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ftp://ftp.primenet.com/pub/skeptic/03.1.shallit-higher http://www.primenet.com/~lippard/03.1.shallit-higher.html From _Skeptic_ vol. 3, no. 1, 1994, pp. 98-100 The following article is copyright (c) 1994 by the Skeptics Society, 2761 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this articles in its entirety, including this notice. For information about a special Internet introductory subscription rate, see the file subscription-rates or contact Jim Lippard (lippard@primenet.com). LEFTIST SCIENCE & SKEPTICAL RHETORIC Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. By Jeffrey Shallit This is a book with a split personality. On the one hand, it is a revealing expose of the new and unprecedented efforts by certain members of the academic left to topple science's dominance as the pre-eminent tool of Western rationalists. On the other hand, it is an often-sloppy polemic that indulges in the some of the same tactics it decries. The authors (one a professor at the University of Virginia; the other at Rutgers University) have marshalled an impressive compendium of scientific misconceptions by the likes of Stanley Aronowitz, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Steven Best, and N. Katherine Hayles. Indeed, Gross and Levitt are at their best when they simply let these academic "stars" pontificate mindlessly about physics, chaos theory, and the scientific method. There is a lot of lousy science being bandied about in Arts faculties in Europe and North America, and Gross and Levitt mince no words in exposing it. I am very sympathetic with Gross and Levitt's conclusion that much of the academic left's problems with science stems from ignorance, pure and simple. Let's face it: science is hard. It takes years of study and significant mathematical sophistication to truly understand the simplest of the recent scientific advances. Faced with this challenge, some leftist academics have resorted to commentary without knowledge, and others, when unwilling to admit ignorance, have resorted to claiming that such knowledge is illusory. Gross and Levitt present the following example from Jacques Derrida: "The Einsteinian constant [c] is not a constant, not a center. It is the very concept of variability-it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of some thing-of a center from which an observer could master the field-but the very concept of the game" (p. 79). Why anyone would think this claptrap constitutes serious academic discourse is beyond me. (One wonders why Jacques could not consult his cousin, Bernard Derrida, a world-class physicist whose ideas have earned comparatively little popular acclaim-an irony often noted in private by French scientists.) It is, however, relatively harmless, and to the best of my knowledge Derrida is not aping the Creationists by insisting that his particular brand of pseudoscientific analysis be taught in the public schools. But Gross and Levitt are not simply content to expose these sorts of academic fraud, they also seek to "explain" them as a necessary consequence of leftist ideology. They envision a conspiracy to maintain the left's alleged hegemony over academic departments: ". . . over the last 25 years the entire process of recruitment into academic careers, especially outside the exact sciences, has been altered in a way that lures people with left-wing sympathies and hopes for radical social change into scholarly young careers" (p. 35). Gross and Levitt even go so far as to claim that "such enthusiasm [for Marxism] is usually enough to guarantee success and even celebrity in the narrow world of the academy" (p. 237). And they look back to the 1960s for a beginning: "Many veterans of the sixties are still on hand as leaders or advisors to radical undergraduates, and indeed, to those who know these folk well, the trace of nostalgia is strong and unmistakable" (p. 221). In seeking where to place the blame, Gross and Levitt round up the usual suspects: feminists, environmentalists, homosexuals, and blacks. It is certainly true that extremists in these groups are sometimes guilty of using bad science in pursuit of their goals. Jeremy Rifkin's tireless efforts to curb or even eliminate whole scientific enterprises (e.g., genetic engineering), often based on gross misunderstandings of the science itself, are strongly criticized by Gross and Levitt. They note that there are some extreme feminists who attack science as "masculine oppression" and are calling for a "feminist algebra" in which math books would break gender stereotypes" in the process of "affirming women's experiences." If this is the math class of the future, science education is indeed in trouble. The extreme multi-culturalists do not attack science in this manner; rather, they attempt to reconstruct its history to include all races equally. Blacks in Science, Ancient and Modern, for example, tells its high school readers that Egyptians invented the science of aeronautics, and presents as evidence for this claim the famous small wooden figure of a bird, about which Gross and Levitt explain: "If you build a copy of balsa wood (rather than the original sycamore) and then add a vertical stabilizer (not present in the original), you get a so-so version of a toy glider!" Nice try, but . . . . Where the academic left (driven by outdated Marxist theories of class oppression) presents science as nothing more than a social construction designed to support the group in power (usually white males), Gross and Levitt rightly point out that "science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise" where, for example, "the set of plain truths that science (in the guise of, say, penicillin) works just as well for Australian aborigines (male and female) as it does on Englishmen (and women)." And, I would add, it works for all classes. Unfortunately, in many places, Gross and Levitt's prose is barely distinguishable from some of the more literate pronouncements of Rush Limbaugh, although the authors attempt to portray themselves as fair-minded with back-handed admissions, such as "left-wing political opinions are not especially inconsistent with high intelligence" (p. 82). As a scientist, I believe that science is important. But to Gross and Levitt, it is everything, to the naive extreme of excluding the arts and humanities, and taking one small subset of extremists and generalizing to all in that group (not all or even a majority of feminists hate science). At one point, they even trot out the old chestnut that freshmen in Science faculties have used for ages to taunt their counterparts in Arts faculties (p. 243): If . . . the humanities department at MIT . . . were to walk out in a huff, the scientific faculty could, at need and with enough released time, patch together a humanities curriculum, to be taught by the scientists themselves . . . . What the opposite situation-a walkout by the scientists-would produce, as the humanities department tried to cope with the demand for science education, we leave to the reader's imagination. Having attempted to discuss art and literature with some of my scientific colleagues, I am not nearly as sanguine as Gross and Levitt about the abilities of scientists to teach the humanities. And I also know at least one English professor whose command of science and mathematics exceeds my knowledge of literary tradition by a large factor. A more serious trap in Gross and Levitt's undisguised partisanship is that it causes them to fall victim to an all-too-common failing: sources they agree with are labeled authoritative, while sources they disagree with are disparaged. A good example of this weakness can be found in a footnote recommending the book Trashing The Planet by Dixy Lee Ray and Lou Guzzo (p. 278). Although parts of the Ray-Guzzo book do indeed have some merit, it also contains numerous scientific inaccuracies and deplorably poor scholarship. In Ray and Guzzo's discussion of ozone depletion, for example, they claim that the eruption of Mt. St. Augustine in 1976 "injected 289 billion kilograms of hydrochloric acid directly into the stratosphere." The correct range (Nature, V. 334, p. 415) is 0.08-0.18 billion kilograms, a factor of 1600-3600 smaller; not an insignificant mistake. One of Ray and Guzzo's principal sources is an "EIR Special Report" which they refer to as "The Greenhouse Effect Hoax." But the correct title of the report is "The Greenhouse Effect Hoax: A World Federalist Plot," and "EIR" turns out to be "Executive Intelligence Review," a loony magazine published by followers of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche. This is the kind of scholarship that Gross and Levitt label as "straight-shooting." Thus, in the process of accusing the academic left of unscientific or anti-scientific attitudes, they weaken their position by endorsing poor science or even pseudoscience. (Gross and Levitt must have known about the unreliability of the Ray-Guzzo book, since it is explicitly debunked at length in an article by Gary Taubes [Science, V. 260, pp. 1580-3] that they reference on page 278.) Other passages indicate that Gross and Levitt's scientific judgment is seriously suspect when they stray from fields in which they are acknowledged experts (Gross is a biologist, and Levitt is a mathematician). In discussing ozone depletion, for example, they refer to the "seasonal decline of ionospheric ozone" (p. 158). But the ozone layer is located in the stratosphere, not the ionosphere. It is a minor error to be sure, but not one that should be made in the process of criticizing others for their unscientific ways. Gross and Levitt also go astray in their discussion of the problems faced by Aramis, a high-tech transportation system project in France. In their analysis of a leftist critique of the system, Gross and Levitt state: "Real-ti me algorithms must be devised for . . . minimizing station-to-station travel time for each passenger, maximizing utilization of each car . . . . [This problem] involves all the notorious difficulties of the 'traveling salesman problem,' the paradigmatic holy grail of combinatorics and operations research" (p. 61). There are two problems with this claim of Gross and Levitt. First, it is unsupported. Second, even if it were true, it would not necessarily be a serious obstacle for such a system. The traveling salesman problem (TSP) is the following: given a list of cities, with known distances between them, devise a tour that visits each city exactly once and returns to the starting point, such that the total distance traveled is minimized. A suitably modified version of this problem is known to be "NP-complete"; the "hard core" and most difficult of the complexity class NP. No general efficient solution to the TSP is known, and the fact that the associated decision problem is NP-complete suggests that none is likely to be found in the near future. Now it may be that some suitable modification of the dynamic scheduling problem involved in Aramis might be NP-complete, and hence polynomial-time equivalent to TSP. But this is not at all obvious, and Gross and Levitt provide no reference to back up their claim. More important, however, the rider in such a transportation system is completely uninterested in whether her car has been routed in the most efficient manner possible. She might very well be completely satisfied if a routing algorithm is used that guarantees a wait of at most five minutes, or one that comes within some constant factor of the best possible. Such approximation algorithms are well-known for the TSP under certain conditions, and they may also exist for the optimization problem that arises in Aramis. In any event, "solving" the problem depends as much on the underlying mathematics as the expectations of the rider. Gross and Levitt also do not seem to know that a request-driven people-mover system similar to Aramis, called the Personal Rapid Transit system, has operated in Morgantown, West Virginia, since 1975. It operates 71 cars and serves 2.5 million passengers a year. While not as ambitious as Aramis, the West Virginia experience belies their claim that software difficulties are the main roadblock to such a system. Gross and Levitt are also fond of poking fun at the rhetorical pretensions of leftist academics; "turgid" is one of their favorite words. Unfortunately, Gross and Levitt are occasionally guilty of the same offense. Consider the following: "[Environmentalism] envisions a transcendence of the values of Western industrial society and the restoration of an imagined prelapsarian harmony to humanity's relations with nature" (p. 4). How's that again? Environmentalists are a favorite target of Gross and Levitt. Some of their comments are on target (the environmental movement could use more skeptics), but many are simply silly. They ask, for example, why leftist advocates of solar power do not evince much enthusiasm for hydroelectric power, but then misrepresent leftist environmentalists with this summary of their position: " . . . hydroelectric power is rife with demons, for example, men, machines, power lines, utility stocks and bonds, electromagnetic fields, and artificial lakes full of power boats" (pp. 160-1). Noticeably absent in this list are the deeper reasons for environmentalists' opposition to hydroelectric power: environmental destruction, habitat loss, depletion of fish stocks, submerging of buried cultural artifacts, and, most important, the real danger of extremely large amounts of water held back by a sometimes-inadequate concrete barrier-in the 1991 Ormoc disaster in the Philippines, at least 2,300 people were killed when a heavy rainstorm burst a hydroelectric dam, causing a wall of water and mud to descend on the unlucky villagers. In the latter third of the book, Gross and Levitt run out of steam, and end up making generalization after generalization for which no supporting data are presented. For example, they disparage the idea that some animals might be sentient (p. 199), despite the fact that many serious scientists believe there is strong evidence of this (see Animal Minds by Donald Griffin and the collection The Great Ape Project, edited by Cavalieri and Singer). They offer three possible stances with regard to animal testing (p. 202), one of which is an extremist caricature, but do not see fit to mention the position that testing on some animals (e.g. chimpanzees) could be banned, while testing on other, lower organisms could continue. They claim that "[m]any college newspapers . . . run astrology columns" (p. 225), whereas an admittedly unscientific survey by this reviewer found only 4 out of 20 college newspapers provided such a column, and at least 2 of those 4 were intended to be humorous. Higher Superstition is a good compendium of extremists' irrational claims, but its serious flaws ensure that the academic left indicted there will find it easy to dismiss Gross and Levitt's findings and continue their often preposterous caricatures of science. And that is a shame.n About Jeffrey Shallit Dr. Jeffrey Shallit is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada. He received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1983, under Manuel Blum. He taught at the University of Chicago and Dartmouth College prior to his present position, and has been a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin and the Universite de Bordeaux, France. His research interests are algorithmic number theory and formal languages. His book with Eric Bach, _Algorithmic Number Theory_, will be published in 1995 by MIT Press. He can be reached by email as shallit@graceland.uwaterloo.ca.


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