To speak of science is to deploy a deceptively simple word whose use confers the mantle of authority. As Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 276–80) and the Oxford English Dictionary tell us, the word came into English from the Latin scientia, meaning simply “knowledge.” In the fourteenth century, it was distinguished from conscience, with “science” signifying theoretical knowledge, as opposed to knowing something with conviction and passion. In the seventeenth century, it began to denote that which was learned through theoretical—as opposed to practical—knowledge: philosophy, in short. Already, then, the term “science” was making hierarchical distinctions in kinds of learning, favoring the abstract and the dispassionate. In the nineteenth century, “science” came to distinguish the experimental from the metaphysical, that which was known as truth as opposed to asserted. In its current configurations, this struggle over which kinds of knowledge should be accorded the higher status of being known as “science” is carried out through adjectives; the word, with no modifier, most often refers to the “natural sciences” or “hard sciences,” and less often the “medical sciences,” but seldom the “social sciences” and never to work in the arts and humanities. Science is not a knowledge, in this usage, but the knowledge, that which can speak truthfully about the real.

We can see this insistence on science as that which speaks about the “real” in the way the term was deployed against cultural studies scholars in the hoax that became the crowning event of “the science wars.” The hoax began in 1996 when the editors of the journal Social Text accepted an article submitted by physicist Alan Sokal (1996a, 1996b). After the issue came out, Sokal revealed that the article was a “joke,” and he generated much attention from the national media by pointing out that a cultural studies journal had published something full of nonsensical claims, such as the assertion that pi is not a constant. The substance of his brief against cultural studies was that as a physicist, he spoke on behalf of the real world, which he felt needed defense against the nihilism and relativism of cultural studies’ focus on “social constructions.” Stanley Fish (1996, A23), in an elegant rebuttal in the New York Times, quoted Sokal as saying, “There is a world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise?” To this taunt, Fish replied, “Exactly! Professor Sokal’s question should alert us to the improbability of the scenario he conjures up: Scholars of impeccable credentials making statements no sane person could credit.” Fish went on to make two points: first, when cultural studies scholars call something a “social construction,” they are not opposing it to the “real world,” because things can be both real and socially constructed; second, when natural scientists develop their procedures and test the reliability of their accounts, they are said to be right or wrong only in (the socially constructed) relation to each other—yet disease and gravity are real enough. Although Sokal undoubtedly won the round, primarily by invoking a P. T. Barnum tradition of fraud and trickery to reveal that we can all be duped, the procedure by which he did so was as old as the fourteenth century: by claiming to speak truth on behalf of the real.

Behind this hoax lies a longer history. Science became an object of study for both cultural studies and American studies in relation to historical and political struggles over sex, race, and reproduction. In the 1970s, it became conventional for feminists to clear space for their politics over and against the “biology is destiny” argument by explaining that there were two things in play culturally: sex, which referred to biology, and gender, which was a social system open to criticism and change. Pursuing this logic further, some began to ask, Do we have to agree that women’s sex is what they say it is—flaky hormones, weak anatomy? As Judith Butler wrote, “Perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender” (1990, 7). Feminist scientists such as Anne Fausto-Sterling challenged the basis in the natural sciences for suggesting that women could not hold some jobs (from police work to the presidency); that they were unfit for higher education, at least in math and science; and that menstrual cycles made them dangerously unreliable (Fausto-Sterling 1985; Hubbard, Henifin, and Fried 1979). Others such as Evelyn Fox Keller went further, arguing that the epistemology of the natural sciences was intrinsically dominative and hence patriarchal and militaristic (Keller 1985; S. Griffin 1978).

At about the same time, another battle was being fought over race, ostensibly over IQ but more generally about African Americans and public school desegregation, admission to higher education, equality of opportunity to win good jobs, and civil rights. Physicist Arthur Jensen wrote a Harvard Educational Review article in 1969 arguing that black children’s lower IQs meant they could never achieve equal success in school alongside white children. It generated furious rebuttal, captured most enduringly in biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man (1981), which studied the history of the scientific production of supposed racial differences in intelligence and launched a parallel study of the social and natural science of race. This entire controversy was reproduced almost without change two decades later, in response to The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s nasty 1994 polemic against welfare reform and affirmative action, replete with charts and graphs about African Americans’ supposedly lower intelligence. A rather surprising entry in this debate was offered up in 2011, when anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania defended one of Gould’s targets, Samuel Morton, saying that Morton’s nineteenth-century account of racial differences in cranial size was largely correct (Lewis et al. 2011). Another struggle that cast science into question concerned the sterilization of African American, Latina, and Native American women in the 1960s and ’70s, often under the ongoing aegis of eugenics laws. Civil rights and feminist groups opposed these sterilizations through lawsuits, Senate hearings, and public fights to stop new legislation from being enacted (J. Nelson 2003).

These struggles intersected with the analysis of science by scholars of sexuality influenced by Michel Foucault’s genealogy of late nineteenth-century European sexology—what he referred to as the long history of scientia sexualis. Jennifer Terry (1999) has shown how sexology migrated from Europe to the United States, where it functioned simultaneously to contain, define, and make possible queer identities and practices. Other scholarship has explored the role of science in pathologizing transgender identities (as mental illness), while also literally incarnating them through the surgeries and hormones that offer the option of making transgendered bodies (Bornstein 1994; Halberstam 1998, 2005; J. Butler 2004b).

Gyan Prakash and others have argued that natural science was first and foremost a colonial imposition that took the place of alternative, indigenous sciences (Prakash 1999; Fanon 1967b). They have shown how science made colonialism imaginable and reasonable to imperial countries. Sander Gilman (1986), for example, has recounted the story of the “Hottentot Venus” (Sara, or Sartjie, Baartman) to illustrate the way nineteenth-century science conflated the “objective” with the pornographic and the colonial, constructing geographical, raced, sexed, and gendered “others.” Baartman was a Khoi-San woman “collected” by British natural historians off the Cape of Good Hope in 1810. (Some years later, Charles Darwin on the Beagle witnessed the repatriation of several people collected from Tierra del Fuego and commented, “Viewing such men, one can hardly make one’s self believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world” [1909, 218]). Baartman was “exhibited” in Piccadilly and Paris, where her large buttocks and much-speculated-on genitalia were the subject of unending “scientific” curiosity; after her early death, Baartman was dissected and exhibited in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 2002, when her remains were repatriated to South Africa (S. Gould 1982).

Contemporaneous with Baartman and the Beagle were other, similar scientific exploits. The science of craniometry compared skull sizes, particularly of different races, presuming to measure racial intelligence; pelviometry identified “race pelves,” looking for smaller pelvic openings that supposedly corresponded to smaller crania in offspring in the “lower” races; phrenology identified criminality (particularly in the lower classes) from head shape; polygeny, the theory of multiple, separate “creations” of the world by God, provided a religiously heretical account (favored by many U.S. slaveholders) in which the “lower races” were separate, inferior species (Gould 1981; Briggs 2000).

A few decades later, after Darwin’s Origin of Species had taken the world by storm, evolution provided a new grammar of difference for humans as well, from social Darwinism to eugenics. Evolution and the notion that some people were further along its track than others provided ways of explaining why women should not vote; why immigration should be restricted; why “overcivilization” and “degeneration” were dangerous; and how homosexuals, professional women, labor-union men, and even children were like primitives (Newman 1999; Stern 1999a; Shah 2001). The coming of “modern” science and the end of formal imperialism did not inaugurate a distinct change. As old-style colonialism collapsed in much of the world in the post-1945 period, science and technology emerged as dominant languages of an emergent international development bureaucracy focused on population control and agriculture.

Perhaps ironically, the late twentieth century was a period in which resistance to the hegemony of science could take shape in relationship to calls for more and better science. Donna Haraway (1991) argued that we are all “cyborgs” and that the utopian, back-to-nature fantasies of radical feminists and others did not make sense in a world where virtually all forms of power, authority, economy, and family are shaped in relationship to science. AIDS activists embraced the terms of public health and science but contested the organization of AIDS research, struggling to shift the content of public health education, the quantity of funding overall, the kind of research conducted, and the conduct of clinical trials (Patton 1985, 1996; Epstein 1996; Treichler 1999). In the 1970s, women’s health activists transformed doctor-patient relationships and, ultimately, scientific research on women by putting information in women’s hands through Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective 1973, 1976, 1996). At the same time, in the post–Cold War university, advocates for higher education have debated how to deal with the ripple effects of the sharp decline in government (often military) funding for research in the natural sciences and its replacement with corporate money—and with it, corporate-organization and labor-management styles—as well as an undervaluing of nonscientific and nonprofessional education and research (C. Nelson 1997).

In the early twenty-first century, scholars are beginning to argue that the emergent challenge for cultural studies of science is no longer to insist that science is open to critique because of its hegemonic agendas but rather to develop procedures to defend the “reality” of scientific claims about such things as global warming, environmental degradation, evolution, the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV, and the scientifically unproven tie between abortions and breast cancer (Latour 2004). As well-established scientific claims come increasingly under attack by industry, right-wing religious groups, and antisex, antifeminist, and homophobic conservatives in government, “social construction” has come to seem a tool that can be used effectively against many of the same groups it was initially developed to defend. As Haraway has been arguing for many years, perhaps what we need are simply more modest claims for science, acknowledging that it is not the knowledge but a knowledge, avoiding the hubris of the “god’s-eye view,” but nevertheless taking seriously the value of replicable, empirical, evidence-based claims.

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