Prometheus Bedeviled : Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 1999-07-01
  • Publisher: Rutgers Univ Pr

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Norman Levitt examines the strained relations between science and contemporary society. For the most part, Levitt states, we idolize musicians and cheer on athletes, yet we view scientists with a mixture of awe and unease.
One result of this uncertainty about scientific work is an ill-informed crusade to "democratize" science. It has become fashionable lately, Levitt states, for non-scientists to attempt to intervene in science policy, which often results in methodologically unsound decisions. The embrace of "alternative medicine" is a particularly ominous example.
Levitt suggests that science, by virtue of its accuracy and reliability, deserves to be at the top of the hierarchy of knowledge, and that our social institutions ought to take this fact strongly into account.

Author Biography

Norman Levitt is a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introduction: The Rule of Opinion and the Fate of Ideasp. 1
Culturep. 31
Mathematicsp. 48
Teleologyp. 62
Credulityp. 80
Technologyp. 96
Naturep. 116
Ethnicityp. 140
Educationp. 161
Healthp. 191
Lawp. 211
Journalismp. 231
Plutocracyp. 252
Democracyp. 269
Authorityp. 296
Notesp. 317
Referencesp. 375
Indexp. 401
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter One


Jeremiads come cheap. It is all too easy to portray a culture as degraded, debased, and fallen away from its own finest standards. Insofar as I want to investigate the aspects of this culture that render so problematical its relationship with the scientific subculture it sponsors, exploits, and fears, I might be best advised to heed my own cautions and avoid too much rhetorical brimstone. Nonetheless, if I am to be true to my own strongest instincts, I must say something about the overall tonality of our contemporary life, something that will, indeed, constitute a jeremiad, recurring to the ancient trick of praising the past in order to denounce the present. The point is not to assert that there once was a time when science sat more comfortably within the enclosing society. Rather, it seems to me that in an earlier age the culture, though far more naive in many ways (scientific and otherwise), nonetheless possessed certain habits of thought and intellectual discipline that, had they endured undiminished, might well have formed the foundation of a more sophisticated and mature mode of dealing with the ideas and methods of science.

In saying this, I can only speak with some small confidence of American culture, historically and at present. Intuitively, I feel that the same sort of thing might well be said about the culture of western Europe, although I'm less able to supply telling examples. Readers who feel that my hypothesis is borne out, at least in part, by my argument can then judge how far it may be extended to a non-American context. If, as is commonly assumed, culture has become internationalized to a great extent, and if American culture is in some sense the prototype for the international version, at least some extrapolation will be warranted.

I want to consider how matters stood in the middle of the nineteenth century. My examination is necessarily brief and impressionistic. In putting forward my first exhibit, I'll indulge a pet obsession, Civil War arcana. Consider the following passage:

To say that none grew pale and held their breath at what we and they there saw, would not be true. Might not six thousand men be brave and without shade of fear, and yet, before a hostile eighteen thousand, armed, and not five minutes' march away, turn ashy white? None on that crest now need be told that the enemy is advancing . Every eye could see his legions, an overwhelming, relentless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us! Regiment after Regiment and Brigade after Brigade, move from the woods, and rapidly take their places in the lines forming the assault. Pickett's proud division, with some additional troops, holds their right; Pettigrew's their left. Their first line, at short interval, is followed by a second, and that a third succeeds; and the columns between support the lines. More than half a mile their front extends;--more than a thousand yards the dull grey masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. Their red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the arms of eighteen thousand men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on they move as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of ditch, or wall, or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard, and meadow, and cornfield--magnificent, grim, irresistible.

This is from an eyewitness memoir of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was composed by Frank Haskell, at the time a lieutenant in the Union army, who was posted with the defenders who met and withstood the great Confederate assault usually known as Pickett's Charge. In my opinion, the term "Homeric" might well be used without embarrassment to describe Haskell's account, such is its grandeur and nobility. In fact, it might be said to transcend even Homer, in that it is not a literary invention, primarily, but a factual picture, composed shortly after the event. That it is not as familiar to Americans as the Declaration of Independence or the preamble to the Constitution or Lincoln's great speeches (though those, alas, are hardly familiar enough) is a source of amazement--and chagrin--to me.

I want to focus not on minutiae of Civil War history, but rather on the tone and mindset of a culture in which such prose as Haskell's could seem natural, proper, and unsurprising. Haskell was a Wisconsin lawyer and dabbler in politics before the war, and, for his time, a very well educated man (though of modest socioeconomic background), but hardly an important, let alone famous, figure in his own right. The passage just cited comes not from a formal essay, but rather from a letter written to the writer's family in the weeks after Gettysburg. This isn't necessarily as casual a piece of writing as that description might make it seem. It is thousands of words long, and very systematically composed. Such "letters home" were often published in local newspapers or read aloud at public meetings. Possibly, Haskell may have had even more formal publication in mind. Nevertheless, the mere existence of such writing, as well as its target readership, tells us something important about the culture in which it arose, and about our descendant culture.

I propose a small mental experiment. Try to examine what might happen if a prominent contemporary figure, a politician for instance, were to address today's public in such resonant periods, with similar diction and a comparable standard of eloquence to guide him. There is little doubt that, on the whole, such a performance would be received not only with surprise, but also with dismay--and a good deal of resentment. In fact, it's likely that the meaning of his statements, as such, would simply escape many people, especially if the delivery were purely oral. If a courtroom lawyer attempted such exotic rhetoric before a jury, his client would likely be in deep trouble. It's not that politicians or lawyers are inexpert in using language to sway opinion. As a rule, they are quite canny and inordinately sensitive to the effect of language. They function, however, in a soundbitten society. They rightly assume that any sentence containing more than a dozen words bewilders its auditors, and that any invocation of a vocabulary beyond Basic English runs the risk of alienating them. Frank Haskell, though consciously striving after literary grace and an elevated style, would never have worried that readers or hearers of normal intelligence might have trouble understanding his letter or savoring its rhetorical effects. The kind of eloquence he reached for was one of the givens of public discussion of matters of importance. Politicians, far from eschewing it, sought to cultivate it. It was a necessary component of the thaumaturgy of electoral politics.

Rhetoric, of course, is a constant factor in social intercourse, and no society has ever devised a style that is insulated from abuse or cynical manipulation. The style that came naturally to Haskell, and which strikes many contemporary ears as fulsome, was, in fact, susceptible to hyperbole and lent itself easily to exaggeration. On many occasions, no doubt, it veered into outright rodomontade. The traditional American comic image of the fast-talking huckster, from Twain's Duke and Dauphin through the orotund personae favored by W. C. Fields, trades on the highfalutin absurdity into which such an opulent style can easily descend. It offers an easy entry to fustian and hot air. Nonetheless, it is not inevitably a dishonest or insincere style, no more than the flat, neutered, affectless style that infests our airwaves is a guarantee of forthrightness and clarity.

Inarguably, however, such a rhetorical approach demands more of readers and listeners than the language inhabiting CNN or USA Today . It requires greater attention to vocabulary, and allusion, and enforces, by its syntax, far closer attention to the logic and design of sentence and paragraph as they flow past the eye or ear. Even the bluntest, clearest, most direct prose created within the ambit of such a style--that, for instance, of Ulysses S. Grant, a man notorious for his plainspokenness--demands of those to whom it is addressed a clarity of perception and an attentiveness that is foreign to our current expectations.

It is not only rhetoric that has become infantilized today; it is logic itself. Rhythms of speech are rhythms of thought. The recoil of our culture from any sentence that pesters its hearers with subordinate clauses, or discursive asides between commas, is also a flight from patterns of inference and logical connectedness that do more than ascribe a simple predicate to a simple subject.

The society to which the rhetoric of a Haskell or a Lincoln came naturally was highly imperfect by our current notions of democracy. Racial equality was the pipe dream of a small minority of whites, and widely scorned, even by abolitionists, as going against the grain of human nature. Sexual equality was at best an embryonic notion, not yet familiar enough to provoke widespread opposition. Nonetheless, at least as far as the white male population, North and South, was concerned, the practice of democracy was in some sense more pervasive and far-reaching than it has since become. For one thing, the megacorporation, with its enormous leverage over economic life and its immunity from political process, had not yet come into being, although the time of its ascendancy was not far distant. The great accretion of governmental agencies stuffed with countless bureaucrats had not begun. Local affairs dominated the political consciousness of most people, and these were often addressed with a town-meeting directness that has since become very rare, even in places where town meetings vestigially survive. The education enjoyed by Lieutenant Haskell--he was a Dartmouth graduate--was uncommon, and a few years of rudimentary and inconsistent schooling was much more the norm for most people. Yet class distinctions, on the whole, were far less pronounced than in our own time, where insular suburbs harbor gated communities, and the gap between rich and poor yawns wider every day. Plutocracy had not yet approached its current apotheosis.

The interesting thing is that this more rough-hewn age aspired to a level of discourse, in its public affairs, that mocks our own poor pretensions. It was expected that weighty matters had to be expounded and discussed in weighty language. The ability to navigate through such language was an index of one's capacity to deal with those matters at all. Newspapers were filled with verbatim accounts of trials, debates, and legislative deliberations. All these activities were carried on by men who prided themselves on eloquence in speech and writing. The surrounding society accepted these terms of discourse, admired the skills they demanded, and tried, at least, to nurture these skills among its members. Women, on those rare occasions when they fought their way into public debate, did so by mastering the conventions of public rhetoric. The same applies to the black men and women of the abolitionist movement. Small towns throughout the country had their own clubs or athenaeums, where literature, poetry, and philosophy could be recited, read, and discussed. Much of this activity was doubtless naive, concerning itself with what we now take to be ephemera and unaware of what was evolving in the metropolitan world of European capitals, universities, and salons. Nonetheless, a society that has become addicted to the click of the remote as it switches from Baywatch to the 700 Club is in no position to mock the artlessness of an earlier time. That artlessness was an aspect of a disciplined seriousness of purpose that, for all its provincial gawkiness, had its eye on the sublimities of Western culture, however badly it sometimes misjudged them. It was a society that an upstart Cockney like Charles Dickens could gleefully mock. But it was also the society that produced Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, and Dickinson. Aspiration was high, and accomplishment was beginning to measure up to it.

The British novelist Anthony Trollope, a more sympathetic observer than Dickens, compared Harvard University to Oxford and Cambridge, and noted that "the degree of excellence attained is no doubt lower than with us." Yet he also went on to observe:

But I conceive that the general level of university education is higher there than with us, that a young man is more sure of getting his education, and that a smaller percentage of men leaves Harvard College utterly uneducated than goes in that condition out of Oxford or Cambridge. The education at Harvard College is more diversified in its nature, and study is more absolutely the business of the place than it is at our universities.

Even more impressive--because it deals with the education commonly available to all and not just the Harvardian elite--is Trollope's enthusiastic account of a New York public school:

The female pupil at a free school in New York is neither a pauper nor a charity child. She is dressed with the utmost decency. She is perfectly cleanly. In speaking to her, you cannot in any degree guess whether her father has a dollar a day or three thousand dollars a year. Nor will you be enabled to guess by the manner in which her associates treat her. As regards her own manner to you, it is always the same as though her father was in all respects your equal.

As to the amount of her knowledge, I fairly confess that it is terrific. When, in the first room which I visited, a slight slim creature was had up before me to explain the properties of the hypotenuse, I fairly confess that, as regards education, I backed down, and that I resolved to confine my criticisms to manner, dress and general behaviour.

This is, of course, mere anecdote, and the cynical will see in it a description of yet another Potemkin village. The conjunction of excellence and democracy it describes is heartening, but must be contrasted with the widespread illiteracy of the time. Nonetheless, it accords with the earnest aspirations of an era and cannot be dismissed as merely illusory. It represents the authentic highmindedness of a society. Even when that highmindedness is more than faintly comical, one deeply respects it.

Religion was, of course, thoroughly embedded in the shared assumptions of the culture. The standard version was Protestant, and fervently so, although the sectarian diversity inherited from the uproars of seventeenth-century England prevented any single church establishment from having more than local ascendency. Roman Catholicism, though faintly barbaric to the eyes of Puritans, Anglicans, and Evangelicals, never endured more than brief persecution, nor did Judaism. The worst-afflicted faith was the thoroughly native Mormonism of Joseph Smith, which for a time was kept under close watch by the army. On the other hand, irreligion and outright skepticism, though never popular, were accorded far more respect than in contemporary, supposedly secularized, society. It's hard to conceive that in our day, a journalist could achieve even modest success by scoffing at religious credulity. Contrast the successful journalistic career of the openly infidel Ambrose Bierce a century ago. In nineteenth-century America, the echos of the Enlightenment rationalism of the Founders yet lingered, and the bland, one-size-fits-all piety that suffuses our own public life had not yet developed.

Science, during this period, was still an exotic import, with creative work in any field rare or nonexistent. Fascination with technological innovation had, however, put down deep and early roots. As all of our schoolchildren know even in these days of spotty historical education, the United States was, in the middle of the nineteenth century, one of the great, if not the greatest, center of practical invention in the world for purposes of agriculture, industry, communication, and transportation. Names like Whitney, Morse, Fulton, and McCormack bear witness to this fact. Religion itself partook of this spirit, as the history of the Shakers attests. The course of the Civil War itself was deeply influenced by the brilliant achievements of engineers like John Ericson and Herman Haupt. Thomas Edison, even more than Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln, was soon to become the archetypical American.

However, "pure" science lagged badly in comparison to directly useful technological creativity. It was still an era where hands-on experience and shrewd intuition made up for a lack of deep theoretical understanding. The early examples of Franklin and Rumsford (the latter, alas, a Tory and an exile) as important figures in basic science generated no immediate successors. To the extent that "world class" science was represented at all on these shores in the antebellum period, it was through imported figures like Louis Agassiz, who flourished at Harvard, and James J. Sylvester, who definitely did not flourish at the University of Virginia. Even the first of our great scientific institutions, the Smithsonian, was founded by a sympathetic foreigner.

Nonetheless, within a generation of the Civil War, a substantial portion of the wealth generated by the burgeoning industries and the ever more efficient agriculture of the reunited country went into building up research universities on the German model (Johns Hopkins, Chicago) and converting the genteel northeastern colleges into centers of intense scientific work. Important nonacademic centers like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts also accelerated the move toward serious research. At the same time, state universities were starting to lose the provincial and nakedly utilitarian character that had marked them at first, forming the base for an expanding research establishment. As if on cue, scientists of international renown emerged to gild the reputations of these new undertakings. These include Albert Michelson in physics, and Jacques Loeb and Thomas Hunt Morgan in biology. (One must also mention, though without much honor to any formal institution, that strange internal exile, Charles Sanders Peirce.)

What was it within the culture that sustained this remarkably swift transformation of the United States from an inconsiderable scientific backwater to a world center of scientific creativity? It is obvious that the prolific wealth of the Gilded Age was an indispensable condition, but this cannot explain the psychological factors that allowed the society to evolve from one that harbored virtually no working scientists to one that routinely nurtured thousands of scientific careers. Clearly, education had something to do with it--if, by education, we understand not only what is formally inculcated by curricula and programs of study, but also the cultivation of appropriate habits of mind, favorable attitudes toward learning, and the willingness to strive obstinately in the face of difficulties, frustrations, and setbacks.

In other words, we must look to the moral dimensions of education, where we understand morality to mean something quite different from priggery or conventional piety. Hopelessly old-fashioned words like diligence, fortitude, and craftsmanship must be resurrected for such an analysis. I want especially to emphasize the last, since craftsmanship, appropriately transposed to the intellectual plane, is a crucial aspect of day-to-day scienctific work which is often neglected in accounts of what scientists do. The folklore image of science as one uncanny, intuitive bolt from the blue after another, as well as the more recent and even less accurate accounts, popular among postmodernists, of science as a kind of unthinking zombie programmed by social codes, obscure the artisanal aspects. Scientific work largely consists of the patient shaping of experiments, reasoning, and exposition, from which the publicly announced result is eventually formed. If there is anything "socially constructed" about science, it is the ethic that fixes the commitment to work in this way in the minds of its practitioners.

Even beyond this, doing science requires a realization that substantial achievement rarely comes easy, that apparent serendipity is usually the fruit of endless hours of seemingly unavailing hard work. Also needed is a sense that reality is dense, but not impenetrable, and that coming to terms with it requires a correspondingly dense network of ideas. In many areas of life, even of the nominally "intellectual" life these days nurtured by our universities, a rhetorical gesture or verbal flourish in the general direction of an idea is taken as adequate evidence that one has thought about that idea. This is welcome generosity for those interested in the quick-and-dirty compilation of extensive publication lists. In scientific work, however, it leads swiftly to inanity.

In sum, what I'm claiming is that the rapid emergence of first-rate science in the United States was conditioned upon the widespread internalization of a kind of intellectual puritanism, the willingness to be unremittingly hard on oneself, often driven by the sense that compromise with this ideal is a sign of deep unworthiness. A culture that sustains this ethos is not necessarily gracious, and it may often seem obsessed, but the notion now current that it is perforce neurotic and oppressive is not only uncharitable but dangerously wrong as well. Moreover, it is not even necessary that such a code be universally in force at every level of society for science to flourish. It suffices that there be a critical mass of individuals with this temperament (as well as with the obviously necessary intellectual gifts) and that it can renew itself from one generation to the next. The United States constituted such a society at the end of the nineteenth century. Earnest high-mindedness, conjoined with the simple willingness to work hard and the maturity to submit to the discipline that mastery of a craft requires, infused a large enough cohort of young people (let's be frank: young men) to sustain a creative scientific community ready to step upon the world stage.

Since it is my declared intention to indulge in a jeremiad, it will come as no surprise that presently I shall assume the obligations of the form, burdening readers with a list of deep contemporary shortcomings, in contrast to which the virtues of the past will shine resplendent. Though this is a seductively pleasant task for the jeremiadically inclined writer (which is why the breed flourishes), let me postpone it for a moment in order to propose that many of the admirable aspects of nineteenth-century society--which, as I have argued, fecundated the beginnings of serious scientific work in this country--continue to thrive within the contemporary scientific community. The craftsmanship of today's scientists, irrespective of field, lacks nothing in comparison to those of their forebears a few generations ago. Whatever makes research work "good science"--accuracy, clarity, pertinence to broad and basic questions, and capacity to stimulate further and deeper work--has been as naturalized in this country as anywhere in the world.

Given that I believe that our culture has become more ambivalent toward science--less supportive, less comprehending, and even more hostile--over the course of the century, what accounts for the fact that the internal culture of the scientific community, its adherence to the ethical and behavioral norms that make true science possible, has become stronger, if anything, over the same period? I submit that the answer is largely demographic. The United States had the good fortune to receive several waves of immigration which, in one way or another, proved bountiful sources of scientific talent. Some of these were populations arriving with intact cultural norms that naturally directed their brightest young people into intensive engagement with scholarship and science--for example, Jews who arrived from the 1890s to the 1920s, and Chinese (along with others from the Far East) who have been steadily arriving for the past few decades. These groups have more than adequately supplemented old-stock Americans as recruits to scientific careers, even as the core of our national culture allowed its educational ideals to wither. Another enormous boost came from the influx of gifted European scientists fleeing Nazi persecutions during the 1930s and '40s. Finally, America benefits from a continuing global "brain drain," which brings trained scientists and promising graduate students to this country in large numbers. They are attracted by the twin lures of a commodious lifestyle and the chance to affiliate with the American scientific community--still the most powerful, as well as the most productive, in the world. Thus, whatever its other problems, American science does not lack able recruits. To the extent that there is a shortfall, it is one that could easily be remediated by a minimally more openhanded attitude toward the funding of science.

Nonetheless, we live in an era when science, as a whole, finds itself increasingly at odds with the ambient culture in ways both familiar and novel. Though much has recently been made of the shortfall in research funding which now incommodes so many able scientists, this is, I believe, merely the token of a deeper cultural unease. Congress could easily grow more munificent. That would hardly be surprising, since any realistic calculation of the national interest seems to demand it. Unfortunately, the rift in the culture has deeper sources and will remain.

This is an odd sort of rift, and merely to characterize it as hostility between the scientific community and the great mass of nonscientists is deeply misleading. Scientists, most pollsters tell us, are widely respected and admired. Among all professions, they come very near the top of the list in terms of public esteem. Certainly, they fare better than politicians, lawyers, and businessmen. This admiration is based on the still-powerful vision of science as the fountainhead of technological and medical innovation, the ultimate source of all those devices that make life comfortable, safe, and--not least--diverting. Nonetheless, the admiration is shallow and distorted. It coexists with an appalling ignorance of what science is and how researchers go about expanding its scope. It comes from a culture whose schoolchildren, along with the general population, lag distressingly behind most of the rest of the industrialized world in basic scientific knowledge.

These surveys illuminate the point that, while most people vaguely and casually approve of science, their admiration is fogged by incomprehension. Their approval of science extends, all too often, to endorsement of the grossest cranks and quacks, who usually aren't embarrassed to describe themselves as "scientists." The public is happy to admire science as long as that admiration doesn't require understanding science deeply or developing the insight that enables one to see the difference between honest science and crude counterfeits. Indeed, the counterfeiters are quite versed in playing to the public's nominal "love" of science. Ironically, it is far easier for a scientist to lose public support by carrying on necessary and valuable work involving animal subjects than by advocating the notion that little men with big heads descend in UFOs to seize honest citizens for weird sexual experiments. What the polls describe in shorthand as "approval of science and scientists" turns out to be a wild mixture of attitudes and opinions, some of them quite inimical to the genuine ethos of science. As the anthropologist Christopher P. Toumey put it in a recent book, modern science is in a position where "regardless of where we assign the blame ... its intellectual substance is alien to large parts of the general population, whereas the common symbols of this ethos are borrowed from a different vision of nature and science." Moreover, the further one goes up the ladder of supposed intellectual sophistication, the more one finds that incomprehension of science has curdled into hostility. As Gerald Holton has observed, "Even among educators, scholars, and commentators of our culture, one now hears all too often scientific research described as being an unpleasant, soulless activity, merely `logical,' `linear,' `hierarchical,' and devoid of all human passion."

The cause of this unpleasant situation is multifactorial and, I suspect, very difficult to disentangle into distinct strands. Though it may be antediluvian to say so, among the important reasons is the dissolution of a standard of judgment that understood that difficulty and complexity are the price to be paid for authentic understanding. In the absence of successful engagement with these terrors, the right to judge, to approve or to censure is truncated, if not utterly forfeited. Toumey assigns the label "Old Testament Science" to the style of public perception which "respects without understanding," which deferentially takes science at its word merely because it is science. There is much to object to in this attitude, not least the intellectual passivity it tolerates and promotes. Furthermore, whatever virtues might recommend it, this way of engaging with science is terribly vulnerable to the advent of cynical and well-orchestrated pseudoscience. Nonetheless, it is preferable to its successor, a brand of populism--which might be called the doctrine of the "scientific priesthood of all believers"--that declares that every voice that wants to make itself heard on scientific issues is a voice worth listening to. The "Old Testament" attitude at least had the sense to recognize that there is in principle such a thing as genuine science, and that it is worthy of special respect.

Both Holton and Toumey are well aware of the slippage in popular esteem that has befallen science. Toumey ascribes this, in large measure, to an ancient conflict: the antagonism between scientific rationalism, on the one hand, and the instincts of the religious temperament, on the other. He theorizes that the increasing professionalization of science at the end of the nineteenth century had much to do with this:

Gone were the "autodidact amateur" scientists who had sustained the Protestant model.... The scientific research ethos thus had several distinctive values. It was secular , that is, uncoupled from religious beliefs regarding purpose or method. It was rationalist , employing a positivist attitude and such logical methods as organized skepticism. It was naturalistic , requiring that natural phenomena be explained in terms of natural laws or processes.

This is an important point, in my view, and largely correct, although, I think somewhat too narrow in seeing the conflict only in terms of science versus religious traditionalism. It is a theme I shall pursue at length in a subsequent chapter. Here I want to stress another motif: the degree to which the breakdown of a traditional set of values, rather than its persistence, led to a decline in the cultural status of science.

It is illuminating to consider the status of religion itself, as we find it in contemporary America. Whether or not outward forms have changed, whether or not religious sects are of ancient lineage or as new as digital TV, there is almost universally a conspicuous break with the emotional and psychic resonances that have pervaded religious faith in the past. To put it succinctly, the sense of sin, doubt, and unworthiness that haunted believers--in the Christian tradition and others as well--has atrophied to the point of vanishing. The notion that faith arises only as the endpoint of a dire, self-doubting struggle has almost evaporated. The examples of such questing and such doubt, from Augustine to Kierkegaard (and which, if we throw in the scientists, include Pascal, Descartes, and Newton as well) seem hardly comprehensible in terms of contemporary "spirituality." What reigns is a much-cheapened notion of transcendence--transcendence as pure anodyne, where one is not compelled to wrestle with any angels, nor to struggle with the refractory material of the soul. Nearly all contemporary religions, from the most reactionary fundamentalist to the most theologically liberal and socially progressive, survive and prosper as mirrors of their congregants' untroubled sense of their own high spiritual worth. Their sanctuaries are lined with the thistledown of "self-realization" and "personal growth." Religion, American style, equals organized smugness, whether it's the smugness of a Pat Robertson fan anticipating the hellfire that awaits homosexuals or the smugness of an upscale Unitarian decrying the wrongheadedness of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The communicant is certain that while waiting for the gates of heaven to open, he may guiltlessly enjoy the good life among home entertainment centers, sport utility vehicles, and titanium golf clubs. Salvation (however defined) is not a problematic goal, but a given. This applies as much to exotic imports from the East and elsewhere as it does to the various strands of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Religion as a market-driven constellation of choices, religion as a shopping mall, implies that proselytization can't succeed by the threat of eternal sorrow, but rather must promise a cheerfully buffed-up ego.

I don't insist on this truly jeremiadical point out of a tenderhearted regard for the fortunes of religon. As an atheist, I'm not much discomfited by the sight of religion stripped of its traditional dignity and moral earnestness. What is interesting is how the coarsened notion of spiritual attainment, the current opinion that salvation is to be had as easily and painlessly as a new pair of running shoes, reflects the declining recognition that one must struggle to achieve real insight or to burnish one's soul. Struggling to come to terms with difficult and intimidating ways of understanding the world is obsolete, as is the requirement that one must humbly serve an apprenticeship with those who have mastered these processes. By contrast, in the contemporary scheme of things transcendence is not merely supposed to be easily available, it is taken to be a birthright, demanding nothing of us.

The same kind of decline, perhaps springing from the same deep cultural factors, afflicts other realms of contemporary life that once stressed high-mindedness and the necessity for intense study and committed discipleship. The arts provide a telling example. Historically, they have been a primary repository for the ideals not only of craftsmanship, but of apprenticeship, of close and humble study of the past, of the notion that even the most revolutionary spirits must master tradition and come fully to terms with it before breaking with it. For many practitioners of what used to be called the visual arts, craftsmanship is a frightful and oppressive idea, to be derided in word as well as act. Increasingly, it has been accepted, and even insisted upon, that artistic merit reposes solely in the fact that the presumptive artist has seized upon some concept, some philosophical or (more commonly) political insight. Thereupon, he (or, emphatically, she, for much feminist art clearly falls into this category) need only indicate that concept by an approximate gesture, often merely verbal, for a "work of art" to come into existence. Transient witticisms, anemic aphorisms, mere unsupported claims of revolutionary virtue are the most important constituents of artistic accomplishment.

The situation is hardly better in "serious" music. The postwar rigors of strict serialism, with its virtues of high intellectuality and its sins of brutal contempt for the sensuous element in music, are fading rapidly from their paradigmatic status, which was always precarious. An amiable, low-stress eclecticism has taken over. Conservatory graduates in composition often ape the simplicities of popular forms or leap onto the bandwagon of "world music," with its instant multicultural cachet. Or they may settle into a "conceptual" mode hardly distinguished, in its concrete realization, from conceptualism in the visual arts, completely divorcing their works from the traditional elements of musical art and rendering them merely whimsical at best. The guiding maxim in these artistic free-for-alls is that the simple act of declaring oneself an artist is a self-validating claim. An artist is whoever says he's an artist and a work of art is whatever he says it is (which may be no more than the declaration itself).

What is involved in all this, I submit, is (to give it its crudest but most honest name) a deep cultural laziness. There has been a decline in esteem for, and familiarity with, discursive depth, density, and complexity. It is this that makes something as straightforward, by nineteenth-century standards, as Haskell's letter to the home folks seem to the ear of our contemporary everyman like an inscrutable message from an alien culture couched in a foreign language. It is a fault that amplifies itself because it breeds a concomitant sense of resentment against anything that resists the tug of its fallen standards. In parallel, the conviction arises that depth and difficulty are not only oppressive, but largely unnecessary. A rude populism now insists that any virtue that can't be attained by the uninstructed wisdom of the common folk is no virtue at all. This is reflected in the current academic enthusiasm for abolishing barriers between high culture and low, for regarding all "values" as "contingent," for deriding the "elitism" of those (increasingly vestigial) parts of the social organism that still cling to ancient notions of excellence and rigor. Politicians and media specialists inundate us in a flood of verbal offal. The traditional virtues of prose--words carefully chosen, sentences artfully shaped and gathered into coherent paragraphs, the whole matter organized into a consistent and fluent whole that makes rhetorical as well as logical sense--are not only rarely encountered, but mocked when they turn up.

As far as science is concerned, a popular mythology has grown up to justify the derogation of scientific authority. It is posited that orthodox science is, perforce, dogmatic and wrong, and that the kind of assertion that makes the orthodox shudder is not only gallant but also a manifestation of heroic genius in the Galilean mode. Suspicion falls not on the bizarre or hallucinatory claim, but on the one that has been painfully and systematically confirmed. The logic of The X-Files structures our discourse. If the experts are for it, it must be wrong. If the experts are against it, it must be the avenue to salvation. Thus, three hundred years after the witch craze died out, we find psychic healers in the operating theaters of great hospitals, "alternative therapies" not only subsidized by health care organizations, but freed, by government fiat, of the messy necessity of proving their safety and value in accord with traditional statistical standards. Sadly, this phenomenon is not merely a demotic whim. It infests what are supposed to be the citadels of reasoned discourse--the schools and universities. Influential and well-established campus sects now exist that regard the special claims of science, as well as the traditional standards of art and literature, with flagrant disdain. This is most dismayingly evident in the growth of a putative discipline called, ironically, "science studies," which has nurtured, in its brief life, the peculiar notion that knowing little about the substance of science ought not to be a barrier to making the most sweeping, and usually damning, judgments about it. This is not terribly surprising, though it is very sad. It echoes a culture where expertise has been devalued, where the sweat and pain necessary to attain it has been disparaged, and where wisdom, in science as in all else, is ascribed to the claimant who can play best on the emotions and prejudices of his audience.

Not everyone who has acceded to the erosion of traditional values (esthetic or epistemological) has done so with an easy conscience. An ideological smokescreen has been laid down to obscure nagging questions. Among professional intellectuals, especially in an academic setting, the dismissal of traditional hierarchies of judgment, taste, and knowledge has been mediated by a loose network of doctrines and attitudes, often carrying nihilistic or at least heavily relativist overtones, for which "postmodernism" is perhaps the least deceptive term. Formulations, emphases, and vocabularies vary from one theorist to another, but the common assumption, more than justifying a unifying term for the phenomenon, is that standards of value and validity in all areas of human experience are invariably arbitrary, transitory, and conditional upon a tissue of usually unspoken assumptions. These, in turn, are said to represent the myths and anxieties of social power. Postmodernism, in this sense, has had a hand in forging the antipathy toward science that for now has such a salient role in intellectual fashion.

I don't intend to spend much time berating postmodernists in this volume (I have already done so elsewhere). I do, however, want to bring up a few points that demand consideration, given the scope of postmodernist influence. First of all, there is the current claim, widely echoed in literature departments, the Modern Language Association, and so forth, that literary criticism, once a dilettantish, impressionistic, low-key enterprise, has been transformed by the advent of what postmodernists are pleased to call "theory" into a deeply serious discipline, fraught with rigor, intellectual density, and philosophical complexity. On this point, I am incorrigibly skeptical. The claim rests on the fallacy that verbal clutter and the interminable jangle of empty neologisms signify intellectual exactitude and authentic insight. My own experience in wading through this stuff is not extensive, but I have scrutinized enough examples to verify that this is a world where raw nonsense is more often rewarded than punished, provided it be presented in sufficiently jargonistic form. Praise, prestige, and perquisites have been lavished on the creators of work that, when examined coldly, dissolves into a slurry of errors and confusion. This is a severe accusation, but it grows out of analysis, not dogmatism. As it turns out, what has been widely touted as scintillating intellectual fireworks consists largely of damp, pathetic squibs. This is evidence not of resurrected virtuosity in thought and argument but of its dismal opposite. It is a telling illustration of my general thesis concerning the abandonment of intellectual craftsmanship.

Beneath what is usually described as the frisky postmodern celebration of diversity, multiplicity, and the effacing of boundaries in all matters cultural and artistic, there lurks a besetting sadness. In great measure, this grows out of the failure of the wide-eyed political hopes of the intellectuals of the 1960s and '70s. These hopes have now been transmuted into contrarian postmodern whimsy, but the sour aroma of their curdling lingers. Even beyond this, there is a crepuscular tint to the postmodernist enterprise. It is a rather tawdry debater's trick to claim that your opponent really agrees with you, underneath it all, if only he had the guts to admit it--but in this case, I'll risk that onus. I think that, no less than cultural conservatives, postmodernist intellectuals are sensible of the cul-de-sac in which high culture has wandered (or been driven). The train-wreck status of contemporary art and music afflicts them too, as does the inanition of public rhetoric, the disintegration of unifying public myth, and the unending dullness and imprecision of the language that surrounds us, from beer commercials to the speeches of university presidents. The solution adopted by the postmodern ethos is simply to celebrate what cannot be evaded, to extol the fact that things fly apart, to flaunt the abdication of intellectual and artistic hierarchy.

The psychic rewards of this kind of thumb-sucking are obvious, but since many of the people who engage in it retain at least a smattering of their native intelligence, resentment and bitterness seep around the edges of the brittle postmodern pose. This is one of the factors behind the pervasive hostililty toward science which inflects postmodernist thinking, and the shameful willingness of intellectuals caught up in this subculture to enthuse over popular forms of superstition and anti-rationalism. If high culture has frayed and disintegrated, if it has compounded itself inextricably with common dross, why should not science share the same fate? Why not sneer and rail at scientists who won't concede that this is the case?

Academic culture rarely dominates the wider culture of a nation. Sometimes it influences it, sometimes it echoes it, sometimes it stands in stubborn opposition. For the moment, as regards attitudes of trendy humanists (and a surprising number of ostensible social scientists) toward the natural sciences, the academy seems to be engaged in putting a high gloss on popular disaffection and incomprehension. From another angle, one might say that an important fraction of intellectual life has been penetrated by the ever-growing popular irritation at the requirements of careful, consistent, patient thought. It has absorbed the cultural tendency to enthrone wishfulness in place of logic, as well as the coarse demotic myth that one opinion is as good as another in all matters, expertise and cultivated skill be damned! These days, academics have discovered that significant brownie points can be had by writing tomes on quantum mechanics and chaos theory (for instance), despite having less grasp of those matters than a freshman physics major. In doing so, they seem to be acting out in transmuted form, and with polysyllabic fatuity, the far more widespread popular enthusiasm for pseudoscience, astrology, parapsychology, UFOs, channelers, faith healers, and angelic prophecies. They seem increasingly sympathetic to even the most vulgar anti-science, provided it can be wrapped in the tinsel of "progressive" politics, though even that requirement is sometimes waived.

It may seem futile to arraign the drift of an entire culture, so much of which is unconscious and adventitious. Explanations for such a phenomenon are devilishly hard to pin down, and doubtless would be dauntingly intricate even if they were accessible. What purpose can it serve to accuse a culture, as such, of having become collectively lazy, or of abandoning the collective consciousness that once held it, with at least occasional success, to the ideal of intellectual rigor? How could one hope to find a formula for resurrecting genuine high-mindedness? After all, high-mindedness can be a dreadful bore, a cowardly evasion of real responsibility, and a smokescreen for outright evil. Yet without some tonality of high-mindedness in the ambient society, serious intellectual work, including science, finds its supporting cultural matrix melting away. Without the recognition that some matters are genuinely difficult, that claims of competence are not self-validating, that recognition and even honor is due those whose competence is demonstrably real, there is a danger that science may, over the years, become significantly demoralized. If, as a scientist, one has to compete endlessly with false claimants and charlatans of various kinds for public credibility, if the public lacks the concepts and the language for attending to such debates with informed judgment, if the culture increasingly comes to despise the very notion that there must be certain discursive standards in place for such a debate to be meaningful, then scientists will increasingly come to see themselves as freaks and aliens very precariously situated in society. It is idle to pretend that such a danger doesn't stare us in the face. But it is defeatist to declare in advance that nothing can be done about it.

Coda: I have been excoriating the degeneracy of modern culture and the delinquencies of contemporary habits of thought in a tone, admittedly, that might suggest to some, both those who agree and those who are appalled, a deep-dyed, reactionary nostalgia. I can say, with honest conviction and with the hope that I shall be believed, that nostalgia holds few temptations for me. Even aside from matters of health, comfort, convenience, and material prosperity, I don't believe that the culture of the last century holds any overall superiority to ours, least of all on the moral plane. Without romanticizing, one must recognize that this very culture, at this very time and for all its evident ills, is unprecedented in the degree of freedom it allows to vast numbers of people. All sorts of dead hands have been cast off during the past century. The strictures that inhibited not only behavior but thought itself in so many areas of life are largely gone. Though wealth is still inordinately dominant, considerations of ancestry, rank, class origin, and so forth have largely faded from the social order. Rigid notions--indeed, any notions--of what is befitting in consequence of one's sex, or race, or parentage have melted away. Religion flourishes; but it does so in kaleidoscopic variety, so that sectarian strictures on behavior and ideas have lost most of their leverage (although there certainly are areas--the abortion question, the continuing agitation of creationists--where desperate rear-guard actions continue). Who today lives in terror of thunder from the local pulpit? Money is still sovereign, no doubt, but given a modicum of wealth--well below the level of plutocracy--one can do whatever one likes in terms of ideas, dress, behavior, or sexuality, far beyond what would have been conceivable, let alone permissible, in any previous culture. The term "social ostracism" has pretty much lost its meaning. Snobbery still exists, of course, but now it exists in a thousand incompatible forms, and whose snobbery, if any, one chooses to be intimidated by is largely a matter of free choice.

In no way do I deplore this disintegration of social hierarchy and the constraints it places on individual freedom. In this respect, I am an extreme latitudinarian, if not an anarchist. I think the chief aim of politics should be the elimination of such barriers as still exist--mostly in the form of economic injustice and grotesque maldistribution of wealth--to extending this kind of freedom as widely as possible. Nonetheless, most of this essay has concerned itself with the historical fact, almost certainly no accident, that the withering of social hierarchy has been accompanied by the derogation of hierarchy in the realm of ideas, opinions, and thought. It doesn't seem to me inevitable that a latitudinarian culture must necessarily be a muddled intellectual free-for-all where feel-good (or sometimes, feel-bad) rhetoric consistently trumps logic. Nonetheless, the forces that have eroded the social hierarchy seem to have worked closely in tandem with those that have had an analogous and deplorable effect on the life of the mind. One serious consequence is that natural science, the highest triumph of the human intellect to date, finds itself, much to the surprise of many scientists, increasingly estranged from the fabric of social life. This cannot be healthy for science, and it is equally unhealthy, taking the long view, for society. Recognition of this fact is inherently dispiriting, but without such recognition it will be impossible even to begin the process of learning what to do about it.

Copyright 1999 Norman Levitt. All rights reserved.

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