The first professor I saw was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation … he said perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge…. Every one knows how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person at a reasonable charge … may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.
—Jonathan Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World … By Captain Lemuel Gulliver

El sueño de la razon produce monstruos.
—Francisco Goya

Francisco de Goya, The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43), from Los Caprichos, 1799, Etching with aquatint and other intaglio media, 1st. ed.

An English friend of mine tells the story of reviewing a book about the history of Russian Marxism for a major national newspaper here in the States. In the course of his review, he observed that G. V. Plekhanov was “the father of Russian Marxism.” Minutes before the issue closed, an obtuse sub-editor took it upon himself to challenge this judgment. Surely it was Lenin, not Plekhanov, who deserved that august epithet. It just wouldn’t do to call Plekhanov the father of Russian Marxism. My friend remonstrated; the sub-editor insisted; the minutes ticked by … Finally, they reached for a reference work that was handy: pachysandra, Persia, pit viper, Pleiad, … “PLEKHANOV, GEORGI VALENTINOVICH, 1857–1918. Russian revolutionary and social philosopher. … Often called the ‘Father of Russian Marxism.’” The sub-editor digested this and, bloodied but not beaten, said petulantly, “Well, all right. You can leave it. But it is a cliché.

I often think of this story when I consider the unedifying spectacle of academics in the humanities and social sciences attempting to deal with the barrage of criticism that has been leveled against them over the last decade. The first salvo came in 1984. In that year, the National Endowment for the Humanities, then directed by William J. Bennett, published To Reclaim a Legacy, a pointed attack on the way the humanities were being taught and a call to reshape the curriculum “based on a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person.” The response to this report in the academy was a combination of disbelief and rage: disbelief that anyone could still seriously speak of such things as “civilization’s lasting vision” and “its highest shared ideals and aspirations,” rage that a mere government official (albeit one with a Ph.D. in philosophy) should dare to criticize the state of liberal education. If one were to judge from the long list of imprecations formulated to revile Mr. Bennett, one would have to conclude that he represented a monstrous threat to the survival of academic freedom, scholarly creativity, and true culture.

But the contempt showered on Mr. Bennett was mild compared to the apoplexy that greeted Allan Bloom when he published The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. Condescension turned to shock and, once again, to rage, as this impassioned exposé of the spiritual degradation of America’s elite students shot up the best-seller list, lingering for months in the number one slot. Additional assaults on the academy followed: my own book, Tenured Radicals, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (another best seller), David Lehman’s Signs of the Times, Charles Sykes’s Profscam, Camille Paglia’s stinging essays on women’s studies programs and kindred follies. Whether the subject was the institutionalization of Sixties radicalism on campus, political correctness, professorial dereliction, or the moral and intellectual fatuousness of deconstruction, the message was clear: something was very, very wrong with liberal education in American colleges and universities.

Again and again, the response in the academy to such criticism began in an access of panic, denial, and denunciation. But when it gradually became clear that nothing much was going to change—that the public was too uninterested and most college and university administrators were too pusillanimous to challenge the trendy imperatives of political correctness—then the response quickly modulated into one of hostile indifference. As with the officious sub-editor pontificating about Plekhanov, what began in denial ended with a shrug: what supposedly didn’t exist yesterday is now routinely dismissed as old news, a “cliché.”

This complacency may soon be upset. The publication of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science marks a vigorous new chapter in the attack on academic inanity.1  If any book can hope to reignite public outrage over the debacle that has been visited upon higher education in the humanities and social sciences, Higher Superstition is it. The Roman statesman Cato was fond of ending his speeches and letters with the admonition Carthago delenda est: “Carthage must be destroyed.” Cato would have liked this book. It is a devastating and minutely described portrait of politicized intellectual corruption. The story it tells is one of arrogance, ideological posturing, and breathtaking pretentiousness. Embarrassment often competes with disgust as we follow professor after professor through the jargon-littered maze of half-baked pronunciamentos, wild generalizations, and fatuous political “criticisms” of subjects that are preposterously misunderstood. The effect is both deeply satisfying and deeply disturbing: satisfying in that so many would-be debunkers are definitively debunked, disturbing in that many of the targets are big-name professors at some of the best universities in the country. One is left with a host of depressing questions: Is this really what tenure was instituted to guarantee, permanent intellectual irresponsibility? Is this what counts as a “liberal arts” education these days? Is this what one gets in exchange for $25,000 per annum in college fees?

Anyone acquainted with the controversy over political correctness on campus will find himself initially on familiar ground in Higher Superstition. The authors avail themselves of the same carnival of specimens that other critics of the academy have visited for their examples. All our old friends are here: deconstruction, postmodernism, multiculturalism, eco-feminism, Afrocentrism, animal-rights activism—the whole menagerie. And the criticism launched against these fads and fashions is cognate with the criticism put forward in other books critical of these trends in the academy. There are, however, several things that distinguish Higher Superstition from other recent books critical of the academy.

In the first place, there is the distinctive focus of Higher Superstition. Where other books have dealt primarily with the way the left-wing politics and intellectual chicanery of professors in the humanities and social sciences have disfigured the teaching of their disciplines, this book concentrates on the way the left-wing politics and intellectual chicanery of professors in the humanities and social sciences have impinged upon and disfigured the reputation and prestige of science. In recent years, more and more literary critics, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have turned their attention to the “discourse” of science. It may almost go without saying that they have done this not in order to understand science, but to “deconstruct” its claims to truth and objectivity. They have applied to science the same techniques of textual criticism, gender-analysis, and ethnic grandstanding that won them such delicious notoriety when applied to literature, sociology, philosophy, etc. Intellectually and pedagogically, the results have been just as disastrous as they have been with literary criticism—just as disastrous and, if possible, even more absurd. Witness the existence of articles with titles like “Toward a Feminist Algebra,” about which more below.

Higher Superstition is a guide to these absurdities. Written with clarity, wit, and passion, it is accessible to any educated layman. But, unlike other books of the genre, it is addressed first of all to scientists. Appropriately, both of the book’s authors are themselves scientists. Paul R. Gross, former director of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, is University Professor of Life Sciences and director of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia; Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University. Unlike the vast majority of professors they write about, then, Professors Gross and Levitt actually know something about science from, as it were, the inside.

Perhaps the thing that most distinguishes Higher Superstition from kindred attacks on the academy is its political orientation. That, at any rate, is what Professors Gross and Levitt would have us believe. Hitherto, the best-known attacks on the academy have been described as “conservative.” Never mind that without exception they were written in the hope of salvaging such classic liberal values as objectivity, impartial criticism, and the ideal of advancement according to merit: all have been widely excoriated by academics as “conservative,” “reactionary,” “fascist.” And that is on a good day. Professors Gross and Levitt are extremely, even comically, anxious to avoid being tarred with the brush marked “conservative.” One of them, they announce in a footnote, is a member of Democratic Socialists of America. They agonize at very great length over their unhappiness with their choice of the phrase “academic Left.” Again and again they assure readers that, had any other term filled the bill, they would have used it. They let us know that some of their best friends are feminists. They support affirmative action. Really, they insist, they are writing not about “enemies” but (wayward) “friends.” In what is perhaps the low point of this sort of hand-wringing, they complain that debates between liberals and conservatives today “often provide a right-of-center, nominally Democratic neoconservative as representative of the former, and a neofascist as spokesman for the latter.” All one can say is that the debates Professors Gross and Levitt watch are different from those available to the rest of us.

Fortunately, all this ideological throat-clearing is beside the point. It may salve the political consciences of the authors; but they will soon discover that it does nothing to absolve them in the eyes of their left-wing colleagues. And there is no reason that it should. Higher Superstition is as sharply polemical in its dissection of left-wing academic blather as anything yet written. Although they go out of their way to distance themselves from other attacks on political correctness, Professors Gross and Levitt are perfectly aware of the shameful way the Left employs moral intimidation to disarm criticism and silence opponents. This indeed is a subtheme of their book:

If you decry the feminist critique of science, you are guilty of trying to preserve science as an old-boy’s network. If you take exception to eco-apocalyptic rhetoric, you are an agent, witting or otherwise, of the greed of capitalist-industrialist polluters. If you reject the convoluted cabalistic fantasies of postmodernism, you are not only sneered at for a dullard, but inevitably told that you are in the grip of a crumbling Western episteme, linked hopelessly to a failing white-male-European hegemony.

Sometimes the intimidation becomes blatant. A surgeon teaching at the University of California used animals in one of his post-graduate classes; one day he received the following telephone message from an animal-rights activist: “Either Dr. Moossa stops the course or I will shoot him in the head.” Dr. Moossa canceled the course, and that group of students was presumably left to hone their skills on human patients.

It must also be said that, whatever their own political sympathies, Professors Gross and Levitt are refreshingly forthright about the privileged place that left-wing ideology now enjoys in the academy. What we might call the “myth of marginalization” is very dear to the Left; believing that one is part of an oppressed minority is a great aid to solidarity; but the idea that women or blacks or homosexuals or any other recognized “victim group” is discriminated against in the university today is ludicrous. The “only widespread, obvious discrimination today,” Professors Gross and Levitt note, “is against white males.” Although the academic Left subscribes to a long list of radical sentiments, their subsidized radicalism is a “radicalism without risk.” Indeed,

left-wing thinkers have never enjoyed anything remotely close to the current hospitality. Prestige-laden departments in the humanities and the social sciences are thickly populated—in some by now well-known cases we might say, without opprobrium [?!], “dominated”—by radical thinkers. Despite all protestations to the contrary, entire programs—women’s studies, African-American (or Latino or Native American) studies, cultural studies—demand, de facto, at least a rough allegiance to a leftist perspective as a qualification for membership in the faculty.

Professors Gross and Levitt are equivocal about this entrenched leftism. But they are pellucid in their attack on the “peculiar amalgam of ignorance and hostility” characteristic of the academic Left’s attitude toward science. They describe one book as “unalloyed twaddle,” another as a “turgid and opaque tract”; the arguments put forward by their subjects are by turns “hallucinatory,” “an irrelevant botch,” “philosophical styrofoam,” “interpretive contortion and hermeneutic hootchy-koo.” Nor is their attack confined to employing a panoply of colorful epithets. Indeed, the great strength of their book is the unparalleled patience with which they anatomize their opponents’ arguments. Dozens of representative texts are quoted at length and then carefully analyzed into oblivion. Taken all in all, Higher Superstition is the most damaging indictment of the left-wing academic establishment in the humanities yet to appear.

The book begins with a historical sketch of the relation between the academic Left and science. As Professors Gross and Levitt point out, one of the oddities of the current attitude of hostility toward science on the part of the academic Left is that, since before the Enlightenment, progressive intellectuals have tended to look to science and technology as instruments of emancipation. There is a good reason for this:

The dissecting blade of scientific skepticism, with its insistence that theories are worthy of respect only to the extent that their assertions pass the twin tests of internal logical consistency and empirical verification, has been an invaluable weapon against intellectual authoritarianisms of all sorts, not least those that sustain social systems based on exploitation, domination, and absolutism.

Professors Gross and Levitt cite Romanticism—Romantic sentimentality might be the better term—as one source of the academic Left’s hostility toward science. A more important source is the radicalism of the 1960s: that potpourri of attitudes and attitudinizing that includes a smattering of irrationalism, various bits of left-wing ideology, a generalized anti-bourgeois animus, and a strong dose of cultural and epistemological relativism. It is this last—relativism —that perhaps more than any other ingredient undergirds the academic Left’s hostility toward science. Plucking a term from Nietzsche, Professors Gross and Levitt speak in this context of “perspectivism”—the idea that there are “no truths, only perspectives.” This is the sacred dogma, the core creed of today’s higher superstition. Simply assumed, rather than argued for, this corrosive relativism fuels the academic Left’s blasé rejection of empirical truth and nudges it toward its current epistemological incontinence.

If this phenomenon is difficult to criticize systematically, it is partly because we are dealing here not with a coherent doctrine but with “a congeries of different doctrines, with no well-defined center.” Professors Gross and Levitt’s shorthand for this hodge-podge is “postmodernism.” They note that, among much else, the epistemological relativism assumed by postmodernism makes it “a heaven-sent device for avoiding close argument and the analysis of particulars.”

Once a postmodern critic has at hand a license to read every proposition as its opposite when it suits his convenience, analytic skills of the more traditional sort are expendable and logic is effaced in the swirling tide of rhetoric. Once it has been decided that determinate meaning is chimerical and not worthy of the slightest deference from the well-honed poststructuralist postmodernist, the entire edifice of hard-won truth becomes a house of cards. Once it has been affirmed that one discursive community is as good as another, that the narrative of science holds no privileges over the narratives of superstition, the newly minted cultural critic can actually revel in his ignorance of deep scientific ideas.

If this description of intellectual irresponsibility seems overstated, try the experiment of listening in on the humanities and social-science faculties at almost any prominent college or university. You will encounter the postmodernist ethos in all its exotic efflorescence. There will be Marxists decrying “bourgeois science,” environmentalists palpitating about ozone and radioactive waste, deconstructionists chanting about the tyranny of phallologocentricism; there will be devotees of cultural studies telling you that the truths of science—like all truths—are “culturally constructed,” a sentiment seconded by feminists skirling that science is shot through with gender bias; you will find animal-rights activists denouncing “speciesism,” multiculturalists castigating the “privileging” of “Western science,” and Afrocentrists complaining about the under-privileging of African “ways of knowing.”

As Professors Gross and Levitt observe, one important thing that enables these disparate, sometimes contradictory, allotropes of left-wing rebellion to coexist peacefully is their “shared sense of injury, resentment, and indignation against modern science.” At the center of this gospel is fury at the material achievements of Western culture. Since science is perhaps “the single aspect of Western thought and social practice that defines the Western outlook and accounts for its special position in the world,” it has come to epitomize for the academic Left everything that is wrong with the West: its reliance on “linear thinking,” its belief in objective truth, its faith in technology. The insurmountable problem for such critics is the dazzling success of science: its speculations about the world are put to the test daily, and daily they pass muster: the planes fly, the bridges stay up, the vaccines work.

Professors Gross and Levitt are the opposite of naïve. But, like anthropologists visiting some strange and backward tribe, they repeatedly betray a hint of bemused wonder as they catalogue the bizarre and outrageous opinions of their subjects. Consider: Sandra Harding, author of The Science Question in Feminism, describes Isaac Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual.” The Afrocentrist Hunter Adams assures readers that “early African writings indicate a possible understanding of quantum physics and gravitational theory.” A young scholar named Tim Dean writes in the journal October that “the discourses of philosophy, linguistics, and sociology must be supplemented in a truly psychoanalytic account of AIDS by concepts drawn from the discourse of mathematics, principally post-Euclidean geometry, which provides for topologic mappings based on a non-Euclidean concept of space.” Wittgenstein spoke of metaphysics as “the idling of language,” but this is worse: it is language used as a deliberate affront to meaning and intelligibility. In short, it is sub-rational nonsense. But perhaps that is the point: after all, is not reason a bulwark of bourgeois respectability? What better way to tear all that down than to pervert reason deliberately by reducing language to a kind of ignorant babble? Professors Gross and Levitt observe that “we have the sense, encountering such attitudes, that irrationality is courted and proclaimed with pride. All the more shocking is the fact that the challenge comes from a quarter that views itself as fearlessly progressive—the veritable cutting edge of the cultural future.”

One of the chief services performed by Higher Superstition is to have laid bare, once and for all, the breathtaking ignorance the academic Left betrays in its “critique” of science. The assumption is that all one needs to criticize science is the correct moral outlook: actual knowledge is held to be irrelevant. One finds

books that pontificate about the intellectual crisis of contemporary physics, whose authors have never troubled themselves with a simple problem in statics; essays that make knowing reference to chaos theory, from writers who could not recognize, much less solve, a first-order linear differential equation; tirades about the semiotic tyranny of DNA and molecular biology, from scholars who have never been inside a real laboratory.

And on and on.

An extraordinary arrogance often accompanies the ignorance. Typical is the case of Andrew Ross, a trendy professor of “cultural studies” who has just moved from Princeton to New York University. Professor Ross dedicates his new book, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits, to “all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.” Who could doubt it? Consider Professor Ross’s blithe rejection of the effort to distinguish between authentic science and pseudo-science: “In the wake of Karl Popper’s influential work … falsifiability is often put forward as a criterion for distinguishing between truly scientific work and the pseudo-scientific. But … falsifiability is a self-referential concept in science inasmuch as it appeals to those normative codes of science that favor objective authentication by a supposedly objective observer.” Professors Gross and Levitt comment: “So much, then, for three thousand years of struggle to develop a systematic method for getting reliable information about the world!” What Professor Ross is really saying, they note, is that “science backs up its claims, whereas pseudo-science doesn’t, but I don’t care about the difference.”

In many ways, the feminist assault on science is the most preposterous. As with Afrocentrism, the grip of feminist ideology is often so strong that adherents frequently lapse into gibberish. Thus we find feminists incensed that biologists should have been so sexist as to describe spermatozoa as actively pursuing and penetrating the ovum: sniff the authors of one influential feminist study group, this is to see fertilization as “a kind of martial gang-rape” in which the ovum is portrayed as “a passive victim, a whore.”

I have already mentioned “Toward a Feminist Algebra.” The point of this influential article, by Maryanne Campbell and Randall K. Campbell-Wright, is that gender-bias in mathematical word problems has discouraged women from learning mathematics. Yes, really. Hence they object to a problem in which a girl is running toward her boyfriend because it portrays heterosexual involvement (one about “Sue and Debbie” buying a house together gets their seal of approval); they object to a problem involving construction workers because the workers are assumed to be male; and so on. What they want are problems “presenting female heroes and breaking gender stereotypes.” And this is algebra? As Professors Gross and Levitt point out, there is no such thing as a “feminist mathematics.” To dwell on the incidental details of a word problem is to misunderstand what math is all about. It matters not a whit whether Sam is selling hotdogs to Martha or Alice is peddling brownies to Gertrude. To miss this is to miss everything. The worst thing about such performances—and again the analogy with “Afrocentric science” comes to mind—is that they cheat students of really learning anything. Instead of encouraging women to learn mathematics—a laudable ambition—Campbell and Campbell-Wright’s paper is used “to justify the use of mathematics classrooms as chapels of feminist orthodoxy.”

If such drivel were the rare exception, it might be overlooked. Unfortunately, it has become the norm in feminist treatments of science. Take the work of N. Katherine Hayles. Professor Hayles holds an endowed chair at a major university; she is the recipient of a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation; she has been the president of the Association for Science and Literature and the chairman of the Literature and Science Committee of the Modern Language Association. Her book, marvelously titled Chaos Bound, is published by a distinguished university press. Professors Gross and Levitt describe the book as an attempt to draw parallels between chic literary theory (deconstruction, etc.) and the mathematics of chaos. The problem is that, mesmerized by the word “chaos,” Professor Hayles has failed to learn anything about the subject she is writing about. The result is indeed chaos, but of a rather more pedestrian variety than she intended. “The special theory of relativity,” she intones, “lost its epistemological clarity when it was combined with quantum mechanics to form quantum field theory. By midcentury all three had been played out or had undergone substantial modification.” But this is hooey. Professors Gross and Levitt observe that, far from having lost “epistemological clarity,” “special relativity and quantum mechanics are as solidly confirmed as it is possible for physical theories to be.” They continue:

While there may be some lingering doubts whether general relativity is quite the right model on the cosmological scale, the special theory has always triumphantly passed every empirical test. However physics develops in the future, any modification must subsume rather than displace special relativity, just as special relativity subsumed Newtonian mechanics. … As for quantum field theory, this is an ongoing project that engages the deepest amd liveliest intellects in physics and mathematics. “Played out?” The best that can be said for Hayles is that she confuses the fact that physics is very much a continuing discipline, and, therefore, has fascinating foundational problems left to solve, with some kind of philosophical and spiritual exhaustion. If anything is played out, it is the postmodernist’s pretension to have something interesting to say about physics.

Professors Gross and Levitt have a lot more to say about Professor Hayles, none of it pretty. Particularly sobering is the realization that she presents a relatively mild case. Another big name in the feminists-deconstruct-science industry is Donna Haraway, a professor in the history of consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Writing recently in Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology, Professor Haraway informs us that she wishes “to suggest how to refigure—how to trope and how to knot together—key discourses about technoscience.”

Rooted in the (sometimes malestream and maelstrom) cross-stitched disciplines of science studies, this short essay is part of a larger, shared task of using antiracist feminist theory and cultural studies to produce worldly interference patterns. Because I think the practices that constitute technoscience build worlds that do not overflow with choice about inhabiting them, I want to help foment a state of emergency in what counts as “normal” in technoscience and in its analysis. Queering what counts as nature is my categorical imperative. Queering specific normalized categories is not for the easy frisson of transgression, but for the hope for livable worlds. What is normal in technoscience, and in its analysis, is all too often war, with all its infinitely ramifying structures and strategems.

Remember that this woman is not some crank but a professor at a prestigious university and one of the leading lights of contemporary “women’s studies.”

The real problem with feminist notions of science is that the object of their attack is a figment: there is no such thing as “male science,” any more than there is a “white science” or an “African science.” Fired by a generalized resentment against “patriarchy,” besotted with misunderstood technical jargon (savor, for example, Professor Haraway’s use of “categorical imperative” above), these scholars have succumbed to a species of language mysticism. Phrases like “paradigm change,” “chaos theory,” “the uncertainty principle” are like catnip to them: a source of stirring intoxication.

It is not surprising that the academic Left denies the universality of scientific truth. This has long been a favorite gambit of mystagogues, including some eminent ones. Professors Gross and Levitt quote Philip Lenard, a Nobel laureate in physics who was also an ardent supporter of the Nazis. Here is Lenard denouncing Albert Einstein:

German physics? one asks. I might rather have said Aryan physics or the physics of the Nordic species of man. The physics of those who have fathomed the depths of reality, seekers after truth, the physics of the very founders of science. But, I shall be answered, “Science is and remains international.” It is false. Science, like every other human product, is racial and conditioned by blood.

Or gender. Or skin color. Or ethnicity. Or ideological affiliation. Take your pick.

Professors Gross and Levitt conclude by arguing for the “necessity of seeing to it that whatever is labeled as ‘science education’ in our colleges and universities deserves that designation.” To this end they suggest that scientists participate in conferences and symposia where scientific issues are the ostensible subjects; they suggest likewise that scientists be consulted on promotion and tenure decisions for colleagues in the humanities who claim a professional expertise in the “discourse” of science. (Fare thee well, Andrew Ross! So long, Donna Haraway!) Naturally, such proposals will be unacceptable to the “humanists” whose follies are dissected in this book. But have they not forfeited their authority along with their credibility? And, indeed, should we not require “equal treatment” for the humanities, demanding that whatever is labeled as “humanities education” in our colleges and universities also deserves that designation?

It will be said that Professors Gross and Levitt are sterile rationalists, unattuned to the literary or speculative temperament. That is piffle. The problem is not the literary temperament but pernicious nonsense. Professors Gross and Levitt use the tag from Goya quoted at the beginning of this essay as one of their epigraphs: “When reason sleeps, monsters are born.” As they note, the dictum has always been ambiguous. On one reading, it is a slogan for the Enlightenment: without reason, mankind is helpless before the arbitrary imperatives of superstition. On another, it cautions against the hubris of reason: the sleep of reason yields extravagant, often dehumanizing dreams. The academic Left has the peculiar distinction of exhibiting both vices: irrationalism and a hyper-rationalism unchastened by common sense. These are the failings that Professors Gross and Levitt attack. Toward the end of their book, they write that “the humanities, as traditionally understood, are indispensable to our civilization and to the prospects of living a fulfilling life within it. The indispensability of professional academic humanists, on the other hand, is a less certain proposition.” It is difficult to disagree.

  1.  Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt; The Johns Hopkins University Press, 314 pages, $25.95.

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