NCUR Abstract

The Science Wars and the End of History

The so-called Science Wars were a highly charged debate between scientific realists and postmodernists in the mid-1990s. The “wars” reached their highpoint in 1996 when the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a deliberately nonsensical article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the postmodern journal Social Text, which was published without peer review. The next day Sokal revealed the article was a hoax aimed at showing the lack of academic rigor and the political bias of the publication. This debate gave voice to quiet, deep resentments held by many scholars in the fields of science and mathematics for newer intellectual trends in the social sciences and humanities that seemed to label science as a cultural construct. It also exposed a divide within the political Left, which many scholars on both sides of the debate claimed they belong to. The postmodern trends so detested by scientific realists during the debate actually developed in the two decades before the Science Wars. Squabbles, sometimes bitter, between the sciences and humanities are not uncommon in intellectual history. Yet, despite grumbling on the part of some partisans, no “wars” broke out until the 1990s. This paper argues that the underlying causes of the Science Wars can in large part be traced to preexisting ideological differences between the two sides, which were exacerbated by the anxiety of many scientists over global changes. The debate happened in the context of what Francis Fukuyama called the “End of History.” At the end of the Cold War, funding for higher education was cut and there was a general rightward political swing in most of the Western World. The resultant uneasiness spurred some vocal scientists to indict humanist postmodernists on the double charges of absurdity (which makes postmodernists unworthy of funding) and of setting the traditional Left off of its course by engaging in allegedly inane cultural arguments. Recriminations from the other side were soon to follow. This paper relies on arguments voiced by the participants themselves, in the form of books, articles, interviews and even hoaxes. It also looks into descriptions in the contemporary media and secondary sources on the changes brought to higher education by the end of the Cold War.