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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Principle of Symmetry Day!

Hi folks!  I took note of the exasperated-with-Sokal comments in the previous thread, and decided to try to give the guy his due on this humble blog.  Thankfully, he’s not going on any more about nasty obscure postmodern literary theorists; he’s left us alone for quite some time now.  Ever since he pulled off the hoax and then did his excessive celebrating in the end zone, he’s turned his attention to science studies (and, in the most recent book, to religion), and that’s actually fairly interesting (and interestingly fair) stuff.  I should also note that in my two rounds of correspondence with him, in 1996 and 1999, he was an amiable and generous interlocutor.  In fact, in the course of the second round, following my review of Fashionable Nonsense, the 1998 book he co-authored with Jean Bricmont, Sokal convinced me that I’d missed the boat on their argument about a controversy concerning Zuni land claims.

Zuni land claims, you ask?  Well, yes. Now, Fashionable Nonsense is chock full of sneers at literary theorists and extended citations of various French intellectuals slinging the shit about science.  This accounts for much of the content of the book.  What Sokal and Bricmont unearthed, basically, was a weird moment in French intellectual life during which members of the poststructuralist wing of the Left Bank apparently dedicated themselves to writing a great deal of WTF prose about math and physics (but not, for some reason, about biology or chemistry).  For this as in much else, I blame Jacques Lacan.  But the rest of Fashionable Nonsense is all about science studies—particularly the “Edinburgh school” of Barry Barnes and David Bloor.  Sokal and Bricmont try to walk a “moderate” line on this: they agree that it’s OK to be a good Kuhnian historicist and to take account of myriad nonscientific factors in the history of science when one is dealing with the context of discovery, but not when one is dealing with the context of justification, when, say, the determination of the precession of Mercury’s perihelion (and this is a big thing for all you general-relativity fans out there) is at stake.  The distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification, in turn, is really really really important, as we saw in the infamous Scopes monkey Dover Intelligent Design trial, when sociologist of science Steve Fuller showed up to confuse the two, arguing weirdly (some would say disingenuously) that it makes sense to teach Intelligent Design in science classes because, after all, Isaac Newton believed in God.  (Those of you who remember this blog from back in the wild days of late 2005 will remember that I replied to this argument at some length here, and later in the month, took note of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision here, in the only post in which this sober blog has ever deployed a line of dancing badgers.)

Anyway, last year Penn State’s Disability Studies Program had its official institutional home moved from the Rock Ethics Institute to the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, with the odd result that my official title is now (deep breath) Paterno Family Professor in Literature and Science, Technology, and Society (!).  So I guess I’m supposed to know something about science, technology, and society now.  So today, while I’m writing that GRE essay and running a few errands and reading a bit from Harriet Jacobs at this event, I’ll leave you with a little snippet from the Ginormous Looming Ghostly Head Book in which I go back over Sokal and Bricmont’s arguments about Barnes/Bloor and the Zuni, and then say a few words about Paul Boghossian and Ian Hacking (whom I met very briefly at that Cognitive Disability and Philosophy conference last month, and got to say, “Professor Hacking!  Love your work on dolomite!”—which pleased him considerably).

Enjoy!  I’ll be back tomorrow with something fun.  And maybe arbitrary.


We begin our excerpt from Ginormous where Sokal and Bricmont are discussing

. . . an October 22, 1996 New York Times article about Native American land claims, in which British archeologist Roger Anyon was cited for the claim that the Zuni world view was “just as valid as the archeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about” (195).  Sokal and Bricmont maintain, reasonably enough, that the Zunis’ ancestors did not emerge, as the Zuni claim, “onto the surface of earth from a subterranean world of spirits” (195), and that most scientists place the Bering Strait migration about ten or twenty thousand years in the past (194).  The second account, I believe, is unquestionably more scientifically accurate than the first, and it is a stretch, at best, to consider the two accounts equally valid in an epistemological sense.  (Their incommensurability is not the same thing as their equivalence.) But since the issue at hand had to do with scientists asserting their “right” (or at least their “need") to dig up sacred Zuni burial grounds, why are Zuni beliefs being measured here for their probable “validity”?  The effect is to substitute an epistemological dilemma for an ethical one, and that’s a suspect move in itself—as if the group with the most plausible scientific account of human prehistory gets to do what it wants with the fossil record other people happen to be standing on.  Still, Sokal and Bricmont point out that it’s possible to defend native land claims without adopting the belief that Native Americans have always lived in North America, having been sprung from the ground at the dawn of time:

We can perfectly well remember the victims of a horrible genocide, and support their descendants’ valid political goals, without endorsing uncritically (or hypocritically) their societies’ traditional creation myths.  (After all, if you want to support Native American land claims, does it really matter whether Native Americans have been in North American “forever” or merely for 10,000 years?) (196)

In one sense, no, it doesn’t matter: it is entirely possible to dispute the Zuni account of creation while supporting (with whatever degree of enthusiasm or regret) the right of the Zuni to stymie archeological research into the settlement of the Americas by humans.  But Sokal and Bricmont breeze over this example, and in so doing, they decline to explain how it’s possible, or when it’s necessary, to decouple epistemic realism about fossils and DNA from moral relativism about other people’s creation myths.

This is not an academic quibble.  This is a profound intellectual and political impasse, and no matter where your sympathies lie, it is absolutely critical to have a good handle on what kinds of claims are at stake—and on how to think about the impasse as an impasse.  For when Native American “creationists” come into conflict with scientists studying the history of the earth, the claims of faith meet the claims of reason—just as they do every time an advocate of “Intelligent Design” challenges the teaching of evolution.  Indeed, in the New York Times article to which Sokal and Bricmont appeal, Dr. Steve Lekson of the University of Colorado Museum is quoted as saying, “Some people who are not sympathetic to Christian fundamentalist beliefs are extraordinarily sympathetic to Native American beliefs.  I’m not sure I see the difference” (C13).  Here, the claims of science and the claims of history operate on two different registers for two different parties.  In other words, with regard to their status as beliefs that oppose themselves to evolutionary theory, there is no difference between Christian and Native American creationism; but with regard to the historical record of how archeologists have dealt with Native Americans and their beliefs in the past, there is all the difference in the world—as at least one scientist told the Times:

Most archeologists agree with the tribes that historical remains, some taken in wars with the Government and shipped to museums, should be given to their relatives for reburial.  But in case after case, Indian creationism is being used to forbid the study of prehistoric skeletons so old that it would be impossible to establish a direct tribal affiliation.  Under the repatriation act, who gets the bones is often being determined not by scientific inquiry but by negotiation between local tribes and the Federal agencies that administer the land where the remains are found.

“I can understand the loss of a collection when it relates to the recent past,” said Dr. Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, which has been compelled to turn over hundreds of prehistoric skeletons for reburial.  “Certain collections should not have been acquired in the first place.  But we’re seeing irreplaceable museum collections that can tell us so much about the prehistoric past lost and lost forever.” (C13)

Let me make my own allegiances clear before I proceed any further: I’m with the scientists on this one.  As a fan of Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel and as someone fascinated with the recent prehistory of humans, I would love to learn more—or simply to allow others to learn more—about how our ancestors settled the planet’s last remaining inhabitable continents after the Bering Strait migration, and I mean “our ancestors” in a species-wide sense.  Furthermore, I understand and believe scientists’ claims that skeletons nine and ten thousand years old have no meaningful biological relation to the bodies of people now walking the earth.  But while I do not endorse Native American creationists’ beliefs about the origins of their ancestors, I am unsurprised that Native Americans today would respond to scientists and government officials with skepticism, even intransigence. Certain collections should not have been acquired in the first place.  Some taken in wars with the Government. There are centuries of genocidal violence lying behind these deadpan sentences, and anyone who doesn’t hear an ethical difference between the creationist claims of Native American tribes with regard to ancient remains and the creationist claims of Christian fundamentalists about alleged gaps in the theory of evolution has a tin ear when it comes to dealing with humans and human histories.

There is nothing relativist about this distinction; nor am I applying a double standard, tolerating one group of religious fundamentalists and dismissing another.  Rather, I am placing two different kinds of creationist claims in what I believe is their proper interpretive context.  In the “Intelligent Design” dispute, no one is demanding to unearth any fossil remains from purportedly sacred ground, and there is no sorry history of “Indian removal” and extirpation to account for.  Christian creationists bring no such ethical and historical questions to the table.  The history of Native Americans’ relations with European settlers, by contrast, now serves as a barrier to scientific research on the early history of Native American settlement, and though I find this deeply regrettable, I regard it as a social fact that checks our knowledge of some of the brute facts of our collective existence on the planet.  The claims of science, and the hope of expanding human knowledge through scientific research, should sometimes be trumped by other human considerations.  The Native American resistance to archeological exploration in the Americas is, alas, one of those times.  I would like Native American creationists to believe archeologists’ insistence that skeletons ten thousand years old cannot possibly be the remains of ancestors of a tribe of people who have lived in an area for only a thousand years [footnote:  see Johnson: “The 10,600-year-old skeleton of a woman found in a gravel quarry near the town of Buhl, in southern Idaho, was reburied in December 1991 after the Shoshone-Bannocks—believed by many scientists to have occupied the area for less than a thousand years—claimed the remains were those of a dead ancestor.  Although tribal officials had given permission for carbon dating to determine the skeleton’s age, they forbade archeologists to perform DNA tests and chemical analyses that would have given clues about the origin of the skeleton, its diet and other matters” (C13)], but I can understand why Native Americans would refuse on both counts, with regard to the age of the skeleton and with regard to the scientific account of their own arrival on the land.  Given the history of the Tuskegee experiment, I would expect African Americans to be skeptical, as well, if they were approached today by a team of scientists offering to conduct studies of venereal disease in black men.

Sokal and Bricmont are right, then, to say that one can take the side of the Zuni or other tribes without “endorsing uncritically (or hypocritically) their societies’ traditional creation myths.” But they do not say why one would choose that side, or how one should go about distinguishing the claims of the Zuni from the claims of Christian, Muslim, or Hindu fundamentalists.  I mention Hindu fundamentalists not merely in the interest of multicultural correctness but because Indian biochemist Meera Nanda has eloquently argued, in Prophets Facing Backward, that postmodern critiques of Enlightenment universalism have been mobilized, in India, on behalf of the reactionary Hindu right.  Nanda’s work is important and chilling, and should be read by anyone who remains interested in devising theories that will be of no use for fascism.  But even Nanda is unclear as to whether every kind of social constructionism necessarily winds up working for the right.  In one paragraph she writes, “despite their honorable political intentions, all varieties of social constructivism end up giving aid and comfort to Hindu chauvinists who display many symptoms of fascism”; in the very next paragraph she writes, “I believe that disclosing the social structuring of knowledge is a worthy enterprise, but it need not take a relativist turn” (582).  What, then, is the difference between “social constructivism,” which always gives aid and comfort to fascists, and “disclosing the social structuring of knowledge,” which is a worthy enterprise so long as it isn’t taken too far?

To answer this question, I need to turn back to Fashionable Nonsense, this time to the first “Intermezzo” (and, I think, the most important chapter in the book), “Epistemic Relativism in the Philosophy of Science.” For it is here that they take on the “Strong Programme” of the “Edinburgh school,” as developed by sociologists Barry Barnes and David Bloor.  What disturbs Sokal and Bricmont about the Strong Programme—and they are far from alone in this respect—is its insistence on “symmetrical” explanations for beliefs, where the principle of “symmetry” holds in abeyance questions of the truth or falsity of belief.  In other words, a “symmetrical” account of two different belief systems does not say, “group A believes X, group B believes Y, and group B believes Y because Y happens to be true”; rather, a symmetrical account tries to explain why it is that groups A and B have the beliefs they do.  The relevance of this methodology to Native American creationists and frustrated American archeologists, I imagine, needs no elaboration.

Sokal and Bricmont quote Barnes and Bloor at some length: “Our equivalence postulate,” write Barnes and Bloor,

is that all beliefs are on a par with one another with respect to the causes of their credibility.  It is not that all beliefs are equally true or equally false, but that regardless of truth or falsity the fact of their credibility is to be seen as equally problematic.  The position we shall defend is that the incidence of all beliefs without exception calls for empirical investigation and must be accounted for by finding the specific, local causes of this credibility.  This means that regardless of whether the sociologist evaluates a belief as true or rational, or as false and irrational, he must search for the causes of its credibility. . . .  All these questions can, and should, be answered without regard to the status of the belief as it is judged and evaluated by the sociologist’s own standards.  (Barnes and Bloor 23, qtd. by Sokal and Bricmont at 89)

Barnes and Bloor are sometimes infelicitous and ambiguous, I think, as when they insist that “for the relativist there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such” (27).  This sentence is bothersome on two counts—first, insofar as it suggests that all local knowledges are equal in the eyes of the relativist, and second, for its obfuscatory phrase, “there is no sense attached to the idea that,” which makes the relativist’s relation to the idea more syntactically complex (and conceptually vague) than it should be.  But in the longer passage cited above, Barnes and Bloor seem to me to be as clear as day; they are simply enunciating a principle any sociologist, anthropologist, or ethnographer should take for granted in the investigation of belief systems.  Treat all beliefs as if believers believe they have reasons to hold them—and try to discover what those reasons are, regardless of whether they accord with your idea of “reason.”

Sokal and Bricmont reply guardedly: 

[T]he ambiguity remains: what exactly do they mean by “without regard to the status of the belief as it is judged and evaluated by the sociologist’s own standards”?

If the claim were merely that we should use the same principles of sociology and psychology to explain the causation of all beliefs irrespective of whether we evaluate them as true or false, rational or irrational, then we would have no particular objection.  But if the claim is that only social causes can enter into such an explanation—that the way the world is (i.e., Nature) cannot enter—then we cannot disagree more strenuously. (89-90)

In other words, if “Nature” or “the way the world is” gets to be one of the grounds for belief, then Sokal and Bricmont have no quarrel with the Strong Programme; but if social factors determine entirely the content—and not just the form—of beliefs about the world, then Sokal and Bricmont see the Strong Programme as a defense of irrationality tout court.

A few years later, in 2001, philosopher Paul Boghossian took to the pages of the Times Literary Supplement to sort through the claims of science studies scholars, post-Sokal.  In an essay titled “What is Social Construction,” Boghossian attempted to walk the same moderate line laid out by Sokal and Bricmont, admitting that “social values” play a part in how scientific research is conducted while denying that such values inform the content of research findings.  And in the course of walking that line, Boghossian took issue with the view that, as he paraphrased it, “although social values do not justify our beliefs, we are not actually moved to belief by things that justify; we are only moved by our social interests”:

This view, which is practically orthodoxy among practitioners of what has come to be known as “science studies,” has the advantage of not saying something absurd about justification; but it is scarcely any more plausible.  On the most charitable reading, it stems from an innocent confusion about what is required by the enterprise of treating scientific knowledge sociologically.

The view in question derives from one of the founding texts of science studies, David Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery (1976).  Bloor’s reasoning went something like this: If we wish to explain why certain beliefs come to be accepted as knowledge at a given time, we must not bring to bear our views about which of those beliefs are true and which false.  If we are trying to explain why they came to hold that some belief is true, it cannot be relevant that we know it not to be true.  This is one of the so-called “Symmetry Principles” of the sociology of knowledge; treat true and false propositions symmetrically in explaining why they came to be believed.

It’s possible to debate the merits of this principle, but on the whole it seems to me sound.  As Ian Hacking rightly emphasizes, however, it is one thing to say that true and false beliefs should be treated symmetrically and quite another to say that justified and unjustified ones should be so treated.  While it may be plausible to ignore the truth or falsity of what I believe in explaining why I came to believe it, it is not plausible to ignore whether I had any evidence for believing it.  (568-69)

But Boghossian’s apparent acceptance of the Symmetry Principle is undermined by the very terms of the acceptance: we are to treat beliefs symmetrically unless one of them is unjustified. I hope I will not be accused of using Western logic as a tool of oppression if I point out that this formulation begs the question at issue, namely, whether a belief is justified.  Barnes and Bloor, recall, had argued that “the incidence of all beliefs without exception calls for empirical investigation and must be accounted for by finding the specific, local causes of this credibility” Boghossian renders this, whether deliberately or through simple misunderstanding, as the principle that the incidence of all beliefs calls for empirical investigation as to the specific, local causes of their credibility, with the exception of unjustified beliefs.

Worse still, Boghossian’s attempt to negotiate the claims of the natural and the social makes mishmash of Ian Hacking’s work on the subject, for Hacking did not, in fact, “emphasize” that justified and unjustified beliefs should be exempted from the Symmetry Principle; on the contrary, Hacking realizes that treating a belief as unjustified violates the principle at the outset.  In his 1999 book, The Social Construction of What?, Hacking was considerably more agnostic on the question of how to deploy the Symmetry Principle.  In the course of a sinuous discussion of the history of interpretations of dolomite (yes, dolomite), Hacking detours for a few pages in order to remark explicitly on the assumptions of the Edinburgh school:

Members of the Edinburgh school were often thought to imply that interests affected the actual content of a science. I am not sure about the extent to which this accusation is justified [my emphasis].  Interests have a lot to do with the questions that are asked, with the direction of research, and the resultant form, as opposed to the content, of the science. The enormous commercial importance of dolomite, as a container and cap for petroleum, has had an obvious effect on how questions about dolomite are answered, given that the questions are asked.

The Edinburgh school is also famous for its strong thesis of symmetry. . . .  The idea is that an explanation of why a group of investigators holds true beliefs should have a very similar structure to an explanation of why another group holds false beliefs.  The early days of dolomite serve us well to illustrate this doctrine.  There is what we now take to be the correct account, furnished by [Giovanni] Arduino, and the incorrect account furnished by [Nicolas-Theodor von] Saussure and accepted by [Déodat de] Dolomieu.  Arduino thought he had a magnesium compound, while Saussure thought it was an aluminum compound, and claimed to prove this by chemical analysis.  The two cases seem symmetric.  Arduino did not reach his belief because it was true (in Chapter 3 I inveighed, on logical and linguistic grounds, against saying anything of the sort).  The explanation of why Arduino reached his correct conclusions will be of very much the same sort as the explanation of why Saussure reached his mistaken conclusions.  (202-03)

Hacking then goes on to endorse Bruno Latour’s theory of scientific networking in order to explain why the Saussure-Dolomieu theory of dolomite initially attracted more adherents.  Arduino’s theory eventually won the day, as Hacking acknowledges, but in his narration of the story of dolomite since its discovery in the late eighteenth century, Hacking never resorts to the claim that dolomite itself decided the dispute simply by being the kind of thing that it is.

But who cares about rocks, you ask?  It’s one thing to invoke the principle of symmetry when two groups of scientists disagree about the chemical composition of dolomite.  It’s quite another when you’re dealing with legitimate scientists on one side and a bunch of befuddled creationists (of whatever religious conviction on the other), isn’t it?  Well, it depends on what the meaning of “dealing with” is.  If you’re arguing that Intelligent Design is not a science and should not be taught in science classrooms, nothing I’ve written here will challenge or obstruct you, and much of what I’ve written should help.  But if you want to account for why it is that people reject evolutionary theory in favor of religious or other nonscientific beliefs about the origins of life, then you’re duty-bound to adopt the principle of symmetry—if you want to understand why people think they have reason to believe the things they believe.


And then, of course, you can still say, “this is why they believe what they believe, and this is why I think they’re wrong.” If, in fact, you do think they’re wrong.

Works bloggily cited:

Barnes, Barry and David Bloor.  “Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge.” In Rationality and Relativism. Ed.  Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.  21-47.

Boghossian, Paul A.  “What is Social Construction?” In Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent.  Ed. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral.  New York: Columbia U P, 2005. 562-74.

Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1999.

Johnson, George.  “Indian Tribes’ Creationists Thwart Archeologists.” New York Times, October 22, 1996: A1, C13.

Nanda, Meera.  “Postcolonial Science Studies: Ending ‘Epistemic Violence.’” In Patai and Corral.  575-84.

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont.  Fashionable Nonsense:  Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. New York: Picador, 1988.

Posted by Michael on 10/23 at 09:23 AM
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