The postmodernist critique of science consists of two interrelated arguments, epistemological and ideological. Both are based on subjectivity. First, because of the subjectivity of the human object, anthropology, according to the epistemological argument cannot be a science; and in any event the subjectivity of the human subject precludes the possibility of science discovering objective truth. Second, since objectivity is an illusion, science according to the ideological argument, subverts oppressed groups, females, ethnics, third-world peoples.
Postmodernism and science
I detest postmodernism.
Well, it’s not really postmodernism per se that I detest. In the humanities, I don’t mind it so much, although reading postmodernist texts in college did make my head hurt. I suppose that in the humanities postmodernism provides a sometimes useful methodology for providing insights into interpretation of a wide variety of subjects in literature and the arts, although much of the time it seems to exist mainly to try to make texts mean exactly the opposite of what the words on the page say. Relying as it does on deconstruction, which is primarily a form of literary analysis, postmodern analysis is built on questioning the assumptions underlying any text, “deconstructing” its meaning. The problem is, it’s rare that a postmodernist critique of anything doesn’t consist of some of the densest, most impenetrable verbiage in existence.
Since I don’t claim to be a philosopher, and I haven’t studied postmodernism since college, I don’t intend to embarrass myself by trying to do a detailed–ahem–deconstruction of what postmodernism is. Many are the trees that have been killed to write books trying to explain what postmodernism is and how to apply it to various subjects. I do know, however, that postmodern philosphy is skeptical–even nihilistic–when it comes to the values of what is considered “modernity.” Unfortunately, to some, science is one of these modern values that is viewed with extreme skepticism, even to the point of representing the very essence of science as nothing more than one narrative among many. True, Spiro was writing primarily about anthropological science, but medicine is a “soft” enough science to be just as easily attacked in such a manner, and postmodernists don’t limit themselves to the “soft” sciences, anyway. Even worse, these sorts of arguments often claim that science (or, in this case, evidence-based medicine) is nothing more than a sort of hegemony of the power structure being imposed upon the very definition of “data” or “reality,” the implication that it’s us white males whose hegemony is being served (and whose hegemony, presumably, must be resisted) doing the imposing, as if there are no inherent characteristics in science that make it a more reliable means of assessing reality as it exists than, for example, personal anecdote and “experience.”
No wonder woo-meisters and those who hate the very concept of evidence-based medicine (as opposed to the deficiencies in how EBM ranks evidence, which in fact were the reason why this blog is called Science-Based Medicine and not Evidence-based Medcine) love postmodernism so much. It’s the perfect tool for them to appeal to other ways of knowing and try to make it seem as though scientific medicine is no more valid a construct to describe reality than that of the shaman who invokes incantations and prayers to heal, the homeopath who postulates “healing mechanisms” that blatantly contradict everything we know about multiple areas of science, or reiki practitioners who think they can redirect “life energy” (or qi) for therapeutic effect. In the postmodernist realm all are equally valid, as there is no solid reason to make distinctions between these competing “narratives” and the “narrative” of scientific or evidence-based medicine.
Perhaps the best quick explanation of how postmodernism is used to attack science comes from Rob Helpy-Chalk:
Knowledge was always in some way relativized to culture, so that it was possible to talk about many “equally valid ways of knowing” of which enlightenment science was only one. For instance, contemporary biologists say that the cassowary (an ostrich-like creature) is a bird, albeit one that cannot fly. The Karam people of New Guinea, who live alongside the cassowary, say that the cassowary does not belong in the same category as the birds (which they call yakt) but bats do belong to that category. So who’s to say that the biologists are right and the Karam are wrong? Knowledge is all relative.
Claims to knowledge were also always in some way “constructed” or “socially constructed” in the postmodernist movements. This meant that they had less to do with grasping the way the world actually works and more to do with creating social structures that advanced the interests of the people who claimed to have knowledge. The science of thermodynamics was not really a description of the properties of heat. It was about convincing people to buy steam engines and arranging society so that they would be happy when they bought one.
Thus, one of the key tenets of some strains postmodernism is that knowledge is relative and “socially constructed,” usually for the purpose of reinforcing the existing power structure or furthering the interests of the “elite” who have the knowledge. It is therefore not surprising that critics of evidence-based and science-based medicine would find postmodernism to be a very attractive philosophical mantle in which to wrap their objections to the science that does not support their favored understanding of how disease works or what treatments are effective. After all, if all knowledge is relative, then why shouldn’t their way of knowing be just as valid as that of science, given that in the postmodernist view as used (or, as many philosophers would characterize it, abused) by “postmodernist” critics, science is just “another narrative.”