Paul R. Gross and Normal Levitt
Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994
ISBN 0-8018-4766-4
314 pages, $25.95 hb.
This review Copyright 1995 by Gary McGath

And everyone will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man
This deep young man must be!"
-- W. S. Gilbert, Patience

There have been a number of good critiques of left-wing pseudo-science, but Higher Superstition differs from most of them in an important respect. The authors have nothing but sympathy for leftist politics; their disagreement is only with the irrational attacks on science which come out of academia. While their political views hardly improve the book as such, they do free it from charges of bias which may be hurled at the others. When advocates of individual rights attack advocates of socialism for their bad science, both supporters and opponents of socialism may wonder whether politics has led the critics to overstate their case. This charge cannot readily be made against Gross and Levitt.

We have to pay for this presumed credibility, of course, by wading through some very silly writing. Chapter 2, "Some History and Politics," is a confused attempt to place the academic left in a historical context. It does not even define "left," which, like "right," is more often an epithet hurled at one's opponents than a self-description with a specific meaning. However, the confused and disconnected nature of the chapter is, perhaps, a reflection of the fragmentation and intellectual self-demolition of the left. To define is to defer to objectivity, something which doesn't sit well with the modern left. (For the present purpose, "leftism" could be defined as egalitarian collectivism, as opposed to both individualism and "rightist" hierarchical collectivism.)

Indeed, it is the left's infatuation with "postmodernism," "cultural constructivism," "perspectivism," and their rejection of objectivity which, as the authors show, stands behind many of the academic attacks on science. These terms -- especially "postmodernism" -- are buzzwords more than concepts, but they gravitate around a set of beliefs that rejects the idea of objective knowledge. Confusing relativity with relativism, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle with a blanket confession of inability to measure reality, they declare that "the incompleteness, indeterminacy, and arbitrariness of the subject now reappeared in the natural world." Claiming that science is driven by political and economic needs, they see physical laws as inventions responding to these needs rather than as identifications of reality.

The book frequently points out the fallacy which these critics of science repeatedly commit: they exempt themselves from their claims that objectivity is impossible. In arguing against alleged distortions of their own writings, and arguing that their words have specific meanings, "the panic-stricken deconstructionists ran headlong from the implications of their own doctrine."

The chapters on feminist and environmentalist anti-science are two of the best in the book -- so good as to make the reader wonder, at least briefly, how sincere the authors are in their commitment to socialism. They tell us:

[M]any feminist tracts accept and defend the notion that there is no "objective" science, merely a variety of perspectives, one of which -- patriarchal science -- has been "valorized" and "empowered" so as to preclude until now the possibility of a feminist science.

Notions of feminist science range from the merely silly -- insisting that "feminist algebra's" word problems should portray the activities of lesbian couples, or claiming that the practice of "manipulating" data proves that mathematics is manipulative -- to the positively inimical to science -- asserting the necessity "to reinvent both science and theorizing itself to make sense of women's social experience." The authors point out that the feminists assert, but never prove, that science is somehow inadequate or mistaken without this feminist regeneration. The most amusing comment in the chapter is in response to Sandra Harding's characterization of Newton's Principia as a "rape manual": "We pity coming generations of freshmen physics students who, titillated by this famous remark, will spend long hours thumbing through that magisterial work, looking for the dirty bits."

In the chapter on environmentalism, the authors cast further doubt on their leftist credentials; they even cite Michael Fumento favorably. They note the penchant of radical environmentalists for casting hypotheses as facts, and ignoring all evidence against impending catastrophe, and their anti-human bias: "Human suffering, as such, while not neglected (especially when the victims are female or nonwhite) is notably secondary." They do a thorough job on Jeremy Rifkin, at one point taking three pages to dissect all the fallacies which he crams into just two sentences. And one must wonder how serious their hatred of capitalism really is when they tell us unblushingly:

To us it is self-evident that a 1 percent improvement in the efficiency of photo-voltaic cells, say, is, in environmental terms, worth substantially more than all the utopian eco-babble ever published.

Could Petr Beckmann have put it any better? On the other hand, the authors consider a certain level of alarmism to be justifiable, and give qualified support to Stephen Schneider's infamous advice to "decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

The authors next turn their fire on AIDS activists who try to pretend that the whole population is equally at risk (once again citing Fumento), Afrocentrists who distort both science and history, and the animal rights crowd. They reserve some of their strongest contempt for the third group, noting that "Animal subject research is, without any question, enormously important to efficient medical practice, and its abandonment would entail incalculable human costs." However, they argue that Afrocentrism and animal rights advocacy are rare in what they consider to be the academic left.

The book concludes pessimistically, noting that current trends may lead to a schism between the scientific and humanistic faculties in universities, with the humanities as the chief losers. They argue that if MIT's Humanities Department walked out, the Institute could construct a new curriculum to replace them without much trouble. (I suspect this understates the case; if they walked out, their disappearance would be noticed only when people started wondering why the corridors near the Hayden Library were so quiet.)

Their pessimism is based on the assumption that teaching students to be good collectivists is desirable. For individualists, the intellectual suicide of the left is cause for optimism. As the authors note, "Scientists, and the scientifically well informed, will simply not accept any form of 'socialism' whose agenda includes the subversion of legitimate science." But unless something better stands ready to take its place, the liberal arts themselves will be discredited, and our culture will suffer for it. Advocates of reason have to reclaim the humanities, not just cast them adrift.

The authors appear to be perplexed by the question: why should leftist politics be so closely tied to anti-scientific irrationalism? To answer this, we need to observe that collectivism -- the subordination of the individual to the group -- is inherently anti-reason. The person who thinks for himself is a threat to the dominance of the collective, and scientists are people who think for themselves. Reason must be displaced by group thinking if collectivism is to prosper. In attacking science, the university leftists are showing their desperation: they must destroy reason or be destroyed by it. Their short-term chances of doing the former are slim, but unless their claims are defeated in the academic debate, they may do considerable long-term harm. Higher Superstition takes up the challenge well, and those of us who are individualists may count Gross and Levitt as our allies, if only on the issue of reason vs. unreason in science.

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