Science & Superstition

By Sandall, Roger | IPA Review, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Science & Superstition


Sandall, Roger, IPA Review


THE Arts have declared war on the Sciences -- a war for the soul of modern man. If this sounds far-fetched and apocalyptic, anyone inclined to dismiss it should first study the evidence presented in a new and important book. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science is a sober description of the anti science campaign of numerous American 'humanists' in numerous arts departments today. Waged on a number of fronts (philosophical, literary, environmental, feminist, and other) its galloping, headstrong irrationality is what leads the authors to regard it as Higher Superstition -- for Higher Education it plainly is not.

Superstition consists of irrational and unreasoning belief, founded on fear and ignorance. In the old days the uncomprehending ignorance of science by arts men was either a minor worry or a joke. But there's nothing funny about it in an era which has seen whole departments constituted as bureaus of anti-scientific disinformation, a tidal wave of books and periodicals, and university appointments which permit and encourage the expression of hostile ignorance at the highest levels. An arrogantly obscurantist attack is being mounted in which, in the authors' words, "the proliferation of distortions and exaggerations about science, of tall tales and imprecations, threatens to poison the intellectual cohesion necessary for a university to work". Paul R. Gross is University Professor of Life Sciences and director of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia. Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University. Both are men of distinction in their fields. They agree -- and who doesn't? -- that some kind of social monitoring of science is necessary. But it's just as necessary that the monitors know what they're talking about. Instead,

"We encounter books that pontificate about the intellectual crisis of contemporary physics, whose authors have never troubled themselves with a simple problem in statics; essays that make knowing reference to chaos theory, from writers who could not recognize, much less solve, a first-order linear differential equation; tirades about the semiotic tyranny of DNA and molecular biology, from scholars who have never been inside a real laboratory, or asked how the drug they take lowers their blood pressure."

The catechism of good and evil now taught in arts departments gives even the most ignorant, malicious and irresponsible lecturer the moral authority to indict physics and chemistry worldwide -- indeed, the greater his ignorance the more confident the indictment. This blind "animus toward science", write Gross and Levitt, is symptomatic "of a certain intellectual debility afflicting the contemporary university: one that will ultimately threaten it."

The fate of universities and university science teaching is their main concern. But the matters discussed in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science are every bit as important for people in the humanities to digest. What the authors have undertaken, writing with impressive eloquence and breadth of reference, is a lucid discussion of the present academic attack on our culture generally, from Cultural Construction and Postmodernism to Radical Feminism and Deep Ecology, from the paranoid tales being told about AIDS as a wicked invention of capitalistic medicine to the sort of absurdity which discovers "experiments in aeronautical engineering" in African wood-carvings of birds.

But isn't this sort of thing so nonsensical that it stands automatically self-condemned? How could the teaching of eco-radicalism, for example, possibly displace chemistry, or even put it under the least pressure And even if this happens in America, surely it can't happen here?

Not immediately perhaps. But three things should be noted. Firstly, this is a war of attrition involving successive campaigns. Initially this has meant spreading so much alarm and confusion among non-scientists that the social and political environment of science has been poisoned. …

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