Modernity,  Polemics

The Effect of Postmodernism on Science

Drawing on the work of the late French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, the objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge. As such, we assert that the evidence-based movement in health sciences constitutes a good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific arena. (source)

A revolution starts slowly and insidiously. That’s its nature. Before you even recognize it, you’ve been caught up in it throes. By the time you realize what’s happening, it’s too late. Revolutions must happen this way or else they wouldn’t happen at all.

In the last two years, as the normal political rancor in the US and Europe has become more caustic and divisive, it seems that news agencies and reporters have rediscovered this weird little thing called facts. CNN, in particular, has an ad campaign that highlights the constancy, inerrancy, and importance of “facts.” They tell us:

Facts are facts. They aren’t colored by emotion or bias. They are indisputable. There is no alternative to a fact. Facts explain things. What they are, how they happened. Facts are not interpretations. Once facts are established, opinions can be formed. And while opinions matter, they don’t change the facts.

In that brief statement, an advertising agency writer has both dismissed one hundred years of postmodernism and simultaneously disagreed with every existing theory of epistemology. It’s a sophomoric understanding of knowledge that sounds more like a four year old throwing a temper-tantrum than anything an educated person might write. The ad agency was clearly told to appeal to an uneducated and unsophisticated demographic.

I don’t want to dwell too long on how silly the statement is, but I will say that the absolutism and certainty expressed in this blurb sounds like something one might hear from a totalitarian regime or a medieval Inquisitor. This type of hubris is dangerous, to say the least. In fact, it was just this sort of intellectual tyranny that led to postmodernism in the first place. CNN, and a lot of other people, have gone from one extreme (rejection of all objective truth) to the other (we know the absolute truth and how dare you question us!).

In any event, postmodernism is quickly going away on both ends of the political spectrum. Yay! A return to rational thought! But even as postmodernism hopefully fades into the sunset, it has still left a lasting and damaging impression on thought and society. I would like to briefly analyze how postmodernism has affected (and restricted) scientific thought in particular.

First, what is postmodernism? That’s a great question and one not easily answered, even by postmodernists. The philosophy itself defies definition. But let’s get at its essence:

  • Reality is unknowable
  • Since it is, there can be no absolutes
  • The value of anything is purely subjective
  • Since everything is subjective, nothing can be better than anything else

If reality is unknowable and no objective truth exists (a postmodern belief), then it is easy to slip into a sea of nihilism where all thoughts are equal and therefore there is no reason for any concept to be either right or wrong, good or bad. All propositions have equal force. All truth is subjective. We see this idea expressed in postmodern art, literature, and poetry extensively; but this concept eventually metastasized into philosophy and, to a lesser degree, science itself (science is, after all, a branch of philosophy).

If you aren’t sure how postmodernism has affected the arts, let me give some examples before we get to the sciences.

In the postmodern world, Yoko Ono screaming into a microphone is held in the same (or even greater) esteem as the greatest compositions of Beethoven meticulously and passionately performed by Pollini or Freire on a flawless Steinway.

(Yoko Ono and Pollini on a Steinway)

In the postmodern world, Barnett Newman’s Blackfire 1 (which last sold for $84 million) is considered of equal artistic merit to Raphael’s The School at Athens (which is literally priceless).

(Blackfire 1 and The School At Athens)

Philosophers like a Jean-François Lyotard or a Foucault are held in equal esteem to an Aristotle, Plato, Pascal, or a Hume.

In a postmodern world, decadence is confused for genius; subjectivity is confused for objectivity; narrative is confused for fact; scientism is confused for science; P-values are confused for probability calculus; opinion is confused for truth; and ugliness is confused for beauty. In short, the world is turned upside down in a postmodern world.

The fundamental error is that all things are equal (born out of the idea that nothing is of certain or distinct value). There is no primacy of ideas or rightness. There are no virtues or standards of excellence by which other things might be compared; that would require some degree of rationalism. Only in such an environment can chaff become wheat and a random gold rock become gold itself.

When reality is no longer believed in, then we deal only with meta-reality, tripping over forms of truth while denying truth simultaneously. In the postmodern world, the dialectic itself becomes the reality and new dialectics are created to study the dialectic. If you have ever read Kant, you’ll recognize this pattern of meta-dialectics, each one bringing us no closer to a useful knowledge of reality. Mere shadows of shadows.

Postmodernism rejects absolutism while spouting off absolutes. It is a paradox of contradiction and an ill-defined, shape shifting, blob of sophomoric reasoning and self-reference that defies a standard definition. When a philosophy or science doesn’t possess basic, coherent ideas that define its scope and implementation, then it will become a playground for the psuedo-scientist to defend virtually any belief by claiming the authority of this amorphous philosophy.

In other words, without anchoring, a thought process ceases being science or philosophy and becomes instead self-justification and a tool for oppression of intellectual freedom. If you don’t agree with the postmodernist, any argument you may make is simply and automatically invalidated by the basic theory of postmodernism.

An opponent of postmodernism is not allowed to make a definable and defendable, evidence-based statement; if he tries to, however, a postmodernist is allowed to say that that statement isn’t true without any opposing evidence (decisions, after all, aren’t based on evidence). Whenever one debates a postmodernist about postmodernism, the almost predictable and immediate recourse of the postmodernist is to state that the person doesn’t understand what postmodernism is. The opponent, therefore, is not an intellectual equal, not studied, and therefore not worthy of debate.

I have rarely ever seen a postmodernist actually defend postmodernism on its merits. The huge amount of variation in how postmodernism has been defined by its adherents and its internal incoherence don’t allow for rational deconstruction. An adherent of postmodernism can quickly point to a respected authority of postmodernism and find a statement or a belief that contradicts the definition of postmodernism that someone may have an issue with, since it is defined in so many different ways. This happens frequently, almost always at the risk of self-contradiction. But self-contradiction is allowable in postmodernism.

I’m not interested in this form of debate. Just so we are clear, my essential definition of postmodernism includes the following: a rejection of absolute truth and consequently the belief that all ideas are of equal merit. Or, at least, we can’t prove or argue with any rational system which ideas are better than others.

When what is real and rare is replaced by what is fake and common, then progress and excellence are no longer valued in a society. Perhaps you don’t believe that it’s a great sin to confuse Michelangelo’s David with Picasso’s Head of a Woman:

Maybe you’ve learned to pretend to see some artistic merit in Picasso’s statuette as your modern art history teacher told you you should in college. But I’m not concerned with your bad taste in art or the fact that you lie to yourself and pretend that Richard Blanco and TS Eliot are intellectual or artistic equals:

I am concerned though that postmodern thought now dominates higher education – not just on the humanities side of the campus but also on the science side of campus. The philosophy of science has a long history of following the philosophy of philosophy.

Postmodernism was and is a rejection of the rational; but an attack on postmodernism is not also at once a defense of 19th Century Rationalism. That’s a straw-man argument. Postmodernism’s ideas are regressive, banal, and sophomoric in the worst sense of the word. Postmodernism should be inconsistent and incompatible with science, and that’s my real point. But, postmodernism has had a large influence over the hard sciences and especially the so-called soft sciences. Today, postmodern pseudo-intellectualism dominates most scientific endeavors.

Science was created as a tool of philosophical inquiry. It was meant to be a rigorous and skeptical dialectic that helped philosophers understand reality. But philosophy and science have become two divergent paths that seem completely disconnected. Today, it seems as if science is greater than philosophy. Modern people believe that science is immune from the biases and philosophical perspectives of it’s participants, but it’s not. Science is held up to be the holy grail of human inquiry that has divorced itself completely from its philosophical underpinnings. But those underpinnings are still present and as postmodernism has crept into most modern philosophical endeavors, the underpinnings of science itself are eroding.

When did this happen?

When science was still a tool of philosophy, it was believed that a goal of human inquiry was to determine the true nature of reality. This implied that reality was knowable (to some degree of confidence) and that the discovery of reality was a noble and necessary pursuit. But post-modernism does not share this belief. In postmodernist thought, ideas that were once viewed as a description of nature, reality, and truth are now viewed as mere constructs. Since constructs are manufactured by man or by society, then deconstruction is necessary to learn more about human nature and the human experience. If everything is a construct, then everything must be deconstructed. Nothing can be a descriptor of reality since reality is unknowable. Individuals are allowed to have constructs, but society is not. Societal constructs are felt to be harmful because they destroy the freedom and creativity of individual constructs or individual experiences. Meaning in life is present only for the person, not the culture or the society.

An example of this in the sciences is the current popularity of detaching gender from biologic sex. Gender is viewed as a construct only, with no meaningful relationship to biologic sex, which has evolved over millions of years.

If you told a scientist that gravity or the speed of light or the mass of a helium molecule were merely social constructs to explain the unexplainable, he would probably disagree with you. If he is a good scientist, he will admit that the explanations are not perfect but that the explanations exist because reality exist and it provides observations with which a theoretical model must comport. If you explain to him that the social construct called “the mass of a helium molecule” needed to be eradicated from science books so that individual scientists were free to discover the subjective truth of the many different possible masses of the helium molecule, he would probably laugh at you and walk away.

But postmodernism is asking scientists in the social sciences, psychological sciences, and biological sciences to behave in this manner. So, if you believe that there is absolutely nothing different about male versus female gender and that they are equal in all ways, all abilities, and all talents, then you are a postmodernist. Similarly, if you believe that gender is a mere social construct instead of a deeply rooted and millions of years old biological reality, then you are a postmodernist. How do you know? Because these are ideas not demonstrable by or compatible with observable data; they are not rational postulate. 

Postmodernity has broad-reaching implications. In the economic sciences, post-modernism would have us believe that all work is of equal merit end of equal value. The political extension of this idea might be referred to as Marxism; but, whatever it is called, it asks economic scientists to deny empiric data and place a philosophical veil over reality. Postmodernism asks us to become indignant in the view of any real or perceived inequality between any two comparators, whether in the arts, literature, science, economics, social science, or politics. Nothing is as it seems; what seems is merely a societal construct. Nothing is good or bad, right or wrong. Nothing is more desirable than another thing. The beauty of Venus de Milo is merely a construct; it is not rooted in any deeper reality. The statue would have been just as beautiful, perhaps even more beautiful, if the figure were three or four times as corpulent, for example. This idea to many young postmodernists seems liberating and a worthy cause to end fat shaming and glorify body types of all forms and sizes. It seems progressive. It seems like it will help end bullying and normalize many different types and shapes of the female form. The danger, however, is that it might just do that. The goal of Art is not usually to represent the average but rather it’s to give men and women something to aim for, to work for, to strive for; it is meant to represent the ideal. Michelangelo’s David would have long ago been destroyed had it been a statue of an average-appearing dude.

Is there some biological premise that supports the notion that Michelangelo’s David is superior to a naked statue of Henry the 8th? Certainly. Michelangelo’s David is not just more aesthetically pleasing to the eyes because of a social construct; no, he is actually better. He is healthier, will live longer, will suffer from less diseases both acute and chronic. He’s more valuable to society: he can work harder and longer and for more years than the obese Henry. He has more reproductive potential, he is more likely to be fertile and more likely to live long enough to rear his children and provide a safe environment for them. It is much more desirable to be David than Henry. These are biological and medical realities that are inescapable.

This example alone should be enough to destroy postmodern thought and all of its secundinae. We are not all equal, nor are all our truths equal, nor are our opinions equal, nor should we be regarded as such. If a society teaches its children that David and Henry are equal, then that society regresses quickly. David is the result of hard work. David is the result of discipline. Henry is result of gluttony, slothfulness, and greed. David rises from mere shepherd boy to King. Henry, however was born into his kingship. He started on high and ended in the gutter. David and Henry are not equal. Society and art should favor one over the other. David’s beauty and strengths represents his biological health and ability; they are no mere social construct. Multiple volumes could be filled with such a samples. Try thinking of your own examples. Compare the greatness of Beethoven or Elliott to the decadence of Ono or Blanco. Growth towards which would you consider to be progress for a society?

Rejection of postmodernism, also, implies that while you are entitled to your own beliefs and opinions, you are not entitled to argue their merit based simply upon their existence. Real life doesn’t give participation trophies. The world we live in today came into being because of competition of great men and women whose names we still recount. Socialism and decadence (rooted in envy and laziness, respectively) in finance or in art has always led to the destruction of a society.

If you believe something, you need to make an argument based upon rational thought, logic, evidence, and science. Postmodernism has skipped over this process because it finds itself incapable of supporting so many of its tenets and beliefs by such a process. Do you believe that there are 32 genders or two genders? Show me your science and I’ll show you mine. That’s how rational discourse works. May the most logical and rational evidentiary chain win. Do you believe that being fat is just as good as being fit? Then let’s compare evidence.

Human thought has its power in argument. In fact, true thought occurs when the thinker is able to entertain two opposing ideas and consider the consequences and the validity of each in respect to the other. In other words, the basis of human thought is dependent upon the idea that some thoughts are superior to others; thinking, therefore, involves the discrimination of which of those ideas are best.

Postmodernism rejects argumentation. Since all ideas are equal, arguments can neither be won nor lost. Curiously, however, whenever someone espouses something disagreeable to the postmodernist, that person is usually shut down with hatred and personal insults and attacks. In other words, argument is not allowed but personal attacks are. This, too, is a result of postmodern thought. Even the most passionate postmodernist wants to be able to make an argument, but stripped of that ability and virtue and right, he falls back to primitive and socially unacceptable responses. He riots, he burns cars, he shouts down, he insults and assaults. Order was brought to our society from the chaos of the animal world because of our ability to argue peacefully and have rule of law. This is not just a legal truth, it is also a scientific and biologic truth. The scientific process gives us a mechanism by which to determine the truthfulness of our observations about nature. If you don’t like what it says, then you have to get rid of the scientific process. Postmodernism does this beautifully. If you don’t like laws, then become lawless. Soon enough, society reverts backwards and breaks down to a place where none of us would want to live. 

So what about science?

I have given a few examples already. Here’s some more to think about:

  • This excellent article highlights how postmodernism has affected our perception of GMOs. The same might be said for vaccines, alternative medicine, and a variety of other nonsense.
  • Science is often a political act; as such, science that evolves around political themes may be heavily influenced by postmodern thought. Think: global warming, abortion, marijuana, gun violence, cigarette smoking, vaccines, GMOs, etc. No one writes about these things in a purely unbiased manner.
  • This Wikipedia article outlines some of the current combatants in the postmodernism versus science arena.
  • This piece from the folks at sciencebasedmedicine.org talks about how postmodernists attack evidence-based medicine and other effects on the medical sciences. They offer this quote from a recent paper: “Drawing on the work of the late French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, the objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge. As such, we assert that the evidence-based movement in health sciences constitutes a good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific arena.” Ha. Rich.
  • This blog post highlights the cognitive dissonance suffered by a postmodernist grad student when he both wants to reject science and rational thought and also march against Donald Trump in the name of science.
  • This piece from The Scientist gives several examples of the conflict between postmodernity and science.
  • Much of alternative, anecdotal, personalized, or subjective medicine preys on postmodernist thought among consumers.

We could go on forever. But I will end with the most ironic example.

Science uses statistical inference to test the validity of hypothesis. From the early days of statistics, the methods used were Bayesian, meaning that they updated our current degree of belief in a hypothesis in light of new evidence. But in the early to mid 20th Century, many scientists fought to keep postmodern thought out of the sciences. They viewed the “subjectivity” of Bayes’ theorem, since prior probabilities were seemingly subjective, as a postmodern encroachment. Men like Ronald Fisher and Jerzy Neyman created a new way of doing statistics, called Frequentism, that did not rely on subjective priors to fend off the postmodernists. In doing so, they thoroughly corrupted the scientific process for the next 100 years.

The irony is that postmodernism’s greatest assault on science was in forcing scientists to reject it so vehemently that they ceased to realize, and account for, their subjective beliefs. Almost all error starts with this mistake.

%d bloggers like this: