The Science Wars

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, April 21, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Science Wars


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


How much is research influenced by political and social fashions? An important debate is making scientists re-examine their assumptions of objectivity.

SCIENTISTS WORSHIP AT THE shrine of objectivity, but even the pious occasionally lapse. A century ago archeologists who discovered the great stone ruins of Zimbabwe went through all sorts of contortions to prove that the magnificent oval palace and other structures were built by the Phoenicians of King Solomon's time--or by anyone other than the ancestors of the Bantus. In the 1960s biologists studying conception described the "whiplashlike motion and strong lurches" of sperm "delivering" genes required to "activate the developmental program of the egg," which "drifted" along passively. The model portrayed sperm as macho adventurers, eggs as coy damsels. And throughout the 1970s and later, ornithologists gathered sheafs of data proving that, in birds, a female's success laying eggs and rearing hatchlings was always enhanced by the presence of a male.

These acolytes of scientific objectivity were spectacularly wrong. The Bantus' ancestors did build the great stone complex. The human egg does play an active role in conception. And in some bird species, particularly the eastern bluebird, the father's presence makes little or no difference to the survival of batchlings. But why did scientists get it wrong in all three cases, and many others? That question lies at the heart of the "science wars." The combatants are, on the one side, bench scientists who study the biological and physical world and, on the other, sociologists and others who study scientists as if they were exotic Borneo tribesmen. Their battlegrounds are scholarly journals and books where the two sides attack each other. And the issue they're fighting over goes to the heart of the scientific enterprise: is science an objective pursuit?

The critics of science say that the practice of science--the questions it asks, the way it interprets observations, even what counts as data--is subject to the political, cultural and social influences of the times. If society considers females passive, say the critics, then scientists will tend to see the same characteristics in the egg. And if social values mean that an intact nuclear family is best for kids, then most scientists look for, find or give more credence to examples of birds or other species where that holds true. It is not that evil scientists intentionally set out to enshrine the prejudices of the day in their research conclusions. But as mere mortals, they cannot escape their influence. Science, say its critics, is therefore a "social construct," and its discoveries and conclusions have no special claim on truth.

To many scientists, those are fighting words. But they have been slow to react. The early criticism came from academic fields like women's studies and literary criticism that few scientists pay attention to, so they didn't even realize they were under attack in the 1980s. When they finally woke up to the bombardment. they found the criticism so patently stupid--gravity is an opinion, a social construct, and not a fact?--they ignored it, figuring that everyone else would, too. But everyone else didn't. "The science critics began to have an influence among undergraduates and on the curriculum," says primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of the University of California, Davis. So scientists launched a counterattack. The most notorious counterpunch crone last summer. Physicist Alan Sokal of New York University wrote a spoof of the "constructivist" argument, passed it off as the real thing and duped the post-modern journal Social Text into publishing it. The editors' gullibility, Sokal argued, revealed the bankruptcy of the constructivists' ideas. Now some of the more extreme science-bashers have modified their views: the feminist critic who called Isaac Newton's Principia "a rape manual" now regrets her choice of words. Of more than 20 science critics interviewed for this article, every one offered a version of the disclaimer "Science is still the best game in town when it comes to producing knowledge," as philosopher Ann Cudd of the University of Kansas put it. …

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