Sunday, January 7, 2024

Post modernism in the hard sciences

 Wall Street Journal Opinion

When I taught physics at Yale in the 1980s and ’90s, my colleagues and I took pride in our position on “science hill,” looking down on the humanities scholars in the intellectual valleys below as they were inundated in postmodernism and deconstructionism.

This same attitude motivated the mathematician Alan Sokal to publish his famous 1996 article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the cultural-studies journal Social Text. He asserted, among other things that “physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct” and that “the scientific community . . . cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.”

Mr. Sokal’s paper was a hoax, designed to demonstrate that postmodernism was nonsense. But today postmodern cultural theory is being infused into the very institutions one might expect to be scientific gatekeepers. Hard-science journals publish the same sort of bunk with no hint of irony:

• In November 2022 the Journal of Chemical Education published “A Special Topics Class in Chemistry on Feminism and Science as a Tool to Disrupt the Dysconscious Racism in STEM.” From the abstract: “This article presents an argument on the importance of teaching science with a feminist framework and defines it by acknowledging that all knowledge is historically situated and is influenced by social power and politics.” The course promises “to explore the development and interrelationship between quantum mechanics, Marxist materialism, Afro-futurism/pessimism, and postcolonial nationalism. To problematize time as a linear social construct, the Copenhagen interpretation of the collapse of wave-particle duality was utilized.”

• In March 2022 Physical Review Physics Education Research published “Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study.” From the abstract: “Within whiteness, the organization of social life is in terms of a center and margins that are based on dominance, control, and a transcendent figure that is consistently and structurally ascribed value over and above other figures.” The paper criticizes “the use of whiteboards as a primary pedagogical tool” on the grounds that they “play a role in reconstituting whiteness as social organization. . . . They collaborate with white organizational culture, where ideas and experiences gain value (become more central) when written down.”

• A January 2023 paper presented at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, the world’s biggest gathering of mathematicians, was titled “Undergraduate Mathematics Education as a White, Cisheteropatriarchal Space and Opportunities for Structural Disruption to Advance Queer of Color Justice.”

Undergraduates are being exposed to this stuff as well. Rice University offers a course called “Afrochemistry: The Study of Black-Life Matter,” in which “students will apply chemical tools and analysis to understand Black life in the U.S. and students will implement African American sensibilities to analyze chemistry.” The course catalog notes that “no prior knowledge of chemistry or African American studies is required for engagement in this course.”

Such ideas haven’t totally colonized scientific journals and pedagogy, but they are beginning to appear almost everywhere and are getting support and encouragement from the scientific establishment. There are also indications that dissent isn’t welcome. When a group of physicists led by Charles Reichhardt wrote to the American Physical Society, publisher of the Physics Education Research journal, to object to the “observing whiteness” article, APS invited a response, then refused to publish it on the grounds that its arguments, which were scientific and quantitative, were based on “the perspective of a research paradigm that is different from the one of the research being critiqued.”

“This is akin to stating that an astronomer must first accept astrology as true before critiquing it,” the dissenters wrote in the final version of their critique, which they had to publish in a different journal, European Review.

That sounds like an exaggeration, but in 2021 Mount Royal University in Canada fired a tenured professor, Frances Widdowson, for questioning whether indigenous “star knowledge” belonged in an astronomy curriculum. The same year, New Zealand‘s Education Ministry decreed that Māori indigenous “ways of knowing” would have equal standing with science in science classes. The Royal Society of New Zealand investigated two scientists for questioning this policy; they were exculpated but resigned. The University of Auckland removed another scientist who questioned the policy from teaching two biology classes.

In 2020, Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society published an article by physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein titled “Making Black Women Scientists under White Empiricism: The Racialization of Epistemology in Physics.” Ms. Prescod-Weinstein wrote: “Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity regardless of their simultaneously experiencing intersecting axes of oppression.” This sentence, which dramatically misrepresents Einstein’s theory of general relativity, wouldn’t have been out of place in Mr. Sokal’s 1996 spoof.

Had an article like this appeared in 1996, it would have been dismissed outside the postmodernist fringe. But last year Mr. Sokal himself, noting that the article was No. 56 in the Altmetric ranking of most-discussed scholarly articles for 2020, felt the need to write a 20-page single-spaced rebuttal. The joke turns out to be on all of us—and it isn’t funny.

Mr. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is president of the Origins Project Foundation and author of “The Edge of Knowledge: Unsolved Mysteries of the Cosmos.