Postmodernists and Scientists, partying together

In the nineties, after the infamous Sokal “Social Text” Hoax, it became fashionable to lambaste post-scructuralist/postmodernist academia for its misunderstanding and misappropriation of science and scientific terms -- from “relativity” to “uncertainty principle” to “paradigm shift”. The latter itself is of course a term from the history and philosophy of science: Thomas Kuhn's description of the changes wrought by such new ideas as Darwin's Theory of Evolution or Quantum Theory.

Despite Sokal's avowedly old-fashioned-leftist politics (New Deal Democrat, as far as I can tell), this stance was especially taken up by the right in the so-called Culture Wars who used it to decry universities as bastions of cultural relativsm and loony leftist politics (not entirely unfairly with respect to the “leftist” bit at least -- I say this as a lefty -- if not the “loony” description). The present-day irony is, of course, that the only argument for promulgating crackpot falsehoods like Intelligent Design is cultural relativism -- They think it might be true so we should all be forced to learn it; it's “just another theory.”

The Sokal incident certainly skewered its target, but this really was just a small, albeit vocal, segment of the academy, standing in contrast to many of their better-informed comrades, such as Penn State's wonderful Michael Bérubé, a humanities prof, insightful blogger and great writer who seems to know his science, in this wonderful discussion of Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions from a footnote in his forthcoming book:

Because of his emphasis on the importance of “normal science” and the protocols under which it operates, Kuhn is not a relativist; on the contrary, he argues that there is such a thing as scientific “progress,” though he insists that it can only be gauged retrospectively, for it is not proceeding toward any preordained goal. For Kuhn, science is therefore evolutionary in precisely the same sense that evolution itself was evolutionary for Darwin: in an anti-teleological sense....

In a recent complaint about humanists’ appropriation of Kuhn’s work, Thomas Nagel writes: “Much of what Kuhn says about great theoretical shifts... is also entirely compatible with the conception of science as seeking, and sometimes finding, objective truth about the world” ... I agree with this if, and only if, “objective” is understood as “mind-independent,” and I decline to believe that this standard of “objectivity,” as it pertains to objects like quarks and quasars, can be usefully applied to mind-dependent matters such as justice or anxiety.

If only we scientists could write so clearly (OK, “anti-teleogical” is mild jargon, but it's a lot easier to decode that with a dictionary than, say “quark-hadron phase transition”). And all this in a footnote! But go read the original post for the back-story.

(Thanks to Penn State astrophysicist-blogger Steinn S. over at Dynamics of Cats for noticing this.)