Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why Richard Dawkins has post-modernism all wrong

I was chatting with Middlebrow today about the recent/ancient kerfufle about post-modernist thought, and I could tell I was losing him. "Ah oh! Here comes another disconnected rant!" I could hear him say, although he was more than cordial. I persisted, however.

The reason that Dawkins doesn't get it is simple: he is misapplying post-modernism to science, much as he complains that post-modernists misapply science in their texts. I felt, however, that I had not properly explained my point and I did feel like some conspiracy theorist after my chat with Middlebrow.

I've got a lot to deal with in this thesis, I realize, not the least of which is my ability to lose people in pointless rants, so with that I will attempt to be succinct: Dawkins creates a straw man argument with post-modernism because he is talking about the perception of the world vs. the post-modern notion of texts. Post-modernists talk of texts and only texts. Those texts represent a relationship to the world, indeed, but they are just that: representations of the world. We're not talking about what observations one can make using one's senses--we're talking about a reading of a text that is produced before one. One reads a text. One puts one's whole experience into a text to understand it. One is challenged by texts to change one's mind about a text. One's perceptions are affirmed and challenged by a text.

One is changed by a text.

Dawkins doesn't understand that the scholars he finds fault with are talking about texts--not about the observable world that he privileges. (Yup, privilege is an important term that Dawkins picks up on. He doesn't get that either. Strangely enough, he seems to ignore the possibility of bias based upon social position or gender and just throws it away as some sort of whacko term that folks in the Humanities might use.) Texts are not artifacts like fossils or subjects like living creatures (or are they?) They are complex, multi-faceted phenomena that require a reader and an understanding how that reader's point of view shapes the interpretation of a specific text.

There is a big difference between an observable artifact like a rock and a text that has been written by a fellow human being. A rock, while it may create many various interpretations and a variety of opinions, remains the rock that it is. The rock, exists. And as Middlebrow pointed out in a comment on the previous Dawkins post, to deny that would be insanity.

A text, however, was created by a fellow human being with various intentions and purposes. Yes, indeed, the text exists as a physical artifact, but the interpretation of that text is not so easy. The nature of language and our use of it and its use of us forces further consideration. There is more to a text than what it, or its author, represents itself as.

See none of this is new to we text workers of the world. I'm am trying to explain this to the Science-minded who think that what we are talking about is utter bullshit. They frequently don't admit their their bias is often linguistic, race-based, or gender-based.

That is disturbing.

From my own perspective Science tries to exclude its biases, They usually do that on micro-scale. Science has strict controls for experiments and is certain to calibrate instruments and exclude biasing factors.

Where Science fails, at least in the Dawkins sense, is to exlude its macro-bias. Those biases are there and need to be examined carefully. Scientists like Dawkins refuse to admit that their cultural or linguistic background shapes what scientific problems they are likely to pursue or even the results that they prefer (there's that word again!) to deny.

I would put forward, as have others before me, that they need to consider not only their biases before they do their science, but also have to consider that how they are reporting it (through the use of language) is also going to bias it.

Natural language is not a specific medium. Interpretation is going to exist. And, as far as I've seen, interpretation also exists in the language of mathematics. I don't want to fall into a Dawkins' trap, but, as far as I know (and I am no mathematician), mathematics itself has build in biases--Godel's Theorem--which is infamously mis-applied (apparently) to post-modern theory.

Honestly, I'm not really certain why Dawkins, a perfectly respectable scientist of our modern ilk, refuses to explore the possibility of linguistic bias in how he observes the world. The thing that Dawkins doesn't understand is that post-modernism is about the bias that we all have in observing the world.

As a good scientist, you think he would.


  1. I get it! Well said.
    And I agree about science and bias. I once had a throw down with my anthro professor about "assumptions." (which related to gender of course). He didn't understand why I would object to labeling gorilla groups "harems." He was an ass.

  2. I appreciate you taking the time to elucidate all this. I read the article you posted the link to, and my reaction was a far less articulate version of what you said here, something like, "But wait a minute. Now, see here. But . . . but . . . I like some things about postmodernism!" So boo ya.

  3. Anonymous12:35 AM

    I think it's important too, to define 'text', which within postmoderism is a huge & meaningful conceptual and inclusive term. It can rightfully confound the uninitiated. Almost anything is ripe for translation or becoming text-ualized, and doesn't necessarily refer to actual manuscripts or things written, or such things necessarily open to or geared/meant for compartmentalization/decontruction/translation. It's not negating your research into the mating habits of the tsetse fly--it's probably pointing out how your use of provocative language compares with other researchers of the opposite gender.

  4. One thing I left out of this post: throughout his article, Dawkins keeps calling on the magic bullet of "plain writing" as if he can some how avoid interpretation or ambiguity completely in his writing. He seems to honestly believe that he can completely control the text he produces and that nothing ambiguous will creep its way in. Funny it sounds a lot like the "common sense" that science so rightly rails against as being biased and flat-out wrong.

  5. But isn't Dawkins also fair to criticize postmodernism on the point of textuality? One feature of the so-called linguistic turn is that the clear-cut distinction between empirical facts and linguistic facts was blurred. Everything's textual. "Nothing's outside the text," Derrida told us.

    Humanities professors then felt emboldened to make claims about the empirical world--about scientific stuff--because making arguments about the world "out there" and making arguments about textuality amounted to the same thing in their eyes. To use theorris's example, making claims about rocks and making claims about the social representations of rocks is obviously different. But I don't think some social constructionist types were careful about observing that distinction.

    This understandably annoyed scientists. I mean look at the Luce Irigaray stuff that Dawkins cites. It's awful and she's clearly making claims outside her are of expertise. After reading it, I feel like I should apologize to a scientist on behalf of the Humanities.

    Does linguistic bias exist? Certainly. But haven't we overemphasized this in English departments? I increasingly think so.

  6. Well put, MB and R. It is a big mistake for folks to make hold the position that "everything is a text" given that it is very clear that everything is emphatically not a text. Our interpretation of phenomena, however, are often texts. It is an interesting metaphor--the text. Our thoughts are not strictly a text either, but according to PoMo they sort of are. No doubt it is all one big muddled mess (PoMo thought, that is) but most philosophies are when you come right down to it. That does not excuse, however, big mouth Humanities folks from jawing about stuff which they know precious little.

    Science has, for that matter, attempted to control natural language as an medium to convey data. They haven't always been successful in that venture, and in their "simple language/plain writing" campaigns usually don't produce the results they want. Why?

  7. Anonymous8:17 AM

    "That does not excuse, however, big mouth Humanities folks from jawing about stuff which they know precious little..."

    Maybe you're already quite familiar with this book/story, but I highly recommend "The Sokol Hoax" which demonstrates quite sadly and hilariously that exact point. As much as I love and buy into postmodernism for its pattern-and generalities-finding which is right up my alley, and wonderfully removed and irreverant omniscient viewpoint, you don't have to look very far into its offerings to find profound pretentiousness, obscene stretches and utter bullshit.

  8. This is why I would never call myself a postmodernist. Hell, I barely call myself a feminist--I always liked bell hooks who (I think it was her) said that she *did* feminism. That's cool. I'm not a blogger; I blog. I'm not a lesbian, I do...ooooh, better stop there.

  9. I think you're both (author and middlebrow) missing the point that postmodernism can (and should) be applied to science. It is a powerful school of thought. We used to have a consensus that fire was a substance, and that an atom is the smallest indivisible particle. Both were based in empirical evidence, both proved to be untrue. Science is the pursuit of truth, and will most likely approach the perfect truth asymptotically (i.e. we'll never know). This is just like interpretation of text, no matter how simple it is. You'll never be able to know the exact meaning and intention of the author. What the end product results in is a different reality for each person. Anyone claiming any differently is absorbed in a pipe dream, but, in their reality it is the truth.

    I'm not touting relativism, because certain realities have commonalities. Women are studied because each individual in the group has a commonality in the fact that they are women and experience being women similarly enough to the point it is worth studying.

    Dawkins is too simplistic and dismissive.

  10. It is coincidental that you should comment on this today, Anton Frattaroli, given that I just wrote about Dawkins again and why he so quickly rejects linguistic philosophy.

    Anyway, you make a fair point that one can analyze science through a post-modern lens. A scientist like Dawkins, however, is going to call that mumbo-jumbo, however. They don't see it that way at all: they don't believe that our state of being or understanding of the world has anything to do with their objective reality. As you say, he is dismissive and simplistic.