Higher Superstition Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, a biologist and a mathematician respectively, are disgusted with doctrinaire attacks upon science generated by humanists and social scientists who are ignorant of both the workings and the content of the physical and biological sciences. They also believe that some political activists have been unfairly assailing science. In Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, a blatantly polemical counterattack, Gross and Levitt take on a diverse group of critics of science. Their targets include sociologists and historians of science who advocate cultural constructivism, postmodernist literary critics and philosophers, feminist theorists, radical environmentalists, some gay activists, supporters of animal rights, and partisans of Afrocentric curricula.

The subtitle of the book is misleading. Not all the designated members of the “academic left” are literally academics (many of the political activists have no connections with academia), nor do Gross and Levitt mean to criticize all academics who are politically left of center. They target only those leftists “whose doctrinal idiosyncracies [sic] sustain the misreadings of science, its methods, and its conceptual foundations that have generated what nowadays passes for a politically progressive critique of it.”

The authors are witty and persuasive when they focus on logical inconsistencies, outrageous claims, descent into jargon, and scientific ignorance of any particular target. Some of their sharpest reproaches are aimed at the pretentiousness, scientific confusion, ahistoricism, and emptiness of literary criticism based on postmodernism and deconstructionist philosophy. Some of the critics of science whom Gross and Levitt refute, such as N. Katherine Hayles and Stephen Best, lack knowledge of both science and the history of science. Other worthy targets of the authors include some writings on the relationship between science and feminism, including the efforts by critics to justify a “feminist algebra,” the hysteria generated by radical environmentalists such as Jeremy Rifkin, and the distortions of science and history presented in some Afrocentric history of science, including the work of Hunter Adams. They highlight numerous examples of bad science, bad history, bad logic, or—quite often—simply unreadable arguments. Many of these critics of science share a disdain for clear writing. Obscure and jargon-laden prose is the norm.

Gross and Levitt are less successful when they attempt to take on the proponents of cultural constructivism and a multicultural approach to knowledge. Gross and Levitt anchor their attacks on cultural constructivism—which argues that all knowledge systems, including science, are culturally determined or constructed—on the thesis that science (by which they always mean what social constructionists and multicul-turalists would designate “Western,” “European,” or “Euro-American” science) is a privileged knowledge system. Unlike other knowledge systems, which they acknowledge might be local in nature and culturally bound, science is universal and true. The authors define a principle of science as “an objective truth about the world.” Science is “a uniquely accurate way of finding out about the world.” In other words, “science works.” In defending the truth of the uncertainty principle, they contend that if it were not true, “there would never have been so much fuss about it!” They admit that arguments of past intrusions of ideology or other cultural elements into scientific discourse are “reasonable in principle” and may even have influenced science in the very short term, but they dismiss the significance of such intrusions in the long-term development of science. They also contend that the possibility that such intrusions might occur in the future is very slight because scientists have developed an “always-increasing awareness of the danger.”

Unfortunately, this is not convincing. Most cultures have “science,” if one means by that a knowledge system defined in terms of observation of physical phenomena with the intent of explaining and controlling those phenomena. Within its cultural context, each of these sciences works just as well as Western science does in its cultural context. Each is as...

(The entire section is 1768 words.)