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 â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” a very robust one. The disagreements â€” especially those that attract public attention â€” are rarely to do with core theories. They’re usually about the elaboration of those theories â€” 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” â€¦ It’s not individual scientists being authoritarian. It’s science being an authority â€” 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.