In my blog post Yes, Virginia, There Is a Reality Out There! I wrote about the different kinds of stories that people from the Natural Sciences and from the Humanities tell about the world, and about some of the reasons why in our postmodern and post-postmodern world these stories are so often at odds with one another.
To quote myself:
Most of the blame goes to both factions’ fringe positions. On one side, there’s the Grand Quackdom of New Age Woo Meisters who rip scientific models out of their environment and translate them into all kinds of bizarre nonsense. On the other side, there’s the Grand Rabid Inquisition of the Purifex Maximus of Science whose members are as unable to explain their research to the laypeople as they are outraged at every unsanctioned use of scientific models in what might be called the world of you and me.
With that in mind, listen to the interview my personal hero PZ Myers gave to the Reddit people. The bit I got so excited about comes six and a half minutes into the clip, but go ahead and watch the whole interview. It’s worth it! Besides, you might earn yourself some extra credits toward the privilege of dying a quick and painless death when the stars are right and Cthulhu will rise from the deep.
The question, posed by Illskillz was: “What do you think of relativism and postmodernism being used as a way to attack science?”
Here’s my transcript (starting at 6:30):
That’s kind of an interesting question, and it’s a really complicated one, because I think the people who use postmodernism are abusing postmodernism as well as science. What they’re doing is taking a few buzz words out of context again, and applying them inappropriately to science and think they’s made a point. For instance, relativity. You know, relativity, Einstein’s theory of relativity gave that term this kind of cachet which… which it isn’t. It’s a potent word, but it doesn’t mean what people think it means there, it doesn’t mean, all ideas are equal, and that’s they’re using it to attack science. And, so you know, when people start doing that, you gotta jump on them, because they don’t understand science, they don’t understand relativity, and they don’t understand postmodernism. So go away, leave me alone.
But hey, let’s up the ante a little bit!
Indeed, they don’t understand postmodernism. But those who gleefully engage in advanced postmodernism-bashing and the joyful delegitimation of lit crit and a host of other disciplines across the Humanities and the Social Sciences to boot whenever one new-agist dingbat or other happens to say something stupid, they don’t understand postmodernism either!
They don’t have to, of course. It’s a free country! But, like tracers, ignorance works both ways. And postmodernism-bashing without a clue what postmodernism and its many faces and facets actually are about might perhaps illuminate some tiny crevices of postmodern fringe positions, if lucky, but first and foremost it illuminates local mental abodes of its own that are full of cobwebs and the sound of crickets. Even webcomic wizard Randall Munroe doesn’t quite “get it.” And I’m always delighted when it happens to be a scientist who points out such follies and mistakes that, tracerlike, indicate a local ignorance field—as did in this case, e.g., Mark Liberman. Or elsewhere and frequently Sean Carroll. Most of the time, though, it’s cool dudes from lit crit who have to straighten a few things out.
There is indeed a lot you have to know about postmodernism before you can follow and engage in related literary and/or philosophical discussions and make sense. Sense isn’t “dependent” on, or “constructed” by, jargon. But meaningful discussions in the Humanities do rely on a large body of shared knowledge, a largish body of shared technical terms and terminology, and a shared way of thinking, as it is the case in any other faculty or discipline.
Would I, personally, pass Labov’s Test, provided it was conducted fairly and honestly? You bet I would. And once more, I side with Mark Liberman: “Sometimes, Derrida was just wrong.” Indeed, and aren’t we all. Einstein was wrong, too. But not wrong like in always and in principle wrong; we all err in our peculiar ways on our diverse and winding paths to knowledge. Besides, it’s precisely the scientific method that should give pause and make people go and check out what kinds of methods and discourses are fueling the fires in the Humanities—which are quite different from those in the Natural Sciences—before partaking in a pissfest.
What I’m taken aback by most are not those breathtakingly inane newagisisms, at least not anymore. What I’m taken aback by most is the breathtaking hubris of smart and open-minded people who don’t even realize that they have no clue what certain disciplines in the Humanities are about, how people talk and how people think in these faculties and departments, what kinds of research they do, and what they’re trying to achieve in the greater scheme of things. The hubris of smart and open-minded people, that is, who should know better than to trash other people’s property while, on that turf, they don’t know their ass from their elbow. They’d better go and do their homework! Or, as PZ said, leave me alone.