May 31, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science wars and science peace: Some personal reflections

The dust is beginning to settle over the 330 or so comments stimulated by two blog posts written after the Circling the Square conference here at the University of Nottingham, one by Philip Moriarty one by And then there’s physics. So it’s perhaps time to stand back and assess what happened.

When one reads the following description of the ‘science wars’ on Wikipedia alongside the comments, one is struck by certain similarities between what took place in the 1990s and what happened last week.

Science wars?

“The science wars were a series of intellectual exchanges, between scientific realists and postmodernist critics, about the nature of scientific theory and intellectual inquiry. They took place principally in the United States in the 1990s in the academic and mainstream press. The scientific realists accused the postmodernists of having effectively rejected scientific objectivity, the scientific method, and scientific knowledge. Scientific realists (such as Norman Levitt, Paul R. Gross, Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal) argued that scientific knowledge is real, and that postmodernists thought that it is not real. Postmodernists interpreted Thomas Kuhn‘s ideas about scientific paradigms to mean that scientific theories are social constructs, and philosophers like Paul Feyerabend argued that other, non-realist forms of knowledge production were better suited to serve personal and spiritual needs.” (Wikipedia) And here are some insider accounts worth reading.

Science truce?

Other similarities between then and now also stared back at me when I read an article by Steve Fuller written during that time and in which he describes something that happened twenty years ago at one of the first attempts at bringing together scientists and STSers [scholars affiliated with the field of Science Technology Studies] – just as we tried to do at the Circling the Square Conference: “The Durham conference on ‘Science’s Social Standing’ took place on 2-4 December 1994, advertised as the first encounter between scientists and STSers with the explicit purpose of coming to terms with each other. Not surprisingly, the first day resembled the first moments of family therapy: pent-up frustrations giving way to periodic outbursts. However, a convivial dinner that night markedly improved the discourse situation the following day.” This is what happened at our conference too. Some quite heated debate erupted however a bit later in the blogosphere – but always courteously – between natural scientists and ‘STSers’ … Was this a bit of a re-enactment of the science wars? I would love to know what others think about this, as I myself was hiding away in the 19th century during the 1990s and did not really witness the Science Wars.

Science peace?

Since the 1990s there have, however, been some peace offerings especially by early founders of STS broadly speaking, by Bruno Latour and Harry Collins in particular, who have argued that, perhaps, some of their youthful work shouldn’t have thrown science out with the bathwater. Collins’ latest book Are we all experts now? was reviewed quite positively by one of the Circling the Square participants, the physicist Athene Donald.

Harry Collins also wrote in an overview of the Science Wars that attacks on science were not intended by “those who practice SSK (Sociology of scientific knowledge); indeed practitioners of SSK are very proud of their craft, some describing themselves as using the scientific method. The social context of science is not thought of as polluting since all human activity is social; for those who work in SSK, scientific truth remains the paradigm of truth in respect of the natural world.”

This view was not always reflected in comments on the post-circling blog posts… It should be stressed however, that everybody agreed that science is a social process, almost trivially so. What was more up for debate was the status of the outcomes, results, findings of this process which some saw as social constructs, it seems, and some not. Oh, and I believe that we can only begin to talk about science and politics once we have come to some agreement about these fundamental issues.


When I read the comments I rather nostalgically wished I was back in the 19th century (the period I studied in my PhD on the history of French linguistics and in my post-doc work on the history of linguistics more generally), when there were, of course, skirmishes between the emerging disciplines of anatomy, geology, biology, psychology, linguistics and sociology, but, on the whole, there was also a lot of mutual respect. Those were the days when linguists read Lyell and Darwin and when Darwin and Lyell read work by early linguists and when linguists and sociologists read each other*. In the words of Douglas Adams (who made various appearances on the blog posts and comments) – those were the days when “spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.” I bet historians of science will have other views about this and will find the beginnings of the science wars exactly in the 19th century, rather then finding inspiration for science peace in those days when the natural and social sciences emerged together.

* The early 20th-century linguist Antoine Meillet for example wrote for the journal Année Sociologique, and the Durkheim school of sociology in general “was keenly interested in the study of language, both because of its central importance as a social phenomenon and because ‘positive’ research in the social sciences had achieved its greatest successes in linguistics” (S.C. Humphrey’s 1971).

Science wars revisited

If you want to know more about the science wars, science studies etc. please come to a talk given by Steve Fuller on 12 June at our Institute for Science and Society. Watch out for announcements!

Added 8 June 2014: Very interesting interview with Harry Collins brought to my attention by Chris here. From 15.20 onwards; towards 21.00 you’ll see that my phrase ‘throwing science out with the bathwater’ above might have been a slight overinterpretation 😉  “What I’m trying to do in the book is to find…a way of revaluing science,” he says, “of putting science back into the center of our society—but without rejecting all the great work that was done from the ’70s onward, and without going back to the mythical 1950’s picture of science.”

Image: Re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo (Wikimedia Commons)


Posted in Sciencescience and politics