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Reading between the lines

The case for intellectual snobbery

John Gillott welcomes the latest blast from the 'science wars'

  • Prometheus Bedeviled: Science And The Contradictions Of Contemporary Culture, Norman Levitt, Rutgers University Press, $32 hbk

Norman Levitt can stake a good claim to starting what became known as the 'science wars', with a broad attack on modern social constructionist critics of science in Higher Superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science (1994, with Paul Gross). That book inspired American physicist Alan Sokal to play his famous hoax on the editors of the constructionist journal Social Text, which generated another round in the conflict and also brought it to the attention of a much wider audience around the world.

Refreshingly, the combative thrust of Higher Superstition is, if anything, accentuated in Levitt's latest offering; as he puts it in the introduction: 'whatever faults this book turns out to have, a "Mr Nice Guy stance" shall not be among them.' In his view, environmentalist writings on the nature of science are often based on the 'conceit that the natural order partakes of the divine, and can be communed with only through the renunciation of human cleverness'. Homeopathy is 'the "science" of pretending that nothing is something'. And proposals for the 'democratisation' of science usually turn out to be aimed at anointing 'popular enthusiasm or even quasi-religious dogma' with the cultural authority of the scientific.

Levitt is also critical of the growing influence of social constructionists within institutions that govern science and science education, and is ready to lay down a challenge to his colleagues: 'A blunt fact about the situation is that in order to disperse wrongheadedness, we shall have to clear away the wrongheaded. This is the sort of thing that academic discourse goes to great lengths to avoid saying plainly, but in this case it desperately needs to be said plainly. A substantial fraction of the people who have assumed authority over the philosophy, policy and practice of science education are thoroughly unfitted for their positions, notwithstanding the prestige of some of the organisations that have endorsed their credentials.'

Higher Superstition catalogued the absurdities of social constructionist writings on a range of science-related subjects. In part this book updates some of the material and themes developed there, but on the whole it takes these as a given in order to move on to a set of questions and problems which were discussed only tangentially in the earlier work. Central to these is the question, why is it that science is so integral to the functioning of modern society, and yet estranged from it at the same time? The result is a very stimulating and challenging read.

Levitt describes himself as 'a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture'. More so than some who would call themselves Conservatives with a capital C, he takes his cultural conservatism seriously. When it comes to science - which he regards as the pre-eminent achievement of modern culture - he believes in standards and elitism: 'science is an elitist calling, and it draws upon abilities that are manifest in only a small segment of the population.' The notion that talent is universally and equally distributed is, he suggests, 'a benign dictum for nursery school, but not likely to be of much use in developing the next generation of quantum field theorists'. The central theme of Prometheus Bedeviled is that contemporary democracy finds it virtually impossible to live with this fact. Indeed, Levitt fears that society would rather live by the philosophy of the nursery school: 'in our present situation, intellectual snobbery is not the major affliction of our culture. Much more dangerous is the prevalent anti-snobbery that scoffs at intellectual distinction and at the hard work and deferral of immediate gratification that are so important in achieving it.'

What Levitt highlights well is the way in which the contemporary attack on old forms of social and cultural hierarchy often slips into an attack on all forms of hierarchy, including the hard sciences, resulting in a belittling of knowledge and hostility to strongly held beliefs. Indeed, he argues that it is almost certainly no accident that the 'withering of social hierarchy has been accompanied by the derogation of hierarchy in the realm of ideas, opinions and thought'. As a self-confessed leftist, not to say anarchist, Levitt adds that 'recognition of this fact is inherently dispiriting, but without such a recognition it will be impossible to even begin the process of learning what to do about it'.

So what does Levitt think we should do about it? Unfortunately, just as the contemporary attack on old forms of social hierarchy is 'accompanied by the derogation of hierarchy in the realm of ideas, opinions and thought', so Levitt's small c conservatism infects his views on the full range of cultural questions, which these days means much of politics. While he argues in principle that elitism need not mean that only a small minority can understand scientific ideas, and that a robust and confident populace need have no problem with acknowledging the role of scientific expertise in any case, these propositions are increasingly bracketed off as he moves towards solutions. Evidently dispirited, and somewhat shamefaced, he winds up tentatively proposing a body of scientific experts be created, weakly analogous to the Federal Reserve Board, with institutional authority to declare on matters of scientific fact. He hopes that out of sheer business self-interest, if nothing else, the plutocracy will 'do the right thing for the wrong reason' and support science in this way.

This appeal to the elite has a certain rational foundation - it would be business suicide to reject science, and for this reason, if no other, science will continue to advance. But if the aim is to maximise the potential of scientific advance in all areas, including contentious ones such as biotechnology, as well as to outline a strategy for generating a culture that is receptive to science and appreciative of expertise, it is a non-starter. The trends identified by Levitt have been given social weight, indeed it would be more accurate to say they are now defined by, an acute crisis of confidence within the elites of society, in response to which governments are increasingly looking to the very social constructionists Levitt criticises to advise on science policy and science literacy programmes. Such 'wrongheads' should be challenged at the institutional level, but the only way to generate a culture appreciative of science is for scientists to step outside of a narrow dialogue with the elite, and work on a broader front at the political and cultural level.

Oh no!

Review by Linda Ryan

  • John Major: The Autobiography, John Major, HarperCollins, £25 hbk

Just when you had forgotten the crippling shame of living in a country ruled by John Major, back he comes to remind us all. Ex-Tory prime minister Major's book is unfortunately overshadowed by his own personality, or rather lack of one. In a nod to his image, Major quotes the artist Camille Pissarro: 'never forget to make the proper use of the whole dazzling range of greys.'

At every turn Major's moral cowardice is compelling. At dinner with Rupert Murdoch before the 1997 election, he declines even to ask for News International's support. He was first elected a councillor in Lambeth, the beneficiary of Enoch Powell's race hatred, quietly distancing himself from Powellism after the event. Despite being heir to Margaret Thatcher he had many criticisms of her policies, wisely choosing not to air them. His stands are generally made in private, like the determination to resign over 'Black Wednesday' (his sister talked him out of it).

In the recent TV documentary based on this book, the most damning thing said - apart from Norman Lamont's charge that Major hid in the toilet for two hours on Black Wednesday while the pound was going down the pan - was Charles Moore's complaint: that you could admire Major for having gone all the way to the top from modest roots, but not for endlessly complaining about how difficult it was when he got there. Consequently, the memoirs, but more so the series, are overburdened with the dull tale of Tory splits and backbiting. Major is a thin personality, as easily flattered by wealthy or cultured men as he is hurt by criticism, with a capacity for drawing out the pedantically obvious.

Having never challenged Thatcher's legacy, Major was in the peculiar position of being a prisoner of it while he was revising it. The endless splits dogged him for the simple reason that the right had never accepted that they had lost, and still claimed ownership of the Tory Party, while his own 'caring Conservatism' had never earned support. Nonetheless, the compelling lesson is that it was Major's government more than Thatcher's that foreshadowed the current Blair administration.

Both Blair and Major are beneficiaries of the Thatcher defeat of organised labour, but it was Major who set out the basics of government in an age when political opposition was no more. Major's policy initiatives of citizens' charters, charter marks, league tables, and so on were - rightly - seen as a joke at the time (the traffic cones hotline is quietly forgotten here). But these have been carried over into the current administration, as have the consultative boards and lay-panels of non-government experts drawn from business.

Major's turn to reform public service was an attempt to keep up the pressure on vested interests that had been applied by Thatcher's privatisation strategy. Without necessarily privatising, Major recast the relationship between the people and the government in market terms, as customers and providers. It had the effect of creating ever-more bureaucracy with regulators, ombudsmen and tables substituting for real market forces.

When Major tried to soothe his party by facing down the European Union, he insisted on sovereign control over traditional areas of government like immigration and foreign policy in the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. But his concessions on giving the European Court powers to regulate markets and the European parliament to investigate corruption were telling: these were precisely the most up-to-date areas of state regulation, being initiated by his own government.

Like a Soviet-style bureaucracy, this new army of auditors tended to paralyse and corrode, as effort was put to fulfilling the letter of the charter rather than its substance. But at least one group of people was very impressed: the policy wonks in the New Labour think tanks like Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research were peculiarly taken with auditing and other forms of apolitical 'governance'. The whole rigmarole of regulatory and consultative bodies was fed into the think tanks, worked up and repackaged as New Labour policy. Oh yes.

The moral of the story

Review by James Panton

  • Humanity: A Moral History Of The Twentieth Century, Jonathan Glover, Jonathan Cape, £18.99 hbk

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant recognised a serious moral problem: there was nothing to stop men disobeying the rules of morality if these were no more than externally imposed dictates from God. His solution was to found the Categorical Moral Law upon the universal reason of mankind. A hundred years on, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God and the death of the moral law. With their demise, he predicted that morality would perish. Now, on the eve of a new millennium, Oxford moral philosopher Jonathan Glover looks back upon the past hundred years - from the First World War and the rise of Nazism, through Stalin and Pol Pot, to Saddam Hussein, Rwanda and the Balkan conflict - and is dismayed that Nietzsche's prediction seems to ring true.

Glover's Humanity is an attempt to answer the moral problem raised by Nietzsche: how can we maintain a workable morality in the absence of an external moral law? He recognises two core components of any human ethic: respect for others, and sympathy (which we might better understand as 'empathy'). The existence of these 'moral resources' gives him hope that morality can be maintained even in the absence of external imperatives. However, he believes these resources are fragile, as can be seen from the 'inhuman catastrophes' which have blighted this century. We must learn from recent history how it is that these moral resources can be weakened and lost, in order that we can strengthen them for the future.

Glover isolates two psychological tendencies in human beings which serve to weaken our moral resources in certain societal conditions. Firstly, 'tribalism': the tendency for the moral resources to be 'stubbornly limited and local'. Weight is given to the interests of those within one's community, but there is a moral indifference towards those outside. When social conditions are right, such as in Yugoslavia after the death of the 'Leviathan' Tito, or when Saddam Hussein waged war on Kuwait, such tribalism allows atrocities to be committed by one group upon another by superseding the normal moral responses which value the dignity of other human beings and which cause us to be sympathetic towards their plight.

Second: 'belief.' This, says Glover, is a hangover from the Enlightenment, a false faith in the idea that society can be improved upon by the rational organisation of humanity. For example, Glover states, 'The obvious message from the history of Stalinism is the importance of avoiding grandiose utopian projects. But another message is as important. It comes from the role of ideology in Stalinism. We have seen how, for instance, tribalism makes atrocities possible by overwhelming the moral resources. Among such psychological dispositions, belief is at least as dangerous as tribalism'. Glover sees the culmination of these psychological tendencies in the Nazi project, when belief in the possibility of reorganising society met with the tribalism of one social group against another.

Glover's method, a moral-psychological reconstruction of twentieth-century atrocities, is at times an interesting study of how the normal moral intuitions of people can be perverted by circumstances. Though he tries to make sense of eruptions of historical barbarity, this approach leaves us with no more than a description. Glover interprets particular social crises as consequences of failures in morality. This leads him to deride the very human subjectivity that most deserves celebration.

Glover provides no answer to Nietzsche. He perfectly expresses the general pessimism with which contemporary society is infected. At least Nietzsche believed in the ability of humankind to transform itself. For Glover, it is this very belief that we must be at pains to avoid.

Read On Read On Read On Read On

Review by Austin Williams

  • The Life Of The Automobile, Ilya Ehrenburg, Serpent's Tail, £12.99 pbk

First published in 1929, this book has been revived from near oblivion and discounted for the readers of one national newspaper as a commentary on our times. You can see why. Given the current concerns about the motor car, this book must seem like manna from heaven. Tales of pioneering driving recklessness mingle with stories of international finance, business intrigue and economic conflict. A risky mix. As the blurb says, 'The Life of the Automobile uncannily predicts the rise and fall of our romance with the car'. Fortunately, it does no such thing.

It is hardly surprising, unless you have the modern-day anti-car predisposition, that a book at the dawn of the mass car age is not really down on the motor car. The book is, in fact, not an anguished warning of the folly of the car, but rather an expressionistic critique of the anarchy of the market in the interwar years, using the car as a figurative device. Given that the book was written on the eve of Stalin's first five-year plan, some rhetoric is only to be expected.

The real enjoyment of the book is that it develops a patchwork of stories dramatising real historical characters in pseudo-historical tableaux. Oil barons, manufacturing executives, factory workers and their families rub shoulders in an exciting range of speculative circumstances, to give a unique insight into the mood of the times. Ehrenburg has no qualms about putting words in people's mouths to create a 'real' history.

A certain anti-car bias is prevalent, but understandable; written as it was in a country whose car production was virtually non-existent, and for whom mass car production represented 'the West'. Nevertheless, if you read the book without preconceptions, the tales are as gripping as a new set of radials.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group

Read On Read On Read On Read On

Review by Sandy Starr

  • Rebel Yell: A Century Of Underground Classics, Kevin Williamson (ed), Canongate, free, pbk

What do Howard Marks, Leon Trotsky and Thomas Pynchon have in common? They have all been selected by Kevin Williamson, editor of Canongate's Rebel Inc series, for inclusion in his compilation of 'underground classics' Rebel Yell. If the connection between these authors is tenuous, there is nonetheless some superb writing on offer here. Much of it showcases the ability of countercultural literature to shock, amuse and move the reader on an immediate and visceral level. What is questionable is not the quality of these pieces, but the editor's opinion of them, and his purpose in assembling them between the same covers.

In his introduction, Williamson makes it clear that his sampler is intended as a response to The Test of Time: what makes a classic a classic?, published by Waterstone's. Mocking the notion of a literary canon, he argues that a classic book is 'any book that I think's a classic and that's about it'. He explains that his criteria for selecting Rebel Inc books is that they 'deal with the non-mainstream, counterculture, underground, subversive, sexy, psychoactive, revolutionary, blissed-out, angry, contemplative, fucked-up, nihilistic, violent, internationalist, anti-war, peace-loving, extremist, surrealist, individualist, socialistic, outsider perspectives'.

All of which is fine if it means that Knut Hamsun's Hunger is going to remain in print. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that these works are 'classics' to compare with Shakespeare, Dickens or Joyce. Their appeal is immeasurably more narrow than that of the traditional canon, since they concern themselves almost exclusively with rebellion, despondence and occasional black humour. By using every iconoclast from Jack London to Charles Bukowski for the purpose of canon-bashing, Williamson does them a disservice, while the canon remains intact.

For your free copy of Rebel Yell, call Canongate books on (0131) 557 5111

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000



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