Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science

Citation metadata

Author: Bennett M. Berger
Date: May 13, 1994
From: Science(Vol. 264, Issue 5161)
Publisher: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,491 words

Main content

Article Preview :

This book is an angry polemic by a scientist and a mathematician against what they call the anti-science left in our universities. The enemy includes practitioners of science studies, Marxists, feminists, "constructivists," postmodernists, multiculturalists, and environmentalists, housed mostly in departments of philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, and literature. The nub of the book's argument is that the writings of these scholars on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science are filled with ignorant resentment against the accomplishments of the exact sciences and that they do their incompetent best to undermine the credibility of those accomplishments. Gross and Levitt disavow any connection between their argument and the war on "political correctness." They present themselves, rather, as cultivated men of science, custodians of the Enlightenment, obliged to defend the citadels of knowledge against know-nothing attacks. So they mount their white horses and ride forth to slay the dragons of the anti-science left.

Logic and evidence are their weapons of choice, but polemics are usually fun to write, and the authors do not resist drawing other, less elevated, weapons from the polemical armory: sarcasm, hyperbole, righteous indignation, ad hominem devices, and grave warnings about the potential damage done to sound science education by the absurdities of some of the claims of the more radical feminists, Afrocentrists, environmentalists, and other regiments of the anti-science academic left. By the end of the book Gross and Levitt seem confident that the dragon lies vanquished, its fire turned to ash by the cool and contemptuous sword of analytic scrutiny.

There are no last words or final victories in arguments of this sort, however. This dragon is a phoenix, and it will surely rise up to add heat to this already too heated dialogue. I think it is inevitable that Gross and Levitt's effort will stand as only one skirmish in the ongoing culture wars because the mean-spiritedness of the book weakens the force of the case it sets out to make. Some of the criticism the authors level at some of the texts they choose to examine is effective in revealing incompetence. They show, for example, how ignorant of mathematics are those critics who invoke the uncertainty principle or chaos theory in their efforts to question the causal, deterministic underpinnings of science. Even when their point is strongest, though, they cannot resist contemptuous scoffing. Still, though not all of the work in any field is good work, the body of research known as science studies" and other targets of the authors' attack are, in general, neither leftist nor ignorant nor anti-science and can be regarded as such only by those whose reading of the literature is indiscriminate about what constitutes ignorance, the left, or anti-science postures.

First of all, the texts that get Gross and Levitt's attention range from the influential to the negligible to the bizarre, but they attack all of them with equal predatory delight. Stanley Aronowitz's Science as Power, so far as I know, has little influence in science studies, but it receives as much...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Berger, Bennett M. "Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science." Science, vol. 264, no. 5161, 13 May 1994, pp. 985+. Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A15416116