Science and Postmodernism
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 21, 2009
Just a few days ago, I received an email from a colleague of mine in the English department where I teach. The subject concerned the concept of falsifiability in science. The email read, in part…
I have a dim understanding of Popper’s falsifiability principle from History of Time and Wikipedia. Question: how do the string theorists… “get around” this, or is there something about what they do that renders the principle moot?
Note that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the scientific process here. One of the hottest new scientific ideas – string theory – is implied to be scientific not because it is falsifiable, but because there must be some “trick to get around it.”
Nope. Sorry, there’s no trick to getting around it. In order for an idea to be considered scientific, one must be able to propose a way to test it that could potentially falsify it. Without meeting this basic criteria, science it isn’t. Here’s the highlights of my response to my English colleague…
The answer is that string theory meets the “must-have” standard of falsifiability and is thus a valid scientific idea. Falsifiability is the gold-standard: if an idea cannot meet this criteria, science it ain’t.
For more info on this, here are some proposals to, at least in principle, test string theory for validity:
The difficulty is that we don’t yet have the technology in hand to conduct these tests. Once the Large Hadron Collider comes completely online, we’ll have a better picture of this question. In addition, there are some proposals to use our knowledge of the cosmic background radiation to test out other aspects of string theory. There is the chance that the new Planck Surveyor probe could do just that – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_Surveyor
The problem with string theory now is that it is in a kind of limbo state, much like Einstein’s theory of general relativity from 1915-1919. Einstein had this beautifully elegant mathematical theory, but many scientists refused to give it any validity until it had been tested. Unfortunately, the technology to test GR didn’t exist then, so they had to wait until the solar eclipse of 1919 to test the first predictions of GR. More on that here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse#1919_observations
This point about falsifiability is one which many pseudoscientists screw up all the time. Many of them think that science is merely a set of cool ideas which The Establishment is defending dogmatically – not so. If you go to any scientific meeting and someone proposes a scientific idea, very quickly someone will demand to know how to test it. And if the person proposing the idea cannot answer that question, they will be given no validity at all. Science is a pretty harsh process when you get down to it, and the people who are toughest on scientists are often their scientific colleagues.
For example, creationists have a real problem here. They insist that “intelligent design” is a scientific concept (because they say it is!) yet they never propose any method at all for even testing it for falsifiability. They’ve had 15-20 years to develop some kind of testable hypothesis, yet all they can come up with are logical fallacies and claims of a conspiracy to cover up The Truth. And so it goes…
The thing that really bothers me about this exchange with my colleague is that we’ve been here before. He and I have collaborated extensively on subjects of science & philosophy, and I have pointed out the principle of falsifiability to him numerous times, yet he still doesn’t seem to get it. It’s not that he’s a dumb guy – far from it, he’s very well educated and I consider him to be pretty intelligent. I think it has more to do with his particular area of philosophical specialty: postmodernism.
One aspect of the postmodernist philosophy which has been way overblown by some of the more vocal postmodernists is the idea of relativism in relation to science. Loosely speaking, it is argued by these people that science is nothing more than a mere cultural phenomenon, one which naturally develops in all societies given enough time. Thus, they say, there is such a thing as “science” that belongs to a specific group – such as “traditional science” as done by the older, white, and male segments of Western society versus the “new science” done by others.
I cannot even begin to point out how screwed up this thinking is – if one studies the history of science, you learn quickly that science was essentially a lucky occurrence. All of the proper conditions existed in Ancient Greece which led to the rise of natural philosophical discourse, which in turn eventually led to the development of modern science. While it is true that anyone can practice science (in this sense, science is most certainly not limited to white, male Westerners), had the conditions not been just right the Greeks would have never started humanity on this path and there would have been no modern science.
**Aside: An excellent book on this topic is Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science. I highly recommend it!
However, some postmodernist discourse on science gets really silly, and this comes through, albeit subtly, in my colleague’s email. It is the sense that science is merely “just another way of thinking” and that it has no real authority to say what the world around us is like. Often, postmodernists will say that science is merely an opinion.
This sounds goofy, but over the last few decades it has become very problematic. That’s because all manner of pseudoscientists & pseudohistorians have seized upon these concepts of postmodernism to promote their woo. If you pay close attention to the arguments of the woo-meisters – whether they be Holocaust deniers, New-Agers, alternative-“medicine” practitioners, or creationists – they will often make public arguments that make the postmodernist plea that science is “just another opinion” and out of fairness their ideas should be given just as much validity as those of the scientific community.
And, sadly, because many aspects of postmodernist thought have been widely disseminated throughout the Western world (where it is only natural to respect freedom of speech & expression), a lot of people are roped into accepting these arguments. The result has, over the last generation or so, been the gradual erosion of the status of science & the scientific community while postmodernist driven woo has been given “equal time”, so to speak.
The problem is particularly bad in many areas of academia. A perfect example of just how stupid the promotion of postmodernist woo-woo has gotten is outlined in an excellent book, Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.
Alan Sokal is a hero among many in the skeptical & scientific community for his hilarious debunking of the more extreme aspects of postmodernist anti-science in the mid 1990s via the now famous Sokal Hoax. Fortunately, after the public drubbing that many high-profile postmodernist anti-scientists received once Sokal revealed his deception, they lost a great deal of credibility in many areas of academia.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, Sokal’s excellent high-profile debunking came too late. By the mid 1990s, use of the postmodernist arguments had become widespread by woosters of all stripes. And we are now dealing with the consequences, whether it be having to fight off the “fairness & freedom” arguments of creationists in Texas & Louisiana or dealing with academic colleagues who, due to their embrace of postmodernism, cannot fathom the basics of the scientific method.