Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits

Article excerpt

Andrew Ross Strange Weather: Culture, Science And Technology In The Age Of Limits Verso, London, 1996. pp. 275. ISBN 0-86091-354-6 (hbk) ISBN 0-86091-567-0 (pbk) L12.00

Reviewed by Angus Bancroft

Strange Weather summons up New Age belief systems, cyberpunk fiction, computer hacker subcultures and disputes over global warming to criticise the influence of scientist rationalism and objectivity in society, and the way in which capitalist interests employ technology to dominate social life. It argues for the remaking of science sensitive to cultural difference, environmentally aware and anti-sexist. It calls for scientists to abandon claims to objectivity, the idea that there is an external material world about which facts can be gathered by investigation. Ross argues that science, along with any truth claims it makes, are social constructs. The boundary between science and pseudo-science is no less socially constructed than that between high and low culture. We should be no more constrained to accept the authority of science than we should necessarily accept the judgements of the National Curriculum as to what is good and bad literature.

There is a lot of interest in here. Ross is perceptive in his criticism of the over-reaction to computer viruses and hackers by legislators and corporations. His warnings of the oppressive consequences of inbuilt surveillance and monitoring technology in hi-tech work environments are prescient. He makes some accurate points about the left's failure to appreciate counter- or sub-cultural activity that does not fit in with an ideological agenda. However, his arguments tend to become lost in a welter of post-modernist rhetoric and over inflated claims, stemming from his insistence on the socially constructed nature of science. For example, he provides a valuable summary of political conflicts over global climate change, but then gets mired in a discussion of cultural difference which suggests that global warming is a cultural artifice, which is simply not the case. It is undeniable that we have culture and place specific interpretations of what counts as good weather. Living in Wales, my definition is probably a bit less demanding than that of someone living in California. That does not change the fact that global climate change can be measured scientifically and exists outside of specific social, political and cultural definitions.

The book makes sense when seen as part the post-modernist project to deconstruct any claims to objective truth or scientific rationality. The author is an editor of Social Text, one of the main players in these `Science Wars'. Readers may be aware of the hoax perpetrated on it by physicist Alan Sokal. Tired of the abuse of scientific concepts by post-modernists he formulated a simple experiment. Submit an article to a post-modernist journal, ensure it is full of absurd statements-`physical reality is a social and linguistic construct' and so onand add a smattering of quotes from the gods of the pantheon, such as Derrida and Lacan.Would it be accepted on the basis that it was flattering to the editors' presumptions, even if it was a mess of sweeping statements, contradiction, and plain nonsense?The answer, it turned out, was yes. Social Text published his article, `Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity', and the hoax was revealed. …