Geoff Cooper (1999) 'The Fear of Unreason: Science Wars and Sociology '
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Received: 12/8/1999 Accepted: 27/9/1999 Published: 30/9/1999
'Science is Under Attack'. Formerly the attacks came from outside the academic and scientific disciplines. Increasingly, now, they come from within. These attacks are dangerous: they undermine public confidence; they alter directions of research; they affect funding; they subvert the standards of reason and proof.
scholarly problems of monumental proportions are found in the immediate vicinity of just about every point of Higher Superstition. It is not so much embarrassing errors [..] that are most crucial (we all make mistakes, sometimes absurd mistakes) but the intellectually and scholarly inadmissible practices and attitudes that pervade - and define - this sadly irresponsible book. (Plotnitsky, 1997: 9)
the treatment of truth as accepted belief is a maxim of method, and rightly so. If one means to interpret variation in belief, then it seems prudent to ask how it is that truth speaks in different voices, how it is that what 'they' account to be true comes to be so accounted, and to approach those inquiries with a methodological disposition towards charity. (Shapin, 1994: 4)
Is it rational to worry about reason and its principle?Not simply; but it would be over-hasty to seek to disqualify this concern and to refer those who experience it back to their own irrationalism, their obscurantism, their nihilism. Who is more faithful to reason's call, who hears it with a keener ear, who better sees the difference, the one who offers questions in return and tries to think through the possibility of that summons, or the one who does not want to hear any question about the reason of reason? (Derrida, 1983: 9).
like those in the village of a child's story, many - and not by any means just sociologists - are at risk of becoming a people who organize their wide-awake lives with respect to a subject they wish would go away (Lemert, 1997: 7)
2It is not however clear that such an explanation is required: the emergence of Science Wars may be adequately explained by saying that the greater public profile of some of the 'academic left' brought their work to the attention of natural scientists who had not hitherto been aware of it.
3That it was published in an issue devoted to critical reflection on the position that Sokal holds (as opposed to the one he feigned) increased the poignancy of the success: there are suggestive parallels with a recurrent narrative structure within urban legends, in which a feared intruder is revealed to have already breached the boundary being defended (see Woolgar and Russell, 1990, Woolgar and Cooper, 1999)
4For example, the relevance of the article's fraudulent status can be interpreted in different ways. Hilgartner (1997) claims that Sokal has unwittingly endorsed one of the claims of science studies with respect to the social basis of scientific publication, and his article can be categorised within a genre of 'experimental' studies on the topic.
5For a critical review which documents some of the extraordinary effects the book has had in France, see Callon, 1999.
6Richard Dawkins now infamous statement on the matter was repeated in the course of this discussion. 'If it gives you satisfaction to say that the theory of aerodynamics is a social construct that is your privilege, but why do you then entrust your air-travel plans to a Boeing rather than a magic carpet? As I have put it before, show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I will show you a hypocrite' (Dawkins, 1994, 17)
7Gieryn (1999: epilogue) gives a good introduction to some of the key events and sources. In addition to the texts referenced elsewhere in this article, see Ross (1996) for defences of the 'academic left', and, for an example of a more constructive exchange, Bloor (1998) and Mermin (1998). The website <http://www.members.tripod.com/~ScienceWars/index.html> is also a useful resource.
8The alliance between some of the parties under attack barely gets even to the level of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', and there are some major epistemological (and other) differences.
9See Burningham and Cooper (1999) for discussion of this point.
10Latour (1999) argues that the perception that SSK does not believe in reality, comic as it is, results from our continuing failure to break out of the unsatisfactory Kantian distinction between construction and reality.
11An excellent analysis of the configuration and dynamics of epistemological disputes, undertaken from a position of sympathy for relativist arguments, can be found in Smith (1997).
12In a telling episode of 'Third Rock From The Sun', the alien physics professor, after failing to increase the 'public understanding of physics' finally recognises that its impenetrability is essential to its status: "That's the wonderful thing about physics: nobody understands it!".
13On this point, see Douglas (1995).
14Another is Mouzelis (1995).
15This must remain a speculative assertion; but if it has any validity, I would suggest that the notion of a crisis of sociology also depends on an over inflated sense of the importance of theory.
16I am not arguing that particular authors are guilty of bad faith but simply that, looked at as a form of discourse, the recurrence of crisis talk invites us to ask different questions.
17It is ironic in this respect that he has served as a spokesperson for those attacked for excessive social constructionism.
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