20.224 great promise, not great threat

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2006 08:00:31 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 224.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2006 07:53:12 +0100
         From: David Sewell <dsewell_at_virginia.edu>
         Subject: Re: 20.221 great promise, not great threat

On Wed, 27 Sep 2006, R.L. Hunsucker wrote:

> And then as to David's posting under this heading.
> This all sounds quite (direly) intriguing, to quote : "a historical
> moment when the authority, independence, and integrity of
> the natural sciences have been under sustained attack from
> powerful retrograde forces", "the suppression of inquiry" --
> which makes one all the more curious to what he's in fact
> referring. And "empirical evidence" of what ?? Maybe I missed
> something along the line, but it all sounds sufficiently ominous
> to merit some discussion even on this list (now that we're off
> on science as opposed to us). I'm quite curious.
> I hope he will fill us in and be more explicit, for I'd welcome the
> occasion to see discussed, against the background of an actual
> specific contemporary situation, concepts such as the authority
> and independence of the natural sciences -- topics on which
> there exists a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding, it
> seems to me.

I'll do my best to respond without being polemical, but I can't respond
without exposing my own political viewpoint, with which others are of
course free to disagree.

The situation in the United States is quite simply that scientists in a
variety of fields, from environmental sciences to evolutionary biology
to medical research and beyond, have been undermined and put on the
defensive by the explicit policies and actions of the Bush
administration and its allies. I'm sure that the broad outlines of the
situation (e.g., the renewed effort to "balance" Darwinism with
creationistic theories in the classroom; attempts to censor or suppress
climate researchers at odds with the Administration line on global
warming) are familiar to Europeans, but the best single source for
anyone interested in the details would be the just-issued revised
version of "The Republican War on Science" by Chris Mooney (Basic Books,

I may have overreacted to what I perceived as a "humanities versus
sciences" reference because of some personal history. I earned a Ph.D.
in literature and then taught for eight years in an American university
department of English in an environment where the sort of
social-constructivist critique of sciences that Andrew Ross offered in
"Strange Weather" was very much in the ascendant. I can remember myself
loosely considering science departments "the enemy", if I thought about
them at all. I left university teaching in 1992 and ended up for several
years working on the editorial staff of the major international journal
of radiocarbon studies, housed at the University of Arizona, a position
that brought me into constant contact with geoscientists,
dendrochronologists, soil scientists, oceanographers, paleobotanists,
and archaeologists from all parts of the world. It was an education that
soon made me thoroughly ashamed of the caricatured view of scientific
practice and epistemology that I'd accepted without questioning. So I
was on Alan Sokal's side by the time of his famous 1997 hoax article in
"Social Text" (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair for a good
brief history of this episode). And I think he was quite prophetic in
seeing the postmodernist attack on science as ultimately aiding
reactionary anti-intellectualism; notoriously, the advocates of putting
Intelligent Design into biology classrooms have used the language of
"teaching the controversy" and appealed to vague notions of
multiculturalism in arguing that students have a right to have their
beliefs about human history respected.

One of the people I came to know at Arizona was Malcolm Hughes, head of
the Tree-Ring Laboratory there, as wonderful a colleague as I've had in
20+ years of university employment. He was a victim in 2005 of the sort of
anti-scientistic bullying that I used to blithely think happened in the
bad old Soviet Union, not the good old USA; see a summary account on the
Union of Concerned Scientists' website


In short, the last few years have been precarious ones for the
"authority and independence of the natural sciences" in these parts.

I'd recommend ScienceBlogs, www.scienceblogs.com, for good discussions
by a variety of folks on current issues in the culture and politics of

David Sewell, Editorial and Technical Manager
ROTUNDA, The University of Virginia Press
PO Box 400318, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4318 USA
Courier: 310 Old Ivy Way, Suite 302, Charlottesville VA 22903
Email: dsewell_at_virginia.edu   Tel: +1 434 924 9973
Web: http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/
Received on Thu Sep 28 2006 - 04:10:16 EDT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : Thu Sep 28 2006 - 04:10:17 EDT