The Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. By Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. Johns Hopkins. $25.95.
As a critique of American academic culture, The Higher Superstition belongs on the same shelf with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Denish D’Souza’s, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, William Bennett’s The De-Valuing of America, and almost everything Camille Paglia writes but summarized most nicely in her 1992 “Junk Bonds” article reprinted in her Sex, Art and American Culture.
But however much it shares with these other critiques, Superstition deserves a wide readership of its own. For one thing, its concentration upon the single issue of academic responses to science allows the authors the clearest and most focused argument. For another, its application of scientific discipline to the critique—thesis or contention carefully supported by factual evidence—liberates them from the outrage and polemicism that dominates much of the criticisms of contemporary academic culture. Thus while Bloom wails with the desert prophets and Paglia rends her enemies with her fingernails, Gross and Levitt move with the deadly accuracy of 18th-century fencing masters. Just so, they write with grace, wit, and humor. Indeed, the literary felicity of these two scientists puts to shame the jargon-laden, ponderous, and obscure prose of many of the defenders of the current faith in the humanities and social sciences. Although they intended their work for fellow scientists, Gross and Levitt produced a volume that any serious reader can read with as much pleasure as instruction.
The two scientist authors begin with a traditional definition of science itself: the neutral exploration of an external, objective world in such a way as to be repeatable and predictable over time and space. They find virtually every element of this system either under attack or at counter purposes with the ideology that dominates academic culture in the United States today. Hence the burden of the book: an analysis of academic culture in our country which they identify as “the academic left” and its antagonism to science and the scientific method. They identify a half-dozen sources and manifestations of this ideology.
First is Post-Modernism and the theories generated by continental academics after World War II—most notably Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Paul de Man. Heidegger fits as well. The Post-Modernists strike at science by ignoring an external material world in order to focus upon rhetoric and word play. These philosophers and literary theorists ground their notions in the assumption that “the ideological system sustaining the cultural and material practices of Western European civilization is bankrupt and on the point of collapse.” This includes, not least of all, Enlightenment theories of science and scientific methodology which still govern contemporary ideas of the discipline. The second category of science’s enemies Gross and Levitt define as “Constructivists.” If Post-Modernism flirts with nihilism, the social constructivists offer a more positive approach but one, ultimately, even more destructive of science. Rejecting the reality of the external world and, by inference, the system of those who investigate it, this second category of anti-scientists argues for the social or cultural construction of all reality. They view “scientific knowledge as historically and socially situated and encoding, in unacknowledged ways, prevailing social prejudices.” The ideas of neutrality and objectivity, essential to scientific inquiry, vanish in this interpretation.
Gross and Levitt also define a collection of four other disparate lines of thought that erode science and scientific inquiry: Marxism, academic feminism, multi-culturalism, and radical ecology. Despite the differences, even antagonism, among these categories, all mock science’s commitment to objectivity, neutrality, and universality; each posits the claim that scientific methodology represents only the prejudicial self-serving interests of a class, a sex, a culture. Academic Marxists reject science as a history-bound tool created by capitalists and the bourgeoisie for the enslavement of the proletariat. Radical ecologists make the victim nature itself rather than the working classes. Radical feminists lecture that traditional science is simply men’s destructive way of dealing with the world; women would do it differently. Multi-culturalists and Afro-centrists define the enemy as white men of European descent.
In exploring each of these categories of science’s enemies, Gross and Levitt admit a variety of difficulties. First they deal with the possibility of not having an enemy at all. They concede, for instance, the absence of any coherent intellectual core opposing science. Thus, they argue, “there is no obvious target for a definitive rejoinder.” The antagonism to science lacks a “self-consistent body of doctrine. Rather it is a congeries of different doctrines, with no well-defined center.” Despite the absence of “foundational axiomatics,” however, the authors discover what amounts to coherence in their antagonists’ skepticism or outright rejection of the reality of knowledge, facts, or empirical data—what is commonly identified as relativism or what they call Perspectivism. As the measurable, calculable existence of an external world lies at the heart of the scientific enterprise, social, cultural, political, or epistomological skepticism simply makes science irrelevant.
The two scientists also express reservations about their own nomenclature, specifically, the identity of science’s enemies with “the left.” They find general support for the usage by the near uniformity of their antagonists’ position relative to such issues as race, women’s rights, health care, disarmament, and foreign policy—and, they might well have added, as does William bennett, overwhelming political allegiance to the Democratic Party. They find the most critical support for the usage, however, in the left’s affection for revolutionary change, and the extension of this commitment to the most fundamental, traditional aspects of human order. “What defines it as much as anything else, is . . . a commitment to the idea that fundamental political change is urgently needed and can be achieved only through revolutionary processes rooted in a wholesale revision of cultural categories,” they write. In sketching this revolutionary impulse, Gross and Levitt profile their foes on the other side of the barricades. “This apocalyptic break with things-as-they-are is supposed to displace a vast array of received cultural values and substitute an entirely novel ethos,” they begin.
From this perspective feminism, for example, means more than full juridical equality for women, more than income parity and equal access to careers, more than irrevocable “reproductive rights.” It means, in fact, a complete overthrow of traditional gender categories, with all their conscious and unconscious postulates. By the same token, racial justice, in this view, does not mean peaceful assimilation of blacks into the dominant culture, but the forging of an entirely new culture, in which “blacks” (or “African”) values—in social relations, economics, aesthetics, personal sensibilities—will have at least equal standing with “white” values. Similarly, environmentalism, as understood and preached on the academic left, extends far beyond concrete measures to eliminate pollution, or to avoid extinction of species and elimination of habitats. Rather, it envisions a transcendence of the values of Western industrial society and their restoration of an imagined prelapsarian harmony to humanity’s relations with nature.
Gross and Levitt are most convincing when they show how little critics in the humanities and social sciences actually know when discussing physics, mathematics, biology, and other “hard” sciences. They catalogue the misuse of specific scientific terms, for example, but they rankle over their enemies’ use of science and quasi-science to support their biases. Their eyes roll at the use of the journalist James Gleick’s Chaos to prove perspectivism in mathematics; they ridicule the misunderstanding and social application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; and they scorn the infatuation with Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, the next most cited to Kuhn—who himself has backed away from a social constructivist position.
Thus Gross and Levitt define the chief ends of their book: to reveal the fatuity of science’s enemies but also to waken scientists to the profound dangers behind their critics’ silliness. By and for scientists, The Higher Superstition’s authors keep their object narrow: to defend science and scientific inquiry. Its authors specifically eschew discussing “the tiresome” issues of political correctness. Willing to let literary critics, sociologists, historians, and company go their own way as long as they mind their own business, Gross and Levitt specifically repudiate any interest in the debate over the literary canon, for example. Indeed, in one instance at least, they taunt traditionalists with the advice that Japanese or Indian music might well be superior to Mozart. Their arguments, however, do impinge upon these larger debates. At least by implication, their arguments about the gibberish and silliness of non-scientists’s discussion of science applies significantly to research in general in the humanities and social science. Cut loose from empirical data and factuality, the rule of truth, if indeed that concept applies any more, is one like plausibility where virtually anything one wishes can be argued equally.
But their arguments affect the “canon debate” in other ways. Thus, Gross and Levitt identify science with the West and with particularly Western ways of thought. As they describe it, science is essentially a phenomenon of Western civilization beginning at the latest with Pythagoras and the Greek discovery of pi, rediscovered in the Renaissance, and brought to full flower in the last 200 years in Europe and American laboratories. Devoid of any self-conscious celebration of the West, then, Gross and Levitt produce, ipso facto, the most practical and non-ideological justification for the superiority of a Western, Greek-founded tradition. It is a little jump, however, to assume that science itself arose out of a certain mentality, and to celebrate not only that mentality but its other artifacts: its art, literature, politics, and other institutions. If Higher Superstition ignores this connection, it is one that other critics of academic conventions—Paglia, Bloom, and Bennett—make with ease. Just so, it is also one that science’s enemies adopt as naturally: if science is bad, so too are the other classic institutions of the West.
There are, however, problems with this otherwise splendid book. In the first place, the authors’ identification of the new anti-scientism with 1960’s culture is simply too easy. This is a standard and conventional even logical association, but Gross and Levitt add nothing to the argument. The authors insist, for example, that anti-scientism arose out of a kind of psychological frustration of old 60’s radicals who had no other outlets for their desire for power. Here, atypically, they offer no proof of the thesis, and their argument stands as a rhetorical assertion. In the narrowest sense of the actual anti-science writers, this might possibly be true, but the connection lacks veracity for the mass of humanities and social science scholars who share the left’s biases. As suggested by the uniformity of Post-Modern prejudices among the most recent history Ph.D.s, for example, men and women who were born after Woodstock, there would seem to be some other source of all this. Then, too, Gross and Levitt fail to make hard connections between the post-World War II French philosophers and the American academy’s uncritical adoption of these men. This problem seems enormously more complicated than The Higher Superstition allows. It’s as if American university culture was a giant petri dish just waiting for the germs of the French nihilists. The circumstance resembles the popularity of Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer’s thought in America. It possessed some fundamental, primal appeal here, and long after it lost its legitimacy in Europe, it still thrived in America. The psychological frustration of 60’s radicals notwithstanding, the pervasiveness of “the higher superstition” in academic life really seems to speak to something of the same power. Something is out there that Gross and Levitt do not touch. Thus, for example, The Education of Henry Adams, published in 1912, anticipates much of the academic left’s disillusion with the entire scientific enterprise and foreshadows even so, the anti-scientists’ flirtation with both power and nihilism.
There are other, subtler tensions at work in Higher Superstition. These involve the most fundamental relationship of science to society, indeed, fundamental definitions of science itself. As noted earlier, Gross and Levitt specifically reject intervening in the disciplinary concerns of the humanities and social sciences except where these impinge on their own disciplinary interests. They face, however, something of a paradox, and this defines something of a paradox of science itself. Fundamental to science is the concept of a material universe. The Nobel laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix, has given the idea a classic expression in his most recent volume, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, in which he effectively dismisses every traditional definition of soul for a completely material explanation: soul, he argues, is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” If we don’t know exactly the processes of these firing synapses, time and research will eventually reveal all. To believe otherwise, Crick says, is delusion. Science has no room, in this view, for mystery, belief, faith, magic, or even art—insofar as art suggests transcendence and mysticism.
Gross and Levitt share Crick’s view. Indeed, their real enemies are actually less left academics—whom they keep suggesting should know better—but rather belief systems in general like religion and the archenemy “superstition” of their title. Indeed, they effectively equate superstition and religion, and they call perpetually to their misguided colleagues within the academic left to mind the academy’s real enemies on the right. They are explicit in their association of science with leftist political values—freedom, liberty, constitutional government, even democracy, and they argue that the greatest revolution is the commitment to free scientific inquiry that breaks down all other human barriers.
All this defines the classic social mode of science for the last 200 years. And it is a problem. Science is virtually imperial, whether or not scientists wish it so. It imposes, willy-nilly, its materialistic rationalism on all inquiry, even, paradoxically, while holding to a Crickian faith in the future. Anti-clericalism and profound secularism have marked science’s reign since the Enlightenment, even religious tolerance finds its base in the notion of religion’s fundamental irrelevance. A colleague in biology recently reasserted a commonplace for over a century: “Religion has always been a way that people have dealt with things they don’t understand,” he said. “With time, science has narrowed the field of the unknown and thus the need for religion.”
As with religion, so too, at least potentially, with art. The criticism of Goethe and Blake in The Higher Superstition is particularly interesting in this regard. While Gross and Levitt condemn the two artists only and specifically as scientists not as poets, yet the attack suggests a potential conflict between science and art as well as between science and belief. Along the same lines, in their condemnation of Nietzsche they bar no holds. They consider him, rightly, science’s anti-Christ. Nietzsche, of course, would relish their antagonism, even, one would suppose, as he would also loathe the American academic left. Yet Nietzsche condemns science, progress, and the bourgeoisie out of a radical sense of art and beauty.
Are art and science compatible? Are they any more compatible than religion and science? Gross and Levitt could hardly allow the dualism of an affirmative answer even if they believed it. Yet their book is so intelligent and compelling—so generous and humane too, one might add—that they allow for this criticism even if they fail to address the issue. That itself is one mark of art. Another is resolving paradox and contradictions—and that is how they begin their book: dealing with what it means to be a sentient human being. Thus while concerned with practical issues of scientific truth and falsehood, Gross and Levitt also deal with that most traditional concern of our civilization, the human condition: what is man? Still further, their conclusions resonate with all the paradoxes that have characterized discussion of such issues from the time that Homer first described Achilles’s terrible choices in The Iliad or Aeschylus had the Titan bemoan and celebrate humanity’s fate in Prometheus Bound. In this, The Higher Superstition keeps to the highest literary tradition of the West.
The opening paragraph of their book affirms the richness and generosity—and even good humor—of that tradition in style and content that a fifth-century Athenian could understand. “Muddleheadedness has always been the sovereign force in human affairs,” they begin,
—a force far more potent than malevolence or nobility. It lubricates our hurtful impulses and ties our best intentions in knots. It blunts our wisdom, misdirects our compassion, clouds whatever insights into the human condition we manage to acquire. It is the chief artisan of the unintended consequences that constitute human history. To crusade against muddleheadedness, therefore, may be the most futile, and hence the most muddleheaded, quest of all. Inasmuch as that is the aim of this book, we concede that we may be as misguided as any of our subjects. Still, passivity in the end is more reprehensible than quixotry.
This opening passage also illuminates the literary charm of the authors’ style. With rare mastery of the language, they write with intelligence, grace, and even humor. Indeed, the charm of their prose might soften even the most self-righteous and earnest of their enemies—insofar as their enemies value literature. Their often extensive quotations of the jargon-ridden obscurities from their opponents (more often than not with Ph.D.s in English literature) make their own prose more luminous—even as it should make writers in the humanities blush in shame and envy.
Beautifully written, extremely intelligent, and treating issues of the profoundest concern, The Higher Superstition is a most admirable work. Conservatives and traditionalists might find little comfort here even as it should cause stews and turmoil within “the academic left.” For any thoughtful reader, however, right, left or center, Gross and Levitt challenge and inspire.
My profound thanks to the following friends for reading and criticizing this essay: Howard Kaminsky, Bernard Gertsman, Rob Grenier, Walter Van Hamme, Richard King, Dan Childers, Gary Kroll, and Bill Harbaugh.