Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Notes From The Culture Bunker

I really wish Dave G. weren't so damn busy getting his PhD. because he's got a very informed take on this subject. He might even come along and tell me I missed the point. In any case...

Yesterday's post from Pharyngula, especially his "liberal heresy" remark, put me in something of a nostalgic mood. Today's update to the post served to amplify the nostalgia and sent me back to the halcyon days of the mid to late 1990's: my time on the "far left" and my unwilling civilian role in the "science wars". You don't get to be a soldier on either side when you're in industry as I have been for the last 13 years; that's a pleasure reserved for academics. My significant other at that time was attending UC Berkeley, majoring in literature and art history with a feminist/deconstructionist skew, so I got to read and hear many of the arguments from that school of thought. It seemed like it the only game in humanities-town and served as a source of constant discussion. I also kept current on the arguments from the other side, best typified by Alan Sokal's hoax on the editors of "Social Text". Needless to say, there were quite a few important points left out on both sides which, if anyone had noticed, would have prepared them for the latest and worst front of all.

First, it's important to note that the "deconstructionist" / "post-modern" / whatever critique was not universally embraced by the left. Noam Chomksy, and much of the entire Z-Net crew, viewed it first with ambivalence, then with skepticism and finally with contempt. I read plenty of posts on the forums, and plenty of articles, which more or less said: "post modernism doesn't make any sense, so we really can't talk about it" or "post-modernism doesn't really help with the cause, so we're probably best off ignoring it". Also, Tom Frank and the Baffler folks spent plenty of ink on the "Cult Studs" as they called them. Frank et al made the crucial point that many of the post modernist ideas were more often embraced by Corporate America(Tom Peters is a perfect example of a "management consultant" who synthesized corporatism with a flavor of post-modernism). Need I point out that, in my view, the Baffler people were prescient beyond all expectation?

Second, the original critique on offer was worth considering before it got blown completely out of proportion and became a thought experiment gone haywire. The point, as I understood it, was that the culture of science might just be a little biased in favor of white middle class males; this might lead to unintended exclusion of women and minorities. The point was worth some serious investigation, but over time it became something a little more, err, quirky. The consequences of the notion that cultural bias was the only "objective truth" available came a little later.

One can really point the finger at "Cult Studs" on two points. First, the right was really busy promoting a completely new form of evil pseudo-science under the noses of the "Cult Studs" whose expertise in social criticism could have proved useful. The same time that saw the Sokal Hoax and the "Science Wars" also saw the rise of Charles Murray and "The Bell Curve", Michael Behe and "Darwin's Black Box"(the first stirrings of the Intelligent Design movement). Instead of bashing away at cultural hierarchy in the academy, these people could have done an excellent hatchet job; instead they left it to journalists already cowed by accusations of "liberal bias". The second is the discovery of a weapon they didn't realize would be far better used by the right.

The attack on the "culture of science" by the "science of culture" managed to create an acceptable atmosphere to reduce empirically verifiable results into a "he said/she said" contest of cultural biases. Need I point out who uses this? It's Ann Coulter, it's Rush Limbaugh, it's...you get the idea. It's also the same critique that the ID proponents can now hurl at the "evolutionists".

So I think I'd offer the following to Mr. Pharyngula: Being rational doesn't have a whole bunch to do with your ideology. The actual liberal tradition, enlightened reasoned discourse, empiricism, freedom of thought, etc., is the one you belong to anyway.

Update:Need I point out that I use the phrase "Need I point out...?" far too often? As editor, I herewith and hitherto ban myself from using that phrase for at least 3 posts.

Update II:I also rememberd that David Horowitz is using a slightly modified version of the "there is no objective truth, only bias" critique as basis for his academic bill of rights. I thought he was a conservative, and I thought conservatives didn't believe in moral relativism. Jeez, in the post-9/11 world it all gets so confusing. Next they'll be telling me the same conservatives who hated on the MSM for not showing the beheadings of hostages by insurgents in Iraq will be pissed that the AP won the Pullitzer for photographs in Iraq, some of which show insurgents shooting people.
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