Postmodernism and History of Science

A cartoon of a pig shouting

A scientist first called me a “postmodernist” way back in the nineteen-hundreds. In 1996, not yet a PhD, I was presenting a paper on the role of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) the organization that provided important resources for the social scientists who served as expert witnesses and helped draft briefs for the NAACP-Legal Defense and Education Fund (NAACP-LDF) in the litigation that led to Brown v. Board of Education.  I traced the twists and turns the social scientists took when drafting the famous “Social Science Appendix” to the Supreme Court that argued that the very act of segregation guaranteed unequal facilities. This was my dissertation topic and eventually became my first book. I no longer remember my exact argument in my presentation and the paper itself was lost in some long-forgotten WordPerfect 4.2 file, but I tried to describe how the social scientists struggled with the charge that they were advocates, not objective scientists and how the language of the various drafts of the brief reflected that.

In the audience was one of those expert witnesses and one of the signatories of the brief: M. Brewster Smith. Smith was one of two living people who had testified and signed the brief still living (Jerome Bruner was the other). During the Q&A after my talk Smith stood up and accused me of writing “postmodern history” since all this talk about “objectivity” was misguided. We were just trying to tell the truth, he explained. I tried to explain that I was no postmodernist, I had heard the term and didn’t really understand it. I was simply looking at the various drafts of the Appendix (which I found in the papers of Kenneth B. Clark at the Library of Congress) and noting how they made sure they were, indeed, “telling the truth.” I thought that it was obvious that Truth doesn’t speak on its own, it is is expressed by people, argued for by people, and accepted or rejected by people. The interesting question for me was how these scientists, in this case, argued for the truth of racial segregation’s harms.

The charge of “postmodernism” is now a fairly common charge that some scientists make against any history of science that does not conform to the world as they imagine it. In reality, most charges of “postmodernism” are simply refusals to engage in evidence and argument.


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Coyne and Pinker prefer a simplistic history of good guys and bad guys because it supports their worldview, not because it good history.

The latest fracas involves this essay by historian of biology and medicine, Nathaniel Comfort  The essay was commissioned by Nature as part of a “series marking Nature’s anniversary on how the past 150 years have shaped science today.” It is a thought-piece that does just as the journal asked and does it with grace and elegance, like all of Comfort’s work. Go read it.

Science’s self-appointed defenders don’t like the essay. They don’t like it a lot. Jerry Coyne led the charge, was soon joined by Steven Pinker:

Pinker is outraged that Nature asked a historian to write a historical piece because they “historicize everything!”  Just let that sink in a bit. How dare a historian be asked to write in the area of their expertise and then actually write it! The nerve! (see Comfort’s response here).

Michael Shermer then joined the fray:

“Pomo,” for those of you blessed by not following this kind of nonsense, is short for “postmodernism.” The ultimate insult for this crowd. For this trio, and many who hold themselves up as science’s defenders, “postmodernism” is catch-all phrase for those who don’t toe what they see as science’s party-line. I’m not here to defend postmodernism, I’m not a postmodern scholar and therefore do not pretend to speak for it. Quite unlike how scientists take it upon themselves to speak for the history of science.

These three paragraphs from Comfort’s essay is a particular target of Coyne:

DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.

Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.

The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.

Coyne declares these paragraphs to be utterly incomprehensible. He claims he has no idea what Comfort is saying here. Apparently, when a scientist is confronted with a piece of prose and they declare, “I don’t get it,” we are automatically supposed to think this is a problem with the text rather than with the reader. Coyne claims, these paragraphs are: “almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.” Since Coyne is such an expert in “postmodern jargon” he could have perhaps told us what impenetrable jargon to which he referred. Not being an expert myself I think I have a clear referent for every word without being a postmodern initiate. I invite you to simply read the paragraphs and see if you think Coyne is right.

More importantly, I invite you to go back to Comfort’s essay and note that he is framing this discussion around the work of perfectly mainstream and well-respected scholars like sociologist Alondra Nelson and historian Kim TallBear.  Coyne presents no evidence of “postmodernism” in the work of these scholars but I suspect he is unfamiliar with it.

Coyne, Pinker, and the like object, not to postmodernism but to history. Thomas Kuhn wrote of scientists’ “textbook histories” of science; those little potted histories you might find at the beginning of an undergraduate science textbook that recount the great achievements of the field. These achievements, Kuhn wrote were “seldom in their original form,” which means that those histories were designed to trumpet scientific success without being bothered with what really happened in science’s past. This is the kind of history preferred by Coyne who actually recommends Pinker’s account of the Enlightenment which real historians of the Enlightenment find completely unsupportable (also here or here). Or see my treatment of his caricature of the history of science he presented in the Blank Slate.

For self-proclaimed defenders of reason, Coyne and Pinker are pretty unreasonable: “Trust the histories of science written by us psychologists and evolutionary biologists! Those written by people trained in history are denying reason itself! History is not complicated and all evidence to the contrary means you are a postmodernist who doesn’t believe in truth!  History is simple, it tells a straightforward tale of progress. To deny this is to deny Truth!” A more anti-intellectual position is hard to imagine from people who claim to value evidence and argument. My recommendation is to go read Nathaniel Comfort’s book, The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes became the Heart of American MedicineYou will find it a wonderfully-written, jargon-free, deeply researched book. You will learn something.

The social scientists who helped the NAACP-LDEF were well-aware of what their role as scientists were. They struggled hard to present the best evidence they could. They were modest and careful in the claims they presented and clearly articulated that their role was to provide the evidence for segregation’s harms but that the final judgment was not their’s but the Court’s or society’s itself. Today’s self-proclaimed defenders of science would do well to follow their example and open themselves up to the possibility that they do not speak for Truth and that other scholars may well know more about science’s past than they do.

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