APS News

The Back Page

Post Modern Culturalism and Scientific Illiteracy

By Bernard Ortiz de Montellano

Postmodernists and adherents of the "social studies of science" school claim that science is in crisis because it can no longer claim to be an objective or accurate reflection of the real world. These criticisms have been shown to be fallacious and to stem from a serious lack of scientific knowledge by P.R. Gross and N. Levitt, who quote and refute numerous postmodern gurus, such as Jacques Derrida, in Higher Superstition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1994). This lack of knowledge was also shown in the gullible publication of Allan Sokal's parody as a serious article in a leading cultural studies journal, Social Text. As Sokal has pointed out, the editors published an article "which any competent physicist or mathematician would realize. was a spoof" because it critiques science as hegemonic, culturally determined and subjective. Both Gross and Levitt's book and Sokal's article have provoked much comment.

The interaction of postmodernism with multiculturalism has not drawn as much attention, but it can have serious consequences, because proponents of postmodernist approaches are heavily involved in K-12 education. Claims made include (1) other "ways of knowing" are as valid or better than science; (2) "Euro- science" is motivated by capitalism and imperialism; (3) people of color are more spiritual and moral than Europeans; (4) the paranormal is a valid scientifically proven fact; and (5) myths are valid explanations of natural phenomena. The end result of a wide adoption of these ideas would be to decrease an already deplorably small participation of minorities in science.

Feminist philosophers of science and postmodern critics argue that science is a set of conventions produced by the particular culture of the West at a particular historical period, rather than a testable body of knowledge describing the "real" world. They claim that the agenda, methodology, and conclusions of science are determined by the interests of the male-dominated capitalist system. Post- modernists state that because science is just a "situated" mode of discourse and not reflective of the real world, other modes of discourse (such as those that include intuition, magic and religion) are comparable to, and may even be superior to, "Western" science. These critiques claim that the advent of quantum physics, and particularly the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, has shown that physics can no longer provide reliable information about the world and has lost its claim to objectivity. Similarly, the term "chaos theory" is used to convince the scientifically naive that science can no longer make reliable or accurate predictions.

Hunter Havelin Adams, the author of the "Portland Baseline Essay in Science," a text used by teachers in numerous large urban schools, makes the same claims in a widely used text in Afrocentric science: "Nobody has a monopoly on truth.... There is no one correct way of knowing: There are ways of knowing. And Western conceptual methodology cannot discover any more basic truths to explain the mysteries of creation than can a symbolic/intuitive methodology." The thesis is that Western science is inferior to that of people of color because it proceeds from evil motivations. Adams continues that Western science "has as its main concern, nonethical considerations such as cost effectiveness." Multiculturalists also claim that Western science is methodologically inferior because it is materialistic and relies only on natural law, neglecting the supernatural. Says Adams, "For the ancient Egyptians, as well as contemporary Africans world-wide, there is no distinction and thus no separation between science and religion."

A common thread that runs through much of multicultural literature is that people of color are more spiritual than whites. Among Afrocentrics, a group called melanists attribute this to higher levels of melanin. A few of the properties attributed to melanin include superconductivity, electromagnetic absorption at all frequencies, extremely sensitive magnetic susceptibility, and the ability to function as a microcomputer and process information. Melanin is supposed to regulate all physiological and psychological processes in humans. Black athletes supposedly have superior coordination and reflexes because of their melanin. Melanin is also responsible for the superior intelligence, the potential extra-sensory ability, and the greater spirituality of Black people.

Postmodern multiculturalists emphasize spirituality by claiming that it is really an "alternative scientific paradigm." A similar strategy is to claim that myths are accurate eyewitness testimonies about reality. For many years, religious (mythic) explanations were the basis on which people explained the world. Even in the West, religion was the prime explanatory source for both natural and supernatural phenomena. The success of science and technology, and subsequent disillusionment with religion, have lead to an acceptance of science as an explanatory source, as a validation mechanism and perhaps even as a source of truth. Science has in fact become the secular religion of the West, in a very particular sense.

However, scientific illiteracy is rampant. The rate of scientific illiteracy in the U.S. was found to be 95% in a study by William Hively [American Scientist, Sept/Oct 1988], with similar results in other developed countries. Thus, although many people believe in "science" as an explanatory mechanism, they believe in it religiously - that is, by faith - not because they understand scientific principles. Such people can be victimized or deluded by others who take advantage of their illiteracy and claim the "prestige" of science using scientific language to support their fictitious claims. Much of the New Age mantra consists of putting old wine (mediums, chi, chakras) into the new bottles of pseudoscience: channeling, energy flows and the laws of thermodynamics, and "technobabble."

One of the possible consequences of believing that myths are as true, or truer, than science is an adherence to catastrophism and Young Earth Creationism. Both fundamentalist creationists and postmodern multiculturalists are forced to deny the validity of most scientific disciplines. A prime example of this is a 1995 book by Vine Deloria, entitled Red Earth White Lies, which claims, among other things, that the earth is very young, that the Biblical flood actually occurred, and that there was single Ice Age.

According to Deloria, the Earth's prehistory is described by the following scenario. Prior to the flood, the earth was covered by a thick water vapor canopy and there was no rain; therefore, rivers in North America were dug out by rapid glacier melting. Also before the flood, there was a much higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere than at present. This had a number of consequences. First, higher carbon dioxide concentrations led to gigantism and to longevity, thus validating both Biblical and Indian myths about giants and people living hundreds or years. Then, a comet or meteor composed almost wholly of ice and water collided with the Earth, dumping ice in massive amounts on the magnetic poles and precipitating an ungodly amount of rain on temperate regions. This catastrophe caused both the Flood and the Ice Age. The cold water dissolved much of the carbon dioxide, reducing it to its present levels.

After this, Deloria makes numerous outlandish claims, such as that Indian petroglyphs are eyewitness images of dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus, and that Indians were eyewitnesses to the explosion of the volcano, Mount Multnomah, which geologists date to the Miocene Era, 25 to 27 million years ago. To do this, Deloria rejects fundamental principles of geology, such as erosion, plate tectonics and radioactive dating. He also denies the validity of most of modern biology, physics and astronomy. Regretfully, this book has received laudatory reviews in the leading anthropological journal [Mohawk 1996) and by the magazine of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (Pierce 1995).

Postmodern multiculturalist pseudo-science has consequences that should concern us. Adams' Portland Baseline Essay is widely used in urban school districts with large African-American populations. Deloria is active in the Indian science education movement. The tragedy is that not only are minorities greatly under-represented in science, but that their children are being exposed to pseudoscience in the classroom. Postmodernism is not just an academic parlor game in this case. As scientists, we should make clear our opposition to pseudoscience in any guise. We should ensure that at a minimum, schools are not engaged in disseminating pseudo-science.

I am very sympathetic to the plight of educators in large poor urban districts, and agree with their goals to improve the self-esteem and achievement of their students. The idea that Africans are biologically superior to whites, for example, is attractive to teachers in these districts who lack the scientific knowledge to properly judge pseudoscientific claims.

However, worthy goals cannot be achieved through improper means. Teaching pseudoscience, regardless of motive, will only further impair the ability of minority students to succeed in society. We should also urge that children in large poor urban districts, who are most in need of it, benefit from the systemic reform of science education. Rigorous and accurate multicultural science teaching is possible. We do not have to settle for magic and religion parading in the guise of science.

Bernard Ortiz de Montellano is in the Anthropology Department at Wayne State University. A longer version of this article, with bibliography, appeared in the October 1997 issue of the APS Forum on Physics and Society's newsletter.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin