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: