Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

When postmodernism wins?

The New Republic’s Franklin Foer has a very troubling article that (echoing Bruno Latour’s recent critique) argues that the Bush administration has discovered how to use relativism to escape the surly bonds of expert opinion, analysis, and scientific argument:

Since its inception, modern American conservatism has harbored a suspicion of experts, who, through adherence to inductive reasoning and academic methodologies, claim to provide objective research and analysis… But the Bush administration has adopted a far more extreme version of this critique: It takes the radically postmodern view that “science,” “objectivity,” and “truth” are guises for an ulterior, leftist agenda; that experts are so incapable of dispassionate and disinterested analysis that their work doesn’t even merit a hearing.

This is visible, Foer argues, in the Iraq policy, cricitisms of the CIA, and attacks on the Council of Economic Advisors and OMB. But

Conservatives contend that even scientific conclusions stem from ideological bias. Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policymaking, an anthology published by the Hoover Institution and the industry-funded Marshall Institute, is the critique’s clearest distillation. The book contends that scientists are driven by a “love of power and domination.” They produce studies that show environmental crises, for instance, because these crises spur Congress to spend money on the EPA–which, in turn, finances their research. In other words, as with budget and intelligence analysts, scientists may style themselves as objective, but they are anything but.

So scientists become just another interest group, pushing their own agenda. Unfortunately, this is a stripped-down version of arguments I heard around many a seminar table when I was in graduate school. And it was a very easy conclusion for undergraduates to take away from more difficult and nuanced readings. “So, Foucault is saying, like, there’s no such thing as truth.”

I remember that Frank Luntz, author of the Contract With America, took at least one history of science course when we overlapped at Penn. It all fits together….

[To the tune of Peter Frampton, “Lines on My Face (Live),” from the album Frampton Comes Alive!.]

3 Comments

  1. Is there a cite or link for Latour’s recent critique?

  2. A recent Harper’s Magazine, I think the April 2004 issue. The piece may originally have been published somewhere else– Configurations, Representations, or some other journal ending with -ations.

  3. Thanks for the link, Alex.It’s a sobering article. Whatever the theoretical and epistemological difficulties, we (citizens of the world, especially those in powerful countries) have to find ways to measure the extent to which positions are based on ideology versus reliable information.

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