What Is Science Studies for and Who Cares?

George Levine



WE ARE, self-evidently, at a moment of aggressive public attack (some call it debate) on science studies. Just as the wars against political correctness managed to deflect attention from the real problems as an entrenched community appealed to democratic virtues while defending privilege, so now well-funded and powerful forces are claiming to be oppressed by the likes of Bruno Latour, Andrew Ross, and Katherine Hayles and are attempting to trash--in the name of reason, truth, objectivity, justice, and the first amendment--people who raise awkward questions.

Conferences of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) (in November 1994) and of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) (May 1995) are symptomatic of an aggression that touches--perhaps dangerously, perhaps only with a rather sad and silly paranoia--on some of the most important issues of our time. While support for all serious intellectual enterprises is being more than threatened by newly empowered anti-intellectual political forces, these organizations are behaving as though the threat to science is really corning from some of the few intellectuals who have taken the trouble to think seriously about it. The excess and silliness of the response may seem the mere pettishness of spoiled researchers used to big-time funding and might well induce in us both complacency and a tendency to enjoy tweaking for its own sake; but complacency or teasing are the last things we need at the moment. Questions about the relations between society and science are among the most important of our time. We need, rather, to be thinking about how our healthy instincts to be oppositional might be channeled in more productive directions.

    The language of "holy war" should remain the property of the egregious Norman Levitt and Paul Gross, who find an antiscience leftist lurking behind every paragraph of science studies. For them, irrationality and irresponsibility are pitted against the god of reason, and



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they characterize scientists who join our enterprise as apostates.1 There's not much profit for us in adopting a rhetoric that pitches the interested nonscientific public against science. Recent developments in the budget-cutting attempts to scale back government support for work in both science and the arts and humanities ought to be making it clear that our fates and our interests are entangled. We need to be exploring the mutual interests of science and its critics and, to make science studies genuinely effective, we need to persuade a lot of scientists that what we are doing is not only in society's best interest but in theirs. Popular skepticism about science derives not from the work of Latour, for example, but from the distanced arrogance with which science operates its magic, its ostensible contempt for lay questions and worries, its very power. The best thing that could happen to science, if it wants to convince society as a whole that it deserves support, would be to reject the arrogant language of holy war and humanize itself. And in our efforts to assist in understanding how science is involved in culture, how science is culture, it might profit us in the long run and for the necessary battles to come to think more about our own strategies and, indeed, about the degree of our own culpability in the obvious failures of relations between practicing science and cultural critique.

     Science studies, as we know, was born in controversy and sustains itself controversially, largely against the scientific community that is the subject of so much of its work. It has flourished, certainly, because the work of science has in many ways been socially and politically determining in our time--because, whether we like it or not, science, understood or not understood, shapes our consciousness as it shapes the material conditions of our society. We may be enthusiasts for science or frightened observers of its power, but we know that we can't ignore it and that not to be aware of its power is not to be educated.

     Science studies has its own singular genealogies, growing from historical, philosophical, sociological, as well as literary, concerns, but it is often rather amusingly (if its implications weren't ultimately so serious) lumped under the heading of postmodernism, where a lot of kooky, anti-intellectual, politically correct, and subversive types have been thought to hang out. Even the history and philosophy of science, which grew up as a field in the 1950s and 1960s with a strong positivist bent and a deep commitment to science, is now being accused of the sins of postmodernism. The strong positivism of the early century was almost by definition skeptical about the degree to which science's knowledge claims could be said to describe "reality." And Bas van Fraasen, whose contemporary mode of empiricism--which denies the necessity of any claims about a reality out there for the validity of scientific knowledge--would seem also to be "postmodern" in this wide and unacceptable sense so often used as denunciation. But both the positivists and van Fraasen have not worried scientists because, clearly, their projects were not antiscience but attempts to establish the validity of scientific knowledge. Since Thomas Kuhn's decisive Structure of Scientific Revolutions early in the 1960s, however, scientists have been particularly wary of historians of science and sociologists.

The squabbles that followed have now been inflated to holy wars because there is so much at stake: intellectual authority, educational direction, disciplinary turf, the allocation of big money. Many more people than Levitt and Gross are taking cultural criticism of science seriously because scientists are themselves feeling vulnerable. Their funding is getting cut, too. While many of us linked to the humanities may feel especially ineffectual in the world of politics, big money, and the public sphere, people are getting worried that we are not ineffectual enough. The frightened announcement of the NAS conference notes that our attacks are dangerous because, among other things, they "alter directions of research" and "affect funding." It is hard to believe that my consideration, for example, of the relation between Darwin's views and Trollope's novels has contributed to the death of the super­collider, but that is what the NAS conference is arguing implicitly. Several years ago, when Steven Weinberg turned down an invitation to a conference I was running, he told me that he knew what we were up to. I didn't understand at the time, but clearly Weinberg's affiliation with the NAS conference and his recent stern defenses of scientific rationality have most to do with the supercollider, which should have been in Texas, where Weinberg teaches. I want such serious thinkers on our side, but somehow he and others have adopted the hysteria of Gross and Levitt and believe with the NAS and the NYAS that there must be an important connection between the work of science studies and Congress's decision that the supercollider was just too expensive. As philosopher of science Paul A. Komesaroff put it, oh so delicately, about eight years ago, "The two great bodies of thought, represented by natural science and contemporary philosophy [in which he intended to include sociology of science), have so far failed to make proper contact."2

How to do something about that contact? A continuing and even naturalized consideration of science in the context of culture is one of



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the urgent priorities of research and education at our fin de siecle, but I don't have to convince you of that. From our perspective, what's necessary is some clarification of what we are doing. And so I want to ask some questions and gesture toward some answers.

Are we clear about whom we are addressing, and for what reason? Are we clear about why even our most professionally innocuous stabs at connecting science and literature are often taken as assaults on science? It is certainly true that as an area of study, "science and literature" has some large-scale objectives that extend beyond the Arnoldian virtue of "Curiosity" and the disciplinary injunction that we make our contributions to knowledge. Does our agenda entail reform of the practices of the sciences? Are we involved in a sustained critique of science that might have practical implications for how science is funded by our society? What might it mean for us, in literature or other nonscience disciplines, to suggest to scientists how they should do their work? What do we think about scientists taking our discourse seriously enough to suggest to us how we should do ours? Are we committed to showing how important science is or has been to the way we write, think, feel, act? Or how pernicious it has been?

Let's look at some of the fundamental assumptions of our work. We always talk about science as though it is a discourse. For example, in a brilliant recent book, Fact and Feeling, Jonathan Smith begins innocently enough "with the assumption that science is a form of cultural discourse: like literature or history or music or art or religion, it both shapes and is shaped by the culture of which it is a part."3 Recognizing, as he puts it, that the [nineteenth-century] "elevation of scientific discourse . . . does not also isolate it from, or make it necessarily antithetical to, other forms of discourse," Smith works hard, without denigrating either, to break down the opposition between science and literature. It is difficult for us to realize, because this is so much like mother's milk to us, that the move is not only culturally counterintuitive, it is politically fraught. But such a view is viper's poison to almost everybody else. That is, much that we take for granted is very likely to cause us trouble outside our disciplinary or interdisciplinary area--and all too little within it. Smith is healthily aware that to talk of science as "merely" another discourse demeans science, and demeans literature as well. To what degree, when we argue that science is a discourse, and not an epistemologically decisive one, are we out to diminish science and to elevate ourselves? That, by the way, is the Gross-Levitt line.



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Since the current battles so easily reduce to turf wars, we need to answer such questions as clearly as we can. Certainly, many of us turned our attention to science studies because we were fascinated by science and admired it enormously. But science itself is not, as Smith reminds us, a "monolithic" entity; it is, rather, a complex and continuing process that transforms and often supplies the materials for its own critique as readily and as significantly as literary studies do. In-so­far as we imagine science as an institution, formally embodied in the academy and in a hierarchy of material practice all over the world, discussion of science always has strong practical implications. We need to consider whether, as we investigate relations between scientific and cultural discourse, we are in fact implicitly attacking the institution. Looking around the university, literary faculty find that science faculty teach less and earn more and have access to funding beyond the humanist's fiscal imagination; science faculty find that literary study is full of ambivalences and ambiguities and, alas, moralisms, that would be totally discredited in their own fields. These practical, cultural differences don't help. But they don't inevitably entail the for-or-against rhetoric that is now dominating public discussion.

Gerald Holton, a speaker at the November NAS conference, but one whose contributions to the cultural study of science have been very valuable, devotes the long final chapter of his most recent book, Science and Anti-Science, to the "Anti-Science Phenomenon." Holton's argument is neither so intemperate nor so homogenizing as Gross and Levitt's, but he is distinctly and indeed reasonably concerned about a problem that bothers them, too--the terrible ignorance of science that pervades our society. Holton makes a strong and moving case for the social and political importance of sound scientific knowledge in the tradition of Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), and traces a sometimes convincing connection between the rejection of science and a dangerous right-wing descent into authoritarianism. But that old and valuable liberal critique of "closed" societies really has nothing to do with the present case. We need to make that clear. Why is it that studies of science and culture must be taken as opposed to "sound scientific knowledge"? Bruno Latour is inevitably disparaged as wanting to abolish the distinction between science and fiction.4 We might argue with Holton and show him not only that Latour is not anti-science (indeed, he has presented himself recently as quite literally in love with at least some aspects of science and technology and he works for the government precisely on matters of technology), but that the abolition of the distinction between science and fiction of which




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Latour talks need not be dangerous for science--depending, of course, on what you mean by "science."

Holton's position should remind us that resistance to critiques of science has a long and honorable history, as well as a shady and grubby one. Our job is to show that the Popperian critique doesn't work in relation to the central activities of science studies. Nobody is trying to close down science, and the defensiveness that assumes that anyone who isn't for it is somehow sacrilegiously against it needs to be overcome. Most science studies work I know would never have been written if its authors were not fascinated by science. Substantively, we continue our exploration of the complex relations between science and literature, science and culture--the way they support, reveal, test, and inform each other--most of the time without direct attention to our contemporary disciplinary battles. But how does all this work relate to the practice of scientists themselves--which is, after all, what they are worrying about? One might well ask about our work, who cares? That is, who cares beyond our own professional institutions?

The surprise for me at my home institution was that the first person outside the humanities and social sciences who cared, and the person who to this day cares most, is Norm Levitt. Higher Superstition may have been largely provoked by a year the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture at Rutgers devoted to issues of science and culture. We invited people like Latour, Helen Longino, and Simon Schaffer; during this time Levitt sneeringly borrowed my copy of Katherine Hayles's Chaos Bound. He cares with a passion, which might in fact be better than the unselfconscious indifference with which the work of science studies is treated by most of the scientific community.

What started in my career as (what I imagined) a not very daring curiosity about the way science was affecting the Victorian writers has suddenly become controversial. This may be because people who otherwise wouldn't have cared at all about, say, the relations between Darwin and Trollope, or thermodynamics and Pynchon (of which I solemnly and academically wrote many years ago), are suddenly finding themselves vulnerable sharers in a skimpily funded academic world. But it has been intellectually and practically invigorating to know that my audience extends beyond my discipline and that what I think and argue might actually get nonspecialists upset. I thought I was working out of a deep, perhaps even mystified, respect for science; I thought science was powerful, interesting, and difficult. Science



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studies in literature, insofar as it thinly existed, rarely implied disrespect for science.

It's disingenuous not to recognize, however, that many of us are in the humanities because we were bad at or turned off by science; the ethos we joined tended, conventionally, toward antiscience. That was certainly true in the pre-science studies days of the new criticism. The romantic critique of science, peeping and botanizing on its mother's grave and implicit, for example, in Carlyle's reaction of "mechanism," has continued to play itself out in both high and low culture. Its recent manifestations in New Age mysticism and environmentalism is part of what disturbs Holton, as it also disturbs me. When Levitt first attacked me and my center, he used Whitman's "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer" as an example of what's wrong with our attitudes toward science.

However sympathetic we may have become to the astonishing activities and achievements of science, we bring with us the ethos of our discipline, a set of attitudes and skepticisms that are in effect institutionally opposed to the professional practices of science. It is difficult not to think of science and literature as two distinct ways of knowing and as almost antagonistic in their relationship to knowledge, to the human, and to value. Our attempt to conflate all discourse as fiction becomes an insult to the professional distinctness of the scientific disciplines. By focusing on language and culture we seem to be declaring war.

I discovered, for example, that my rather innocuous reading of Darwin in Darwin and the Novelists had become at Rutgers a focal point for controversy about constructivism well beyond the departments at Rutgers in which anyone might have read the book. Our vice president, a polymathic member of another NAS, the National Academy of Sciences, saw me as a flaming postmodernist (which to this day takes my obsolescing breath away) and asked me to instruct the university community about how I could reconcile postmodernism to Darwin's scientific work. It was then, in fact, that Levitt and several of his colleagues emerged snorting from the protesting majority. When at one point, I assured a heckling scientist that he had nothing to worry about since I would not be asked to referee scientific grant proposals, one woman in the audience shouted out, "Thank God." So this was where my interest in George Eliot had got me?.

The experience was disenchanting, if amusing, because it made me aware as I had never been before that the two cultures were really, perhaps incurably, separated. And it was not a Leavis/Snow separation in




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which the virtue of "values" was opposed to the virtue of "knowledge," but a disciplinary, turf/economic separation, in which what was at stake was institutional authority and government funding. The separation had little to do with the epistemology that was the ostensible focus of attention; it was embedded deeply in material conditions. I was forced to understand the degree to which the very assumptions that ground the enterprise of humanist or social scientist investigation of science imply what may be an irreducible professional conflict. While I had come to praise Darwin, not to bury him, I was heard to be burying him and the whole noble enterprise of objective science.

Although I am not convinced that the current separation between science and science studies needs to be quite as wide as it is becoming, I am convinced that we are in a turf battle. In science studies we are claiming to say something important about science; we are standing on somebody else's turf; our decision as nonscientists to study science is a provocation to a discipline whose members have undergone strenuous disciplinary training and who are now also having trouble finding jobs, as much trouble as we are having. Their decision to fire back should not be surprising, unless we are insufficiently aware of the degree to which we are in fact trespassing and they feel themselves, from their positions of institutional and financial power, very vulnerable indeed. As we resent, say, Gross and Levitt's unintelligent critique of science studies, so scientists resent Latour, Schaffer, and Shapin. We are not innocent.

There is a lot at stake in a cultural criticism that might discourage public resources from supporting scientific activity. Feminism is not merely the crazy and Stalinist political positioning that Levitt and Gross caricature; theoretically, if people listen to it, it could affect scientific projects, shift around the flow of money, cut it off in other directions. David Berreby points out in Lingua Franca that


the outrage scientists feel for science studies is fueled by more than intellectual disdain. Government and business are funding less basic research in science. Congress has voted to kill the superconducting supercollider. Doubts have been raised about the space station, even about the human genome project. The turf is shrinking, and so, like tribes forced toward the same oasis by a drought, scientists and sociologists of science are starting to threaten and skirmish 5.


The announcement of the NAS conference is revealing as it shouts that the attacks on science are "dangerous." Here's why: "They undermine



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public confidence; they alter directions of research; they affect funding; they subvert the standards of reason and proof." Here is very expensive and moralized turf.

Levitt and Gross take the high moral line in talking about what troubles them, although they regard nonscientists' questioning of the authority of scientific knowledge as medieval. What worries them, they say, is that the larger culture, "which embraces the mass media as well as the more serious processes of education," will lose its capability "to interact fruitfully with the sciences, to draw insight from scientific advances, and, above all, to evaluate science intelligently" (6). In a book that mocks everything that doesn't understand science, it is almost funny that the authors imply here that until these SLS-style critiques came along, the public was interacting fruitfully with the sciences. They are, of course, right that people aren't adequately educated in science, but blaming science studies is both unhistorical and scapegoating. Science studies at least encouraged an interest in science that before then required a Sputnik to vivify. The autocratic and arrogant intellectual snobbery that becomes the model for Gross and Levitt's contemptuous dismissal of meddlers in science is far more likely to be responsible for the public's ignorance than the stars or followers of science studies, who constitute a minute and uninfluential minority when it comes to public power, congressional support funding, and education. Gross and Levitt mean by fruitful interaction the public's total deference to anything that the scientific communities might argue. The interaction is to be all one way.

This is Gross and Levitt's real concern: "In order to think critically about science, one must understand it at a reasonably deep level. This task, if honestly approached, requires much time and labor. In fact it is best started when one is young" (5). And why do you suppose so many humanists are involved in these medieval exercises of attack on the authority of scientific knowledge? Because, one might have guessed, humanists are taking their revenge for having been the lowest disciplines on the totem pole of epistemological authority: "Literary criticism, finally, has been looked upon as a species of highly elaborated connoisseurship, interesting and valuable, perhaps, but subjective beyond hope of redemption, and thus out of the running in the epistemological sweepstakes" (12).

Unfortunately, the NAS/Gross-Levitt position, seeming so extreme in its deliberately contemptuous formulations, is pretty much the norm (except for questions of civility) in the communities of science. The assumptions that mark most of our work and that I have quoted




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from Jonathan Smith's new book are simply beyond the pale. We need to face the fact that these assumptions have barely any life beyond societies like ours; and we should be spending a lot of time and energy on how to move them beyond these conference walls.

Note, for example, what has been happening in the response by science to the new national legislation known as Goals 2000. As many of you are aware, the Department of Education is developing guidelines on national standards for what children should know about the various disciplines, and the NAS was given the responsibility to develop those standards for the sciences. These are issues of enormous importance for the future of education in America. The federal government is responding to the public debate about what has gone wrong with contemporary education, and federally imposed standards for all schools are only five or six years away. To what degree do twenty-five years of science studies have anything to say about these issues?

Let me quote a recent article from Science to give you an idea:


Some scientists were up in arms over the description of the philosophy of science. Instead of saying that researchers make discoveries, the document described science as a "social activity" of "constructing knowledge," and emphasized the "tentative nature of scientific knowledge." Physicist James Trefil of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, says the early version conveyed "the really bizarre postmodern notion that somehow science is just a matter of social convention, rather than analysis of data. Harvard University physicist Eric Mazur, a pioneer in undergraduate teaching, was so dismayed by this section that he resigned from the project immediately after reading it. "Science is much more discovery-based than they seem to think," he says.

But Trefil and other scientists give [Richard] Klausner [the director of the project] high marks for his response. Klausner insists the academy never intended to weaken the rigorous underpinnings of the profession, and he says all hints of the offending philosophy will be excised from the final draft.6


We may believe that scientists have postmodernism all wrong, but we cannot ignore the horror most of them feel at the idea of constructivism, which they see as threatening the rigorous underpinnings of science. When I ask who cares about what we do in science studies, I mean not only who is concerned with the dangers of our work, but who can see its full implications and recognize its potential value. Who, for example, understands that constructivism leaves the rigor-

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ous underpinnings of science right where they were and is part of a different project entirely? Who understands that the implicit positivism of the educational program that seems to be endorsed by the Academy is not only intellectually suspect but fundamentally damages the relations of science to the culture as a whole?

Contemporary apologists for science are on a crusade for reality. Objects fall through space at a certain rate not subject to deconstructive analysis. It really happens, empirically. Gravity is not constructed. It's out there. It's real. So what do we do with science and reality? As an indication of our difficulties and responsibilities, I want to look briefly at two key texts in our recent conceptions of the study of science and literature and then raise one question about reality.

One of the most important figures for us in the study of science and literature is Katherine Hayles, who does not escape the direct wrath of Gross and Levitt. But when we turn to Chaos Bound, we find a book that is pretty neutral politically (a ruse, Gross and Levitt suggest; the politics are really there driving everything anyway). Hayles makes the mistake of beginning her book by arguing that "different disciplines are drawn to similar problems because the concerns underlying them are highly charged within a prevailing cultural context."7 Such an argument implicitly denies that science is intrinsically, not extrinsically, driven. There is no connection between Godel's theorem and modernist art; there is no connection between chaos theory and deconstruction. All science moves according to its own internal logic, and the development of particular theories within it are not related to cultural patterns.

I don't want to dwell here on Gross and Levitt's absurd attack on Hayles. She has herself responded effectively, and there is no longer any need to dwell on their well-known reductions and simplifications. My point, simply, is that they serve as a good example of how impossible it has been for those outside our discourse to accept or even understand the assumptions with which we work. They see Hayles as denigrating science because she talks about some scientific work as being akin to postmodern literature. Her analyses, therefore, "in effect derogate the reliability and accuracy of standard science, and snidely disparage those scientists--that is to say, the vast majority of all scientists--who have been oblivious to this ostensible revolution in thought" (92). This, I believe, would be a majority position among those outside the humanities and some of the social sciences in the academy: they have not bought into our talk about "langue" and "parole," or into our sense of how culture works beyond the intentions




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of the individuals who compose it. Here is nonsense or Marxism, or worse.

For our part, however, we need, if we believe in the sorts of culturewide analyses Hayles conducts, to make the assumptions about culture that underlie them available to a world that sees them as counterintuitive if not mad. This is probably harder than most of the work we do. It's crucial that we make it clear that understanding the way scientific and cultural attitudes interpenetrate need do no harm to science and might well lead to that mythic lost ideal condition in which science and the public interact creatively.

Second, let me turn briefly here to Andrew Ross's work, which has developed some reputation among many of us. Strange Weather is not strictly a book on science and literature. It belongs rather to the developing world of cultural studies, takes as its dominant metaphor and subject the science of weather prediction and the cable weather channel, and is written overtly in the interest of what Ross calls progressive politics. Unlike Hayles, Ross has a political agenda, and it's not hard to notice that he is not well loved by those outside cultural studies in which he works. Ross makes it clear that he doesn't know much about science, and yet he spends most of the book attempting to undercut, for political reasons, the special authority of science against protest movements like New Age activists.

What is most important about Ross's book is that it is centrally concerned with the question of how a lay public might most effectively relate to science, as institution and practice. This, I take it, is the critical issue. He doesn't, after all, accept the ideas of the protest movements he studies but is interested in the political significance of their antiscientific positioning, and he criticizes these groups because they argue their own authority by adopting some of the very strategies of the sciences they critique. But the very audience we are trying to reach doesn't seem to have the time or the training to understand what books like Ross's are trying to do. What matters for them is that the book seems to be antiscience and that it is driven by a political program.

Valuable and important as it is, Strange Weather may, rhetorically, be striking the wrong note. It's the kind of problem we need to be thinking about as we seek to extend our range beyond those initiates who begin with our assumptions and our training. Ross is deliberately playful and theatrical throughout the book--rather too much so, I think. The opening statement seems impossible not to read as a provocation: "This book is dedicated to all the science teachers I never had.



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It could only have been written without them."8 That's cute, of course. And it places Ross rather aggressively, it would seem, in the anti-science camp. The problem is, books written like this depend on readers who like to play with language, but they are often, and I believe most importantly, read by people who don't. Since one of the points of Ross's book is that in order to act meaningfully in the politics of contemporary culture, we need to become more literate in science and technology, this opening aggression suggests a more humble and science-favoring reading than it seems at first to allow. For Ross, there is too much at stake to ignore science, and science is too important to leave to scientists. I am not suggesting that Ross's provocations are misguided. For anyone who can read, they open up the complications of the subject. But for those who can't read, those whom we need to engage, those with whom it would be good if we could "fruitfully interact," Ross's wit is an alien language. It is no more intelligible to Gross and Levitt than the technical language of Levitt's topological research is to me. Here, for example, is the problem I'm most concerned with: the arrogance of specialist discourse when we are talking to each other about things that matter.

I am particularly struck by the irony that beyond the ignorances, aggressions, and brilliancies of disciplinary difference, Ross in fact claims as his object something quite similar to what Gross and Levitt claim to seek. Where they had asked for a lay public that might "interact fruitfully with the sciences, . . . draw insight from scientific advances, and, above all, . . . evaluate science intelligently," Ross seeks workable strategies that address "the desire for personal responsibility and control that will allow nonexperts to make sense of the role of science in their everyday dealing with the social and physical world" (29). Here he isn't being playful; this is what it's all about. How can we create a reasonable and strategically effective critique of science that might have some plausibility in the world beyond these walls?

What Ross resists and what needs resisting are the political and economic implications of the scientific culture of expertise. Scientists do know how some things work, so it seems absurd not to accept their judgments, to open ourselves, as a lay public, to scientific authority. But does that entail the pious submission to absolute scientific authority on the part of the lay public whose very lives will be determined by the choices scientists and their material supporters make? If fruitful lay interaction depends on full scientific literacy, I fear that abject, pious submission is all that lies before us---even, ironically, for most scientists, who have no standing outside their own areas of expertise.




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Precisely that model provokes Ross to his provocations and me to these reflections. Gross and Levitt show that science claiming universal rationality and the right method and a community of truth seekers gets loaded with a lot of political freight dangerous to anyone who might question it. Of course, we would be fools to behave as though there is no knowledge of the natural world to be had and that science has no


better shot at it than any other professionals, or nonprofessionals.

How then to reconcile our respect for science with our resistances to it, to recognize the need for knowledge and to sustain our sense that science is in culture, that it is never any more unpolluted by the society out of which it emerges than any other cultural product, that the power of its knowledge production requires of us more, not less, attention? Being playful while talking to a like-minded group alienates those who need to be convinced. Pretending to ignorance may seem like encouraging it, and the one thing people who engage in serious discussion of difficult scientific/cultural issues cannot afford is ignorance.

Let me focus this problem with a simple exemplary narrative, whose moral is banal and whose particular point is probably well known to many of you. At Rutgers, we own a stretch of genuinely virgin forest--Mettler's Woods, "the last remaining uncut upland forest in central New Jersey."9The forest, as what was known as a "climax" forest, is invaluable for research and teaching. The old oaks in it are, on average, 235 years old. As a result, "no manipulation or human disturbance" has been allowed there. The biologists who supervise the forest believe that it was crucial to keep it at its present equilibrium, and thus even spraying for gypsy moths has been disallowed. Supervision has been careful and thoughtful. The aim has been preservation. Certainly, the refusal to do anything to the forest but let it be without human interference would, prima facie, meet the approval of most conservation groups, most people concerned with ecological issues.

And yet, as several young Rutgers scientists have noted, the forest is falling into decay. The old oaks are failing to reproduce themselves and seem at last to be "senescing." Somehow, the best of intentions and the best available ecological paradigms are not working, and it has since been discovered that some ecologically unsound camping and careless campfire building would have done wonders for the forest. "It is becoming clear," the scientists now say, "that oak species in many parts of the eastern United States require some sort of ground fire for successful regeneration" (69).




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     Such a story is familiar--not much different, except in scale, from the lesson of the fires in Yellowstone Park. And the moral is that as we move out into large, substantive, cultural/scientific issues such as ecology where most of us have strong feelings and commitments, we simply have to know what we are talking about. Even preliminary social and moral decisions like whether to preserve the woods or to preserve endangered species require some "scientific" information. There are costs to everything; how do we determine what the cost will be? If we decide that preserving the woods is a good thing, we should first know why and second know how to preserve them. That requires serious research, what is now called scientific research. Ecologically, it turns out, it was a scientific mistake to treat humans as though they were not part of nature; to save the woods, we need humans to burn them. And mistakes like that, if we extrapolate to, say, the rain forests of South America, or even the timberlands of the Northwest, have profound moral and political implications. We are in a joint enterprise. Somebody is going to have to do the studying and somebody is going to have to listen--on both sides.

In this context, the strategy of Ross's book may seem at times unfortunate. I think that he is by and large substantively right, and adopting the strategy of theater and provocation may in fact be the way to get us talking about our mutual interests. But there is a lot of educating on both sides to be done, and when we say in our various literary, ecological, social, and cultural ventures that science is just another discourse, we need to make it clear that we are not saying that as just another discourse it doesn't have a particular and crucially important role to play in anything we might choose to do.

Our interdisciplinary ambitions have inadequately touched the people whose disciplines we want to talk about; our rhetoric has been far too comfortable in affirming the dominant assumptions of our cur­ent work and on the whole too lax in affirming the necessity of the kind of knowledge science produces best. And we have been insufficiently alert to the way our assumptions and the very practices of our field embattle us and alienate the scientific disciplines. Thinking always of science, that nonmonolithic though institutionally powerful concept, as the enemy, reduces our capacity to make our own discriminations, but more important, reduces our capacity tot speak to those whose activities we most want to engage.

In any truly public battle, those arguing for constructivism in general will lose to those arguing for reality in general. What is necessary is first an at least rhetorical concession to the power of the argument




138 George Levine


for reality, and second, a demonstration of the way particular uses of the constructivist position are humanly helpful and consistent with a rigorous science. It is crucial to make it clear that even constructivists believe that it is necessary to know what they are talking about, that the preservation of Mettler's Woods depends on sound knowledge rigorously ascertained.

Some of the difference, the failure to achieve appropriate contact, is irreducible, but some of it is not, and if we are committed to a broader and richer conception of the interactions between science and literature, of the place of science in the broader culture, we had better make ourselves more alert and begin developing strategies that honor the necessity for developing the constructivist and discourse-oriented critiques we do so well, insisting on the most rigorous possible acquisition of necessary knowledge, doing whatever we can to make it clear that nonscientists have a place in the conversation, but finding above all a way to make scientists part of that conversation.




This chapter was originally written for the keynote address of the Science and Literature meeting In November 1994. In the course of revising it, I came to real­ize that the audience I was addressing at that meeting is an important part of the argument and that any revision that turned that audience into a more general­ized reader would lose much of its point. As a result, I have kept the lecture's rhetoric and mean by "we" the members of the Science and Literature Society, predominantly from departments of literature, but including historians and sci­entists as well.

1   Norman Levitt and Paul Cross, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 6.

2   Paul A. Kotmesaroff, Objectivity, Science, and Society (London: Routledge, 1986),


3   Jonathan Smith, Fact and Feeling: Baconian Science and the Nineteenth-Century Literary imagination (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994). 5.

4  Gerald Holton, Science and Anti-Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univer­sity Press, 1993), 153.

5  David Berreby, "That Damned Elusive Bruno Latour:' Lingua Franca 4, no.6 (1994): 24.

6 Science, 16 September 1994, 1649.

7  Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), xi.

8   Andrew Ross, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (London: Verso, 1991), i.

9  Steward T. A. Pickett, V Thomas Parker, and Peggy L. Fiedler, "The New Para­digm in Ecology: Implications for Conservation Biology above the Species Level," in Conservation Biology: The Theory and Practice of Nature Conserva­tion and Management, ed. Peggy L. Fiedler and Subodh K. Jain (London: chap-man and Hall, 1992), 68.