Cronin on Post-modernism

I was reading an Edge interview with Dr. Helena Cronin of the London School of Economics and I ran across the following passage. It so eloquently spoke my own mind, that I had to capture it here. The more often that rationalists and humanists have the courage to speak these truths, the sooner we will return to a middle path of open inquiry:

EDGE: Obviously you’re controversial?

CRONIN: Yes. But I shouldn’t be. I’m just doing standard science.

In fact, it should be the other way round. It’s people who are prepared to talk about policy and society without knowing the first thing about human nature that should be considered controversial.

EDGE: How do you deal with relativism?

CRONIN: Post-modernism and its stable-mates — they’re obviously all complete balderdash, not to be taken seriously intellectually. But as a social scourge they have to be taken very seriously. Apart from the sciences, which have built-in immunity, they’ve taken a frightening hold on academia — on people who are influential and who are teaching future generations of influential people. It’s the resulting attitudes to science that I most deplore — the view that there are no universal standards by which to judge truth or falsity or even logical validity; that science doesn’t make progress; that there’s nothing distinctive about scientific knowledge; and so on. One of the reasons why so much logic-free, fact-free, statistics-free criticism of Darwinism has been able to find an audience is this attitude that science is just another view so I’m free to adopt my view, any view.

EDGE: There’s a lot of scientists and science writers out there communicating with the public and there’s no central canon of science. When you use the word science in public discourse aren’t you trying to beat somebody over the head?

CRONIN: No, absolutely not. First, there is a central canon — a very robust one. The disagreements — especially those that attract public attention — are rarely to do with core theories. They’re usually about the elaboration of those theories — healthy disagreements about a core that’s fundamentally agreed on. But second, and more important, the canon of science, what gives it authority, is above all its method. So, when scientists have those disagreements, there are objective ways of deciding between them. Theories must be testable and then must pass the tests. On a day-to-day basis things won’t always be clear-cut; it’s not an instant process. Neither, of course, is it infallible. But it’s by far the best we’ve got and it’s done a breath-takingly impressive job so far. As for “trying to beat somebody over the head” … It’s not individual scientists being authoritarian. It’s science being an authority — and rightly so because it is indeed authoritative. So, once people understand that there’s a vast distinction between science and non-science, and the distinction lies in scientific method, they’ll understand the status of current disagreements and how to assess them.

“Post-modernism” obviously has a place in the critical disciplines surrounding arts and literature. It exists as a break-point to help describe technical and creative shifts in western arts and letters occurring since the mid-twentieth century, following the period conbveniently called “modernism,” which was preceded by a “romantic” period and so forth. By the seventies it had bled over into philosophy and the social sciences, influencing all of those “soft ” areas where rigorous applications of scientific method had not proven productive in advancing knowledge and understanding. Over the last ten years or more a movement has been building to reclaim academia as the seat of serious inquiry from the post-modern punsters averring “differances,” the epistemological relativists, and the metaphysicians who somehow found a foothold there and poisoned the well with their loquacity, their lack of rigor, and their self-serving assertions regarding truth and knowledge and language.

I could be wrong, but I doubt Dr. Cronin is in error.

Posted in Anti-intellectual Thuggery, Creative Arts, Philosophistry and Stuff, Science
27 comments on “Cronin on Post-modernism
  1. If PoMo crept into Big Science it’s for the same reasons it could infiltrate the “soft” stuff: we’ve (long) passed the notion that we’re discovering an objective reality. Science has for a long time been about discovering/inventing new rules of thumb. They’re handy, but that’s all they are. It is incapable of describing “reality.” Not to say metaphysics is any better at it, but at its best, it ain’t any worse.

  2. How big is the biggest, how small is the smallest? How hot is the the hottest, how cold is the coldest? How slow is the slowest, how fast is the fastest? How do you describe the third element in a binary set? Rules of thumb are for engineers, but laws and theories are the stuff of pure science. The very existence of pure science implies an overlap with philosophy, but the philosophers, lacking the rigor and the training of scientists, and often endowed with a verbal facility beyond the limits of their own comprehension have made a mish-mash of knowledge and truth. Cleverly, they’ve built in a fail-safe barrier to deflect this criticism, namely: the denial of “objective reality.”

    So scientists continue to extend boundaries of human understanding while businessmen manipulate true believers to their own ends. And engineers use the rules of thumb framed for them by scientists to build bridges and sky scrapers and all the stuff of modern society. And the people, manipulated by the businessmen, who are enabled by the post-modern thinkers, reject dialectic thought and go straight for metaphysics. Then nobody needs to inspect their bridges (gummint is bad, don’t you know) and they can fall in the river and the tragedy can be blamed on engineers rather than the cultural failing it represents.

  3. Ha ha ha! Great stuff, Frank. Don’t hold back. i do wonder if we’re talking about the same thing here.

    “but the philosophers, lacking the rigor and the training of scientists…”

    lol! not to piss all over your lovely altar to the Scientists, but they’re just one-leg-at-time schmoes like you an me, susceptible to the same human frailties (see see t. kuhn. they’re miners diggin for rule nuggets. doesn’t mean they stuff they find ain’t useful, it’s just that it’s no more a description of “ultimate reality” than a shadow or reflection.

    both metaphysicists and “scientists” get into trouble when they try to venture much beyond theory. again, scientists are generally more useful but they produce more knowledge than real understanding.

  4. I’m sitting here with three books and a lecture reprint by Thomas Kuhn, trying to figure a way to map his progress from insightful and revelatory voice offering a new perspective on the history of science (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), through a brilliant career path wherein he begins to muddle with some crossover thinking conflating perhaps, or simply integrating his thought about the history of science with the philosophy of science certainly by 1968 when he gives the Isenberg Lecture at Michigan State (published with other papers in “The Essential Tension,” 1977, University of Chicago Press), to the capstone volume, “The Road Since Structure,” (James F. Conant, editor, 2000, University of Chicago Press) wherein James Conant’s grandson pulls together what amounts to an apotheosis elevating Kuhn from mere physicist turned historian to full on post-modern philosopher, integrating history with “theory” and acknowledging (with Charles Taylor that “concepts belong to communities.” Kuhn arrives at a point where his concern for “speciation” (the proliferation of ever more specialities in the sciences) permits him the conceit of describing science itself as almost a Darwinian construct exhibiting an evolutionary development over time.

    So, from the forties when he began his academic career as a theoretical physicist, shifting to the history of science on advice of his mentor (the real) James Conant, through the sixties when he expounded his theory of “scientific revolutions,” to the end of his career in the nineties (having renounced ‘Kuhnianism’ and the po-mo relativism implied by the term but having embraced the philosophy of science as his true calling) he seems to have become ever more descriptive of a “Science” that was evolving before his very eyes, a “Science” that seemed to him composed of niches rather than a unified whole, each niche comprising a scientific community incommensurable with those adjacent, the incommensurability based on different languages and tool-sets.

    And why not? As you say, scientists “produce more knowledge than real understanding.” Kuhn’s greatest value may be reversing the field for the social sciences. Traditional scientific method (with facts preceding conclusions) may not generate “knowledge” in the field of sociology to share as generalizable truth in the world. Rather we can be more inward looking, objectively sharing observations about some microcosmic issue and coming to agreement within that more limited context.

    Now that sentencing guideline disparities for crack and powdered cocaine have been shown to be unconstitutional, how can we get the people out who have already served their time? This strikes me as more of an engineering problem than theoretical science, and it certainly has more practical value than theoretical. But I think it shows how an opening of understanding doesn’t necessarily complete a cycle, because without practical application, knowledge is untested and useless.

    One of the places where I come up confused in all this is that Kuhn is interested in applying sociology to science. I am interested in applying science to sociology and perhaps it is time for me to move on from Thomas Kuhn to Bruno Latour.

    It’s all so complex. I’m sure there are mathematical models that could help us simplify it and drive the humanity out. 🙂

  5. Jon H. says:

    Yeah … metrics drive many decisions and therefore a train of subsequent behaviours, no ? And it’s the ersatz-est of social sciences (like pomo-enabled bidness) that demand or impose them, I think

    This is honestly one of the most interesting comments thread I have read in a very long time. I am going to read it again in the morning after I have had a night’s sleep to let my mind mull it over.

    Thanks to both of you for doing the heavy lifting.

  6. heh. that first sentence is a doozy, frank (inhale!). um, are we talking past each other now? my whole thang is that 1) there is a place for relativism in Science (tho i am hardly saying it’s the whole enchilada. let’s not go crazy here) 2)top notch philosophers are indeed as rigorous as they come. they build quite awesome edifices. it’s the a priori you gotta watch.

    “Now that sentencing guideline disparities for crack and powdered cocaine have been shown to be unconstitutional, how can we get the people out who have already served their time? This strikes me as more of an engineering problem than theoretical science, and it certainly has more practical value than theoretical.”

    hanh? there’s no cryin in baseball and no calculus in sentencing guidelines. in theory.

    heard of bruno, but woefully ignorant of that ANT stuff. doesn’t smell right tho.

  7. whoops. throw out that word “guidleine.” should read, “now that sentencing disparities…”

    need to explore what you and I understand “relativism” to be to find out whether there is common ground. I don’t have much time for relativism.

    got a couple of books by Latour: “Iconoclash, Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art” and “Aramis, or The Love of Technology.” The latter would probably give us some info on Actor Network Theory if we wanted to dig it out. The former is cool because for me it puts po-mo theories where they oughta be, in the world of art. I think the whole ANT thing may be more metaphorical than rigorous philosophy. And you are right that top-notch philosophers are as rigorous as can be, but ALL of them are selling into the free market of ideas where seductive bullshit often gets more play than tedious truth.

  8. y’know, i’ve missed out on all your po’ me po-mo moanins over the years cuz by the time i spooled up enough considered thot on the topic at hand, the moment had moved on. this time i thot i’d jump in early, but i’m thinkin my old wait-a-mo wisdom was better. mebbe one should let sleepin dogs lie and hobby horses ride.

    frank, could you give us an example or three of how “relativism” is spoiling capital ‘S’ science today? are we talking about interpretation of scientific findings or the methodology itself? i agree we need a couple, three definitions here.

  9. Daniel H. says:

    Whenever I come across an academic (in the ‘hard’ sciences or otherwise) mention the threat posed by relativism, I am reminded of my own favourite relativist, American philosopher Richard Rorty, who wrote:

    “‘Relativism’ is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about *any* topic, is as good as every other. No one hold this view.”

  10. GK1 says:

    The trouble with Relativism is that the arguments supporting it are pretty well irrefutable. Disconcerting as it may be to admit it is undeniably true that any fact, no matter how canonical, can be destabilised with the introduction of a sufficiently alien perspective.

    My computer sits on a brown desk. If I had the time and inclination I could work out precisely which shade of brown it was. I could point it out on a colour chart, render it in hexadecimal, whatever you want. But that’s only because I am looking at it from a certain angle, in a certain light, which itself is ever so slightly transfigured by the amount of dust on my lampshade. The amount of dust on my lampshade changes at any given time, depending on whether or not I have the window open. These are all quantifiable factors, of course, but the point is that it is physically impossible for anyone to say with any precision just what colour my desk is, no matter how much time and energy they spend investigating. I could say it was a light salmon colour (#CD8162, to be precise) while you could swear to your dying breath that it was actually #D19275 (or ‘feldspar’, whatever the hell that is), and both perspectives would be equally valid. If the colour of a desk can be a matter of opinion, what [i]can’t[/i]?

    “Mathematics”, you might be tempted to reply. “Doesn’t matter who, where, or what you are, the internal angles of a triangle will always add up to 180 degrees”. Well, try telling that to someone who thinks a triangle is a square and vice versa. You might think it a waste of time to wrangle with an idiot over the meanings of simple words, but his confusion illustrates a hugely important point, which is that language is consensus. There are no set definitions of any word. Ask two men to draw a big red car, and they will inevitably draw two completely different things. Similarly with triangles and squares. Their definitions are established by mutual agreement. One can disagree and render himself incomprehensible, but he cannot be *wrong* in any meaningful sense. Wrong by who’s standard?

    Relativistic arguments are pretty watertight, which would seem to make the situation hopeless. I cannot deny the validity of relativistic arguments and that frustrated me, for a while. Then I had an epiphany.

    It doesn’t matter.

    I might think my desk is light brown while you believe it dark. And a third person might swear down that it was a searing neon pink. But for all intents and purposes, the desk is brown. We can agree on that. We can establish mutual frames of reference with that and, were we inclined to make the brownness of my desk axiomatic for some abstruse philosophical argument, its brownness could be counted upon by enough of us to keep the argument watertight. My point, in a nutshell, is that the power of relativistic arguments is no match for the power of community consensus. Euclidian geometry may not hold sway from every possible perspective in every possible world but it holds true for us because we say so Goddamnit! And that’s all that really matters.

  11. Well, good. We have people asking questions and making assertions, which makes this a fun thread to follow, I think. I’m not concerned about methodological relativism. I am concerned about moral relativism. To answer Charles’ question, a relativistic interpretation of scientific findings is of more concern to me than different answers resulting from different experimental frameworks or variations in data derived from those experimental differences. The community concerned with the “correct” answers will find a consensus as time goes by and results are validated or not.

    But the moral relativism implicit, for example, in reframing Christian fundamentalism into something called “Intelligent Design” bespeaks a kind of assertiveness that is wrong by my lights. And reframing Science itself to fit into an understanding that would allow interpretations by the “intelligent design” school to have equal weight to interpretations by Darwinians is also moral relativism, not methodological. And I do think that po-mo influences have permitted these things to occur, that without the po-mo relativistic rationalizations these bizarre faith based efforts would be ignored or laughed out of town.

    If Aristotelian logical constructs for dealing with ontologies are no longer efficient, if Newtonian physics is merely descriptive of a mechanical subset and doesn’t meet the needs that quantum physics addresses, and if our understanding of biology has shifted to encompass clades so that Linnaen descriptions of speciation are no longer as useful as they once were, then these things are less examples of relativism than they are of progress.

    I was at a hearing on land use and community growth and development. A wetlands ecologist was explaining why siting a new well at a specific location was probably a bad thing. He brought into play information that had been developed by hydrologists, geologists, limnologists, ecologists and stratigraphers. I’ve probably left a few specialties out of the list. Each of these specialties has a descriptive vocabulary that may or may not overlap with the others. Each of them brings forward a specific perspective that must be integrated in a whole picture of what the possibilities might be if we drill the well and suck millions of gallons out of the aquifer where it is proposed. Following a complete analysis and assessment we’ll know where the best places are for siting wells. But that doesn’t mean the community will choose the best alternative. Here’s where moral relativism and “special interests” come into play. For me it makes sense to posit an absolute value of preservation of open space and aquatic wetlands. For the guy that wants to fill the marsh and build a big box store, a different set of values apply. That guy benefits and I lose if the public sense of Science’s ability to inform is eroded.

    Charles is right, this po-mo tilting at windmills is a “hobby horse” of mine if there ever was one!

  12. GK1, well done. We’re on the same wavelength. Frank, my first thought is that you orta ease up on the blame juice there. people kill people, ‘member? i’ll think on it some more tho. i’ll probably be back. giddyup.

  13. Jon H. says:

    isn’t it language that “creates” reality for us .. or as Laurie Anderson would say, Language is a virus.

  14. Jon H. says:

    “And I do think that po-mo influences have permitted these things to occur, that without the po-mo relativistic rationalizations these bizarre faith based efforts would be ignored or laughed out of town.”

    But, we are learning from all this, are we not .. more than we might have otherwise ?

  15. I dunno about the “blame juice”, Charles. My training was to avoid “value judgments.” More recently I’ve embraced them. I think it’s important to recognize when I’m making a value judgment, but I have a sense of right and wrong, good and bad, and why should I repress that? The line “people kill people” may be what it’s about. When they do, they’re doing a BAD thing. Why not hassle them for it?

    Jon, I’m certainly learning a lot. Trying to field Mr. Follymacher’s challenges I’ve had to go deep into some material I’d as soon have skimmed. The language creates reality thing I believe is true. Sapir-Whorf makes a lot of sense, and language certainly anchors our rational thought. Whether it “creates reality for us” or not… well, I don’t know, but language IS a virus:

  16. Here’s a dandy referent

    But, I have to add, what was obvious, was that the more vapid sort of relativism that became immensely popular in the Anglo-Saxon and French universities (mostly), was the perfect philosophy for advertisers and the PR industry – and not incidentally it was widely taught in most of the US communication schools: certainly not because of its emancipatory qualities but rather for its quite comfortable fit with the marketing ethos and the spin generation that a substantial part of corporate communications requires.

    Although there is an interesting debate waiting to be had somewhere about this, let me suggest that the reason of PoMo’s academic dissemination and popularity was the fact that it served as a perfect ultimate and literate philosophy for the many Pepsi generations and their consumer habits and addictions, as well as a pretentious and revered excuse and justification for bold, shameful lies.

    Because of course, as someone said, it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness…

  17. Jon H. says:

    One of my favourite performances of all time .. actually, three of my favourite performances of all time, having seen it in three different cities. I’m sort of a Laurie Anderson groupie, as much as a mild-mannered middle-aged guy can be a groupie.

    Thanks for finding the clip. I’m gonna put it on my iTouch !

  18. Ol\' SB says:

    Using Frank’s big box vs. marsh example as a starting point:

    Does this problem arise as a result of moral relativism being brought into play? A relativist perspective is that you are already taking a moral stance in the assumption that the community’s highest priority is the preservation of the marsh. Questioning whether the marsh should be preserved or the economy should be stimulated is legitimate, and suggesting that the former should be taken for granted over the latter from the outset is just as much an arbitrary assertion as the big box store’s (which, if history is any indication, would be something along the lines of “giving jobs, stimulating the local economy, blah, blah, blah”). I agree that yours should be the higher priority for the community, and indeed, in a political vacuum, I think that most members of any given community would tend toward the same. The problem is that there is no political vacuum.

    People have interests and are going to draw from the ‘free market of ideas’ as is consitent with those interests. In this case, the big box is going to draw on science just as much as the conservationists (probably from the economist colleagues of Dr. Cronin up there). The entire body of scientific facts that could be drawn from on either side of this issue is vast, and even if it were remotely feasible to bring every community member with a stake on the matter up to snuff with the science, the average community member has neither the time nor the patience. The decision will not be made with regard to some objective truth; it will be made with regard to which side has the greatest ability to favorably represent itself, an endeavor that necessarily goes well beyond the false barrier between science and the arts/humanities. The objective, scientific truth of the matter will be like a Pinto to a Ferrari next to the big box store’s blond-haired PR reps, commercial campaigning, and donation to the local little league.

    Relativism addresses this reality directly by acknowledging that the perspectives being represented – including those based in science – draw from objective fact based on interests relative to the position of their proponents. This is not a liability for scientific methodology or scientific knowledge. On the contrary, it is a powerful means of at once illuminating the moral depravity of the big box (that a luxury – cheaper, centralized shopping – should be a higher priority for the community than it’s very ecosystem) and aligning with a position that, in the absence of distractions, very, very few would oppose (that the community’s ecosystem is essential to it’s sustained well-being, and not to be compormised for the drop-in-the-bucket profits of some sweat-shop retailer). Then comes the presentation of scientific facts, with the embraced understanding that all facts presented are understood to support the above position, with the understanding that any legitimate counterevidence has been duly vetted, and all research and findings are available for scrutiny from the general public (a generalizeable prescription for relativist ethics that jibes well with the standards of scientific rigor).

  19. madame l. says:

    hey jon 🙂 , laurie anderson might say “language is a virus”, but she would be just quoting burroughs.

    (who probably caught it somewhere else… brion gysin being the most obvious carrier that pops to mind.)

    my simple minded understanding is that po-mo “crept into modern science” when it was determined that an object could be proven by approved / traditional scientific methodology to “be understood” to have several contradictory properties. (a concept the east took for granted for thousands of years without the benefit of “our rigourous set of rules and training”.) metawhatphor.

    wave bye bye to the boss.

    obviously i’ve just woken up and will need much time to unpack. or as calvino would say: “newly arrived and don’t really understand the language”.

  20. Jon H. says:

    hey madame l. Thanks for the memories. I think I knew (somewhere in the many cobwebs of my mind) that it came from Burroughs, but obviously got swept up in my fan-boy adulation .. it being a peculiarly personal form of oblique strategy of mine.

  21. a close look at the clip shows a Burroughs reference in the backdrop early on

  22. Re. the big box/wetlands example: as a community member I have an interest. The big box corporation obviously also has an interest. My neighbors are interested, and some make their living in the construction industry so their interests are split. But the scientists called in to produce a model of present conditions and changes that can be anticipated based on different courses of actions have an objective interest in digging out the truth. Since we are dealing with aquifers in different strata that cover tens of thousands of square miles, and layers of rock between the aquifers that protect the lower from contaminants found in the upper, any answers we get from the scientists will be presented in a range of probabilities. That’s relativism on the face of it, but it’s not a relativism that concerns me. The relativism that concerns me is the PR relativism, the idea that public opinion CAN be swayed by those contributions to the little league.

    And just to confuse matters, it’s always possible that the geologist belongs to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and will fudge his/her results to see that the new well is sited in such a way that the mink ranch will be put out of business.

  23. Zo says:

    But one cannot undo the very real collapse of form that ought to beset this, the post-modern world, and I don’t think any number of academic science types stamping their tiny feet can change that. Really I don’t.

    Number two. The upside of the post-modern is going to get us past a whole lot of Us and Them, in future. Broken forms usually means the hierarchy is upset, and about goddamn time. Think wide.

    And please. Not the academic as elite again. They are what they are. And apparently, really miss the old days, when they seemed to be so much more.

  24. madame l. says:

    “And please. Not the academic as elite again. They are what they are. And apparently, really miss the old days, when they seemed to be so much more.”

    what you don’t seem to understand, zo, is that “these people” are rigorously trained by Experts and have paid untold amounts of ca$h to obtain their well-deserved seats on hand-carved teak academic life-saver towers. (as it were.)

    you and i are in no position to judge. we can’t see the whole beach. (to cunt. the metaphor.)

  25. Jon H. says:

    They have served their apprenticeships, are now union members, have their cards (displayed on their office walls) and their employers pay their union dues (and faculty club memberships).

  26. so have we gone further than wot la madame said @#19?

    to me, po mo is as natuarl a thing in human evolution as rationalism or inventions like writstwatches and handguns. it doesn’t behoove us to blame po-mo itself for its misuses any more than we orta blame rationalism for experiments done on tuskegee airmen. treacherous waters, i know. relativism has its place and outside those boundaries it is easy to be abused or made the scapegoat of societites ills.

    at some point, it gets to be like screaming at language for the existence of hateful graffiti or stringing up twine for the invention of hangin nooses.

    that’s not plain dealin. methinks we should stick to badgering the specific gangrenous mutations and leave it at that. methinks. hope i don’t regret that.

  27. I’m good with simply excising the rot. My concern is the tendency of these folks to go straight Joseph Goebbels on us. There are plenty of righteous people who call themselves po-mo and tell the truth anyway. But there are as many PR pukes using po-mo as an excuse to shape perspectives around scientific knowledge. GK1 said his bit about how blue is green or whatever and I can go with that, as long as we get out the spectrum analyzers and agree to call the object that’s reflecting a specific wavelength a specific name… hell, we can call it Phil Collins if you want to.

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