Truer Words: Philanthropists As Bridges Between Science and the Public

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I recently finished reading a 1998 edited volume entitled A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science edited by Noretta Koertge. Each section of this book has a bit of introductory text. I’m assuming that these section introductions were written by Koertge but I’m not certain. For the purpose of this post I’ll assume that Koertge is the author. Please contact me if you know differently.

Today’s Truer Words come from the the text that introduces the section entitled Civilian Casualties of Postmodern Perspectives on Science. Koertge writes the following:

Particularly vulnerable to the blandishments of postmodernism are the professional staff at university presses, government and private foundations, and other organizations that mediate between science and the public.

Truer words have not been spoken. Koertge goes on to say

Such personnel typically come from the humanities and have little formal training in science. In earlier times, they might have strived to overcome that deficiency. Now they are likely to have encountered the STS [e.g., departments of Science & Technology Studies] or cultural studies critiques in their college career and may uncritically bring such perspectives to bear in their dealings with science.

If I can read between the lines here, I think what Koertge is saying is that when private foundations (and their staff) bridge between science and the public through their grantmaking activities, they are acting as public intellectuals. Within the world of philanthropy, I may hold what might prove to be a unique position: I have an advanced degree in the sciences (MS geology) and in the humanities (MA counseling psychology). I’d like to think that this uniquely qualifies me to bridge between science and the public, to act as a public intellectual. Allow me to attempt a bit of bridging in the rest of this post.

I’ve been researching the topic of postmodernism for about the last three years or so, ever since I encountered the topic while researching my 2011 book Bowlby’s Battle for Round Earth. In the conclusion to my book I argue that what ultimately did in Bowlbian attachment theory was the rise of postmodern thinking (or what one of Bowlby’s mentees, Anthony Stevens, called the standard social science model). Taking down a theory like Bowlby’s theory of attachment is no easy feat. So, I am very sensitive to the topic of how postmodern sensibilities are out to, in essence, “get” science. I only recently discovered A House Built on Sand. It is now clear to me that postmodernism has had it out for science for decades now. I am still trying to understand the reason (or reasons) postmodernism has as its main goal to put all of science in a grave. I guess I naively thought that the demise of Bowlbian attachment theory was a relatively isolated case, but, as it turns out, it’s not. If you’d like to get a sense for the full scope of what is being called the Science Wars, I’d suggest grabbing a copy of A House Built on Sand.

The only comment I’d like to make here is the observation that philanthropists, especially in their capacity as public intellectuals, have an obligation to orient themselves with respect to the Science Wars. To quote Koertge in a modified fashion, are you “uncritically bringing postmodern or STS perspectives to bear in your dealings with science?” If this is your explicit intent, are you (or your foundation staff) transparent with respect to this intent? Honestly, I did not know I had to be transparent about my desire to support science (more on this below) because I did not recognize that a Science War rages. But, in hindsight, I should have known that something was up. As a geologist and a firm believer in Darwin’s theory of evolution, I’ve known for some time now that movements such as Intelligent Design and creationism were gunning for evolution. (For an example here, see the article entitled Creationism’s Latest Trojan Horse Edges Toward Virginia Schools). In all likelihood I wanted to see such efforts as isolated and on the fringe and not representing salients in an all out Science War. Mainstream science needs to take some responsibility here.

Since self-publishing Bowlby’s Battle I have been sounding a clarion announcing the advance of postmodern thinking (evidence of which can be found on this BLT blog). It seems that most of the science researchers our Foundation works with are largely unconcerned. As I read A House Built on Sand it became abundantly clear to me that the Science Wars are real, the postmodern position is well organized, and postmodernists have made huge inroads as far as dismantling science. (Denying global warming is but another example.) And A House Built on Sand was written over 15 years ago. Outside of a book or two (like A House Built on Sand) science has not mounted any significant counterattack [1].

So, all this to say that as a philanthropist acting as a public intellectual I cannot properly do my job without the help of science. If I tell science that there is a huge postmodern problem (which I have) and science effectively turns a deaf ear (which they have), then there’s little I can do. I would go so far as to say that there is little that philanthropists as a group can do, at least those who wish to support science. If science wishes philanthropy to act as a bridge, then science must provide the lion’s share of the raw materials. Kudos to the authors of A House Built on Sand for doing just that. It’s one of the hidden Bowlby stories, but I would suggest that John Bowlby—as best he could—fought the rise of postmodernism by giving scientists and lay people alike copious amounts of scientific information and empirical data concerning the innate, biologically-mediated, behavioral system of attachment. Heck, he gave us three volumes worth and much more.

We keep talking about how we are falling behind in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). As an example, consider this article entitled The Biggest Threat to U.S. Growth Is in the Classroom—Opinion: America’s Failure to Engage Students in Math and Science Is Costly. I would suggest that we will continue to fall behind as long as we do not seriously consider the Science Wars that rage all around us. Allow me to end with an excerpt from A House Built on Sand by Norman Levitt. I particularly like this excerpt because if you read between the lines, you may get the sense (as I did) that it represents a veiled condemnation of the rise of the self-esteem movement starting in the 1970s (a movement that even Bowlby railed against):

The attitudes that generate this kind of querulousness are generally called “postmodern.” Under its vaunted irony one usually finds diffuse rage at having been born too late for intellectual and artistic self-confidence. The fact that such self-confidence permeates the sciences, where it is so casual that scientists are hardly conscious of it [a point I make above], leads to bitterness and sullen thoughts. In the case of science studies, the resulting ill will is amplified by an ethical and political commitment to the values of the left. … These feelings are all the more ferocious because, in a practical sense, the left has little sense of what to do or where to turn in the real world where power and authority are contested [especially on the world stage]. Consequently, it retreats into the comforts of sweeping denunciation.

That’s a great way to frame postmodernism: a desire to retreat into the comforts of sweeping denunciation. This is also a great way to frame the “terrible twos” of toddlerhood with its comforting refrains of “no.” All of this helps explain why many social commentators (myself included) have labeled certain Occupy Movement efforts postmodern: sweeping denunciation with “little sense of what to do or where to turn in the real world where power and authority are contested” (quoting Levitt from above).


[1] – Just before this post went live, I received my copy of a 2014 book entitled Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. This book is by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. See Fashionable Nonsense for an example of a recent push back by science against postmodernism. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about Fashionable Nonsense in a future post. If you read it before I do, feel free to leave a comment and let us know what you think.