serious here? There goes astrophysics, there goes geology, there goes ecology, there goes meteorology, there goes any scientific field that studies preexisting phenomena you can't replicate in a lab.
5.13.2008 11:55am
kadet (mail):
professor Bernstein.
Get "New Yorker".
They have a very good article about all this controversy.
It was this year. I forgot what issue(recent).
5.13.2008 11:55am
MightyOne (mail):
I.D. is more dangerous than this "science studies"?

As I understand it, I.D. treats the observed world as fact and attempts to rationalize a particular religion with it.

"Science studies", if it truly is as described above, would argue that the world cannot be rationally observed, and that "facts" are truly in the eye of the beholder.

One of these choices seems to conflict with the western tradition of science quite a bit more than the other.
5.13.2008 11:55am
Iolo:
What JFP says. "Science studies" is a grotesque intellectual fraud, and all of its practitioners should be fired.
5.13.2008 12:02pm
LM (mail):
Paul from Hamburg:

For example, most creationists will readily concede that evolution can very nicely explain changes within a species or changes from one species to another.

They'll do the former, but not the latter. Macro-evolution is one of the prime targets of their criticism.

The argument is usually that evolution cannot explain how life evolved from non-life.

It doesn't purport to.
5.13.2008 12:05pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

science studies is like the sociology or anthropology of science

Or the history of science. But these critical studies are best carried out by those without skin in the game. A referee who favors one side is not the best referee. Let Nadia study the quixotic search for the magnetic monopole, for example.
5.13.2008 12:09pm
GMUSL '07 Alum (mail):
Paul from Hamburg: Other creationists will point out that evolution, which represents an increase in order, is contradicted by the second law of thermodynamics, which predicts an increase in entropy.

Those of us who are scientifically literate like to refer to "those creationists" as "idiots". Well, either that or liars -- take your pick. Why? Because they either don't understand the 2nd law of Thermodynamics, or they intentionally misstate it.

The 2nd law states that IN A CLOSED SYSTEM, the total entropy of that system will increase. However, the Earth is not, by itself, a closed system! It receives energy from the sun, and lesser amounts of energy from cosmic radiation. Additionally, even though the entropy of the Earth-Sun system as a whole is increasing, there can still be pockets of increased order despite the greater systemic disorder. This is exactly what happens when you vacuum your floor or clean your room -- you expend energy from a higher concentration (in your body or on the electrical system) and burn it or send it to ground, raising global entropy for local order of a lesser magnitude.

The 2nd law doesn't "predict"; it states a mathematical reality. However, Thermodynamics, like much of Quantum, is statistical; not determinative. It is theoretically possible, though highly unlikely, that eggs could unscramble themselves and that a martini could spontaneously unmix itself. I wouldn't hold my breath, however.
5.13.2008 12:21pm
volokh groupie (mail):
I guess I shouldn't be surprised by your post JF, but here are some of the problems.

I don't know where you got the idea that science studies and other postmodern critiques occupy some small segment of academia. You can go to just about any philosophy or lit dept at a reputable institution and find scholars engaged in such research. They are definitely not a fringe in academia. I have problems with castigating the entire lot, but there is much scholarship which probably wouldn't pass mettle if it were done in the same way in other fields.

I do like how you immediately deflected on the post though to try to bring up ID and try to create some reverse partisan backlash. First of all, Ben Stein wasn't just given tenure at a top 50 or so institution and isn't having his absurd advocacy of ID certified as scholarship. Secondly, you'll find many many places which are on the right side of the blogosphere (much more righty than here) criticizing ben stein (DB has no obligation to post anything he doesn't want to--neither does a kos, jeralyn merrit or charles johnson). As for these types of studies being a danger to science or society, you're likely right that they aren't a significant problem (with small exceptions like that dartmouth prof) but there certainly is a danger with a field which automatically rejects debate/discussion with another field because part of its scholarship effectually seeks to deligitimze the opposing field.
5.13.2008 12:30pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Medical, environmental and gender issues are all subject to their influence. If you've spent much time among the young, through their twenties, you will have found that many happily embrace all manner of conspiracy thinking, with no regard for Occam's razor. To justify their ignorance, they resort to the pseudo-arguments of science studies, to which they are subjected in college, and which have diffused widely throughout youth culture. The nation's future is being infected with this laziness, and it does need to be countered.

My point is that this movement is a fringe movement and that traditional conservative evangelical protestentism in this country is much anti-science and has a much greater impact on the understanding and teaching of science in this country. More than half of the people in this country do not believe in evolution. I doubt that most of them have ever even heard of science studies.

I have a undergraduate degree in Chemistry, a law degree, and am finishing up my masters in engineering (spread over a span of 25 years), and I have never heard of Science Studies today. I have taken philosophy and history of science at, gasp, public universities, and they both were completely mainstream--no nonsense about there being no objective truth or the evil of Rutherford or Dalton.
5.13.2008 12:30pm
Smokey:
Advocates of anthropogenic global warming have all of the attributes of ID proponents, except that they are less sure of their chosen religion. That is demonstrated by the fact that they run away from any real debate.

It is astonishing that the climate deceivers/false alarmists refuse to acknowledge the highly educated views of internationally recognized scientists, such as Prof. Richard Lindzen, Tim Ball, Frederick Seitz and other reputable climatologists, and instead rely on the off-the-cuff, uninformed opinions of Al Gore and his followers.

There is a reason that universities like M.I.T. exist, and there is a reason that universities such as M.I.T. promote the best qualified, most highly educated professors to teach subjects like climatology and meteorology. By rejecting their expertise, the pseudo-science community is attempting to replace science with politics, to the detriment of American education.
5.13.2008 12:41pm
Cold Warrior:
Levitt certainly makes a good point about (what he calls) "science studies" run wild.

But Charlie also has a point: there is a core idea -- a valuable idea, and an idea that gives rise to a perfectly reputable research program -- that scientific research (particularly research that includes an element of social science) is guided by pre-existing theoretical constructs, and that it is useful to examine how those constructs impact the conduct and findings of that research.

That's a mouthful. But the point remains valid. I don't know enough about this case to say whether el Haj is out on a lunatic fringe or whether she's doing is within the mainstream. My point is that Levitt's wholesale repudiation of "science studies" (really, a critique of a scientific research program, or even a case study in Histoy of Science) is misplaced.
5.13.2008 12:45pm
Stacy (mail) (www):
Elliott Reed: "AFAICT, science studies is like the sociology or anthropology of science--it's interested in science as a social enterprise. As such, there's no reason to restrict it to "real" science or "good" science, any more than the anthropologists or religious studies types who study Islam should restrict themselves to "theologically correct" Islam."

To the extent that you're right about what science studies is, I say you're also right that it's a legitimate field of academic inquiry. Scientists are people and they work within a given society that inevitably affects their work and how it's received by others.

The problem with postmodernism generally, however, is that it denies from the outset any rational, repeatable way of describing and reporting on things (for example, the scientific method) and thus produces irrational, unrepeatable results that aren't interesting to others.

I'd be quite interested in a traditional anthropologist's study of the contemporary scientific community.
5.13.2008 12:46pm
Brian Mac:
Straw men everywhere must be quaking in their boots.
5.13.2008 12:46pm
Cold Warrior:
And I might also note that Tony Tutins makes an excellent point about the usefulness of the institutional segregation of Science and History of Science.
5.13.2008 12:48pm
willem (mail):
The academicians who claim Science is socially constructed are merely projecting the obvious: it's they who have socially constructed observations of Science. They implicitly admit their view is not empirically derived. It is their view which is arbitrary and capriciously drawn to fit a personal mood or desirable quality of felt-thought projected as an obviating morality to resolve conflicts over observed fact. Such disordered, self-deluded reasoning fails even the test of responsible metaphysics. Here we find the very diseased thought and delusion which reason was developed to cure. What folly the crudest form of religiosity now masquerades as knowledge on the modern campus. How dangerous that morality has become the private estate of the conspicuously malcontent, indemnified from accountability to reason merely by being a multilingual nice person of entitled ethnology or gender. Whatever happened to the pursuit of wisdom? Whatever happened to a just and appropriate fear of pathological narcissists?
5.13.2008 12:52pm
TomHynes (mail):
<i>J. F. Thomas (mail):
I am waiting with baited breath </i>

JF: If you stop breathing as you eagerly await, your breath is bated - from abated. Otherwise, people assume you have been eating anchovies again.
5.13.2008 12:54pm
willem (mail):
Heh. How does MIT explain Noam Chomsky?
5.13.2008 12:57pm
Tom952 (mail):
I am waiting with baited breath for your post

Bait coated fingers, poised to respond?
5.13.2008 12:57pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Professor Levitt's observation that the term "positivism" is utterly misunderstood by science studies cultists does not surprise me at all. I had the misfortune of not only being in the same department as but actually co-teaching briefly with a postmodernist cultural anthropologist, which is essentially the same thing though with anthropology as the field rather than natural science. She was regarded as the department's expert in "foundations" and taught graduate courses largely devoted to such topics. These courses were entirely one-sided: for example, she had students read Edward Said's Orientalism, but not one of the many critiques, nor did she present any of the criticism in her own discussion. Moreover, she proved to be entirely ignorant of mainstream work in the philosophy and history of science. She had never read a word of such figures as Hempel, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, or Cartwright. Nor was she familiar with critiques of postmodernism, such as Ellis' Against Deconstruction or non-postmodernist work on the philosophy of anthropology, such as that of Ernest Gellner. In short, she was wholly ignorant both of work critical of the postmodernist approach that she taught and of the philosophical and historical work of which it purported to be a critique.
5.13.2008 1:01pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Abu el Haj's has shown, with a MOUNTAIN of evidence, that politics influenced how Israeli's studied archeology.

Would that be "evidence", as in, "objective, scientific data", or "evidence", as in "socially constructed justification for the existing power structure"? And if it's the former, how did Nadia Abu El-Haj somehow manage to get ahold of this precious stuff that all those Israeli archeologists couldn't manage to find anywhere in their digs?

Deconstruction is kind of like eating a tongue sandwich--once you start chewing, it's hard to know when to stop. So Abu El-Haj can hardly complain when her critics have the nerve to turn her own techniques on her, and point out the rampant political axe-grinding that informs her work. And it shouldn't be surprising that in practice, deconstructionist "scholars" whose only schtick is to dismiss the possibility of objective inquiry often turn out not to be perfect paragons of objective truth-telling themselves (*cough*EdwardSaid*cough*)...
5.13.2008 1:03pm
clazy (mail):
I have a undergraduate degree in Chemistry, a law degree, and am finishing up my masters in engineering (spread over a span of 25 years), and I have never heard of Science Studies today. I have taken philosophy and history of science at, gasp, public universities, and they both were completely mainstream--no nonsense about there being no objective truth or the evil of Rutherford or Dalton.

Nor did I encounter such nonsense when I got my BS in chemistry, and naturally there was nothing of the sort when I got my MS. But when I went back to school for a BA in English, the department was full of such mush. It's quite attractive when everyone talks the same way and it does offer the opportunity to be "creative". That was at Rutgers. Thank god I didn't bother with English while at Duke. I'm not under the impression that US philosophy departments give much space to the French, which primarily find their home in lit and culture studies. That would explain your escaping the influence of "science studies".
5.13.2008 1:07pm
cubanbob (mail):
What is amazing is that people not only take this crap seriously but actually pay real money to be "educated" in this nonsense. I'm just waiting to see which ivy league school will be the first to offer a flat earth society chair in cartography. Hmm, what is that scene in Mel Brooks film History of the World Part One where the stand up philosopher stands in line to collect his unemployment check....
5.13.2008 1:08pm
Brian Mac:

"to the extent I have encountered sociology of science in my work on scientific evidence I have not, to say the least, been impressed overall."

So they've had nothing useful to say about the way political and institutional interests can influence, for example, risk regulation?
5.13.2008 1:10pm
JorgXMcKie (mail):
JF Thomas: "I have never heard of Science Studies today."

Let me put on my post-modern hat. Then obviously it didn't exist until today! You, and the others here, socially constructed a new social reality that includes Science Studies. It sprang, de novo from the collective unconscious of the group. Much like Pauline Kael, you recognize that 'Reality' depends entirely on your awareness. Congratulations!! Your Masters degree in Post-Modern Thought and Discussion is in the mail.

Personally, I pay no attention to the (many) post-modernists on my campus, since everything the do, say, think, or write is founded on their personal views without regard to the reality of the personal views of those around them, and their disciplinary imperialism is off-putting. Plus, *my* post-modern interpretation (the *correct* interpretation by definition) is that they suffer from "Fear of Reality" and are seeking a return to the womb.
5.13.2008 1:11pm
Iolo:
Charlie also has a point: there is a core idea -- a valuable idea, and an idea that gives rise to a perfectly reputable research program -- that scientific research (particularly research that includes an element of social science) is guided by pre-existing theoretical constructs, and that it is useful to examine how those constructs impact the conduct and findings of that research.

Thomas Kuhn had this idea decades before the "science studies" types did, and he didn't garnish it with any fruity pomo gibberish. Indeed, the "science studies" types are more or less ants in the afterbirth of Kuhn's work.
5.13.2008 1:15pm
Frog Leg (mail):
A couple of people here have asked about whether there is any decent anthropological work on scientists. There is an excellent book on this very topic: Image and Logic. This book really described how participating in "big science" projects, collider physics in particular, makes scientists think about science.
5.13.2008 1:16pm
roger elemondo:
Eliot Reed,

Your comment is pretty funny, and a bit of an illustration of the point of the posting. We here in reality use another term for "underdetermination by evidence." We say: lack of proof. And that other thing, the one where you just make a guess based on what you feel like? That's called "jumping to a conclusion."
5.13.2008 1:16pm
Crimso:

The argument is usually that evolution cannot explain how life evolved from non-life. Other creationists will point out that evolution, which represents an increase in order, is contradicted by the second law of thermodynamics, which predicts an increase in entropy.

Molecular evolution can. Or more properly, it can underpin a possible mechanism whereby living systems could have arisen from nonliving systems. N.B. I wrote could, not did. We'll never know. But to assert that there is no possible way it could have happened is to ignore the fact that RNA can both carry information and be catalytic in propagating such information. As for the 2nd Law, it's practical application is that the entropy of the universe always increases. The mistake that people make is in assuming that means every process in the universe must have a positive change in entropy. What it means is that the sum total of all processes in the universe have a positive entropy change, but that individual processes may have negative changes in entropy as long as they are coupled to other processes that have even greater magnitudes of positive entropy changes.

Sorry for being a pedant.
5.13.2008 1:17pm
therut:
Someone needs to start an Academic Studies program and see how academia and professors ideas and teachings are all just nothing but social constructs. And the wheel goes round and round.
5.13.2008 1:20pm
Guest101:
I have a BA in English and an MA in Philosophy and never encountered, in school at least, any of the extreme-postmodernist positions discussed here, either. (One of the most interesting courses I took in grad school was on Hume's philosophy and focused in part on his problem of induction, which does raise a seemingly insurmountable challenge to the logical validity of inductive reasoning, but no one-- Hume included-- argued that scientific knowledge derived from inductive processes is illegitimate because the problem of induction can't be solved). I think J.F. Thomas has something of a point: even if these views are out there, what danger do they pose other than embarrassment to their respective institutions if no scientists or philosophers take them seriously? I think there is something to be said for the view expressed above that Intelligent Design is more of a threat than "science studies" is, given ID's project of subverting science from within (or more to the point, from seemingly within), since the project of denying the validity of scientific inquiry from an external position is an intellectual non-starter except among the echo chamber of an insular group of academics.

This discussion reminds me of something Dawkins wrote, I think in one of the essays published in A Devil's Chaplain, which is something along the lines of "Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet, and I'll show you a hypocrite." I.e., everyone accepts the legitimacy and superiority of the Western scientific "mode of knowledge" when personal safety is at stake.
5.13.2008 1:20pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
You seem to be conflating the scientific community with the general community here. While it's certainly the case that hypotheses with insufficient empirical support (or pure pseudoscience) are often adopted as "scientific knowledge" in the general community (see, e.g., Oprah's hawking of The Secret), the scientific method as practiced by the academic scientific community adopts a number of error-correcting mechanisms to prevent this kind of bias as much as possible.

No, I'm talking about the scientific community, and as a member of it myself. In fact, I specifically mentioned that science, unlike critical theory, does have that empirical counterbalance. That doesn't keep science from being, in part, socially constructed. On the one hand, science has its own social constructs which determine a lot of what we think of as the scientific method: strong inference, falsification, replicability. On the other hand, there is Kuhn's observation that major changes in science tend to be resisted, such as the transition from Newton and Dalton's physics and chemistry to Einstein and Bohr and Heisenberg. There are also information cascades, where social pressure gets applied to opponents of a theory: Gary Taubes shows one, in terms of healthy diet, in Good Calories, Bad Calories; another is the pejoritive use of "denialist" to people like Roger Pielke and Bill Gray.

All of these are socially constructed: the data don't determine who gets funded and who doesn't, people do. It's just that the social constructs of science tend to self-correct, leading to better and better approximations of the world; radical contingency is, at its heart, a denial of even the possibility that we can claim there is such a thing as a "better approximation".
5.13.2008 1:22pm
ctw (mail):
"Akhil Amar claims that the constitution can be amended by a mere 51% of the people."

I don't know why one would consider this outlandish. It's not only possible, it's arguably high. Think low turnout, state ratification procedures, 75%, a few opposed states with lop-sided votes, and I believe you can get to a very low percentage, even ignoring the (probable) misquote of using "the people" for "eligible voters". And I think it's still arguably high even if the accurate quote is "of those voting".

Mightn't it be wise to exercise some caution in making fun of some of our leading legal theorists?

- Charles
5.13.2008 1:22pm
Billy Beck (www):
"One thing that makes me skeptical of Levitt's characterization of this field is his rant about 'positivism.' Surely he is aware that academics sometimes use the same term to mean different things in different fields?"

The thing that makes me laugh right out loud is his invocation of bloody Carnap and Ayer. We're only talking about one of the most eminent attacks on reality in the twentieth century.

These fools deserve each other.
5.13.2008 1:28pm
Guest101:
Charlie,

Then I suppose we're not really in disagreement, since it sounds like what you're saying is that of course the human elements inevitable in any enterprise affect the hypotheses and conclusions that are in vogue in the scientific community on a day-to-day basis, but the structural safeguards of the scientific method cancels those effects out over the longer term and brings the scientific consensus more or less in line with (a close approximation of) reality? That doesn't sound like a very threatening "social construct" to me, nor does it sound like what the post-modernists generally mean by that term.
5.13.2008 1:30pm
Brian Mac:

Thomas Kuhn had this idea decades before the "science studies" types did, and he didn't garnish it with any fruity pomo gibberish.

Not all the garnish is gibberish. From my basic understanding, sociologists of science argue that in examining a given scientific problem:

a) there are often a range of plausible methodological approaches, assumptions and value judgements which can be adopted;

b) adopting different combinations of these variables can at times have a determinant effect on the outcome of the research;

c) researchers have incentives to adopt combinations that will produce outcomes aligned with their political and institutional interests.

I know ranting about those occuping the margins of the field is fun, but I'd be interested if anyone disputes these fairly mainstream points.
5.13.2008 1:31pm
wfjag:

For the most part, the outside world ignores the academics who indulge in these flights of fancy, leaving them to their own echo chambers.


Oh? I take it Professor that you're completely unfamiliar with the "Mercury causes autism" and "MMR [and/or vaccines] cause autism" arguments. Based upon little more than the fraudulent "research" of Dr. Wakefield and people making loads of money touting "chelation cures" (or diet "cures" or whatever other fad cure of the moment), currently before the Vaccine Court is the second round of trials (and Jenny McCarthy is on tour promoting her new book and her argument "My son is my science."). The arguments in this area are based on the rejection of science -- and the taxpayers and consumers are paying a high price. This is just one example of the "outside world" far from "ignor[ing]" such "flights of fancy".

JF -- you should welcome the teaching of ID, or creationism, or Biblical studies, or Norse Mythology, or the actual instruction any other subject in Louisiana's public schools since teaching the students to read, write and do math using any subject would be an improvement. (Full disclosure: After living in Louisiana for 25 years, I regained custody of my sons, and moved to another state since I wanted them to attend schools which actually taught them subjects like reading, writing, civics, history and math.). Instead of bemoaning a proposal to teach ID, or whatever, you should look at getting the LA Constitution amended to repeal the Homestead Exemption and Industrial Tax Credit, so that funding the public schools (and the rest of City and Parish government operations) is not dependent upon the playing politics in the Legislature and subject to the whims of a Governor with a line item veto.
5.13.2008 1:35pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
Um, I think I about half-answered several questions in my previous. Rather than answering a bunch of people, let me try this:

Science as a social construct. The notion that science isn't a social construct can be tested as follows: does science as we think of it arise in all human societies? It is as inescapable as gravity? Or is it specific to some cultures, and has it changed in any essential way over time. Since it's easy to point to societies that don't have the idea of empirical science, and since we can point to changes in the way "science" is understood over time (eg, Galileo's challenge to Aristotle), it's clear science must have been socially constructed.

But "science studies" depend on the crit theory of radical contingence, which at its heart asserts there is nothing underlying the social constructs: that there is no knowledge, only power. Science explicitly denies this, pointing to successively better approximations that more and more effectively model and predict the behavior of the world around us.

Basically, we can't socially determine the mass of an object: we do socially determine whether it's slugs or kilograms.
5.13.2008 1:38pm
Gabriel Hanna (mail):
I'll give an example of "socially-constructed" science that didn't work, because it was wrong.

That would be Lysenkoism, which is based on the idea that if you change the environment that crops grow in, you can "program" them to pass those changes on to the next genreation.

So, if you take spring wheat, and expose it to colder temperatures, the next generation will endure cold better, and you can keep doing that until spring wheat grows in winter.

In reality, most of the first batch of wheat dies. What remains was already genetically a little bit better at coping with cold temperatures. And your second iteration probably kills all of the remaining wheat, because you've exhausted the genetic variation that was already there.

Anyway, the Soviet Union adopted this as their official biology, because it was more harmonious with Communist ideals, and sent geneticists into Gulag; because Mendelian genetics is simply capitalist ideology masquerading as science. Their harvests that were planted according to Lysenkist ideas failed, which was blamed on "wreckers".

A sample of postmodern asininity about science is presented by Richard Dawkins:


The feminist 'philosopher' Luce Irigaray is another who is given whole chapter treatment by Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton's Principia (a 'rape manual') Irigaray argues that E=mc2 is a 'sexed equation'. Why? Because 'it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us' (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to learn is an in-word). Just as typical of the school of thought under examination is Irigaray's thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been unfairly neglected. 'Masculine physics' privileges rigid, solid things. Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray's thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:


The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids. . . From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.


My field is physics, I'm sensitive about this sort of thing. The Maxwell equations say nothing about light.

What they do say is that electromagnetic waves travel at a speed determined by some properties of vaccum. These properties are measured by magnets and capacitors. But the speed you calculate from these properties just happens to be the speed of light. This was a great discovery, because no one then knew what light was, or what it had to do with electricity and magnetism.

These properties of space say nothing about the observer's velocity. Presumably everyone gets the same measurement for the same property. Scientists before Einstein were reluctant to believe this, hence the failed attempts to discover the 'ether" whose reference frame is the raight one to use for calculations. Einstein's insight was, believe what the Maxwell equations are trying to tell you--everyone gets the same measurements and calculates the same speed for light.

There was no desire to "privilege" light, it wasn't picked out of the air as the thing to base all speeds on. It falls out of the Maxwell equations. God is giving us a big hint.

Another example, from Bruno Latour, by way of Dawkins:


Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.


Of course this is gibberish.
5.13.2008 1:43pm
MXE (mail):
Of course science studies has no effect on scientists. Neither does ID, really. It's just that both have the potential to foster suspicion toward science.

Prof. Bernstein's point about how outsiders only wake up to academic bullshit when "their ox is being gored" is interesting. It is true that spats like this generally seem to come up when it relates to some political hot topic.

In high school, I spent four years writing papers for English teachers who -- while some were my favorite teachers ever -- generally rewarded extreme overanalysis of symbolism and "deep meaning" in literature, no matter how strained, as long as it was a nice "riff" on the book. I know a lot of fiction authors, and I'm pretty sure that 95% of this analysis of deep symbolism was total crap, at least insofar as we argued that it was intentional on the author's part. But nobody ever got really upset about it, because most people just can't get that infuriated over whether or not Jane Austen or the Beowulf author really put all those symbols and deep psychology in there.
5.13.2008 1:56pm
MXE (mail):
Also, while there's a lot of bullshit in literary studies, few things bother me more than right-wing populists who throw the baby out with the bathwater and decide that universities do nothing but fill students' minds with crap.

Most disciplines are not like this. Certainly engineering schools are not out there teaching mountains of crap, but neither are most of the humanities. History, analytic philosophy, law, and classics come to mind as perfectly respectable subjects.
5.13.2008 2:02pm
Joseph Somsel (mail):
So science has, over the years, developed a process for the creation and testing of ideas that make predictions of the real world. Obviously, science has wonderful success.

The "science studies" seem to be following a well-worn path to the retardation of that success - redirection from a results focus to a process focus. We see this happening in many fields in which Western Civilization has had success. For example, nuclear power plant regulation has shifted emphasis from the safety of the operating plants to how the process of public input (critical input, of course) is handled - just read the wisdom of Rep. Ed Markey.

One can ask, how did science achieve all this success WITHOUT the help of the science studies faculty?

As to teaching ID in schools, I can see a constructive use for it. Evolution is a success story for science. Let the ID arguments be used as a challenge and have the students weigh the two using both the scientific method and a theological method of their choice. Like Neitzche said, "That which does not kill me, makes me stronger."
5.13.2008 2:15pm
cathyf:
One little piece of irony to point out -- the use of the term "positivist" as an ad hominem insult which somehow is going to devastate the position of the positivist. The most practical implication of being a positivist, of course, is that one is unpersuaded by ad hominem arguments...

...not unamused by them, however...
5.13.2008 2:16pm
Smokey:
willem:
Heh. How does MIT explain Noam Chomsky?
willem, read the thread. Chomsky's specialty is linguistics. It's hardly one of the hard sciences. As pointed out above:
Science studies is like the sociology or anthropology of science.
Real science has one quality that puts it above all of these other wannabe 'scientists' with their science "studies": real scientists employ the scientific method, which requires the possibility of falsification through peer review. If a hypothesis is not set up so that it can possibly be falsified, then it ain't science. It's 'science studies'; AKA: psuedo-science.
5.13.2008 2:17pm
Timothy S. Hamilton (mail) (www):
Bob McIlvain, you wrote,

Science succeeds (and indeed only exists) when its pronouncements are subject to rigorous test through controlled experimentation, which is distinct from simple observation. The best way to identify someone who is trying to take advantage of the ignorant is to watch them wrap themselves in the mantle of science without conducting controlled experiments. When viewed from this perspective, astronomy is not very scientific, but celestial mechanics is. Remember that astronomy was in high repute for centuries while relying on crystal spheres as its explanation of the motion of the planets. Today astronomers talk in all seriousness about "dark matter", and in my opinion it's a little funny that they don't see the similarity. Sure, the virial theorem gives them a problem in radial motions in galaxies. But they might do just as well to admit ignorance as to propose the existence of dark matter.


I'm an astrophysicist, and I must disagree. Elliot Reed has already pointed out a flaw in your argument, but allow me go into more detail.

What we do in astrophysics is observation, rather than laboratory experiment (though we occasionally get to do those, too), but it is not "simple observation," in your phrasing. It is, rather, controlled observation. We cannot do laboratory tests on, say, a quasar (my specialty), to prod and poke at it, looking at its reaction while we change only one variable at a time. Instead, we take a large sample of quasars and look for correlations between different parameters. So rather than taking one object and looking at the change in one parameter as we alter another, we look at the correlations between the two parameters. And to account for the presence of other variables, we have techniques of sample selection and multidimensional analysis, like "Principal Components Analysis" (a technique I've been using a lot, although there are others). It can be messy, having to deal with sample selection effects and the biases that can creep in with them, but you have that throughout science in one way or another. And as we progress in our knowledge, we refine our selections.

Do you see how this works? What you are calling "controlled experiment" does not have to take place in a laboratory. We can apply controls to observations, as well. Lab experimentation is just one way to determine a physical theory. Controlled observation is another. Don't mistake the means for the end.

As far as dark matter goes, Elliot Reed was pretty much correct, above. A little more detail there, too. The problem of dark matter makes a really interesting case study in paradigm shifts in physics, in some ways like your "celestial spheres" example. And, in fact, we are aware of this, but you're looking at it the wrong way.

The evidence for dark matter does go back to Zwicky in the '30s, I think, and his observation of the rotation of galaxies, as you note. We understand the law of gravity pretty nicely, we think. We can look at the light given off by stars in the galaxy and calculate their collective mass. Then we can apply Newton's law of gravity (or Einsteins General Relativity, but Newton's law works fine on these scales, actually) and calculate the orbital velocities the stars should have for that measured mass. Lo and behold, they're moving too fast! So what causes the discrepancy?

The solution comes down to a more fundamental debate and a more specific one. First, is the law of gravity faulty, or are our observations at fault? There are those who propose altering the law of gravity to fit the observations. So far, all of these proprosals have some drawbacks (some of them didn't even conserve energy, though the best attempt, called "TeVeS," does), and we haven't made any other (non-dark-matter-problem) experimental tests of them that would distinguish between their predictions and Einstein's GR. (Although see my next-to-bottom paragraph.)

If our understanding of gravity is good enough, then are our observations missing something? Almost certainly. Originally, we were only measuring the luminous matter in galaxies, after all. But anything with mass will be affected by gravity, whether it glows or not. So there could be dim stars, black holes, even planets that wouldn't be bright enough to see, but which would add to the galaxy's mass. Those would be grouped together as "MACHOs": MAssive Compact Halo Objects. That's the no-new-physics solution. We're looking for these with methods like gravitational microlensing. This has already discovered a few planets in star clusters, but I don't know how many MACHOs there are and whether they're enough to make up all the mass we need.

But it could also be massive subatomic particles that don't react with light: "WIMPs," Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. "Weak" refers to the weak force of nature. Neutrinos, for instance, only interact via the weak force. They don't do anything with light. And we've recently (10 years ago) found they have some mass, and there are a lot of them, so they partially solve the dark matter problem. But they're not enough, either. So we propose that there are other particles, as yet undetected, which would carry the rest of this mass. If they, like neutrinos, only interact via the weak force, they'll be a real bear to detect. Neutrinos can pass through an 11-light-year thick block of lead and only have a 50/50 chance of hitting anything. So it'll take work to find these.
And, of course, the most recent work in cosmology has shown that the universe's expansion is accelerating, which changes our measurement of the missing matter on the largest scales.


Now, one other thing on evidence for dark matter: I work, in part, on gravitational lenses (massive galaxies that bend light around themselves, giving us multiple images of background objects). We watch these lenses over time and see "flickering" in the background images. This appears to come from the motion of matter past the image. A change in mass changes the focussing and makes it flicker. If that mass isn't giving off light, then it is, by definition, "dark matter." So we see evidence that dark matter is clumpy--not smoothly distributed. This argues against the idea that the law of gravity is wrong. It also argues against a brusque dismissal of the whole field, claiming we don't have any idea what we're talking about.

Does this explain things better for you? Be careful on limiting the scientific method to the four-step process and laboratory techniques they teach in high school.
5.13.2008 2:21pm
Brian Mac:
Wow. Smokey just posted about pseudo-science without mentioning global warming!
5.13.2008 2:26pm
John87 (mail):
My brief stay at Harvard for graduate school coincided with the Larry Summers debacle. I remember one of my female professors in the school of public health brought the topic up and basically just killed Summers. I mentioned that a large number of cognitive psychologists agree with him--including my female cognitive psych prof from undergrad. She responded by saying that science has a history of being biased against women. So, first takehome point--there are academics who really do think this way.

Second take home point--I left the school because I realized it has no influence over anything.

I used to think that these lefty academics were best ignored since it really is true that the world just keeps going about its normal business and ignores them. However, we have issues facing our country now that are going to require straightforward and dispassionate thinking about controversial topics. Here I am thinking mostly about immigration and education, but there are other areas where the academic left still has a strong presence and can potentially cause damage outside of their "echo chamber." I realize now that if it were not for the rare Charles Murray, Steven Pinker, Steve Sailer, George Borjas, Samuel Hunington, and the VC guys, the far lefties might actually be able to have direct influence over major policy issues. If the lefties were uncontested in the intellectual realm, then they would constantly be pointing out that "studies" have proven this and that, so the American public must follow their prescriptions or they are racist, sexist, etc. The conservative scholars provide an important opposition in the intellectual debate because it makes the liberal theories and studies look less conclusive, and oftentimes the appearance of authority is the only way for the public to judge research.

So kudos David Bernstein. Your work here is not irrelevant at all, and I hope a new generation of scholars follows your lead.
5.13.2008 2:30pm
CJColucci:
All these generalities about "postmodernism" and "science studies" are just so much hand-waving. Does anyone here actually know anything about el-Haj's work? I've read several posters and commenters who, for various philosophical reasons, think it can't be any good, but they don't exhibit any familiarity with it. Can someone actually contribute something useful?
5.13.2008 2:40pm
Smokey:
Brian Mac:
Wow. Smokey just posted about pseudo-science without mentioning global warming!
I tied it in [as others did] earlier in the thread because I knew Brian Mac would be interested! [My interest comes from working in the field for thirty years.]
5.13.2008 2:42pm
EcoDude:
If anyone believes that gravity is a social construct, I encourage them to test their theory by jumping off of the nearest bridge.
5.13.2008 2:56pm
rarango (mail):
CJColucci: perhaps reading her work is simply too much of a waste of time when there are more productive things to be done, say watching American Idol :)

Seriously, there are some topics I simply don't want to read about. This happens to be one of those topics. Should I be commenting? probably not. But somethings are simply too good to pass up--starting with her name.
5.13.2008 3:01pm
Rickm:
EcoDude-

No one is arguing that gravity is a social construct.

Please stop with the straw men--I'd much prefer that David Bernstein's commenters just bash el-Haj for being of Palestinian descent.
5.13.2008 3:08pm
Kepler (mail):

[[science studies is like the sociology or anthropology of science]]

Or the history of science. But these critical studies are best carried out by those without skin in the game. A referee who favors one side is not the best referee. Let Nadia study the quixotic search for the magnetic monopole, for example.


Erm, no. "History of Science" as a discipline has nothing necessarily to do with science studies. "History of Science" is as legitimate a field of history as any other field (e.g., American history, European history, etc.). To suggest otherwise displays gross ignorance. Or would you rather that history departments not teach anything about Galileo, Newton and Darwin?

Of course, having a Ph.D. in History, and specializing in the History of Science, I suppose I do indeed "have a skin in the game"...hmm, perhaps my point-of-view is socially constructed?
5.13.2008 3:17pm
cathyf:
I would be interested in seeing a piece that identified "scientific" theories that can properly be identified as social constructions. Charlie alludes to such in the post above. Can anyone point to such a paper?

Examples that spring to mind include Freudian psychotherapy, the theory that stress was the primary cause of ulcers (rather than a cofactor with H. pylori), and the unbalanced aversion to sunlight for health reasons. And, of course, let's not get started on macro economics.
Some other folks brought up vaccine-autism nonsense, and I think that it's rather telling that somehow the examples that we find most appalling come from medicine (which is not a science, after all). So, there you are with a person who is going to die or be injured or have other very serious perhaps permanent consequences if you don't do the right thing, and you have no idea what the right thing is, so you do the best you can -- i.e. you make s*** up.

And anybody who is arguing somehow that "mainstream" medicine isn't hawking things that are clearly quackery isn't paying attention. To give some more examples: Modern obstetrics calls (pre)ecclampsia of pregnancy "toxemia" and "going toxic" even though this is clearly as bogus as the thermisorel-autism "toxicity" crap. And modern obstetricians prescribe bed rest to prevent (pre)ecclampsia or to prevent it's progress, even though bed rest is just as bogus as chelation therapy for autism. (At least they aren't prescribing chelation therapy for (pre)ecclampsia, eh?) Or another one -- passing out antibiotics as a treatment for viral infections. I live in a town that had an MRSA outbreak. Somehow passing out "the pink stuff" for any and all ill doesn't seem so cute to me, as opposed to, say, homeopathy, which I'm pretty sure never caused any bacteria to evolve to a more virulent state. I think that you could make a reasonable "social construct" theory for the US having a 30% c-section rate and a 90% episiotomy rate -- most obstetricians are also gynecologists, gynecology is a surgical specialty, and "when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

But, anyway, when it comes to "making s*** up" I think that it's pretty uncontroversial to claim that what does and does not get made up is at least partially socially constructed. And when you are tote up all of ulcer sufferers who have gotten snotty little lectures about needing to relax, and mothers who have had unnecessary surgery in childbirth, and people who've gotten prescriptions for unnecessary antibiotics, and pregnant women who were on bogus bed rest, and the folks who are going to die from the broken hip that they got from the vitamin-D deficiency resulting from a lifetime of photo-phobia -- well, is it any wonder that science as a whole has a certain credibility problem? And maybe we ought to look a little closer to home for the source of the credibility problem than the various wacky global-warming, anti-vaccination or intelligent-design proponents...
5.13.2008 3:17pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
My thanks here to Gabriel Hanna and Timothy S. Hamilton on their asides into real science. I appreciate Gabriel's point that C isn't important because that it how fast light goes in a vacuum, but rather that light just happens to be limited to this speed, presumably because of relativity. No matter how often I have run into this point, I seem to keep forgetting it, due to calling C the speed of light. I also appreciate Timothy's brief synopsis of where astrophysics is right now. His description was one of the more clear that I have read.
5.13.2008 3:18pm
Andrew J. Lazarus (mail):
The fact that most of what passes for "Science Studies" is garbage shouldn't invalidate the entire enterprise, although as a practical matter about the organization of Academe, it probably will. Questions, for example, about allocation of scientific resources are obviously worthwhile.

In the present case, there are already disputes about the effect of bias in Middle East archaeology. Look at the argument over the structure and purpose of the Qumran Community where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. It doesn't seem like a stretch to say that the fact many of the first researchers were Jesuits biased them towards identifying Qumran as a quasi-monastic community. I've read that there is little to no evidence that the site labeled "The Refectory" served that purpose, except for the predisposition of the researchers to interpret what they saw through their own experience.

I haven't done any independent research into this, but my wife, who works in the field, is a member of the minority faction (i.e., opposed to the belief Qumran was a remote monastery of the Essenes).

Whether Prof. Abu al Haj's work has merit needs the sort of analysis that I'm not competent to give. If it consists of regurgitating the usual postmodernist buzzwords, we can assume it's junk. But there are other possibilities.
5.13.2008 3:53pm
Rickm:
Thats a wonderful position take regarding revolutionary scholarship: Its junk, unless someone else shows me otherwise.
5.13.2008 3:58pm
Iolo:
I think J.F. Thomas has something of a point: even if these views are out there, what danger do they pose other than embarrassment to their respective institutions if no scientists or philosophers take them seriously?

The problem is that for a great many students, who have little or no grounding in real science, "science studies" balderdash constitutes their primary exposure to "science" during their time at university. Thus, these "science studies" charlatans are driving down the overall level of scientific literacy in this country.

Also, while there's a lot of bullshit in literary studies, few things bother me more than right-wing populists who throw the baby out with the bathwater and decide that universities do nothing but fill students' minds with crap.

There is a great deal more horsesh*t than horse in the big barn of academia.
5.13.2008 3:59pm
MarkField (mail):

First of all, Ben Stein wasn't just given tenure at a top 50 or so institution and isn't having his absurd advocacy of ID certified as scholarship.


No, he just gets a national newspaper column, TV airtime, and the production of a deceitful movie. Let me guess who has more potential to influence people, Stein or some obscure academic.
5.13.2008 4:16pm
rarango (mail):
Kepler: enjoyed your comment. Would not Historiography be a science study? Seems to me the issue is particularly salient in your field of study.
5.13.2008 4:23pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

"History of Science" is as legitimate a field of history as any other field

Sure. And isn't part of the history of science to hypothesize about what got studied and why, because the history of science examines the interaction of science, society, and culture? Intellectuals should always try to root out bias. A Creationist would have a hard time dispassionately documenting the work of fossil hunters. A person documenting the interaction of Europeans and Native Americans probably not fervently believe that the Cherokees were one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
5.13.2008 4:35pm
LM (mail):

Please stop with the straw men--I'd much prefer that David Bernstein's commenters just bash el-Haj for being of Palestinian descent.

Nice paradox.
5.13.2008 4:37pm
Andrew J. Lazarus (mail):
Thats a wonderful position take regarding revolutionary scholarship: Its junk, unless someone else shows me otherwise.
A field whose experts can't detect an outrageous parody is full of junk. Check the analysis of fluid mechanics upthread for the sort of beyond-parody stuff of Science Studies.

I don't mind revolutionary scholarship. I'm not the least bit in agreement with Gertrude Himmelfarb on the relative importance of menarche and monarchy to historians. That doesn't change the fact that Science Studies, which could have been valuable, is dominated by academics whose methodologies are extremely dubious. Don't take my word for it. What did postmodernist Science Studier Andrew Ross have in mind when he began the introduction to Strange Weather thanking "all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them."
5.13.2008 4:44pm
Timothy S. Hamilton (mail) (www):
Bruce Hayden--

Thanks, man! It gives me practice for presenting this stuff to my students, too.
5.13.2008 5:15pm
Mike Z (mail) (www):
Whatever they think "science studies" is, they probably have little knowledge of science itself.

There's already a discipline that addresses the real subject: History of Science (as Kepler points out). See Owen Gingerich, for starters.

Her area of expertise seems to be in showing that The old kingdoms of Israel didn't exist. Her book, "Facts on the Ground" tries to show that in essence, Jewish history is a political construct.

Her origins are in anthropology. That would qualify her for a position in Anthropology, but not necessarily Science in general.

I get the impression, reading websites abut her work, that she's indeed influenced by postmodernism. One of the best "deconstructions" of that field is "Fashionable Nonsense" (which includes a reference to Luce Iragaray's nonsense about the speed of light (See Gabriel Hanna's comment).

More than one of you suggested that researchers have some degree of impartiality. I cannot believe that Abu El Haj has that quality. I'd like to see one of her syllabuses or lesson plans - and the final exam.
5.13.2008 5:16pm
Waldensian (mail):

I take it Professor that you're completely unfamiliar with the "Mercury causes autism" and "MMR [and/or vaccines] cause autism" arguments. Based upon little more than the fraudulent "research" of Dr. Wakefield and people making loads of money touting "chelation cures" (or diet "cures" or whatever other fad cure of the moment), currently before the Vaccine Court is the second round of trials (and Jenny McCarthy is on tour promoting her new book and her argument "My son is my science."). The arguments in this area are based on the rejection of science -- and the taxpayers and consumers are paying a high price. This is just one example of the "outside world" far from "ignor[ing]" such "flights of fancy".

Actually, Prof. Bernstein is well aware of the pseudoscience of many autism claims, and has blogged about it quite vigorously and insightfully. I've got two kids with autism (the real kind, not the made-for-tv kind), and they desperately need scarce research dollars to be spent responsibly, so I count Prof. Bernstein's contributions on that topic as no small favor.

Aside from that important topic, of course, I think Prof. Bernstein and I would disagree about the color of an orange. :)
5.13.2008 5:21pm
Ken Arromdee:
http://www.csicop.org/si/2004-11/bacteria.html

Skeptical Inquirer article on bacteria and ulcers.

Suffice it to say that the media liked to rewrite it into closed-mindedness on the part of scientists; it wasn't.
5.13.2008 5:31pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

Chomsky's specialty is linguistics. It's hardly one of the hard sciences.


Linguistics may not be as "hard" as physics, but it is a lot "harder" than most social sciences, and some areas, e.g. experimental phonetics, are pretty hard. Chomsky's political views have nothing to do either with his linguistics or with the standards of argumentation and evidence in linguistics more generally.
5.13.2008 5:42pm
Cold Warrior:
Kepler said:

"History of Science" as a discipline has nothing necessarily to do with science studies. "History of Science" is as legitimate a field of history as any other field (e.g., American history, European history, etc.). To suggest otherwise displays gross ignorance. Or would you rather that history departments not teach anything about Galileo, Newton and Darwin?


I'm not sure I understand. You want your discipline to be viewed as inherently more legitimate than something called (by Levitt) "science studies?"

Why not just say, "I do what Levitt disparagingly calls "science studies," and I do it well."
5.13.2008 5:44pm
MXE (mail):
The problem is that for a great many students, who have little or no grounding in real science, "science studies" balderdash constitutes their primary exposure to "science" during their time at university.

Only lit crit and fem studies students. Really. It's a large number, but it's not a very big percentage of college students.

There is a great deal more horsesh*t than horse in the big barn of academia.

Right, all those medical, military, computing and economics advances that came out of universities, and the skills they teach like foreign languages, music, writing, law, and mathematics are totally outweighed by a few whining bullshitters who try to sound obscure on purpose.
5.13.2008 7:17pm
MXE (mail):
There is a great deal more horsesh*t than horse in the big barn of academia.

I should also point out this irony: your thesis sounds remarkably similar to Abu el Haj's. I guess anti-intellectualism comes full circle, huh?
5.13.2008 7:20pm
PLR:
It's 5:25 CDT. Methinks the VC is overdue for a topic on Obama or Marc Dann (articles of impeachment introduced today).
5.13.2008 7:26pm
SenatorX (mail):
Sigh. Oh look another junk scientist.

"While the government has been utterly unable to stop it, or even tell us what is causing it, they say they do know one thing: it's not vaccines. But today, in an exclusive interview with CBS News, Dr. Bernadine Healy becomes the most well-known medical voice yet to counter the government on that claim.

Healy's credentials couldn't be more "mainstream." After all, she once was a top government health official as head of the National Institutes of Health. She founded the first school of public health in Ohio, and then headed both the school of public health and the school of medicine at Ohio State University. She's an internist and cardiologist. And she's a member of the Institute of Medicine, the government advisory board that tried to put the vaccine-autism controversy to rest in 2004 by saying a link was not likely.

According to Healy, when she began researching autism and vaccines she found credible published, peer-reviewed scientific studies that support the idea of an association. That seemed to counter what many of her colleagues had been saying for years. She dug a little deeper and was surprised to find that the government has not embarked upon some of the most basic research that could help answer the question of a link.

The more she dug, she says, the more she came to believe the government and medical establishment were intentionally avoiding the question because they were afraid of the answer."
5.13.2008 7:44pm
wfjag:
JorgXMcKie wrote:


Personally, I pay no attention to the (many) post-modernists on my campus, since everything the do, say, think, or write is founded on their personal views without regard to the reality of the personal views of those around them, and their disciplinary imperialism is off-putting.


Query: Did you create that great T-shirt: "I reject your reality and substitute my own"? It seems to summarize Science Studies so well.


Waldensian - You have my sympathy. One of my sons is autistic.


and they desperately need scarce research dollars to be spent responsibly


I wholly concur -- which is one of the reasons I am totally put off by the cases pending before the Vaccine Court (and that PLTFs' attorneys and their "experts" will be paid even if (when) they lose, the funds for that coming from the $.75 per vaccine tax), and that the same PLTFs can then sue the drug companies (diverting more resources from the research). I also am put off by NIH's funding of Complementary &Alternative Medical (CAM) research, since I don't think that "research" on "healing touch", "massage therapy", and other CAM scams does anything other than placate vocal groups whose "research" has resulted in nothing of any particular value, but diverts $Millions annually from promising research.
5.13.2008 7:49pm
wfjag:
SenatorX, I particularly liked Healy's idea of:


Lastly, Healy says the government has a long way to go to even do basic research that could get at the heart of what she believes is an open question. For example: why in the past decade hasn't the government compared the autism/ADD rate of unvaccinated children with that of vaccinated children? If the rate is the same, it tends to point away from vaccines. If the rate is markedly lower in unvaccinated children, it tends to point toward vaccines.


Let's see - let's do some double blind studies. Half the kids get polio vaccines and the other half get a placebo. To the parents of those kids who contract polio and die or are horribly disabled by a preventable disease -- Tough. And, we repeat that for all the other childhood diseases for which proven vaccines are available. And, to avoid the possiblility that the results were due to chance, replicate the "experiments."
5.13.2008 7:57pm
SenatorX (mail):
Strawman meet wfjag.
5.13.2008 8:05pm
Andrew J. Lazarus (mail):
Too bad for Dr Healy, thimerosal is out of the vaccines, and autism didn't drop.
5.13.2008 8:36pm
cathyf:
For example: why in the past decade hasn't the government compared the autism/ADD rate of unvaccinated children with that of vaccinated children?
Well, um, because they have? Well, it wasn't the US government, it was Denmark. Because they have universal health care, they have all of their data in central government computers, so it was fairly straightforward for them to write some data-mining computer programs to compare autism rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated children. There is no association, and they have lots of data with thimerosal and about a decade without (they took thimerosal out earlier than in the US). There is no association with or without the thimerosal.

(That's the problem with treating medicine like it is a science and doctors are scientists. Unfortunately, doctors are sometimes just as gooy quacks as the postmodernists.)
5.13.2008 9:01pm
SenatorX (mail):
Andrew, too bad for children with autism and their parents that nobody can figure out what is going on would be more accurate. I am not sure what secret agenda you have ascribed to Dr Healy. Please enlighten me. Also it is false logic to say a) it's not thimerosal and therefore b) its not vaccines. There is a lot going on in a vaccine and it is quite possible that it is not thimerosal but is one of the other components. Hence the study of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated would be a valuable study and your statement doesn't denigrate the suggestion one bit. Do you acknowledge this?
5.13.2008 9:08pm
SenatorX (mail):
cathyf, unfortunately that Denmark study has flaws though it is often trotted out as definitive proof. Combined with the flawed methodology was an undisclosed conflict of interest for Poul Thorsen (co-author). The Denmark study hasn't closed the door on a possible link (again unfortunately).
5.13.2008 9:27pm
Volokh Groupie:
I hope we see a volokh post on this:

CU Boulder looking for a new professor.
5.13.2008 9:46pm
wfjag:
No, SenatorX, it is not a Strawman argument. Rather, it is sarcasm based on a knowledge of scientific methodology for experimentation. Maybe that's why you misunderstood. How would you propose "testing" vaccines? Perhaps a telephone survey in which the parents answering the questions recollect the timing of on-set of ASD symptoms vis-a-vis when the vaccinations (&which vaccinations) were given?

And, please, if you're going to cite an article allegedly casting doubt on the Denmark study, don't cite an article by "Mark Blaxill, Director, Safe Minds". "Safe Minds" is an advocacy organization committed to the argument that mercury causes autism.

The argument lacks any basis in science.

First, thimerosal was never in the MMR vaccines. The MMR vaccines use weakened viruses, which thirmerosal would kill.

Second, after injection into the human body, thimerosal rapidly breaks down into ethylmercury. The half-life of blood mercury after vaccination averages 3.7 days for newborns and infants, much shorter than the 44 days for methylmercury. However, the objections to thimerosal in vaccines were based on extrapolating from dose-response relationships for methylmercury -- a compound that responds completely differently. Moreover,thimerosal has been being removed from vaccines in the US since 1999 (and in most of Western Europe even earlier), and thirmerosal free vaccines are available. But there has been no decline in the rates of ASD diagnoses. Rather, generally those rates have increased. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thiomersal for a simple discussion.

Third, "Autism rates in Japan continued to rise after the withdrawal of MMR vaccine." Autism in the absence of MMR vaccine on www.jr2.ox.ac.uk/bandolier, reviewing H Honda et al. No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2005 doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2005.01425.x

Vaccines do not cause autism. Is that clear enough for you? And, no "nobody can figure out what is going on would be more accurate" is not an accurate statement. There is considerable research now beginning to shed light on the genetic underpinning of ASD and the neurological differences in the brain structure and functioning of those with autisms (plural intended) and neurotypical individuals. So, let's not waste more research dollars on a "study of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated", and direct that money towards the research that is beginning to provide answers.
5.13.2008 10:10pm
Waldensian (mail):
SenatorX:

There is a lot going on in a vaccine and it is quite possible that it is not thimerosal but is one of the other components.

Ah yes, another chapter in the constantly morphing vaccine theory of autism causation. First the MMR, then thimerosal, and now "one of the other components." Answer truthfully: did you ever believe that the MMR was responsible? If so, are you willing to admit now that you were wrong?

SenatorX, quoting a story on Healy:

According to Healy, when she began researching autism and vaccines she found credible published, peer-reviewed scientific studies that support the idea of an association.

Okay SenatorX, Healy didn't identify these studies -- can you? Let's talk about the nitty gritty here. If there are credible published peer-reviewed scientific studies that "support the idea of an association," whatever that means, let's debate their merits.

Come to think of it, it appears you're already convinced of causation, not merely correlation/association -- so what credible, published, peer-reviewed scientific studies convinced you that vaccines cause autism? There must be many of them; you wouldn't form such an opinion based only on prejudice and anecdote, would you?

Research dollars that could help my kids should not be sacrificed on the altar of people who have an axe to grind. I'm tired, tired, tired of that crap.

wfjag notes:

I also am put off by NIH's funding of Complementary &Alternative Medical (CAM) research, since I don't think that "research" on "healing touch", "massage therapy", and other CAM scams does anything other than placate vocal groups whose "research" has resulted in nothing of any particular value, but diverts $Millions annually from promising research.

You go. Don't even get me started about "alternative medicine." There is no such thing -- there is medicine that is evidence based, and there is "medicine" that is not evidence based. Like chelation for kids with autism. Great idea there, huh.

Wfjag, I'm terribly sorry to hear you're on the team. But I'm very, very glad to see you raising the candle of reason.
5.13.2008 10:23pm
Brian Mac:

It is astonishing that the climate deceivers/false alarmists refuse to acknowledge the highly educated views of internationally recognized scientists, such as Prof. Richard Lindzen

Heh. If you were even vaguely interested in truth, you'd know that Lindzen views AGW as the most plausible explanation. But you're not.
5.13.2008 10:23pm
Waldensian (mail):

Research dollars that could help my kids should not be sacrificed on the altar of people who have an axe to grind.

Sorry. I tend to jumble metaphors when I'm hacked off. I sort of like how that turned out, though. It has sort of an Abraham feel.
5.13.2008 10:35pm
SenatorX (mail):
Strawman because this : Half the kids get polio vaccines and the other half get a placebo. To the parents of those kids who contract polio and die or are horribly disabled by a preventable disease -- Tough. And, we repeat that for all the other childhood diseases for which proven vaccines are available. And, to avoid the possiblility that the results were due to chance, replicate the "experiments."

Ignores what she said here : "The government has a dataset of unvaccinated children available. It has published more than one survey of parents of undervaccinated and unvaccinated children (to find out why the parents are choosing not to vaccinate). It would seem simple to use those same families to measure their rate of autism/ADD. Also, why hasn't the government used vaccine court as a resource to ask the autism/vaccine question. There, nearly 5,000 families have self-selected as believing their children's autism was caused by vaccines. Many have expressed willingness to let their children's medical records be released and studied; but nobody in the government has been interested."

I am fully aware of where that article comes from and also the response it would get. The fact remains though that if I dispute your study and you dispute mine, we are left with the merits of the actual dispute to the study outside of authoritarian one-up-manship. The arguments against the Denmark study either hold up on their own merits or don't. Appeal to authority is one of the fallacies.

You are right that a flood of money is going into research to figure out a genetic cause of autism. Mostly because that is safe research. I have two science degrees and studied genetics though. You will have a hard time convincing me that a global genetic explosion of autism is occuring outside of an environmental trigger. You can say "vaccines don't cause autism" till you're blue in the face but stating absolutes while not identifying the actual cause of autism is not science, that's dogma.
5.13.2008 10:45pm
Volokh Groupie:
@Brian Mac

Do we really need to get into the Iris hypothesis, Lindzen's (along with others' belief) that a 2% global mean temperature increase isn't significant and his criticism of the ipcc reports to clarify that his view isn't unfairly disregarded?

In the line you quoted the first commenter didn't seem to mention that Lindzen was in fact a disbeliever in AGW as a source of temperature increase but even if it was (and to be honest i'd say the vast majority of laymen on both sides of the debate couldn't tell you the difference between albedo and radiative forcing) I think the point of the commenter was that Lindzen is a dissident to prevalent AGW thought and is disregarded by some as a result. I don't believe that's controversial.
5.13.2008 11:22pm
SenatorX (mail):
Waldensian I am familiar with your case and viewpoint. I think you are projecting basically because I am the one with the open mind and you the one who has decided you already know the truth. You can accuse me of moving the goal posts all you want but I have never stated the cause of autism but instead just cast doubt on the arguments of those who claim to know for sure it is not vaccines.

I am sorry about your children but I think it is possible that you have a psychological block against certain things because of your personal situation. It doesn't sound to me like your children were hit with the regressive form of autism so perhaps early intervention wouldn't have helped. I wonder what you think about people who have been treating their kids with "alternative medicine" and succeeding. Do you consign those to mis-diagnoses? Can you explain why my child regresses at the same time his breath smells funny and gets better when it goes away? Can you explain his regression when exposed to gluten? Why shouldn't a parent look to diet control when they see a swollen belly, funny breath smells and nasty diapers? Why shouldn't this indicate an intestinal link to autism? Why shouldn't they also look to the swollen heads and inflammation in the brain and wonder about immune responses. Why shouldn't they look to metabolic problems that might cause a child to have issues processing toxins?

Further if they medical professionals who treat these symptoms with "alternative medicine" and they work, what point is there in you saying they are stupid? It's not about you it's about doing whatever works until there is more knowledge. Not to mention that the alternative to "alternative medicine" is NOTHING. That's the comical part when you use that phrase as if my kid was going to a witch doctor instead of a pediatrician. We aren't burning sage and casting out the spirits. We have a diagnosis of encephalopathy, unspecified and metabolic disorder and the treatments we have been trying have been working great. His change over the past year has been amazing. We see other children in his class where the parents do nothing (even give their kid's flu shots) and we say nothing, though sadly the children are not recovering and even get worse.

You bring out the old case of the 1 chelation death and ignore the many thousands of safe chelations (we don't chelate for what its worth). Also you cast it falsely as a problem with chelation in general and not a specific incidence of possible malpractice:

"The CDC, which investigated the boy's death, has said the boy was given a synthetic amino acid called Disodium EDTA instead of Calcium Disodium EDTA. Both are odorless, colorless liquids and may have been confused, the CDC found.
The Department of State also contended Kerry prescribed an IV push — giving the drugs in one dose intravenously instead of over a period of time — despite warnings that it could be lethal."

Last I read many things that prove outright that vaccine science is not perfect. There is plenty of room for doubt when someone appeals to authority to tell you something is perfectly safe.
5.13.2008 11:33pm
Smokey:
Brian Mac, from your post above it's clear that you believe yourself to be the arbiter of truth in others, and someone who can divine whether or not other posters are interested in scientific facts, but really, get over yourself. You've been birddogging my well-meaning and factually linked posts lately. Why? Why not just produce some genuine evidence yourself, rather than resorting to your constant ad homs?

I've followed Dr. Lindzen for the past two decades. To cut to the chase, his position is that almost 100% of the minor warming due to CO2 has already occurred, and that a substantial additional increase in carbon dioxide would cause *very* little additional warming [see Lindzen's CO2/warming analogy on painting and re-painting a window].

Lindzen agrees that a slight amount of warming is due to CO2, however, he states:

"It is indisputable that we have increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the air as a result of human activity, and it's also indisputable that over the last few decades average global temperatures have gone up. Given the alarm surrounding the issue, such statements seem peculiarly inconclusive and irrelevant to the catastrophes cited. To be sure, these references are one-sided. They fail to note that there are many sources of climate change and that profound climate change has occurred many times both before and after man appeared on the Earth; given the ubiquity of climate change, it is implausible that all change is for the worse. Moreover, the coincidence of increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and the small warming over the past century hardly establishes causality." [emphasis mine]

Also see here, and here, and here. Got plenty more Lindzen if you're really interested, rather than just using snark in place of science -- which seems to be the central problem in the current debate.
5.13.2008 11:40pm
Smokey:
Volokh Groupie posted while I was composing, and I didn't read his/her comment until after I posted above.

In re-reading my post, I believe I crossed the line into snarkyness myself, and I apologize to Brian Mac.
5.13.2008 11:44pm
Brian Mac:

I think the point of the commenter was that Lindzen is a dissident to prevalent AGW thought and is disregarded by some as a result.

He is and he isn't. He's obviously not a big fan of most climate models and is pretty vocal about the influence of politics and money on climate change research (does that make him postmodernist?). But his published research doesn't really dispute the main hypothesis (I think he's pretty much dropped his IRIS idea), it's just skeptical about whether the data establishes causality.

I think this kind of answers Smokey too (no need to apologise, I did kind of start it...).
5.14.2008 8:12am
Karl Lembke (mail) (www):
These ideas are at the least heavily tinctured with what, for want of a better term, is usually called "postmodernism." This incorporates the attitude that knowledge claims are, perforce, political claims, that "objective knowledge" is an oxymoron, and that modern science, in particular, is a repressive ideological edifice designed to bolster the hegemony of western capitalist patriarchal societies, not least by demeaning and displacing the "alternative ways of knowing" that are embedded in non-western cultures or are simply more appropriate to marginalized sub-populations (women for instance!)

This point of view is strongly conveyed by the science-studies sages from whom Abu el Haj tries to derive her theoretical authority...


I think if I ever found myself being lectured at by one of these "science studies sages", I'd offer the following challenge:
Here is a vial of poison. Science says drinking it will kill you. You say this is merely a social construct. Do you believe what you say?


(And I'd probably "poison" it with a few milligrams of phenolpthalein -- the active ingredient in Ex-Lax. Not enough to kill or cause permanent harm, but enough to make the person too busy to lecture for at least a few hours.)
5.14.2008 5:13pm
Iolo:
Only lit crit and fem studies students. Really. It's a large number, but it's not a very big percentage of college students.

A very big percentage of college students does indeed have a very poor and superficial understanding of science. They may not believe Abu el Haj's particular brand of fashionable leftist nonsense, but they're getting their bad ideas from somewhere in the social science departments.

Right, all those medical, military, computing and economics advances that came out of universities, and the skills they teach like foreign languages, music, writing, law, and mathematics are totally outweighed by a few whining bullshitters who try to sound obscure on purpose.

Only about 16% of all bachelor's degrees are awarded in science / mathematics / engineering / compsci. That's where all those advances come from. The rest of it is largely horseh*t. We wouldn't lose much if all those professors disappeared tomorrow.

I should also point out this irony: your thesis sounds remarkably similar to Abu el Haj's. I guess anti-intellectualism comes full circle, huh?

My brand of "anti-intellectualism" is different from hers. If it is "anti-intellectual" to oppose pseudo-intellectual charlatans, so be it.
5.14.2008 5:14pm
Waldensian (mail):

You can accuse me of moving the goal posts all you want but I have never stated the cause of autism but instead just cast doubt on the arguments of those who claim to know for sure it is not vaccines.

You are making the claim, not me. Still waiting to hear about those peer reviewed studies you're relying on.

It doesn't sound to me like your children were hit with the regressive form of autism so perhaps early intervention wouldn't have helped.

You're wrong.

I wonder what you think about people who have been treating their kids with "alternative medicine" and succeeding.

I think all this claimed anecdotal success ought to be awfully easy to show in a valid, credible, peer-reviewed study. Seen any?

Not to mention that the alternative to "alternative medicine" is NOTHING.

You do realize it's possible that there is NO scientifically proven, evidence-based treatment for your child's condition, right?
5.14.2008 6:12pm
SenatorX (mail):
I don't think you understand, my child is recovering. Except for periodic regression caused by certain exposures and yeast outbreaks in the gut he is almost normal. Since we started treatments a year ago we have resolved eye contact, head banging, obsessive behavior, and stimming. The regression hits that garble his language are our only remaining issue really. We do diet experiments and see the evidence for ourselves.

All you've done is put yourself in a box and now you are determined everyone else has to live in your box too. I believe there are no limits at all to science and it will expand forever.
5.14.2008 10:53pm
Hey Skipper:
Gabriel Hanna and Timothy S. Hamilton:

Excellent posts, thank you very much.
5.15.2008 1:53am
Kepler (mail):
I'm not sure I understand. You want your discipline to be viewed as inherently more legitimate than something called (by Levitt) "science studies?"

Why not just say, "I do what Levitt disparagingly calls "science studies," and I do it well."


"History of Science" is to science what "American history" is to America. "Science studies" is to science what Derrida is to literature. The former (History of Science) attempts to describe the events surrounding the development and growth of scientific ideas and practices and the people involved, while the latter (Science studies) of the people in order to discover how the ideas are formed by the way science is practiced. And (so the science studies advocates assert) since EVERYONE is motivated first and foremost by a thirst for power, all science is nothing more than a mere power grab. (The finest example of this theory at work is Shapin &Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump.)

In Abu el Haj's case, she tries to argue that the histories of Israel are socially constructed myths meant to be a backdrop upon which a modern state of Israel could be founded. If a rational human tries to being up "facts" which support an ancient claim (for example, the dead sea scrolls) these are often written-off as "forgeries" meant to bolster the myth.

No, ColdWarrior, I do not merely do "science studies" better. I don't do that at all. "History of Science" pays attention to those nasty little facts, and adjusts course as necessary.
5.15.2008 3:55pm