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Monday, December 05, 2005

Steve Fuller Replies

Over the weekend, Steve Fuller himself stopped by this humble blog to reply to Friday’s post.  I thought his reply was too substantial and important to leave in blog comments (particularly since the comment thread had been taken—how shall I say this—in such very strange directions before Steve showed up in comments 51-52), so I wrote to ask him if I could move it on up here as its very own ad hoc guest post.  Graciously, he agreed.

Without further ado, then, here’s Steve Fuller in his own words:

A friend drew my attention to your blog. Your perplexity over my position in the Dover trial is only matched by my own perplexity, since in other contexts academic humanists appear to be quite sophisticated in teasing out, and often justifying, seemingly paradoxical positions. One thing I can say though is that for people who seem to worry about whether ID or I make any sense, you don’t try very hard to check out what you’re saying.

First of all, the fact that I am reported in MSNBC does not mean that I actually spoke to them (there was a reasonably decent Associated Press piece on the day of my testimony, and it got sliced, diced and spliced—e.g. remarks about Behe I never made but make for good boilerplate in summarising ID—across the rest of the media). Moreover, the fact that The Panda’s Thumb thinks I’m a postmodernist doesn’t mean I’m one—at least I’m not one that real postmodernists would normally associate themselves with!  I’m sorry if this sounds patronising but I’d hate you to think you’ve been having a serious discussion worthy of people who claim ‘criticism’ as a profession. You guys simply take at face value what the media presents and then back it up with whatever you can dredge up. Haven’t you people heard of cultural studies?  (It was also touching that one of you thought the New Yorker piece was harsh on me—you must lead a sheltered life, if you think that’s harsh!]

It is true that I do believe we live in ‘the postmodern condition’ in roughly the way Lyotard described it. But normatively speaking, I’m committed to retrieving the Enlightenment project under these unfortunate circumstances. I have always been very consistent on this point from Social Epistemology (1988) onward. (Some of you may have read about the debate I had in Hong Kong with Bruno Latour a couple of years ago that was published in the journal, History of the Human Sciences.) What may confuse people is that to retrieve the spirit of the Enlightenment today, you may need to do something radically different from the 18th century, when the authority of natural science was still somewhat counter-cultural. In particular, I am a little disturbed by the ease with which humanists and social scientists justify deference to scientific expertise, almost in a ‘good fences make good neighbours’ vain (Stanley Fish comes to mind in criticism, but analytic philosophy and sociology of science have their own versions of this argument). In this respect, ‘our’ side pulled its punches in the Science Wars when it refused to come out and say that the scientific establishment may not be the final word on what science is, let alone what it ought to be. I guess we just never got over the embarrassment of the Sokal Affair.

By the way, none of this stuff about postmodernism came up in the trial. This labelling is the product of various spin-doctors trying to get a fix on where I might be coming from. They note that I cite postmodernists, deal with their ideas seriously and am even not averse to their rhetorical flourishes. Ergo, I’m a postmodernist?  So much for depth hermeneutics! You might want to read what I actually say—in print, in the trial, and in the written expert report I submitted before the trial. (All easily available. Have you heard of Google?) But of course, some things I said were not a million miles from what is reported. And frankly, if in the year 2005 you’re branded a ‘postmodernist’ just because you say that the scientific establishment is systematically biased against certain ideas like ID—and that this state-of-affairs isn’t about the change out of its own accord very soon—then I suggest a refresher course in the sociology of science. (By the way, I’m no malcontent outside the peer review system: I peer review for just about every field and publisher you can imagine. I’m often positioned as a cross between the ultimate general reader and attorney for the damned—i.e. the person who might see something good in an otherwise god-awful text. My scepticism of peer review comes from deep involvement in it.)

Someone here mentioned some affinity between my view and Feyerabend’s ‘anything goes’. Actually I don’t believe ‘anything goes’. I’m making a specific case about ID. ID deserves space less for what it’s done recently than as a representative of the main counter-tradition in the history of science to the one represented nowadays by Neo-Darwinism. This counter-tradition’s standard bearer is not Paley, of watch-on-the-beach fame, but Isaac Newton who believed he had gotten inside of God’s mind. One cannot underestimate the heuristic value of this belief in the history of science, not only in physics but also in computer science and of course genetics (sometimes with disastrous consequences). (By the way, this was the bulk of what I said in the trial.) So, the fact that contemporary ID is not well-supported by research matters much less to me than its potential for inspiring new directions in the scientific imagination. The US Constitution notwithstanding, it is historically false and pedagogically destructive to think that good science requires leaving your religion at the door. I say this as someone who hasn’t been to church since I graduated from Regis High School in NYC. (I was in the year before Michael.)

I’m not going to deny that there are lots of different things going on in this trial. But the key thing to keep in mind is that the legal issue—for better or worse—is NOT whether ID is good science, let alone as good as Darwin. It is whether ID is religion trying to pass itself off as science. If so, then it’s prohibited. However, the Constitution does not prohibit the teaching of bad or weird science, if public school boards say so.

I should say that my status as an expert in the trial had nothing to do with the textbooks under scrutiny. In fact, I was deliberately kept away from them—though others took them apart. No one denies that an earlier edition of the proposed ID textbook, ‘Pandas and People’, was based on creationism. However, I testified about the status of the ID researchers, and they are radically different from the old creationists of 25 years ago when this latest round of anti-evolution trials got started. There scientifically trained. To be sure, they don’t have all their arguments worked out yet, but they are trying to do science of a radically different sort that does have precedent in the history of science.

Frankly, I think the public disposition of the Dover case is over-influenced by hatred of Bush and especially fear of the role of fundamentalist Christians in shaping the Bush agenda. (I have in mind here the propaganda campaign being waged on webpages associated with the ACLU: Don’t they have more important civil rights violations in the US to worry about?) I’m certainly no fan of Bush, and have never even voted for a Republican, but I don’t think that this trial is the right place to ‘send a message’ to Bush. Why not work instead toward getting an electable Democrat—perhaps even one that can relate to the vast numbers of religious folks in the US, as the liberal evangelist Jim Wallis (‘God’s Politics’) suggests?

I’ll have a reply to this later in the week, as I try to dig myself out from under a workload that feels like a couple of feet of snow (and some of which involves writing about the Sokal Affair—yet again, sigh).  In the meantime, the formidable Jonathan Goodwin has picked up the thread over at The Valve, writing, “Some of the discussion I’ve seen about Fuller’s testimony has been very quick to invoke various Sokal-induced chimeras and don’t seem to have paid much attention to what he actually is arguing.” Perhaps some of you might want to head over there and chip in with comments and questions, not least because Fuller is once again being accused of something called “Post Modernism” and the comment thread so far consists largely of Sokal-induced chimeras.

Posted by Michael on 12/05 at 11:13 AM
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