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COVID-19 Bites Identity Politics

As Daphne Patai, professor emeritus in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains in this essay, the war on

science being waged in the name of “social justice” and “equity” has been going on for decades. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to demonstrate the absurdity of applying the language and ideology of social justice to science.

Wrote Professor Patai:

As I write this, I am surrounded by silence: not only the silence of a small university town on lockdown but, also, the silence of the feminists and postmodernists as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over.

Where are the usual attacks on white male-dominated science? Where’s the “standpoint epistemology” to tell us how different is the knowledge intersectionally-appropriate feminist scientists would bring to this crucial problem? How many of those labs fiercely trying to find a treatment, a vaccine, a path forward, have a demographically appropriate number of women researchers? Not to mention racially and sexually “diverse” ones? What can possibly explain the lack of attention to this terrible problem of marginalization of the already oppressed?

On a women’s studies listserve I subscribe to, activity has been almost at a standstill for weeks. You’d think with the endless attention paid to the virus there would be vigorous debate about the need to bring feminist, queer, trans, and other such perspectives to bear, and heated discussions of how to convey this to students via distance learning. Or, at the very least, that criticisms would be voiced of the data showing that men are more vulnerable to the virus than women. If one is “assigned” the category of male or female at birth—by now a routine formulation aped even by medical organizations– how could an uncaring virus ever make such a distinction?

Can anything positive come out of the current crisis? Or, is it strictly a negative to be reminded that reality – the actual physical world, in all its threatening materiality – is not a social construction, and that solutions to a virus must engage with that material world, and not merely attack the rhetoric of disease and the identity of those researching it. Indeed, the spread of the virus seems to depend also on social configurations (proximity, touching, etc.), but that’s because underlying that social aspect is an infectious virus governed by its own biological imperatives.

One of the most relevant books for understanding how we got to the dismissal of science in favor of identity politics with all its ideological baggage is more than twenty years old. It is an excellent read for this time of hibernation. A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, edited by Noretta Koertge (a philosopher of science), was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. Rereading it over the past few days, I was encouraged to encounter, again, so many cogent and careful explanations of how and why dismissals of science were and are wrong-headed.

The volume begins with an essay by that brilliant jester Alan Sokal, recounting the significance and limitations of the hoax he perpetrated in 1996. Sokal, a theoretical physicist, had sent to the trendy culture-studies journal Social Text his essay entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” His essay was made up of numerous quotations on mathematics and physics drawn from fashionable American and European intellectuals, all intended to bolster his conclusion that reality does not exist.

So pleased were the editors of Social Text to have a scientist—a physicist no less—confirm what so many non-scientists had claimed, that they did not even bother submitting the essay to a scientist for review. Perhaps they believed the view blithely affirmed for years past that science is no more objective than art. In any event, Sokal’s essay was printed in the spring-summer 1996 issue of Social Text, devoted to the “science wars.” Three weeks after the essay appeared, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca (May-June 1996) that it was a parody. The arcane quotations were all too real–and largely meaningless– but the conclusions drawn from them were not. Anyone at all versed in science, Sokal explained, would have realized the absurd errors, misrepresentations, and foolishness contained in the words of these famous postmodern Masters, so lionized in humanities and social science departments.

As Sokal explains in his essay in A House Built on Sand, what he had done was select “the silliest quotations” he could find. His only contribution, he states, “was to invent a nonsensical argument linking these quotations together and praising them. This involved, of course, advocating an incoherent mishmash of trendy ideas—deconstructive literary theory, New Age ecology, so-called feminist epistemology, extreme social-constructivist philosophy of science, even Lacanian psychoanalysis—but that just made the parody all the more fun.”

Sokal is careful not to overstate his case — and later co-authored, with Jean Bricmont, another theoretical physicist, an entire book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (1998)–explicating the errors of these scholars, and to explain his terms. By silliness, he refers first to “meaningless or absurd statements, name-dropping, and the display of false erudition.” And, second, to “sloppy thinking, and poor philosophy, which come together notably (though not always) in the form of glib relativism.” Although the “Sokal affair,” as it became known, was discussed around the world, bad intellectual habits die hard, and the academic field of “science studies”—really “anti-science studies”– is still with us, as is the hostility toward biology and the accompanying insistence on extreme social constructivism. [The relevance of Sokal’s hoax even today is discussed in Physics Today, 2017.]

The other essays in A House Built on Sand, written by scholars in the two cultures of science and the humanities, trace the development of antagonism toward science, dismissed as sexist, racist, capitalist, colonialist, and so on. But the essays’ coherence and logic did not stop the trend—nor did many other valuable books on the subject. Instead, the social construction of everything is a viewpoint that has for decades been entirely assimilated not only into women’s studies programs (renamed Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, to encompass biology as well as society, as evidenced particularly in the attack on sexual dimorphism and heterosexuality) but into many other programs as well.

But let us return to COVID-19 and the inescapable reality of the moment: Ideology will not help us – thinking good thoughts, proper feminist thoughts, or racially-appropriate ones, won’t solve the problem. Careful research will. “Mitigation,” as we are discovering, is not enough. Yes, research protocols may be modified, given the urgency of the matter, but in the end, sound science is needed – the kind of science that wiped out polio in the U.S. and developed drugs to stop HIV from being a death sentence. The search for and efficacy of such treatments depend not on who is doing the research but on the best possible empirical procedures.

For years I have noted that no one lives postmodern, though many still speak it, still pull out their identity games to make ad hominem arguments instead of substantive ones. Yet few people refuse antibiotics because they were developed in white patriarchal societies. As Noretta Koertge, a philosopher of science, stated long ago: there is no “feminist science,” though there are feminists doing science, not at all the same thing.

Not only are the streets empty as I write this, but rage and resentment toward science and its accomplishments seem, for the moment, muted. Of course, there’s no lack of complaints directed against all the political/distributional/managerial aspects of the present crisis, so ideologues and just everyday citizens still have plenty to say. Nonetheless, as the sheer destructive reality of the novel coronavirus continues, a lot of hubris is being crushed. For the moment, all eyes are focused on science and scientists once again, without the bean-counting of identity issues and the madness of identity being treated as the guarantor of the validity of one’s knowledge.

Let’s hope it doesn’t all spring back into place once the virus recedes.

This article by Daphne Patai, professor emeritus in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was first posted to Minding the Campus and appears through the kind permission of the author. Prof. Patai is the author of, "What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs," among other books.

  • COVID-19

  • identity politics

  • social justice

  • equity

  • feminists

  • postmodernists

  • science

  • affirmative action

  • diversity

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Charles Wilkins
Charles Wilkins
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Charles Wilkins
Charles Wilkins
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