PD Smith

The One Culture?

Times Literary Supplement, 26 July 2002

Jay A. Labinger and Harry Collins (eds), The One Culture? A Conversation About Science (University of Chicago Press, 2001), 342pp., £11.00

Review by P.D. Smith

It may have escaped your notice but we are in the middle of a war. The Science Wars began in the early 1990s when scholars in the humanities and social sciences began to look critically at science. Scientists resented this encroachment onto their territory, fearing a threat to those scientific shibboleths, rationality and truth. In 1996 the debate entered the public arena following the publication of physicist Alan Sokal’s spoof article in Social Text. Sokal’s now infamous parody of postmodernism exposed what he saw as the gullibility and wilful misunderstanding of science in critical theory and ‘science studies’.

But just as the war was becoming nasty some of the leading players came together at the Southampton Peace Workshop in 1997, a forum for scientists and sociologists organised by sociologist Harry Collins. The result is The One Culture?, a book whose fraught origins are reflected in its scrupulous structure that owes as much to ACAS as academe: twelve introductory position statements are followed by two rounds of commentaries and rebuttals by each protagonist. There are excellent contributions from Collins, Steven Shapin, Trevor Pinch, and Steven Weinberg.

The One Culture? offers a fascinating insight into the arguments on both sides. As the contributions show, the stakes are high. Sociologists of science fear a loss of intellectual credibility if they fail to contest the criticisms of their methodology. Scientists believe their authority and research funding will decline due to public suspicion of science. Some even predict a new dark age of superstition and antiscience, ushered in by postmodernist intellectuals who want to replace the hard facticity of science with a relativistic mélange of Wittgensteinian language games and Foucauldian power struggles.

Sokal and Bricmont write cogently on these threats. And yet, as Jane Gregory and Steve Miller emphasize, it is unrealistic nowadays to expect “awe-struck admiration for the mysterious men in white coats” from the public. After the atomic bomb and genetic engineering the need to understand science is more urgent than ever and sociologists, historians and, yes, even writers and artists have a part to play in this project. It is premature to speak of one culture, but this important book, motivated by an exemplary spirit of academic tolerance and debate, shows how bridges might be built in the future.