Pomo = LaRouchian wingnuttery?

One of the things one occasionally has to deal with are people’s prejudices and misperceptions, bordering on hatred, of anything that seems to threaten the scientific method.

Now personally I’m all in favor of the scientific method in its place, but for many people an interest in say Rorty, Latour, Foucault etc. bespeaks an anti-scientific mind on a par with the outer reaches of weirdness. Or, of Lyndon LaRouch, who is apparently making a comeback on campuses and who attracted the ire of this science-based blog for his interest in physics.

LaRouche is quoted as writing:

Once we recognize that scientific knowledge is obtained, not by contemplating the universe, but by studying how we may generate those thoughts which enable us to efficiently act to change the universe, then the principles of cognition underlying the discovery of lawful physical principles, are the epistemological basis for defining the underlying determination of validatable physical laws.

Now that might not make a whole lot of sense but it seems hamless enough.

Not so! To the rescue rides this commentator:

I hate to break it to you, but your local departments of english literature/women’s studies etc etc etc are almost certainly propagating equally nonsensical propaganda to your students, and doing far more harm than these guys. Officially sanctioned crackpottery is far worse than this kind of random lunacy.

The ramparts are under attack. Hold the line!

Despite a few attempts to keep things civil, a poster named “caveman” replies:

Don’t be disingenuous. You know perfectly well that a straw-man caricature of post-modernism is exactly the same thing as post-modernism.

It’s not inevitable that these discussions degenerate into caricature, and debate is good, it’s just surprising to see these old warmed over relic opinions from the culture wars.

2 Responses

  1. That post of “caveman’s” was addressed to me. Actually, I had tried to respond to Mark, one of the regular bloggers at Cosmic Variance, when he suggested I was looking for a “confrontation with scientists,” but WordPress ate my comment & then wouldn’t let me repost it. Here is what I wrote:

    Mark, no I don’t want to create confrontations with scientists. I don’t go looking around the internet for fights with anybody. And please notice above that I have not engaged rhetorical gestures of dismissal of others’ comments. I’m deeply interested in science & teach a literature course at Clarkson called Imagining Science in which we look at how poets, fiction writers, and scientists have represented what science does. Some scientists. Many of my colleagues in the sciences have been supportive of the course, while a few have failed to understand why anyone would want to teach, or take, such a course. For these few, literary knowledge is not knowledge. So it is against this background that, online, I read Pharyngula, Butterflies & Wheels, Cosmic Variance, etc. Many of the actual scientists writing at these places — albeit not formally, within the canons of their discipline, but informally, as bloggers — take an epistemologically naive, positivist approach to explanation and description of the physical world. Such a view is perhaps understandable, given the daily lives of working scientists. As I’m sure you are aware, humanist critiques of science are generally not appreciated in such quarters. Now, I will be the first to admit that some of those critiques are hare-brained & ignorant of science: they ought to be dismissed by scientists & humanists alike. But all too often, any attempt to treat scientific discourse as discourse, to study science as a set of interlocking social & textual practices, brings out a strong fundamentalist streak in some scientists and in many less knowledgeable supports of “science,” most of whom are as unfamiliar with the basc texts as many Christians are unfamiliar with the bible in which they claim so fervently to believe. That’s what I call scientism. So, no, I don’t want confrontation with scientists; in my ideal world, scientists & humanists would work together against the ignorance of all forms of simple-minded, thoughtless adherence to doctrine.

    Humanists — philosophers, historians, literary scholars — are specialists at doing things with texts. Humans, including scientists, are text-producing animals. Postmodernism, so-called, simply claims that no texts are sacred, even scientific ones. If you re-read Julianne’s post & the subsequent comments, it actually turns out to describe an argument about the authority of texts. LaRouche is making a (ridiculous) claim about, say, Newton. LaRouche’s texts can be dismissed on both scientific and textual grounds: his use of rhetoric masks a devious distortion of preceding texts. As I said earlier, it is not the business of science to worry too much about why & how LaRouche distorts sources & language, but it is the business of the humanities. And there is actual knowledge to be gained by looking at those texts through a humanistic lens. I suspect we might agree on this. Where we might disagree is when the humanist turns to the rhetoric, history, and cultural presuppositions of scientific texts. Just as science can be done well or badly, so the analysis of texts can be done well or badly. Any intellectually honest discussion would seek to decide what defines “well” & “badly” in this context, rather than dismissing with a wave of the rhetorical hand a whole class of inquiry, often with only the most superficial understanding of what is being dismissed.

    So, again, I’m not looking for confrontation, but neither do I feel the need to stifle my irritation when commenters above (not you & not the majority), imply that my academic discipline is equivalent to the cult-writings of Lyndon LaRouche.

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