I. The Origins of the Science Wars
FS: It is very nice to have this talk with you. I thought it would be a good idea to start with some remarks on your intellectual development and your academic career.
NK: Maybe what is most relevant for our discussion today is the fact that I first studied chemistry my first publication concerns the spectra of transition metal compounds then philosophy of science at the University of London (Chelsea College) with Heinz Post. We did not call ourselves Popperians, but I was obviously greatly influenced by what was going on at the London School of Economics in the 1960s. I taught chemistry at the College level for a while and have long been interested in science education. All of this background informs the stance I adopt in these so-called Science Wars.
FS: Coming from Europe, we are a little bit surprised and puzzled of the intensity and also of the terminology which is used in the dispute called "Science Wars". What are the origins of this debate? Who introduced the term "Science Wars"?
NK: It was introduced by people doing cultural studies of science. Many of them came out of a tradition which was involved in the so-called "Cultural Wars", and I think that it was just an extension of those issues to the Science Wars. Where I first encountered the phrase was in a newspaper called The Cultural Studies Times, which is a free advertising sheet put out by Routledge Publishers. This press, which I believe has been recently bought out by a German firm by the way, has published a lot of stuff in Women's Studies, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies and so forth.
I sometimes use an overhead picture of that newspaper in my talks. Anyway, the Fall 1995 issue had all sorts of headlines concerning cultural studies critiques of science, and one of them was "The Science Wars". This was a debate between Stanley Aronowitz and Norman Levitt. One thing that was very interesting in that paper was that they advertised the forthcoming issue of Social Text which was also called "Science Wars". Sokal's hoax article was listed there in the projected table of contents. So I think that's where the term originated. The Science Wars issue of Social Text was written in response to Gross and Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. I'm sure that the Social Text people would have said that Gross and Levitt started the Science Wars, but I think that the term itself actually came from the Cultural Studies people.
FS: Thus, Sokal's article was the incentive for all further discussions and publications. How did you become involved in this "battlefield"?
NK: After Higher Superstition was published, Gross, Levitt and some other people held a conference at the New York Academy of Sciences to discuss the various sorts of attacks on and misunderstandings of science. It was a big conference, and it resulted in a volume called Flight from Science and Reason. I was asked to participate in that conference. I can't remember exactly how they got my name or how I got involved, but I'm sure it had something to do with the volume called Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies which I co-authored with Daphne Patai. This book, which appeared in the same year as Higher Superstition, complained in the specific context of Women's Studies about some of the same issues that Gross and Levitt had complained about. At the Conference I talked about so-called Feminist Epistemology and feminist critiques of science. There was a general discussion about the concern for scholarly standards and about political criteria being used to evaluate scholarly work instead of normal criteria. So, I was involved in that conference and this eventually led to my editing of the new anthology: A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science.
FS: I would also like to ask you some questions concerning the content of the debate. Its subject matter has been very well known since the turn of the century. From "Methodenstreit" to the struggle or dispute in the sociology of knowledge, and to the "Two Cultures", there have been so-called "positivism debates", like the ones between Mach and Lenin and between Horkheimer and Neurath, and the last one between Frankfurt School and Popper. You mentioned that in your publications you discuss the thesis of two cultures, so I wondered what is the characteristic novel feature of this debate. Is it an inner-American phenomenon, or is it a revival of old methodological struggles?
NK: There are two ways to approach that question. One approach is to look at the things that people are debating and see if there are intellectual similarities and there certainly are. The other one is to ask whether there is actually a chain of transmission of the ideas, whether there is a sociological connection between the people debating here and the old debates. I think that the sociological connection would be a little bit difficult to trace. There may be some connections, but it's not so obvious.
FS: So you think it is a typical American phenomenon. Has it more to do with the science policy here, or with science teaching, than with the philosophy of science as a discipline?
NK: Let us see. One of the things which would be very confusing about the whole thing for a future social or intellectual historian of this period it the fact that it is very difficult to define just who is on which side and why. Before there was any talk of Science Wars, there was an anthology called A Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Its lead editor was Jasanoff; it is a big thick monumental handbook. Its authors ask, "Where did people in Science and Technology Studies come from?", and they then discuss the disparate currents that have united in their field. Some of their colleagues were interested in science policy studies; others were interested in the sociology of knowledge. A third group were the people that had not studied science policy in any serious way but were very concerned about environmental issues. We might call them amateur activists of a kind, although they may have some intellectual expertise. They talked about all these various elements, and how difficult it was for such a multitude to be brought together to form a discipline, and so forth. Probably one of the best things that ever happened to the STS folks is that Gross and Levitt attacked them, because they could then all unify in responding to the attack!
IAK: Given such disparateness, it is curious that the current discussions are so polarized that they have come to be called "wars". These debates are often represented as having two clearly defined sides, just like a war normally has. For example, during your lectures you often show a cartoon with which you illustrate the nature of the Science Wars and in which a group of people with atom bombs attacks a group of people with books. Yet you work yourself at a History and Philosophy of Science department, rather than at a science department, and for this reason one might wonder whether you really are a representative of the people who have the atom bombs in the figure. So, how do you feel about the polarized representation of the discussion? Do you think that the discussion really has merely two sides like a war?
NK: Well, if I were trying to describe the situation as someone doing a kind of intellectual history, I would say that the two sides comprise loosely overlapping clusters of positions. No one has found a good term to label either of the sides, a term that would be satisfactory to the people on that side (if there is such a thing), or to their enemies even. Gross and Levitt came up with the term "Academic Left", but they apologize for it in the preface and point out that one of the authors considers himself to be on the Left. If you want to talk about the folks on my side, some people call them the "friends of science" or "science boosters". Some people have coined the term "Sokalites". There is no really good descriptive term.
You might wish to say that in reality there are many sides, and that this polarization talk is nothing but the media drawing cartoons. But, on the other hand, it seems to me that emotionally people do sort themselves out. Although the intellectual backgrounds of the people who contributed to this book are all over the place, they all felt that it was important that this book comes out, and they thought that something was really at stake. Now, maybe they do not all think that the same things are at stake, but nevertheless, if you say "Gross and Levitt", people will say "Yeah! Right on!", or they will say "Oh Yuk!". There are also some people in between who are saying, "Well, they had something important to say, but why did they have to be so nasty", et cetera, but a lot of people will identify very quickly in a positive way or negative way to their book and the Sokal intervention. So, I think there is some kind of an emotional polarization, which is certainly based on principles and convictions, but if you start trying to say what these are, they turn out to be rather vague.
II. Enlightenment and Postmodernist Myths
FS: My question relating to this is: what is the common frame of identification for the discourses in your book? Could it be the positive answer to enlightenment, to postenlightenment science?
NK: I think that if I had to pick a single word, enlightenment might be the word I would pick.
FS: This is not only a question of terminology. Enlightenment is linked mostly to modernism, as opposed to postmodernism. From your perspective, is it correct to subsume the strong program of sociology of scientific knowledge, or Cultural Studies, or Feminist Studies under the label of postmodernism? Is postmodernism for you the general label under which you would deal with all these phenomena?
NK: Well, when we were talking about the title for the book, some people wanted to use social constructivism ; some people wanted to use "relativism". I can't remember if there were any other labels proposed. I can't remember exactly why we settled on "postmodernism". None of these labels are very informative because the issues are so complex.
FS: Is the problem really only one of linguistic conventions, of terminology? You could, maybe, answer this question: what are, according to your point of view, the most striking features of postmodernism? The subtitle of your book was Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science. What are these myths?
NK: Well, instead of quickly listing the myths of the people we are criticizing, a task which I do undertake in the preface in a very careful fashion, perhaps it would be helpful to just try to articulate some basic tenets of my own position which, I think, most of us do not talk about very much. First of all, I think that the conviction which drives me forward, and which, I think, has been denied and challenged by postmodernists, is the claim that scientific knowledge is the best kind of knowledge we have. It's not perfect, but it's the best there is. So that's one claim that, I feel, is actively denied by some of these people.
FS: So the position you are criticizing is one which views science as a cultural enterprise like religion, ideology, and the arts...
NK: Whereas I think it is the epistemically best, when compared with anything. Well, maybe not when compared with logic and math. Now, that is, I guess, a kind of a positivist heritage, although I would not give the same account of how that knowledge comes to be and what its foundations are as a positivist would. Another point is a conviction which is more an article faith than based on anything that I have studied in great detail that the advancement of science is more or less correlated with the advancement of not only physical well-being but of freedom, democracy, and political progress. That is a hard thing to argue, but it's something I believe. I believe that if one is interested in political progress, however one might define that, one is well-advised to have the search for the truth on one's side. Science is the one enterprise that is organized to do that as its principal goal, and it is pretty successful at it. These are pretty deep values or deep principles, and I think that what gets me motivated to do work in this area is the view that these values are being denied, and being denied in a kind of a trivial or opportunistic way. I mean, these things that I have just affirmed would have been thought of as platitudes a few years ago. I would have never thought that anyone would have to say them, but maybe every generation has to say them in their own way.
FS: Some aspects of the current discussion remind me of the old quarrel between internalism and externalism within the philosophy of science during the 1970s. Are you offering with the articles in your book a linkage between the philosophy of science and the sociology of science? For instance, Philip Kitcher presents a moderate position and invites philosophers of science to accept and adopt the sociology of science as a fruitful completion...
NK: ...as complementary to philosophy of science. The book started out as and remains, I think, primarily a critique of some of the historical case studies that are often cited as evidence for a postmodernist to use that problematic term point of view. We realized, however, that the book had to have some kind of an introduction to the reader, and we thought what that introduction will consist of. Obviously, we wanted a short introduction by Sokal, which was very useful. I thought that the Boghossian article on relativism was, although it was just a two-page essay from the Times Literary Supplement, nevertheless very clear, and it gave a kind of an introduction for an intelligent layperson of these issues.
Then Kitcher was brought in to try to give a recent history of what had been happening in Science Studies that had led to this, which was important. So, this book is not a philosophy book. The introduction is really pretty short, although Kitcher's paper is quite substantial and stands on its own. It's a valuable piece, but it is the only sustained bit of philosophy in there. The main task of the book is to correct the dubious case studies which have been claimed as evidence that scientific controversies are resolved by external considerations involving ideology and interests, not epistemic ones.
FS: What do you think is the main audience of this book? It's not written for philosophers of science. It's not written for sociologists of science. Is it for the public, for the scientifically interested public?
NK: Well, I hope both philosophers and sociologists will find it relevant. But you're right about its being aimed at the public. Its intended audience is one of the things that we discussed a bit in the most recent History of Science Society meeting in Kansas City. There Harry Collins said in effect, "You know, you guys are playing for the grand stand, for the public. Instead let's keep this at home, let's thrash things out as colleagues within a scholarly setting." And I replied quite rightly that a lot of other people are playing for the wider audience, including Collins himself who is promoting his point of view by writing books with titles like What Everyone Should Know About Science. But yes, the book was for the general educated public, as was Gross and Levitt's book, and as was Sokal's paper. After it got accepted and published, it was written up in the New York Times and Lingua Franca, which is read widely in the academy here. I think that we now have in the United States a kind of a quasi-public intellectual debate going on, which we certainly did not have when I started teaching thirty years ago. Then people would discuss political questions, but not things coming out of the university.
FS: The Snow debate, that is the debate on C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures, was also a little bit in the public.
NK: Yes, it was in Britain, less in America, but perhaps it was not so exciting.
III. The Aim of A House Built on Sand
IAK: My next question is concerned with the choice of the material in your book. In the beginning of your book you state that, for example, Sandra Harding has claimed that the critics of Science Studies remain on the level of ridicule, and that they do not present any detailed criticisms of the research results of Science Studies scholars. Now, your new book does contain such detailed criticisms of many of the case studies that Science Studies scholars have produced, but some of them have sometimes criticized it by claiming that your examples are not representative. So, how were the examples in the book chosen? Do you have arguments for the claim that they are representative?
NK: Obviously, it is partly a matter of who you can get to contribute, and also expertise influences the choice of topics a little bit. At one point my plan was to pick all the cases that were cited in the issue of Social Text which contained Sokal's article, and go after each of them. I think that we would not have done too badly on that criterion. Some critics have pointed out that I do not discuss feminist theory, but that would not have been a case study, a concrete example. Let's put it this way: I don't think anyone can deny that these examples are ones that are familiar to the people in the Science Studies, and they are often cited. Now, one could perhaps argue that there are examples that would have placed a better light on the subject, but I frankly don't know what they would have been. We have examples from Harry Collins, who is a very respected person. We have, certainly, Andrew Pickering's work, which is by no means amongst the worst things that you can find; there is a lot of very valuable material by Pickering. Leviathan and the Air Pump is almost a best-seller these days. I don't understand how this can be the case, but someone has told me that it has even been used in some American Studies Departments, although it has nothing to do with American Studies.
When Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was first published, it was at one point being used as a textbook in seven different departments in my university. Then everybody was talking about Kuhn. One can try to say, "Oh, well, Kuhn, he's not a big representative of philosophy of science, he is a kind of a historian-philosopher". You can say that, but at that time everybody talked about Kuhn. Similarly, the names that appear in the papers which discuss the sperm and the egg, and the claim that Bacon introduced violent gender tendencies are no lightweights. Just look at the people! The names that appear in the Bacon case study, like Sandra Harding, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Carolyn Merchant, are people who have in some cases name chairs. They teach at places like UCLA, at Berkeley, and at MIT. The same is true of Emily Martin, who's a professor at Princeton. Katherine Hayles has a name chair. These are not people that have no recognition or stature within the academic community. You can always attack the sample, but in this case it would be silly to claim it is grotesquely unfair.
IAK: Another often heard criticism of your book is that the motives of its authors are political. It is claimed that what the Science Wars really is all about are the scarce resources, like academic positions within the philosophy of science, and other academic positions. How would you yourself characterize the motives of the people who have contributed to your book? How would you comment on the claim that the contributions in your book are partly politically motivated?
NK: You know, political on what level? Very few people who contributed to this volume had anything immediate to gain for themselves. I suppose you could say, "Well, Gross and Levitt want to sell more books, so they want to keep the war going on", or something like that. There were people who said to me that I am going to lose some friends over this. So, there were people who personally, I think, had something to lose by contributing to the volume. That is not exactly on the level we are talking about, however.
When I said that I thought this was really a debate about very fundamental values, which I labelled "the enlightenment value", my concern was in some sense a political concern, obviously. Your question might be whether that which is at stake is political in the sense that it is going to determine who gets hired where et cetera. I think: yes, it is about that amongst other things, and that is because at present the resources in the universities are pretty limited. A lot of places, like my own university, are cutting back faculty, so that we will not be hiring in all areas, and yes, I'm concerned about whether we will hire people who are logicians and mathematicians and philosophers of science, or whether we will hire people who do Cultural Studies and work in the Telecommunications Department, or study advertising. If, for example, in a Communications and Culture Department, they offer classes on the rhetoric of science, in which they analyze the rhetoric of science without any understanding of what the scientific arguments are, yes, I'm threatened by that. And that is political in one sense. I think that the same thing could be said about the people on the other side. But even though the proximate political questions, such as who gets hired, etc., are pretty inconsequential, the ultimate political issues, such as what norms should be used to appraise knowledge claims, are political in a very profound sense.
IV. Popperianism and some other Alternatives to Postmodernism
FS: What concerns me now is that you are criticizing largely the shortcomings of different postmodern science studies and of feminist studies. My question is directed to your explicit alternative to these positions. I could find some hints of it in your books and in books by others; maybe, there is Popper's philosophy of science, critical rationalism, or more generally, the "realist-rationalist cluster" which Kitcher discusses, or internalist history of science. But is there an explicit philosophy of science or methodology, which appears as an alternative option to all these postmodern currents?
NK: I think that probably everybody has her own ideas about what that would look like, but there is certainly no consensus out there to appeal to. Two further remarks on that: I think that ever since the so-called Received View of scientific theories started disintegrating, nobody has had anything very unified or attractive to present. This is the case even when sociological factors, or policy issues are left out. So, philosophy of science itself was in a fairly chaotic situation. It is very difficult to see what something in which social epistemology, science policy, ethics of science, et cetera have been put together would look like. I gave some lectures in Poland in the summer of last year, and I think that my introductory lecture was called "Popper and the Science Wars". What I tried to argue or suggest there was that if the Popperian approach had been more popular in the United States, maybe the Science Wars would not have happened or would not have played out the same way. What people are doing is acting as if philosophers of science and scientists themselves had a very naive foundationalist view of science. So, they are attacking something that is even more simplistic than, I think, any positivist would have defended. It is a very naive position that they are attributing to both philosophers of science and scientists. I certainly think that in Popper's philosophy most of what they attack was already criticized, and substitutions were made for it.
The other thing in Popper which is very attractive to me and to a lot of people is that he did take his philosophy of social science very seriously, and saw this as connected with what he said about science. Now, it didn't always meld together quite as smoothly as perhaps it should, and Popper is not the kind of guy who lays down a systematic philosophy of anything, but it's very suggestive in many ways. There is an old article by him called something like "The Social Responsibility of Scientists" (reprinted in the new volume called The Myth of the Framework) which, I think, already contains some of the good points that people who are worried about the effects of science have made. He criticized the idolatry of scientific experts. He said that scientists have a special moral obligation, which he called sagesse oblige: anyone who is in a privileged knowledge position has extra moral obligations to warn other people of the possible damage that can result from the applications or misapplications of his findings. So, there is a sensitivity there. The concerns about epistemic foundations or lack thereof and also about social responsibilities were already there in Popper, and some of these ideas got emphasized in American philosophy of science, but others didn't.
FS: Is it a minority position?
NK: Yes. Obviously, it is very interesting to compare Popper and Kuhn or Lakatos and Kuhn. You can find some similarities there, but it's the differences that would have been crucial, maybe, in heading this off. If Lakatos had not died so young, I think he would have subjected the Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge coming out of Edinburgh to more effective scrutiny. I think that if Popper's philosophy of science had been better known in the United States it would have mitigated some of the extreme sociological readings of Kuhn. It would have also made it more difficult for Cultural Studies folks to pretend that the only alternatives were Positivism and Postmodernism. Popperianism, especially if we introduce some Bayesian modifications but that's another story certainly provides a strong third option.
FS: This brings me to two further crucial issues. The first point is the concept of philosophy of science that you employed. One target is relativism, epistemological relativism, and the second one is the subjectivist point of values in science or its applications. So, according to my understanding of the history of, for instance, logical empiricism, we find already in the 30s important contributions to the problem of the foundations of knowledge, of what is the basis of our knowledge: Carnap and the logical reconstruction of the world, Popper, later on Neurath. All these people were more or less "enlightened people", they were in favor of science as the most important cultural phenomenon. But at the same time, we can see that they used the term "relativism" in a positive sense to indicate that we have to be cautious in our methodology, in speaking of knowledge as certainty. This was the point of Neurath's critique of Popper's book, Logic of Scientific Discovery, and in this critique we see an argumentation which has not been considered in all these recent discussions, namely that the opposite concept of relativism in the philosophy of science is not objectivity. The opposite of relativity and relativism is absolutism.
NK: Is what? Absolutism?
FS: Epistemological absolutism. This is a point which has been elaborated by Philipp Frank, who was a pioneer of the Harvard Science Teaching Program, and he defended relativism also as a biographer of Einstein. He was aware of the theory of relativity and Einstein as a cultural phenomenon, and he defended strongly epistemological relativism, which was not of the same kind as that of Latour and the others. It was the cornerstone of an open-minded, pluralist approach in philosophy of science. I discovered one of his early writings, because they were most important for the Harvard program. He reacted with a book, namely Relativity, a Richer Truth, with a foreword by Einstein, in order to show that the critique of relativity, which has been seen as responsible for all the cultural and civilizatory defects after World War II, has been rather caricatured. It has not been placed in a real scientific enterprise. So my question is: is it not a little bit (I do not know what the English translation of the German saying, "das Kind mit dem Bade ausschtten", is), to throw the child with the bath...
NK: Throw the baby out with the bath water.
FS: Is it not too strong to have such a case against relativism in the philosophical and theoretical sense?
NK: Well, relativism is one of those slippery terms, and it may be that you could define a position that is opposed to absolutism, and which would be a useful position, one that I might agree with and so forth.
FS: That is the idea.
NK: But it would be misleading to call it relativism, because the word is used in another way now. I don't know what Frank did or how the term was used then. One of the things that Popper always emphasized is that what leads to totalitarianism is the belief that you have absolute truth, but there is nothing wrong in there being absolute truth as a regulative principle, or as something worth striving for. It's a regulative idea, that is one of the things that he would say. And of course he did not think that there was a unique language in which that truth had to be expressed. I think anybody would agree that what we take to be true at any point in time is relative to the information that is available to us. The idea that you should have respect for people who have differing opinions, that's again not controversial. When I hear the word "relativism", my first associations are with folks who talk about cultural relativism, or about the claim that there's no disputing tastes, that you can't say, "Strawberry ice cream really tastes better than chocolate ice cream", and so forth. So, I have totally different associations with the term, and I think it's those associations that are informing most people who identify themselves as relativists today. I think they want to say that preferences for scientific theories are just as local and as much a matter of cultural setting as preferences for ice cream or music written in a quarter tone scale. Although maybe what some who self-identify as relativists are really after, what they want to emphasize, is that nobody has a privilege to a God's Eye View.
FS: My thought was that relativism could be used for supporting also your argumentation, because the position of Philipp Frank and Gerald Holton is one of scientific relativism, which is an element in an enlightened or post-enlightened scientific world view, and my guess is that relativism is only now exclusively linked to postmodern positions.
NK: But what's wrong with the word "fallibilism"? I'd oppose absolutism with fallibilism.
FS: That seems to me an appropriate opposition.
NK: So, I think that's a better word to use than "relativism".
FS: Fallibilism is what was shared by philosophers from Mach to the Vienna Circle and afterwards, notably also by Popper.
NK: And that word, it seems to me, will not mislead anybody.
FS: One more general point. It is "the place of value in the world of facts". This is the title of Wolfgang Köhler's book, which is a reaction against the criticized omission of values. How do you see this relation, this tension between values and scientific enterprise? In the last years there have been some studies according to which in the philosophy of science there has been a neglect of the very important perspective that values are a part of scientific procedures and methodology. Does this topic according to your point of view overlap with those of the Science Wars discussion, and in which sense does it?
NK: Well, the word "value" is one that philosophers of science have not tended to use very much. There was a very influential article by Richard Rudner, who argued that scientists make value judgements but, of course, what he meant by values were things like empirical adequacy, I guess. I don't remember if Kuhn used the word "value", but he discussed the various desiderata that a good scientific theory would have. He emphasized the role of things like fruitfulness and simplicity, desiderata that seem to go beyond the empirical adequacy,but which are nevertheless very much internal values. A similar tack is taken by Laudan in his book, Science and Values. But I suppose that when most people talk about science being value-free, they do not have these values in mind. That is not what is under discussion.
So, what about the kind of values that people sometimes call "non-cognitive", or "non-epistemic", or "external", or "social", all of these? I think that it's true that philosophers of science have not said very much about them. I think that these values are something which philosophers could fruitfully discuss. If you were teaching an elementary course in the philosophy of science, you might want to say at least something about the fact that the tests of a theory that may be epistemically most valuable might involve misuse of human subjects or something else which would make it impossible to carry them out.
Philosophers of science, it seems to me, could also say something interesting also about the ethics of scientific communication (a topic I brought up in an article in Gunnar Andersson's 1984 volume, Rationality in Science and Politics). I think there are interesting things to be said about the question "what makes a popularization good", and it's not all just a kind of psychology of what the reader can understand. What is your responsibility as a scientist in making sure that you get across what you want to get across, and how can you decide what you can leave out, and so forth. Introducing these sorts of value considerations is no threat whatsoever to our traditional conceptions of science.
FS: The idea behind my question was that wasn't it this exclusion of values from philosophy of science, wasn't this the reason because of which in the last decades there was such a good change of a "counter-revolution", a counter-development by postmoderns? A strict exclusion of values has dominated the philosophy of science since the sixties, and this could be one reason why "externalists" and "postmoderns" had good reasons to be against such a narrow-minded philosophy of science as the normative and analytic methodology.
NK: Well, I don't know, maybe that's true. Instead of trying to answer the question directly, I would point out that there were people talking about some of these issues, but they were not primarily philosophers of science.
Certainly Merton, when he talked about scientific norms, related these norms to the place of science in society. One of his important norms of science was what he called "communism", and which later came to be called "communalism", which was to make science available for all. It was not to be owned by anybody, and he saw that as very, very important for the rest of society. So that would be a place where there was talk about that. There was much talk about the social responsibility of scientists after Hiroshima and Nagasaki amongst scientists themselves. The drawing up of ethical codes for scientists was something that many scientific professions did. It started, I think, in anthropology, but in the end physicists did it as well. So, scientists were talking about some of these issues. It came up during the Vietnam war, it came up during the so-called Star Wars, Reagan's initiatives. There have been commissions about ethical scrutiny of experimental procedures, and so forth. So, there were people talking about this area in systematic ways it was not as if there was nobody talking about it. Now, whether philosophers of science were negligent in not talking more about it too, I'm not so sure about that, but it would have been nice. But just for the record I should mention that there is an entry on "Wissenschaftsethik" in Seiffert and Radnitzky's 1989 Handlexikon zur Wissenschaftstheorie I happen to know because I wrote it!
FS: We should also add that values and ethics have been included already in the "normal" development of the philosophy of science, for instance within the so-called social sciences and in the theory of games and decision. There have been important contributions, but they have been neglected. So, it is only a contingent event that philosophers of science can be accused of neglecting values.
NK: Yes, that may be true. However, the people that we are criticizing, whatever you want to label them, although they may cite philosophy of science when it suits them, citing Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Feyerabend, or whatever, these are not people who are seriously interested in improving the philosophy of science. I think they only refer to philosophy of science if they find there some ammunition for their perspectives on science. So I really don't think it would have made much difference if philosophers of science had paid more attention to social values. Now, of course, partly in reaction to advocates of "Science for the People" who would let what they consider to be progressive political values override empirical considerations, philosophers now are addressing these issues more directly. At the recent meeting of the Philosophy of Science meeting which was also in Kansas City there were several papers on the general theme of science and non-epistemic values. These will appear in the Proceedings.
V. But is the Difference so Great, After All -- The Case of the Cold Fusion
IAK: There are two obvious ways in which the claim that the development of science is affected by social factors could be criticized. On the one hand, one could take the position that this claim is trivial and something that scientists, the philosophers of science, and the historians of science normally accept. Obviously, the claim is trivial if it is taken to mean only that the mechanism by which scientific theories and hypotheses get accepted involves social processes like negotiations between scientists. On the other hand, one could also take the position that this claim is false, as it is if it is taken to mean that evidence and reasoning do not influence the choice of theories and that only social processes influence them. When the authors of A House Built on Sand criticize scholars who have emphasized social factors in their accounts of scientific development, they usually choose to make criticisms of the latter kind, although in some cases one might wonder whether a critique of the former type would have been more appropriate.
For example, your book contains a chapter which is concerned with cold fusion. This chapter, which has been written by William J. McKinney, criticizes Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch's study of the cold fusion episode. Collins and Pinch are fond of radical rhetoric, and they like to give the impression that they are saying something which contradicts traditional ideas of the nature of science. Accordingly, it seems to be very important for William McKinney to show that Collins and Pinch are fundamentally mistaken. However, the description of the cold fusion episode in the case study which McKinney is criticizing and the one he gives of it himself seem rather similar. Would you agree that in the Science Wars both sides have a tendency to exaggerate the difference between the accounts that they and their opponents have given of relevant historical facts, and that, for example, despite of the radical rhetoric that Collins and Pinch sometimes use, their description of the cold fusion episode contains little that scientists and more traditional philosophers of science could not accept?
NK: I would certainly agree that most of the difference is in the interpretation of the historical facts, but there, I think, the differences are quite marked. And the conclusions that one would draw from the varying interpretations are quite different.
IAK: Well, McKinney claims that cold fusion was not "science as normal", and Collins and Pinch claim that it was, but isn't this disagreement concerned only with the definition of "normal science"? Also McKinney admits that respectable scientists did believe in cold fusion, and also Collins and Pinch admit that scientists ceased to believe in it when it was seen that the relevant experiments could not be replicated...
NK: Well, that is not the way I understood their position. I understood Collins and Pinch to be saying that the evaluation of cold fusion could have turned out differently, that there were no persuasive empirical reasons for disbelieving in cold fusion in the end, and that there was a kind of disconnect between various professions, like the chemists vs. the physicists, and between prestigious institutes of technology on the one hand and middle rank universities like the University of Utah on the other. The press got involved, et cetera, and in the end the more powerful physicists and the more prestigious institutions prevailed. However, it could have turned out differently. That is always the kind of a moral of the Collins and Pinch case studies: that it could have turned out differently. It did not turn out differently for empirical reasons, or theoretical reasons, but because of the social factors.
That, I think, McKinney wants to dispute, and I think he tries to do that by showing that there were very legitimate criticisms made of the experiments which the cold fusion proponents could not answer. They could not replicate their experiments in some cases, and so McKinney says that the way the thing was resolved was science as usual. There was appeal to experimental evidence, and to some theoretical considerations, too, to theoretical criticisms showing how much of physics would have to be changed if their results were accepted, et cetera. So the way the controversy was finally resolved was science as usual, but it was quite extraordinary in that they held press conferences, that people got so excited about it, et cetera. The hoopla arose out of the intense interest in tapping fusion as an energy source that was definitely a social factor that influenced how the debate was conducted. But the grounds on which scientists eventually sorted out what was happening in the electrolysis beaker were the ordinary sorts of epistemic considerations that scientists invoke every day.
IAK: But Collins and Pinch also admit the significance of empirical reasons in the process which led to the rejection of cold fusion. After all, they discuss in detail the problems in replicating the experiments and the theoretical reasons for rejecting cold fusion. The only phrase in the case study of Collins and Pinch which seems to suggest that "it could have turned out differently" if the relevant social interactions had been different is their statement that without Pons and Fleischmann's contributions, Steven Jones would have established the "fact" that there is a "fusion of small amounts of deuterium in palladium metal". Also this statement is controversial, of course, but it does not seem to conflict with William McKinney's presentation, since McKinney does not present any detailed criticisms of Jones's research. Rather, he focuses his attention almost entirely on the much more dramatic claims that Pons and Fleischman made. What is it more specifically that in your view Collins and Pinch disagree about with McKinney?
NK: I think that if you look more closely, especially at their discussion of the so-called Experimenters Regress, you will find that they do not attribute much cognitive weight to the experimental process, although they certainly realize that scientists place a great deal of rhetorical value on experiments. To me, their general take on experiments is summed up in their humorous recounting of the attempts of children to figure out what the boiling point of water is. Since this is their first attempt and they have impure materials and inaccurate equipment, their results vary wildly and at the end of the class they end up "negotiating" what answer to report. Collins and Pinch claim that this episode tells us most of what we need to know about science and conclude that Eddington, Michelson and Morley, and Pasteur are just Zonkers and Smudgers "with clean white coats and PhD after their names". I agree that at the beginning the cold fusion experiments might conceivably be compared to what school children do anytime one is dealing with new apparatus, new phenomena, etc. it takes a long time to sort things out. But I think that it is ludicrous to think that scientists end up where school children begin!
IAK: One of the topics which has often come up in the "Science Wars" discussion is the appropriate use of metaphors. A standard answer which many defenders of postmodernist authors have given to Alan Sokal's criticisms has been that the statements which Sokal is criticizing have not been even meant to be literally true; rather, they are only metaphors. In the context of some of the case studies which are discussed in your book, however, it is not the defenders of enlightenment but their opponents who are involved in criticizing metaphors. A House Built on Sand contains a chapter which is concerned with human reproduction and, more specifically, with some criticisms of biologists' descriptions of the encounter of the egg and the sperm. Some feminists have criticized such descriptions by claiming, on the one hand, that they are factually incorrect and, on the other hand, that inappropriate metaphors are used in them. This topic has an obvious connection with the subject matter of your book Professing Feminism, which you mentioned earlier. In it, you ironically point out that the duty of monitoring language, which feminists have taken up, has belonged to bourgeois women since at least the Victorian times. Do you think that the feminist critique of reproduction-related metaphors which is discussed in your new book is an example of the kind of monitoring of language that you have earlier criticized, or do you think that there is a real point in changing such metaphors?
NK: Well, we have to evaluate each case on its own merits. Recently there have been complaints about the cosmological theory which speaks of the "Big Bang" and one feminist theologian has suggested that it be re-named the "Great Awakening". I won't deny that there is a sort of nerdish sense of humor found in science laboratories, but I think it is extremely unlikely that this has any effect whatsoever on the content of science. Does it alienate women science students? Who can say? I think that logic students pretty soon get over snickering when one speaks of the copulative use of "is" and I dare say whatever sexist connotations one might find in speaking about the "Big Bang" would soon evaporate as one studies it. I might point out, by the way, that in his article on the Macho Sperm/Passive Egg Saga in A House Built on Sand, Paul Gross shows how the most violent and extreme masculinist metaphors about reproduction are found not in science books themselves, but rather in the critiques produced by the Science and Gender Study Group! Alan Soble makes the same point in his defense of Bacon. He says Sandra Harding and others who interpret Bacon as calling for the rape of Nature are "projecting horrors into the canon which are not there". These critics of science are deliberately producing the most misogynist readings possible of scientific metaphors.
In other cases, I think that some cultural studies people are simply trying to get a handle on what the scientists are saying, and they are doing that by scrutinizing the metaphorical connotations of the technical terms that scientists use, such as "linear" or "non-linear". They then proceed to give these terms a kind of an ordinary-language interpretation. This is what anyone tends to when they do not understand the technical meanings of a term, but of course this can lead to ludicrous mistakes, the classic case being the layperson's persistence in believing that Einstein's Theory, which is actually a theory about invariants, shows that "everything is relative".
The other thing that people with non-scientific backgrounds love to do is to look at the informal language that scientists use from a kind of a quasi-psychoanalytic point of view, thinking that "Maybe this will reveal their deep motivations and their ideology", et cetera. In the cases of the first type, it is often possible to show in a pretty conclusive way that the critics of science are mistaken; for example, it might be fairly easy to show that someone has simply misunderstood what "chaos" means in chaos theory, which would be a pretty cut-and-dried mistake. But it is not so easy to say whether the critics are right or wrong when they claim that the metaphors communicate on a Freudian level something deep or profound about the scientific enterprise.
The feminist critiques have been much discussed, but there are other critiques as well. For example, there is a book by Brian Easlea called Fathering the Unthinkable, and it is argued in it that the fact that people talked about "the father of the atom bomb" was somehow profound. If I try to paraphrase this idea, it will sound so silly that people think I'm misrepresenting things, so you will have to look at the book yourself.
The critics are looking at metaphors as clues to what is really going on in science, as clues into some of the deep motivations of the beliefs of the scientists. I think that this methodology can be challenged, but it has to be challenged in the same way in which all Freudian analysis has to be challenged. Conceivably you might discover something about the paths to a scientific discovery by interpreting metaphors in a Freudian fashion. A few years ago a historian tried to argue that Newton was led to his concept of action at a distance because he was separated from his mother at an early age and felt attracted to her even when she was far away! I am dubious, but what such speculations can never touch are the reasons that other scientists accepted Newton's theory of gravitational attraction. There is also a further move that those who pursue metaphors make. After trying to use metaphors or the language of science for getting deep insight into what is "really" going on, they claim that if we changed the metaphors, we would change the nature of the whole enterprise. I think that this is an even more dubious claim. And that is where the language policing comes in.
FS: One of the most famous metaphors is a metaphor for science as a whole. It is quoted by W. V. O. Quine in Word and Object, and it goes back to Otto Neurath: we are like sailors, science is like a boat, and we are constantly making changes to the boat of science, which does not have any absolute foundations. Do you agree with this metaphor as a heuristical and regulative idea of what science could be?
NK: Yes, although I might try to think of images that had even more positive analogies with the scientific enterprise. But suppose that you took that metaphor and put it in a different social context, a context in which a boat is thought of as a symbol of British imperialism. Britain had a great navy and so, it could be concluded that when people talk here about rebuilding the boat, they think about rebuilding the navy, and about making Britain a colonial power again, et cetera. People could try to use the metaphor as an example of the fact that what is driving science is the idea that "We have to keep imperialism afloat". If you have played any of Freud's free association games, you know how these things can be cooked up to prove anything you like if one is creative enough.
VII. Impostures Intellectuelles
FS: So the transition to what Sokal called "fashionable nonsense" is a gradual one. "Science Wars" is going on, the book by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Impostures intellectuelles, as been published in French and now in English, and there is supposed to be also a German translation in preparation. We have to place the "Science Wars" discussion also in a European context, and I expect that there the discussion will be much more emotionalized because of the "French connection" in European intellectual discourse.
Sokal and Bricmont's book discusses also the use and misuse of science by French philosophers, by postmodernists and poststructuralists. Is this book and are the case studies which it contains very significant for the American philosophy of science, or for the American discussion? Or is it a message to European scientists and philosophers, a message which shows them what the influence and the impact of these postmodernists is here in America?
NK: I would expect that it is most directly relevant for France, obviously. All the authors that are discussed in the book are francophone philosophers or writers, although some people have said that the people who read these characters most seriously are Americans. I have no idea if this is true, but to the extent that folks like Lacan are more influential in America than in Europe the book should be relevant for Americans as well. Of course, these writers are referring to science, or their own garbled version of science, not to attack it. They make quite a different use of it, it seems to me: they try to lend prestige to their own writings, and their own theories, with pretended parallels to the latest, most abstruse sounding mathematical or scientific concepts. So, it's quite a different phenomenon.
FS: There is a significant review of Sokal and Bricmont's book by the journalist Jim Holt. It has the title "Is Paris Kidding?", and Holt concludes it with the following statement: "As physicists, Sokal and Bricmont have done reason a modest service by exposing a species of intellectual quackery. As philosophers, they have not pursued reason far enough, all the way to its sometimes unreasonable sounding conclusions." So, his critique is that as scientists Sokal and Bricmont are analyzing adequately the misuse of scientific terminology, but as philosophers or as philosophers of science they have not really acknowledged the problems of realism and, more generally, the main questions of epistemology. I think that this critique is correct in a sense. Within philosophy, and within the philosophy of science, there is a discussion concerning the problem of the external world, and concerning questions like what "our knowledge of the external world" is, to quote the title of Russell's influential book. Would you agree that there is something to be added to Sokal and Bricmont's roles of a scientist, and that there is a task also for philosophers of science and philosophers?
NK: I read this book pretty quickly, but you can divide it into three parts. There are the critiques of individual French philosophers. Then there's a kind of an intermezzo, "Epistemological relativism in the philosophy of science". Then there is the epilogue, where they reprint the original Sokal article, which was left out of the book version of the famous, notorious Social Text issue, and comment on it. I think that they make it extremely clear that they are not trying to criticize all of the things Lacan and others have written and that they are only focusing on their use of scientific parallels and scientific language.
FS: As scientists?
NK: Yes. They are not being sophisticated philosophers, they are not making a sophisticated philosophical critique of something, they are doing it pretty much as scientists. And they try very hard to find arguments for the claim that the discussed passages are not isolated, that they are not just thrown off as a little flourish, and that they are somehow more central. In the intermezzo, which has about fifty or sixty pages, they do talk about recent philosophy of science. That intermezzo is intended to be the summary of some of the issues. There is little attempt there to forge new philosophical ground. The scope of that summary is fairly ambitious. I remember remarking and thinking that it might be useful for university students in an introductory philosophy of science class. So I would read that as, perhaps, a help to the reader. I thought that, given the level it was written on, it was a fairly responsible summary.
FS: It is of an introductory character. It is criticizing also Popper's position because of its sceptical and irrational consequences, and it culminates with the conclusion that each form of relativism is a little bit dangerous.
NK: It seemed to me that Jonathan Ree, in his review in Nature of A House Built on Sand, also faults us for not making philosophical progress somehow. But that was certainly not the intention of my book, and I don't think that was Sokal and Bricmont's intention either. So, all you could possible say is that it's a naive summary, or an incomplete summary, or that it does not cover the most important points, or something like that, but I would not call it philosophically inadequate.
FS: So, the focus is not on naturalism.
NK: Nobody is talking in detail about what form of realism or naturalism might be defensible. Rather the main task is to clear away strong versions of relativism and constructivism that arguably have neither philosophical nor political merit.
VIII. Science and the Philosophy of Science
FS: Another question: do we need, besides science or methodology, a philosophy? Do we need a justification of science which is outside the research process? Do we need a philosophy and a history of science besides experiments? For instance, the physicist Steven Weinberg is arguing against any philosophy which is additional to science and methodology. As a physicist, he has no problems with his position. Philosophers can think, and construct, and reconstruct methodologies; he knows what he's doing independently of them.
NK: Perhaps your question is whether scientists need history and philosophy of science? This is an old problem. Lakatos used to say that one of the tasks of the philosophy of science was to save scientists from their own naive pronouncements. He had a great deal of respect for the sophistication of the actual practice of science, but he thought that when scientists stood up and said what they were doing, they could say some pretty naive stuff. There is the classical example of Newton saying, "Hypotheses non fingo", despite of the fact that he was making hypotheses all the time. It is a standard critique of introductory chapters of science books that in them you will not find any very sophisticated accounts of what really goes on in science. So, I find that there is something attractive about Lakatos's idea. He thought that it was probably very difficult to articulate a positive philosophy of science or a methodology which scientists could read and then go out to do better science. However, we have all these Popperian Nobel prize winners testifying on the power of Popper in their laboratory I don't know what to make of that.
FS: They testify that they have been successful because of the application of Popper's philosophy?
NK: Yes, that's right, that's what they say. Back to the question of the value of philosophy for science. You could ask the same thing about deductive logic. Does knowing deductive logic make you a better lawyer? Does it make you a better mathematician? That's hard to document. On the other hand, the questions themselves are fascinating, of interest to everybody, including scientists, so I think they are worth considering even if it has absolutely no practical relevance for society. I'm speaking here of a kind of a general philosophy of science. If you start to talk about the philosophy of a particular science, then I think that as Michael Ruse used to say there is not much difference and you need not care whether you were doing theoretical biology or philosophy of biology, as long as you were trying to understand what's going on in biology, and so forth.
IX. Reactions to A House Built on Sand
FS: So, what is your forecast concerning the struggles that are going on, and how do you evaluate the reactions to your book A House Built on Sand, like the reviews?
NK: Well, I've only seen one review...
FS: But have your intentions been realized, or has the discussion focused only on some contributions? Do you think that the message of the book is seen correctly? There are different interpretations, but has the main point of the book been correctly identified?
IAK: For example, you have given several lectures on topics that are related to your book. How do you feel about the reactions of the audience? Do you think that you are under attack during your lectures, or that you get sympathy for your project from the audience?
NK: With some people one can see from their faces and from their fervent hand-shakes afterwards that they are delighted that someone is criticizing some of these myths in public. And these are by no means all scientists. Sokal remarked that after he had published his hoax paper there were many people in humanities departments who were saying, "I'm glad you said it! Someone needed to say it." So, there is very definitely that kind of a response. And I personally feel that the excesses of cultural studies are much more likely to harm the humanities permanently than they are to hurt either the image or the practice of science. There are also people who say like Ree in the one review that I did see, in Nature things like, "Isn't it better, and wouldn't it be wiser to just ignore these lapses in scholarship, such lapses always occur, and they will take care of themselves", et cetera. So, that's another response. I personally feel that these would-be peacemakers are patronizing the postmodernists by not taking them seriously and assuming that they really don't mean what they say. Popper used to say that the best way to demonstrate respect for an idea was to subject it to severe critical scrutiny! And all of the pious calls for civility and collegiality sometimes sound like a plea to paper over disagreements that are very fundamental and thus ignore Mill's point about the importance of hard-hitting debate. I think that most of the people who do good history and philosophy and sociology of science feel motivated to try to build a more comprehensive account of science, and to include in it some of the things that may have motivated the critiques of science. So, to that extent I think that there may be a good outcome of all of this.
FS: You are optimistic that this could further the advancement of the project of enlightenment science, when this project is understood in your sense?
NK: Yes, I am.
FS: Thank you. It was a pleasure for us to talk with you.