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28 March 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

And then there was postmodernism...
If creationism is on the rise in the UK, blame the academic left as much as the religious right.

by Patrick West

If creationism is on the rise in the UK, blame the academic left as much as the religious right.

For a generation now, the academic left has been engaged in a war against science as we know it: propagating the notion that science is an inherently Western concept, that it is culturally perspectival, but most of all, after Werner Heisenberg, that it is an imperfect and thoroughly flawed 'discourse'.

The general public's distrust of science and scientists in general, whether it be over genetically modified (GM) crops or cloning, is not merely a fad, whipped up by the media. The public's flight into homeopathy, healing crystals and alternative medicine represents a deeper distrust of science, a flight that has been fuelled from the top down by thousands of undergraduate professors who claim that 'science' (inverted commas are mandatory) is but another Western, logocentric discourse that tells us more about who is doing the observing than what is observed.

Creationism may now be given the legitimacy it needs not because fundamentalist Christianity is on the rise, but because postmodernism reigns.

Although some today are prone to dismiss postmodernism as a craze of the early-1990s, there is little evidence that we do not still live in a relativist age, despite Blair and Bush's attempt to force the language of 'good' and 'evil' into the international sphere. From the heights of academia, where textuality, relativism and cultural perspectivism rule, to the lowly language of social policy, where difference and diversity have become modern-day mantras, we do indeed appear to live in times of inverted commas.

'Feminist scientists' concluded that science was an intrinsically masculine enterprise
Add a dose of demotic populism to this relativist posturing, and there can be no defence of science in the face of creationism. To attempt such a defence is to risk accusations of 'intolerance' and 'elitism': it is an affront to pluralism and a proverbial kick in the face of diversity. 'But science is just another form of religion', I remember two undergraduates chiding me at university. In the words of the headmaster of Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead, the school at the centre of the recent creationism-teaching row in the UK: 'both creation and evolution are faith positions.'

The postmodern movement of the past quarter century has promoted the idea that there is no such thing as truth; there is only interpretation. And curiously enough, to begin with, many postmodernists actually took inspiration from scientific developments. Initially influential was Heisenberg's principle, which stated that the more precisely one located the position of a particle, the less you could ascertain about its momentum (and vice versa). In addition was Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, which - it seemed - suggested that how one saw the cosmos depended upon the point from which one was looking.

While Einstein seemed to give a nod to what anthropologists had long been arguing - that what is observed is fatally influenced by who is doing the observing - Heisenberg's principal was taken to mean that science itself was an imperfect discipline. Relativity suited the agenda of the relativists. Chaos theory (butterflies flapping their wings in Kansas, etc) and Benoit Mandelbrot's fractals became totems of a movement that sought to question the notion of a knowable universe. As Mandelbrot shows, the closer you go in on a map of Britain, the longer and more intricate becomes the coastline, until, at sub-atomic level, it becomes impossible. Ergo, the more science looks, the less it will find. Postmodernists take innocent scientific metaphors such as chaos, uncertainty and relativity at face value, as if to suggest that science is literally chaotic, uncertain, and subjective.

Instrumental was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which forwarded the notion that science changes or advances not merely because of new discoveries, but when society itself changes. 'Feminist scientists' reached the conclusion that not only was science controlled by men - it was an intrinsically masculine enterprise. Quoting Francis Bacon's call to 'place Nature on the rack in order to force her to yield her secrets', they suggested that 'science' reflected a patriarchal need to dominate, categorise and penetrate. After Michel Foucault, it was declared that science was but a phallogocentric power game - 'phallogocentric' being postmodernism's way of saying that logic itself is a masculinist conspiracy.

Of course, it was not proper scientists advocating as much, but academics and educationalists. A 1992 draft of the new National Science Standards in the USA announced that these standards would be 'based on the postmodernist view [that] questions the objectivity of observation and the truth of scientific knowledge'. Although these actual words were eventually dropped from the final 1996 draft, its ethos has been maintained in the form of 'standpoint epistemologies'.

Multicultural scientists are championing creationism in the name of 'diversity'
'What makes a belief true', says a leading standpoint epistemologist, Trevor Pinch of Cornell University, 'is not its correspondence with an element of reality, but its adoption and authentications by the relevant community' (1). After all, 'many pictures can be painted, and...the sociologist of science cannot say that any picture is a better representation of Nature than any other'. In short, it does not matter what a scientist says, it matters what colour he is, or if he is a she.

In the words of one 1999 journal article published in the USA for mathematics teachers, the reason why some Navajo schoolchildren were failing at the subject was that 'the Western world developed the notion of fractions and decimals out of need to divide or segment a whole. The Navajo world view consistently appears not to segment the whole of an entity'. Teachers of Navajo children were encouraged to deal with concepts more 'naturally compatible with Navajo spatial knowledge', such as 'non-Euclidean geometry, motion theories, and/or fundamentals of calculus' (2). Poor kids: calculus before fractions.

In 1996, the 'International Study Group on Ethnomathematics' released a paper calling for the teaching of 'multicultural mathematics' in schools. It was nonsense, the paper suggested, to talk of some being 'good at maths' or some not. It ridiculed the 'so-called Pythagorean theorem' and called for a 'culturally responsive pedagogy'. By 1997, more than three quarters of teachers in the USA had implemented 'Ethnomathematic' guidelines.

According to Meera Nanda, writing in Noretta Koertge's book A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodern Myths About Science, Hindu nationalists in India have been appropriating multicultural science to proclaim 'local ways of knowing' - which means downgrading algebra (which is too Islamic or Western) and putting in its place 'Vedic mathematics': rule-of-thumb computational formulas derived from Sanskrit verses.

Koertge had documented particularly how the quest for 'female-friendly science' has brought us down some peculiar avenues. In a 1996 conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she noted how one feminist explained why research into the mechanics of solids was undertaken at a far earlier stage than that of fluid dynamics. Men were more comfortable working with rigid environments which reflected their 'sex organs that protrude and become rigid', and were uneasy with fluidity itself, which reminded them too much of menstrual blood and vaginal secretions. 'In the same way that women are erased within masculinist theories and language, existing only as not-men, so fluids had been erased from science, existing only as not-solids', she explained.

The academic left and the religious right are suspicious of reason
Yet in America, home of both the 'multicultural scientists' and creationists, it is the latter which solicit the greatest outrage. Presumably, being Christian and mainly white, creationists represent in the multicultural mind two power groups that have held hegemony over the world. This view, however, fails to recognise that many Muslims are similarly creationists. During the recent Emmanuel College debate, A Majid Katme of Islamic Concern added his voice, to the effect that: 'There are clearly huge holes in the fossil records, and missing links in the theory. Only true sciences do fit with the divine teachings, no false ones or theories like Darwin theory.'

The disturbing corollary of the antipathy directed only at white Christians is that the Left - both rational and multicultural - only seems to make noises when white children are being taught damaging falsehoods. When black or Asian children are taught palpable nonsense, are we meant to raise our hands and say, 'It's their culture'?

Yet according to Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels With Science (1994), multicultural scientists are going so far as actually to champion creationism, all in the name of 'diversity'. One prominent advocate of multicultural science teaching in the USA has endorsed teaching creation myths in American classrooms, not merely Jewish and Christian versions, but 'many traditional Native American, African, and Eastern religions'.

Perhaps this unholy alliance is not so surprising. The academic left and the religious right share many facets. They are suspicious of reason, hold to the notion that truth is dependent on the individual or group, and that culture-specific answers are equally if not more valid than universal ones based on evidence. They are both anti-modernists, distinguished only by their prefixes: one being 'pre-', the other 'post-'. Both groups deride those who 'believe' in evolution as intolerant, expressing a kind of liberal rationalist fundamentalism - that zoologist Richard Dawkins is a kind of modern-day Torquemada. Rationalism, they say, is not the anti-ideology it professes to be, but a doctrine of its own.

This is unsupportable rhetoric. You show me an anti-logocentric philosopher or a bible-belt anti-scientist who has travelled by plane or been treated in hospital and I will show you a hypocrite. I can show you Christians who believe in evolution. Can creationists show me an atheist who believes in creationism?

There is a tiny minority of non-religious creationists
Well, in truth, there is a tiny minority of non-religious creationists. A group of ultra-sceptics call themselves adherents to 'Intelligent Design', while even a section of the neoconservative, libertarian right in America have questioned evolution, such as was seen in Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Design, or Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box.

Neoconservatives, the multicultural left and the religious right all want to downgrade evolution because they have their own political agendas to pursue - respectively, because it is the cause of moral decline; it is Western and hegemonic; and it disagrees with a Protestant literal-minded interpretation of the Bible. They will say evolution, being a non-empirical branch of science, is mere 'theory'.

Such sophistry would have great implications for geology, biology, archaeology, astrophysics and physics. We have never witnessed the shifting of continents, the birth of stars or the movements of subatomic particles. Does this mean these things have not happened? Anti-modernists don't so much say 'if a tree falls down in a forest and there's nobody there to hear it, does it make a noise?'. They pronounce: 'if a tree falls down in a forest and nobody sees it, then it has not fallen down.'

Ultimately, postmodern scientists rest their ideas upon metaphors, not upon what actually happens in science. They assume that just because there is chaos theory, uncertainty and irrational numbers, that science is incomplete, chaotic, relativistic and irrational. As any practising scientist will tell you, this is simply not true.

In one respect, after Kuhn, they do have a point. If science reflects the society from which it emanates, then 'postmodern science' reflects a wider cultural malaise: our desperate disenchantment with the values of the Enlightenment and the West's worrying descent into irrationalism and superstition.

Anyhow, happy Easter. Here's to one man who is on record saying he believes in evolution: the Pope. How strange that many of those in charge of so many children's education do not.

Read on:

Creationism teaching: who started it?, by Josie Appleton

(1) Quoted in Benighted Elite, Reason magazine, June 1999

(2) Quoted in Benighted Elite, Reason magazine, June 1999

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