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The Guardians of Dogma: Part 5 – Defenders of the New Religion

YOWUSA.COM, 30-June-04
By Dale Caruso

guardians_logoIf our Church of Progress has a "Vatican," the American Association for the Advancement of Science could arguably be considered the spot.  Its affiliates include 264 societies and academies of science, serving more than 10 million members.  Today, AAAS is the world's largest federation of scientific and engineering societies.

To many, on both sides of any issue, the AAAS is the sanctioner of Dogma, the postulator of position; through its conferences and seminars, and those of its affiliates, approval by the AAAS means the difference between getting you theories or ideas to move from the world of "Notion" to that of "Dogma."

Founded in 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science serves some 265 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals.

Its mission was clearly stated in section II of its constitution, written in 1973:

The objectives of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are to further the work of scientists, to facilitate cooperation among them, to foster scientific freedom and responsibility, to improve the effectiveness of science in the promotion of human welfare, to advance education in science, and to increase public understanding and appreciation of the importance and promise of the methods of science in human progress.

Membership, according to Article III, was open to; "Any individual who supports the objectives of the Association and is willing to contribute to the achievement of those objectives is qualified for membership."

According to its official history:

The formation of AAAS in 1848 marked the emergence of a national scientific community in the United States.  While science was part of the American scene from the nation's early days, its practitioners remained few in number and scattered geographically and among disciplines.

AAAS was the first permanent organization formed to promote the development of science and engineering at the national level and to represent the interests of all its disciplines.  Participants in AAAS meetings, held in cities across the country, represented a who's who of science.  The meetings were covered widely by newspapers, which sometimes reprinted their proceedings verbatim.

However, AAAS's permanence was not preordained and, despite the many contributions it made during its first 50 years, the Association came close to extinction more than once.  Ultimately, an alliance with Science magazine, which had failed as a private venture, rejuvenated both the magazine and AAAS.

The motto of the AAAS is "Advancing Science, Serving Society."  Its mission, AAAS seeks to "advance science and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people."  To fulfill this mission, the AAAS Board has set the following broad goals:

  • Foster communication among scientists, engineers and the public;
  • Enhance international cooperation in science and its applications;
  • Promote the responsible conduct and use of science and technology;
  • Foster education in science and technology for everyone;
  • Enhance the science and technology workforce and infrastructure;
  • Increase public understanding and appreciation of science and technology; and
  • Strengthen support for the science and technology enterprise.

The Brainy Dictionary's defines "Dogma" as, "(n.)  That which is held as an opinion; a tenet; a doctrine.

(n.) A formally stated and authoritatively settled doctrine; a definite, established and authoritative tenet."

That certainly fits well for the tenets put for by the Church of Progress.  Tenets, which we are led to believe, are formulated after much objective research and analysis, and after long, open and considered discussion.  However, one cautions that the Dictionary's next definition of the word, Dogma, may more aptly apply.  "(n.) A doctrinal notion asserted without regard to evidence or truth; an arbitrary dictum."

The Assault on the Church of Progress

What had bothered me to this point was why the Church of Progress is becoming so vicious in its defense of its doctrine that certainly implies that "we are the holders of knowledge and the guardians of what it truth," when the most vocal critics that I was aware of were those in what the mainstream has deemed "pseudo-science."

While many of the theories brought to the table by some of these "pseudo-scientists" seem to me to be, at very least, plausible and certainly interesting enough that, I would have assumed, they would have brought to bear the full weight of the scientific community to investigate the claim and would be intrigued by the possibilities.

Rather, practitioners of the "New Religion," whom I have discovered have done little in the way of actual homework, which I had always imagined it required to pose an honest and thoughtful retort, greeted these new ideas with disdain, criticism and attack.  In a very real sense, it seem more as if these vaunted academicians, instead, were lying in repose in some ivy covered Mount Olympus, beckoning each of the "common mortals" to approach and present their idea.  Then, they could simply turning thumbs down if it in any way seemed to be contrary to any of the existing Devine Dogma that had already come down from this fictitious resting place of the academic gods.

I thought that the intensity of their attacks was certainly out of place and, in a real sense, "over-kill;" that is, until I discovered that the pseudo-scientists were not alone in their battle. Indeed, the Church seems under attack, and it is coming from all sides.

In a paper entitled "A Report from the front of the ‘Science Wars,'" Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) mathematician Evans Harnell wrote that science was under a full assault and that many of the scientists were completely unaware that a battle, no, a war was raging around them.  A the annual meeting of the American Mathematical Society held a few years ago in Baltimore, Maryland, Harnell observed that among other things those attending learned that attacks on science have been taking place and had been thoroughly discussed in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, by Virginia biologist Paul R. Gross and Rutgers mathematician Norman Levitt [GL].

Harnell goes on to say, "The assembled scientists in Baltimore were avidly reading the book and reporting that it was ``a real eye-opener'' and ``not just the usual anti-PC (Politically Correct) creed.  Best of all, it was on sale!

The guardians of dogma are under attack:, make no mistake about that, and it seems that, while not a coordinated effort, this attack is coming from many fronts.  As I research this piece I am becoming increasingly aware that many of these advisories of the guardians are motivated more by a divergent method for the control of academia, rather than a call for education, and more particularly the sciences (as it is the thrust of this piece), to return to the basic tenets of good, sound, objective research.  In short, what we may be witnessing is a political power struggle between the guardians of dogma and those that feel they would like to be.

Many are critics who sling scientific terminology about with an air of authority, while revealing to anyone with technical training that they have not the slightest idea what it means.  In examples drawn from mathematics, they have picked up some vogue words like chaos and nonlinearity, and they have eagerly misunderstood them as showing that mathematics has been fundamentally rethought and has retreated from its claim to objective truth.  (The cultural critics have little to say about logic or the foundations of mathematics, where there are some long-standing and quite vexatious issues.  They are instead drawing words and phrases selectively from the popular press.)  Similar silliness is babbled about quantum and relativistic physics and about other branches of science.  Indeed, scientific objectivity is flatly rejected as a bogus and dangerous notion associated with the evils of capitalism, colonialism, militarism, patriarchy, etc. 

In her 1991 book, Whose Science?  Whose Knowledge?  (Cornell University Press)  Sandra Harding, Professor Social Sciences and Comparative Education Director, UCLA Center for the Study of Women, examines theories about how the sciences work and sets forth a well-grounded case for recovering the alliance of science with projects to advance democracy.  Harding argues that, while Western sciences certainly have helped to develop some part of society, they have simultaneously helped to disempower others, such as many people of Third World descent, women and the poor, both here and around the world .  She also urges readers to begin thinking about themselves, nature and social relations from the standpoint of the lives of groups that, she maintains, have been marginalized in current Western Academic thought.  More specifically, she is saying that, "The ``innocence'' of science communities ... is extremely dangerous to us all. "

Perhaps people who have exhibited tendencies toward such innocence should not be permitted to practice science or construct metatheories of science; they are a danger to the already disadvantaged and perhaps even to the species!"  Innocence, in this context, refers to doing pure research, carried on without political oversight.  What she seems to argue, perhaps thinly, is the need to change the power elite.

However, this also raises the question; does a changing of the guard, as it were, actually ensure that science specifically and academia more generally will again become a bed for open discussion, the embracing (not tacit acceptance) of new ideas?

This acceptance must be for the purpose of honest debate and sensible and methodical examination, of open honest and PROFESSIONAL dialogue.  Alternatively, are we simply seeing an attempt by the have-nots to rest power from the haves, where the Dogma remains the same, only its guardians change?

Evans Harnell observes, "Objectively, the enemies of science cannot simply be dismissed as fools (not all of them all of the time), and indeed they are disturbingly like ourselves in many ways."

He suggests a modest experiment:

Could a parody be published in a serious mathematical physics journal; for example, if it used authentic sounding jargon and made references to fashionable trends in the field?  Spoof posters are not uncommon at meetings, but they are recognized for what they are (by most onlookers most of the time). This experiment, too, has been carried out at least twice to my knowledge, in July 1988, and in October 1993, by investigators who prefer to remain anonymous.  What was the result?  Alas, the counterrevolutionary cads who edit our publications, with their retrograde allegiance to objectivity and peer review, wouldn't even let such an article into a conference proceeding or mp-arc, the electronic archive.  Strangely, there seems to be a correlation between belief in objectivity and quality control.

The sanctimonious tone of the critics, upon being criticized, can be pretty funny when set beside their other writings.  For instance, Andrew Ross, the editor of Social Text, usually writes aggressively (he's not one of the turgid and opaque ones).  In "Science Backlash on Techno skeptics" in The Nation, October 2, 1995 he writes, ``Be prepared for another season of asinine anecdotes about feminist algebra, [etc.]'' and from Strange Weather, Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits.  London and New York: Verso, 1991"This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had.  It could only have been written without them.'' are typical.  After his own nose was tweaked, the aging enfant terrible and his co-editor wrote:

This breach of ethics is a serious matter in any scholarly community, and has damaging consequences … [Sokal's] adventures in Postmodern Land were not really our cup of tea ... Why does science matter so much to us?

Because its power, as a civil religion, as a social and political authority, affects our daily lives and the parlous condition of the natural world more than does any other domain of knowledge.

Notice that the power of science has apparently nothing to do with its content.  The passage ends with "Should non-experts have anything to say about scientific methodology and epistemology?  After centuries of scientific racism, scientific sexism and scientific domination of nature one might have thought this was a pertinent question to ask."

Gross, Levitt, Sokal and other scientists are often charged with arrogantly opposing any examination of science by outsiders, but they strongly maintain that the evidence of their words squarely contradicts this.

Of course, science is an appropriate object of study by anthropologists, sociologists, historians and philosophers, and of course, it exists in a political context.  However, the examination should be intelligent and honest.  It certainly does cry out to be exposed, and it has been.  However, it often appears that defensiveness is a motivation, the same type of defensiveness that is portrayed by its current guardians; Sokal, for example, was feeling more defensive about left-wing politics, of which he is an adherent, than about science.

Finally, Harnell states:

The threat is not to the epistemology of science, but to its social context, and this is the true battleground.  Science is terribly important, but not as an accidentally powerful example among many equally valid forms of discourse, or as a state religion.  It is paramount because it constantly transforms the human condition, and its power to do so arises from a unique relation to objectivity, which some cultural critics fail, or refuse, to grasp.  Any political system or ideology has to deal with the phenomenon of science, but only damage can result from ignorance and dishonest motives.

This can be seen every day in education, the workplace, and the courts - the legal avatar of the movement, known as critical legal studies, is far more influential than cultural studies, and the other groups described by Gross and Levitt are all at work in the legal system as well.

We suffer much more as citizens than as professionals, but as professionals, we are both able and responsible to improve the uses of science in society.  In this it would be foolish arrogance not to work together with outside critics, who not only potentially have much to offer, but have a substantial track record of doing so.  For example, the Tuskegee experiment, in which uninformed people were intentionally not treated for syphilis as part of a controlled experiment, is only one of the most notorious of many ethical abuses which have occurred in science, in this country and not so long ago.  The scientific community was not alone or even in a unique position of leadership in establishing better principles of beneficence and disclosure in human experimentation.

None of the sciences, including mathematics, has a monopoly on wisdom as to its uses.

He closes with what I thought an interesting comment.  In speaking to the issue of critics of science, some thoughtful, others motivated by their own "political intentions" than actual science, he writes, more to the scientist/educator at large, the folks in the trenches of the classrooms and laboratories, rather to the present power elite, the guardians of dogma, when he says:

Even those who have been embarrassed may now curb their excesses, and ultimately benefit.  Let us now be equally vigilant about our own shortcomings, and, most importantly, let us not neglect the serious issues surrounding science in our amusement over the latest skirmish. 

Certainly, his are measured words.

Perhaps they are a kind way or cautious way of suggesting that the Guardians pay heed, without posing a possibility that he too would become the target of their wrath.

Ignorance may be bliss, but its also highly irresponsible 

At that time, before a recent prank by Alan Sokal, a mathematical physicist at NYU, focused the mass media on tensions between scientists and the ``academic left,'' most scientists were astonished to be told that there are social scientists and humanities scholars who believe, not only that they have produced incisive and significant criticism of the role of science in society, but that they have also revolutionized its methods, its content, and its claim to truthfulness.  Can a revolution have occurred in science without scientists being aware of it?  Just what are these critics saying, and are the attacks on science something scientists need to worry about?

Gross and Levitt have dealt with these questions and written a call to arms for the community.  The ``left'' as seen by Gross and Levitt is quite diverse, including those labeling themselves feminists, ecological activists, afro-centrists, and others, but the greatest concern is with a movement in the tradition of postmodern literary theory, called ``cultural studies.''  (The somewhat fluid terminology includes ``science studies'' and some other variants.)  Attacks from the other side - creation science and so on - are not discussed, mostly because they are virtually unrepresented on our own soil, the universities."