This week my students in Environmental Theory are moving from reality (the Anthropocene) to knowledge (science wars), for which the Wikipedia entry offers some recent historical context but less of its ongoing relevance. Below is some background, with the readings we’ll do at bottom.
First, what are the possible connections between these two topics we are covering this coming week?
- Judging from commentators and related debates, the Anthropocene challenged nature as a suitable big word for reality; similarly, the science wars challenged science as a generalized authority for knowledge.
- But there is possibly a direct connection too, which may be expressed in analogical format as nature : culture :: objectivity : subjectivity :: sciences : humanities (as non-science knowledge). As my recent post observed, there is an intimate relationship between the notion of nature and its bifurcation into objectivity and subjectivity; from there it’s just a hop to the sciences and humanities.
So, what are the science wars? If you read the Wikipedia entry, you’d think they have ended—and they have, at least in terms of the amount of ink devoted to them. In general, the science wars were a little bitty David of critics taking on a big Goliath, the institution of science, and not really changing how science is practiced or received, but certainly raising some fundamental questions that abide in a variety of contexts—indeed, recent rejoinders to the notion of the Anthropocene (e.g., Wuerthner 2014) remind me of the exact debates we were having over nature and science in the 1990s.
Think of the science wars as the “scare quote” wars: should the knowledge outcomes of science be understood as truth or as “truth”? A typical shorthand would contrast realist vs. constructivist views of scientific knowledge, the latter constituting the challenge those science wars Davids lobbed at the Goliath institution. One example of environmental relevance would be an exchange between a leading climate scientist and a scholar who advanced a constructivist view of climate science (Demeritt 2o01a, 2001b; Schneider 2001).
Those like me who came in toward the tail end of the science wars (e.g., Proctor 1998; 2001; 2005) were perhaps more interested in finding a way out of it. And many of us did so by denying its point of departure: if one proceeds by conceiving knowledge as either rock-like objectivity or prism-like subjectivity, well, a rather useless discussion ensues, because neither of these poles fairly characterizes how knowing subjects engage with objects of knowledge.
Many of us preferred more relational approaches which, yes, challenged science as inviolable, but that’s not news to most scientists anyway, and these approaches also challenged utter subjectivism as an inevitability or suitable alternative. As Latour, one of the supposed ringleaders, likes to say, the question is not whether knowledge is constructed; it’s whether knowledge is constructed well. (And he is a big fan of science, especially in these days of “alternative facts.”)
Okay, here are the readings we’ll quickly do:
- First, as some flavor of the debate, E.O. Wilson’s not-too-conciliatory work on what he calls consilience, a theory of the unity of knowledge as ultimately scientific (Wilson 2001), received quite a rejoinder from Wendell Berry in his brief essay Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition (2001). These do not live up to the antics of the earlier science warriors (see e.g. the Sokal hoax), but suggest the difference of opinion over the possibility and sufficiency of scientific knowledge. For those wanting more, the Demeritt/Schneider climate debate noted above is typical (though not simple).
- One of the classic statements challenging scientific objectivity is by Donna Haraway (1988), who calls for “situated knowledges”—a nice tie-in with the concept of place I advance as a better, and more grounded, big word for reality than nature/culture. Haraway’s head-on feminist—read: relational—engagement with objectivity was less a cause than a solution to the science wars, though possibly a bit ahead of its time. Haraway is about the best combination of fun and smart one will find in a science wars author!
- Finally, literature scholar Katherine Hayles’ “Searching for Common Ground” (2005) puts an imaginary scientist, constructivist, and environmentalist in conversation with each other as she tries to weave an epistemological approach they all would support. Kate wrote this book as a (genuine) conciliatory attempt on behalf of a group of scholars in the mid-1990s with whom we were both associated (Cronon 1995) , vis-à-vis another group established in direct opposition to our project—her essay was published in the latter (Soulé and Lease 1995), but didn’t make much of an impact among them. Her solution, “constrained constructivism,” is perhaps the mirror image of Haraway’s situated knowledges, as Haraway demonstrates how objectivity is constructed, and Hayles suggests how constructions can nonetheless serve as an adequate basis for scientific knowledge and environmental activism.
I’m looking forward to our discussion, as we trace the two-headed children of nature/culture to the sciences/humanities, and see if our grounded theory approach suggests possibilities at this stage as well.
- Berry, Wendell. 2001. Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. Counterpoint Press.
Cronon, William, ed. 1995. Uncommon Ground : Toward Reinventing Nature. 1st ed. New York: WWNorton & Co.
- Demeritt, David. 2001a. “Science and the Understanding of Science: A Reply to Schneider.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92 (2): 345–48.
- ———. 2001b. “The Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92 (2): 307–37.
- Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–599. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/3178066.
- Proctor, James D. 1998. “The Social Construction of Nature: Relativist Accusations, Pragmatist and Critical Realist Responses.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88 (3): 352–76.
- ———. 2001. “Solid Rock and Shifting Sands: The Moral Paradox of Saving a Socially-Constructed Nature.” In Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics, edited by Noel Castree and Bruce Braun. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.
- ———. 2005. “In ___ We Trust: Science, Religion, and Authority.” In Science, Religion, and the Human Experience, edited by James D. Proctor, 87–108. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/0195175328.001.0001/acprof-9780195175325-chapter-6.
- Schneider, Stephen H. 2001. “A Constructive Deconstruction of Deconstructionists: A Response to Demeritt.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92 (2): 338–44.
Soulé, Michael E., and Gary Lease, eds. 1995. Reinventing Nature?: Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
- Wilson, Edward O. 2001. “How to Unify Knowledge.” In Unity of Knowledge: The Convergence of Natural and Human Science, edited by Antonio R. Damasio and New York Academy of Sciences, 12–17. New York Academy of Sciences.
Wuerthner, George, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler, eds. 2014. Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.