Pedigreed Bunk: The Right Wing Media on the Hsu Controversy

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I promise this will be short, but I need to keep track of the long line of falsehoods and omissions surrounding the Hsu controversy (background here). Apparently the right wing thinks repeating the same story over and over makes it more true. They are wrong, their account is nothing but “pedigreed bunk.”

The latest of Hsu’s defenders is physicist Lawrence Krauss, who, predictably, is wrong about pretty much everything he wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that Hsu reprinted on his own blog.  Krauss’s piece is wrong in entirely predictable ways.

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Postmodernism and History of Science

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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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