Thomas Kuhn and the Science Wars, by Ziauddin Sardar

kuhn

This slim volume is one of a set collectively entitled Postmodern Encounters, the postmodern not being a category with which you would immediately associate Thomas Kuhn.  As the series title suggests, the idea is to pair a significant thinker with a pertinent issue and see what happens.  Here we have Thomas Kuhn, with the Science Wars thrown in, all in 76 pages.  It’s a mix of good and bad: you can read it in the bath before the water gets cold, but it isn’t exactly comprehensive, and there isn’t as much of Kuhn as you would expect from the title, though to be fair, you don’t get much on the Science Wars either.  What it does show is the ways in which Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions became a key text for the way in which later philosophers conceived “normal science”.

We start with a brief overview of the hilarious Sokal affair, his paper ‘Transgressing the Boundaries’ showing up the gullibility of the editors of Social Text, then we have some background history on the Science Wars, and the context of the power struggles confronting science within which Kuhn’s book was published in 1962 (though one would not have thought that the controversy over Velikovsky’s theories was significant enough to warrant an entire page).  There is a little on the reception of Kuhn’s book and a brief critique.  There is nothing particularly contentious, though the treatment is extremely sketchy because of the limited space.

Where the book goes off the rails is in the discussion of “post-Kuhnian developments”.  Given that this period covers some forty years up to the publication of Ziauddin Sardar’s book, there is plenty of scope to trace a few developments in the philosophy of science, but instead Sardar devotes a significant proportion of his text to a discussion of “the feminist approach to science” and “post-colonial studies of science”, both offered as alternatives to Western science.  Unfortunately he is not able to provide much detail on what he thinks these alternatives would look like in practice.

He correctly notes that women are discriminated against in science, but this is not his main point.  There is a problem within science as currently practised; it is too male: “It [feminist scholarship of science] has shown that the focus on quantitative measures, analysis of variation, impersonal and excessively abstract conceptual schemes, is both a distinctively masculine tendency and also one that serves to hide its own gendered character.  And it has revealed that the prioritizing of mathematics and abstract thought, standards of objectivity, the construction of scientific method and the instrumental nature of scientific rationality, are all based on the notion of ideal masculinity.”

These, it is implied, are not good things.  What an alternative would look like we are not told, but to paraphrase an old joke, I would be reluctant to fly in a plane designed by feminist engineers if they threw out quantitative measures, maths and objectivity.  Just getting more women into science (while welcome) would not help, Sardar claims, as this is a systemic problem within a male-oriented approach to science, one that can only be rectified by a fundamental change in its approach: “Feminist scholars are asking for nothing less than a reorientation of the logic of scientific discovery”.  In the meantime presumably such feminist scholars will eschew all manifestation of oppressive patriarchy, such as technology.

The other peculiar section deals with “post-colonial studies of science”.  Not coincidentally Sardar is described as a Visiting Professor of Postcolonial Studies, but again lack of space means he has to paint with a brush broad enough to become caricature.  He notes that non-Western scientific developments have been marginalised in the standard historical narrative of science, particularly those in China and the Middle East (though pretending that ancient Greek culture wasn’t European merely to downplay European achievements is pointless).

But correcting the historical record is not enough.  Sardar is suggesting that other cultures have their own paradigms which are just as valid as the hegemonic Western approach.  However again he does not indicate how, say, his example of Hindu sevenfold logic might be an improvement over the Western type, which seems to muddle along quite successfully with what it has.  But still, “A science that is based on different notions of nature, universe, time and logic would therefore be a totally different enterprise from Western science”, as if these were a smorgasbord from which you could pick what you fancy according to preference, all approaches equally valid and successful in practice.

What would such a science look like, one wonders.  But we are prevented from finding out: to its shame, we are informed, blinkered Western science refuses to acknowledge the validity of these alternative approaches, maintaining a monopoly by unfair means.  Part of Sardar’s argument is a crude characterisation of the way scientific development works, stating that European science grew partly because of the influence of colonialism, its military, economic and political dimension, “and not because of the purported greater rationality of science or the alleged commitment of scientists to the pursuit of disinterested truths”.  Who today would claim that science is a disinterested pursuit isolated from social influences?  It’s a straw scientist.

In parallel with the feminist scholars, we are told that “post-colonial scholarship of science seeks to re-establish the practice of Islamic, Indian or Chinese science in contemporary times”.  Sardar ignores the large numbers of students from those regions happy to pursue Western science in Western countries in preference to whatever advantages his alternatives might offer, and, in portraying these competing paradigms in ideal terms, he somewhat ignores the contingency and social influence that would affect such approaches just as much as they do the Western variety.

The book was published in 2000 so you might think that things have improved since he was writing, but his characterisation of science as a dogmatic religion refusing to admit uncertainty was as distorted then as it is now.  Even if individual scientists dislike acknowledging error, science as a whole is generally a self-correcting enterprise.  It changes with changing evidence, unlike theology, which resists change that contradicts dogma.  In science’s supposed confusion, Sardar likes to think that scientists deny that “blind faith” among the public has gone, but it has been a long time since scientists were conceited enough to assume that the public had blind faith in their enterprise.  If there was a “moral panic” among scientists when Sardar was writing, as he claims, it was a quiet one.

Given his commitment to cultural relativism, it is not surprising that Sardar bemoans the identification of radical critics such as Paul Feyerabend with irrationalism.  He considers science to have entered a “post-normal” state, as discussed by Jerry Ravetz, but despite science’s undoubted difficulties, that still seems some way off.  Yes, in a world where science becomes ever-more abstruse and unpredictable we need to hold its practitioners accountable, so one can certainly agree that there needs to be more public engagement with science and debate on its ramifications, and both have grown in the last decade.

But public involvement in practising science, including “anecdotal evidence and statistics gathered by a community”, while an interesting suggestion, is not a practical one given the way in which contemporary science is funded and conducted.  There are some fine sentiments, but nothing on how they might be implemented, and we seem to have come a long way from Kuhn’s interest in how science deals with anomalies to Sardar’s in public policy and social engagement.

That the notion of paradigm shift is important is evidenced by the extension of its use from science matters (as I write this I have just seen a notice for a conference to discuss a possible paradigm shift in performance studies).  Unfortunately, Sardar tries to cover too much ground in a small space, and many of his statements are either simplistic, unclear, or both.  If the reader has no prior familiarity with the subject, this book is likely to engender as much confusion as enlightenment, and those with some familiarity will probably take issue with the naïve characterization of how science works.  The publishers previously produced the … for Beginners series, for which Sardar contributed titles, and those worked brilliantly with their tight focus on a single topic.  Here Sardar has bitten off a lot, and it feels undigested.

First published on Goodreads website 12 March 2013

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