Howled down in a pomo world

Deirdre Macken has a great piece on today’s Fin, riffing off Cardinal “I spend a lot of time studying this stuff” Pell to the general issue of the challenge to expertise in both productive (Wikipedia) and unproductive (climate science rejectionism) forms. Paywalled unfortunately, but here’s the link for anyone who can use it.

Macken, correctly I think, points to postmodernism as a contributor to the process. I’ve discussed this before (do a search) and I know it’s more complicated than that, but the vulgarised version of postmodernism as denying any special status to scientific knowledge as compared to other “knowledges” has certainly been embraced on the political right in a way that few of its original proponents could have anticipated.

31 thoughts on “Howled down in a pomo world

  1. I was required once to complete a course called ‘Ways of Knowing’ that was a compulsory core component of a Bachelor of Social Science degree. It was emphatically not presented from a right wing perspective, but I was appalled at the way it dismissed scientific knowledge as just one of many alternative perspectives. ‘Knowing’ there are fairies at the bottom of the garden because cultural tradition insists it is true is just as ‘valid’ a way of knowing as the scientific method, according to the dreadful crap instilled into poor innocent first years.

    One of the prescribed readings was from ‘The Gaia Hypothesis’, if memory serves me correctly. I don’t think I got a high grade.

  2. Shouldn’t that be “special status to scientific knowledge of the natural world”? Lots of disciplines claim to be “scientific” – so many so that one natural reaction to this as obvious nonsense is to dismiss the claim across all knowledge.

  3. wasn’t the Gaia hypothesis saying,(to put it super simplistically) that life within its global parameters acts in a way that promotes conditions amenable to life?

    verifiable data was used to support the hypothesis.

    that the idea caught the imagination of all sorts of unusual opinionators doesn’t obviate the verifiable data.

  4. ‘… life within its global parameters acts in a way that promotes conditions amenable to life …’

    Tell it to the dinosaurs :).

  5. Ironic, really: to embrace post-modernism because it validates the dismantling of the pedestal that science is placed upon (a necessary step to bring it down to the level of religion, specifically western fundamental Christian religions); and yet, to vehemently denounce post-modernism (as per ex- PM John Howard’s occasional digressions on the matter) in order to protect moral absolutism – specifically the western fundamental Christian religions as represented by Pell.

    PS: All regulars here would know about physicist Professor Alan Sokal’s hoax – take-down of postmodernism as it was applied to general relativity; in book form “Fashionable Nonsense – Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science”, Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont, Picador (1998), or in the original essay form on the interweb Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity (1996).

  6. Why should your lecturer’s ‘way of knowing’ have been given ‘special status’ relative to you way of knowing Ken?

  7. Been doing a lot of engineering over the last few months, using my fair share of maths and science and thinking about this. When your designing something to be built your dealing with the future. Your using every tool you can to have the thing your imagining behave as you imagine when the future comes.
    Science has been pretty good at giving acceptable outcomes; old wives tales ( anecdotal evidence ) and prayer has not delivered that well.
    On the other hand, people who should know better have been calling old wives tales anecdotal evidence in an attempt to turn rubbish into science and as a result devaluing the real stuff.
    I think the future is the acid test.
    Will this piece of fluff help me predict the future. Cultural norms will help predict the actions of people in the culture so they are useful to know. Won’t tell you if the building will stand or not, but it is still useful to predict something, so it is knowledge.

  8. Not much point being a genius if others more dense fail to recognise it, speaking from personal experience. Some will think the above indicates I don’t know genius if I fall over it, but I know what I see in the mirror.

  9. I must admit that in the land of the blind, the one eyed man had better keep his mouth shut about not being blind. That said, he could have fun tripping up the occasional blind person.

  10. @Ken Lovell
    I’d always regarded Gaia as as anthropomorphic/religious twaddle until I heard Tim Flannery talk about it recently on the Science Show. He said that we don’t really have a Gaia at present but that it is coming:

    …But ultimately, Robyn, the most important thing that’s happening, I think, is this development of a global human consciousness, because once we get to the point of being able to give a message, a common human message, to the planet, we have created a global consciousness. With our technology now, particularly computer based surveillance systems in agriculture and in the oceans and whatever else, we’re developing a sort of nervous system that allows us to convey that message to the planet. We’ll never be able to control the earth, there’s no doubt about it. We can’t control its systems. But we can nudge them and we can foresee danger. Once that occurs, then the Gaia of the Ancient Greeks really will exist. This planet, this Gaia, will have acquired a brain and a nervous system. That will make it act as a living animal, as a living organism, at some sort of level. That to me is the most exciting threshold for humanity. It’s as if the little embryo is about to hatch out of the shell, as a formed being. After four billion years, I think that’s where we’re at. We’ll see it, I think, this century.

    This seems to me to be quite reasonable. It comes down to the definition of the term organism but in many ways this earth will satisfy the usual definitions, eg, a blob of goo sustained on low entropy energy sources – in this case, the sun – with various homeostatic mechanisms that keep it’s internal processes from going awry. It’s more of a Gaia heuristic than a Gaia hypothesis. That is, of course, assuming Ikonocast is unduly pessimistic, and it’s not stillborn.

  11. Freelander :Why should your lecturer’s ‘way of knowing’ have been given ‘special status’ relative to you way of knowing Ken?

    Don’t ask silly questions, Freelander. Have respect for institutional power. Ken told you it was a compulsory subject in year one. How do you propose people with language skills are going to make a living without first learning in year one to respect the particular brand of knowledge that needs to be communicated?

  12. Pr Q said:

    but the vulgarised version of postmodernism as denying any special status to scientific knowledge as compared to other “knowledges” has certainly been embraced on the political right in a way that few of its original proponents could have anticipated.

    The Right sleeping with the enemy’s cultural philosophy is extremely ironic in two reasons.

    One in particular is that post-modernism was originally a Left-wing philosophy designed to dis-establish traditionally higher-status white, Christian, straight, males whilst empowering the lower-status non-White, non-Christian, non-straight, non-males. It was taken up by the New Left cultural revolutionaries in the sixties after the Old Left’s economic program had failed to engender a revolutionary consciousness amongst the workers.

    I can dimly recall Feyerabend, the most scintillating exponent of the New Left post-modernism, who turned philosophy into performance art. This excerpt from the Stanford library of philosophygives some flavour of the times (mid-seventies):

    Sussex University: the start of the Autumn Term, 1974. There was not a seat to be had in the biggest Arts lecture theatre on campus. Taut with anticipation, we waited expectantly and impatiently for the advertized event to begin. He was not on time—as usual. In fact rumour had it that he would not be appearing at all that illness (or was it just ennui? or perhaps a mistress?) had confined him to bed.

    But just as we began sadly to reconcile ourselves to the idea that there would be no performance that day at all, Paul Feyerabend burst through the door at the front of the packed hall. Rather pale, and supporting himself on a short metal crutch, he walked with a limp across to the blackboard. Removing his sweater he picked up the chalk and wrote down three questions one beneath the other: What’s so great about knowledge? What’s so great about science? What’s so great about truth? We were not going to be disappointed after all!…

    His listeners were enthralled, and he held his huge audiences until, too ill and too exhausted to continue, he simply began repeating himself. But not before he had brought the house down by writing “Aristotle” in three-foot high letters on the blackboard and then writing “Popper” in tiny, virtually illegible letters beneath it!

    Ahh the seventies, great to be alive, to be young was very heaven. But eventually the party fizzles out A lifeguard (perhaps assuming the human form of Gerard Henderson) comes along and yells “everybody out of the pool”.

    Of course Feyerabend was joking but there was no shortage of simple-minded dolts who took it literally. With results that speak for themselves in a multitude of university faculties. It is passingly strange to see Right-wingers adopt the rhetoric and tactics of their New Left enemies, especially those whose intellectual performance is so ludicrous.

    The other, more general, irony is that the Right-wing anti-science ideologues are killing the goose that lays the golden egg. The Right-wing relies on default public support for traditional authority, at least in areas where this authority has clear public benefit (for example doctors).

    The paradigmatic high-status authority that generates clear public benefit is the scientific establishment. Under conditions of modernity the Right has usually supported the sci-tech establishment, as indeed it did from Bismark through to, say, Nixon. (remember the respect for the “guys in white coats”?)

    The Right-wing, if nothing else, should be vigilant towards any threat to the authority of the higher-status establishment. Yet it is the scientific establishment towards which contemporary Right-wing ideologues have turned their malevolent attention. The fact that it is playing silly buggers with the guys who bring home the bacon is bizarre – they are sawing away at a branch they are sitting on, or cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

    Evidently in the era of know-it-all Baby Boomers the New Right, like the New Left, is in need of adult supervision. Where are the WASPs when you need them?

  13. Whilst the pomo thing might provide an excuse to deny the validity of science based knowledge it doesn’t seem to provide justification for choosing one non-scientific hypothesis over others – except as a matter of personal choice. And personal choices are self-interested choices and tend to give greater weight to short term evaluations of advantange vs disadvantage. From those deeply concerned with morality and ethics – who ought to be better at the long view – endorsement of putting short term material advantage first seems counterintuitive. For the wider public who aren’t able to judge the validity of something like climate change themselves they will look to those with ‘authority’. Business, political and religious leaders all have a lot of that authority yet lack that distinguishing requirement for the scientist for data and reasoning treated with the kind of scepticism that insists effort be taken to examine and weigh it thoroughly.

    With the personal prosperity dependent upon Business continuing to be successful, it’s leaders tap into that personal/self interested aspect of choosing who to trust . Religious leaders have lots of trust capital with their faithful and a wider store of it within the community for being perceived as being ethical. Political leaders seem to derive their trust capital for being intermediaries between other authorities and the self-interest of individuals.

    Scientists are at a distinct disadvantage when all those other authorities – that have little or no requirements for truth and accuracy in framing their messages – appear to be showing a degree of unity in not wanting to face the hard choices that come with understanding human impacts on climate.

  14. Freelander assuming you are not merely showing your cleverness and seek to make a substantive point, it seems to be that any hierarchical system of education necessarily requires one system of knowing to be privileged above others. This is self-evident to the point of banality. Any mainstream model of power notes the way in which power can be exercised by influencing the behavioural and learning options that other people perceive are open to them. George Orwell, etc.

    To present this as either a problem requiring a solution however, or a phenomenon that de-legitimises action based on the scientific method, demands some considered proposals about alternative, superior epistemological foundations for mass education and institutional decision-making. Otherwise we are simply left with smoke and mirrors anarchy and chaos, where each individual simply chooses the way of knowing that they find most congenial, as Ken Fabos describes. This leads to precisely the kind of argumentation that Pell engages in, as discussed in John’s post, and the ‘common sense pub test’ so beloved by John Howard.

  15. Apologies, I should have replied earlier. I assumed Freelander is offering a free and easy paced tutorial in the socratic method to bring out a few problems with promo-culture subjects. I assumed you, Ken Lovell, did not mind offering your example as material.

    I can’t talk on Freelander’s behalf. But one point I wanted to bring out is that the subject you described has a falsehood as premise and it masks that arbitrary power is required to arrive at a decision. The scientific method does not belong to these ‘ways of knowing’.

    As for Ken Fabos’ point: “Scientists are at a distinct disadvantage when all those other authorities – that have little or no requirements for truth and accuracy in framing their messages”, I suggest it is relevant not only for qualified and practisig (or retired) scientists but for just about all academics who do not belong to the culture-promo club. For example, while the scientific method cannot be strictly applied in economics, sincere economists do insist that data is accurately recorded and in chronological order. Moreover, some of them go out of their way to put theories into a language which makes jumping to conclusions exceedingly difficult.

  16. Jack Strocchi sometimes cops a bagging, but I thought his last comment, to the point, was not too bad, at least in trying to lay down a grounding for further discussion.

  17. @Ken Lovell

    I do agree on the need for correct answers, rather than valuing all ways of knowing equally. What amuses me is that people attempting to sell the idea of not giving ‘special status’ to particular ways of knowing, nevertheless cannot avoid valuing their ‘way of knowing’ over those of their critics (which I presume is why you might not have got a great mark). Although I do believe, generally, in the existence of better and worse answers, and also in knowledge as a singular rather than plural entity, in any hierarchy of instruction, even if they are teaching complete nonsense, power is the key. The power being the power to provide legitimacy via a good mark, and finally, usually some piece of paper. Those who have that power also, usually, have some scope for discretionary abuse of that power in application. In some disciplines, the scope for that abuse is relatively less than in others. Which I suppose is why they are called, “the hard sciences”. Unfortunately, there are now many ‘disciplines’ that are so (hopefully) ephemeral and soft that they ought not to be in a university. ‘Cleverness’ is of value when talking sense. But, as is frequently seen, cleverness’ greatest value is when talking nonsense.

  18. @Freelander
    Ha ha…Ill agree to that Freelander -“But, as is frequently seen, cleverness’ greatest value is when talking nonsense.” But if those soft ephemeral subjects were not in universities what on earth would we do with all the surplus labour child units?

  19. If one of John Howard’s ideas doesn’t pass the ‘common sense pub test’, the answer is “Here. Have another beer”, followed by a resubmission.
    @paul walter
    I agree. Very good post from Jack.

  20. I guess that before WW2 all you lot were mostly priests or acolytes or somesuch. Or what did you do for a living?

  21. @john malpas

    Never been keen on liturgy or liturgical texts (like the bible, or the climate change denier’s Heaven and Earth). Liturgical texts seem inappropriate because too much of what we believe can tend to later be found to not be so, so I prefer to be aware of the possibility.

    As Keynes is credited with saying in various situations “When I find that I am wrong, I change my mind.” Priest and acolytes are far to reluctant to find that they are wrong, or having done so, to change their minds.

    Me, I used to pretend to be an economist.

  22. My experience of post-modernist critiques of science was more to do with critiquing the idea of science as unequivocally positive. I don’t recall much discussion of the scientific method, more to with the way science was constructed within the dominant discourse as a force for good that always delivered useful technologies to enthusiastic consumers. I remember having a much more jaundiced view of “Beyond 2000” type TV programmes afterwards. It’s pity that the idea of post-modernism has been debased by the right. Foucault, if he can be called post-modern, produced monumental works of history and philosophy, what did Gerard Henderson ever do.

  23. @PatrickB

    What goes around comes around.

    I am not convinced the post-modernist critiques (more than 1 and equally valid?) of “the idea” of science have been debased only by ‘the right’. Couldn’t it be the case that at the time when this critique was flourishing, ‘the right’ happened to be in power in some powerful places in this world?

    It is difficult to say very much in a blog post and being precise is even more difficult. However, the project of criticising ‘the idea of science’ because of consumer behaviour seems to me to be evidence of confusion in line one.

    But I strongly agree with your last sentence.

  24. I think the key here is “vulgarised version of postmodernism” which is at best many steps removed from the work of people like Foucault, Deleuze etc (neither of whom ever accepted the label of ‘postmodernist’). The idea that science has a history and reflects the relations of power that surround it seems like a pretty sound one to me; not that such a claim nullifies science – it just complicates it.

  25. “The idea that science has a history and reflects the relations of power that surround it seems like a pretty sound one to me”

    FALSE. Charles Darwin- Evolution. IPCC- AGW. Science can and does undermine powerful interests, irrespective of your obviously ahistorical and uninformed seeming.

  26. @Mel

    Hard to disagree with the complete quote:

    “The idea that science has a history and reflects the relations of power that surround it seems like a pretty sound one to me; not that such a claim nullifies science – it just complicates it.”

    Truth, finally, does out. But frequently there is money in hindering its progress.

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