From Skeptic vol. 3, no. 1, 1994, pp. 98-100.
The following article is copyright © 1994 by the Skeptics Society,
P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission
has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this
article in its entirety, including this notice.
LEFTIST SCIENCE & SKEPTICAL RHETORIC:
Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science,
by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994
Reviewed by Jeffrey Shallit
This is a book with a split personality. On the one hand, it is a revealing
expose of the new and unprecedented efforts by certain members of the
academic left to topple science's dominance as the pre-eminent tool of
Western rationalists. On the other hand, it is an often-sloppy polemic that
indulges in the some of the same tactics it decries.
The authors (one a professor at the University of Virginia; the other at
Rutgers University) have marshalled an impressive compendium of scientific
misconceptions by the likes of Stanley Aronowitz, Jacques Derrida,
Jean-Francois Lyotard, Steven Best, and N. Katherine Hayles. Indeed, Gross
and Levitt are at their best when they simply let these academic "stars"
pontificate mindlessly about physics, chaos theory, and the scientific
method. There is a lot of lousy science being bandied about in Arts faculties
in Europe and North America, and Gross and Levitt mince no words in exposing
I am very sympathetic with Gross and Levitt's conclusion that much of the
academic left's problems with science stems from ignorance, pure and simple.
Let's face it: science is hard. It takes years of study and significant
mathematical sophistication to truly understand the simplest of the recent
scientific advances. Faced with this challenge, some leftist academics have
resorted to commentary without knowledge, and others, when unwilling to admit
ignorance, have resorted to claiming that such knowledge is illusory. Gross
and Levitt present the following example from Jacques Derrida: "The
Einsteinian constant [c] is not a constant, not a center. It is the very
concept of variability-it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other
words, it is not the concept of some thing-of a center from which an observer
could master the field-but the very concept of the game" (p. 79).
Why anyone would think this claptrap constitutes serious academic
discourse is beyond me. (One wonders why Jacques could not consult his
cousin, Bernard Derrida, a world-class physicist whose ideas have earned
comparatively little popular acclaim-an irony often noted in private by
French scientists.) It is, however, relatively harmless, and to the best of
my knowledge Derrida is not aping the Creationists by insisting that his
particular brand of pseudoscientific analysis be taught in the public
But Gross and Levitt are not simply content to expose these sorts of
academic fraud, they also seek to "explain" them as a necessary consequence
of leftist ideology. They envision a conspiracy to maintain the left's
alleged hegemony over academic departments: ". . . over the last 25 years the
entire process of recruitment into academic careers, especially outside the
exact sciences, has been altered in a way that lures people with left-wing
sympathies and hopes for radical social change into scholarly young careers"
Gross and Levitt even go so far as to claim that "such enthusiasm [for
Marxism] is usually enough to guarantee success and even celebrity in the
narrow world of the academy" (p. 237). And they look back to the 1960s for a
beginning: "Many veterans of the sixties are still on hand as leaders or
advisors to radical undergraduates, and indeed, to those who know these folk
well, the trace of nostalgia is strong and unmistakable" (p. 221).
In seeking where to place the blame, Gross and Levitt round up the usual
suspects: feminists, environmentalists, homosexuals, and blacks. It is
certainly true that extremists in these groups are sometimes guilty of using
bad science in pursuit of their goals. Jeremy Rifkin's tireless efforts to
curb or even eliminate whole scientific enterprises (e.g., genetic
engineering), often based on gross misunderstandings of the science itself,
are strongly criticized by Gross and Levitt. They note that there are some
extreme feminists who attack science as "masculine oppression" and are calling
for a "feminist algebra" in which math books would break gender stereotypes"
in the process of "affirming women's experiences." If this is the math class
of the future, science education is indeed in trouble.
The extreme multi-culturalists do not attack science in this manner;
rather, they attempt to reconstruct its history to include all races equally.
Blacks in Science, Ancient and Modern, for example, tells its high school
readers that Egyptians invented the science of aeronautics, and presents as
evidence for this claim the famous small wooden figure of a bird, about which
Gross and Levitt explain: "If you build a copy of balsa wood (rather than the
original sycamore) and then add a vertical stabilizer (not present in the
original), you get a so-so version of a toy glider!" Nice try, but . . . .
Where the academic left (driven by outdated Marxist theories of class
oppression) presents science as nothing more than a social construction
designed to support the group in power (usually white males), Gross and
Levitt rightly point out that "science is, above all else, a reality-driven
enterprise" where, for example, "the set of plain truths that science (in the
guise of, say, penicillin) works just as well for Australian aborigines (male
and female) as it does on Englishmen (and women)." And, I would add, it works
for all classes.
Unfortunately, in many places, Gross and Levitt's prose is barely
distinguishable from some of the more literate pronouncements of Rush
Limbaugh, although the authors attempt to portray themselves as fair-minded
with back-handed admissions, such as "left-wing political opinions are not
especially inconsistent with high intelligence" (p. 82).
As a scientist, I believe that science is important. But to Gross and
Levitt, it is everything, to the naive extreme of excluding the arts and
humanities, and taking one small subset of extremists and generalizing to all
in that group (not all or even a majority of feminists hate science). At one
point, they even trot out the old chestnut that freshmen in Science faculties
have used for ages to taunt their counterparts in Arts faculties (p. 243):
If . . . the humanities department at MIT . . . were to walk out in a huff,
the scientific faculty could, at need and with enough released time, patch
together a humanities curriculum, to be taught by the scientists themselves .
. . . What the opposite situation-a walkout by the scientists-would produce,
as the humanities department tried to cope with the demand for science
education, we leave to the reader's imagination.
Having attempted to discuss art and literature with some of my scientific
colleagues, I am not nearly as sanguine as Gross and Levitt about the
abilities of scientists to teach the humanities. And I also know at least one
English professor whose command of science and mathematics exceeds my
knowledge of literary tradition by a large factor.
A more serious trap in Gross and Levitt's undisguised partisanship is that
it causes them to fall victim to an all-too-common failing: sources they
agree with are labeled authoritative, while sources they disagree with are
A good example of this weakness can be found in a footnote recommending
the book Trashing The Planet by Dixy Lee Ray and Lou Guzzo (p. 278). Although
parts of the Ray-Guzzo book do indeed have some merit, it also contains
numerous scientific inaccuracies and deplorably poor scholarship. In Ray and
Guzzo's discussion of ozone depletion, for example, they claim that the
eruption of Mt. St. Augustine in 1976 "injected 289 billion kilograms of
hydrochloric acid directly into the stratosphere." The correct range (Nature,
V. 334, p. 415) is 0.08-0.18 billion kilograms, a factor of 1600-3600
smaller; not an insignificant mistake. One of Ray and Guzzo's principal
sources is an "EIR Special Report" which they refer to as "The Greenhouse
Effect Hoax." But the correct title of the report is "The Greenhouse Effect
Hoax: A World Federalist Plot," and "EIR" turns out to be "Executive
Intelligence Review," a loony magazine published by followers of political
extremist Lyndon LaRouche. This is the kind of scholarship that Gross and
Levitt label as "straight-shooting." Thus, in the process of accusing the
academic left of unscientific or anti-scientific attitudes, they weaken their
position by endorsing poor science or even pseudoscience. (Gross and Levitt
must have known about the unreliability of the Ray-Guzzo book, since it is
explicitly debunked at length in an article by Gary Taubes [Science, V. 260,
pp. 1580-3] that they reference on page 278.)
Other passages indicate that Gross and Levitt's scientific judgment is
seriously suspect when they stray from fields in which they are acknowledged
experts (Gross is a biologist, and Levitt is a mathematician). In discussing
ozone depletion, for example, they refer to the "seasonal decline of
ionospheric ozone" (p. 158). But the ozone layer is located in the
stratosphere, not the ionosphere. It is a minor error to be sure, but not one
that should be made in the process of criticizing others for their
Gross and Levitt also go astray in their discussion of the problems faced
by Aramis, a high-tech transportation system project in France. In their
analysis of a leftist critique of the system, Gross and Levitt state: "Real-ti
me algorithms must be devised for . . . minimizing station-to-station travel
time for each passenger, maximizing utilization of each car . . . . [This
problem] involves all the notorious difficulties of the 'traveling salesman
problem,' the paradigmatic holy grail of combinatorics and operations
research" (p. 61).
There are two problems with this claim of Gross and Levitt. First, it is
unsupported. Second, even if it were true, it would not necessarily be a
serious obstacle for such a system.
The traveling salesman problem (TSP) is the following: given a list of
cities, with known distances between them, devise a tour that visits each
city exactly once and returns to the starting point, such that the total
distance traveled is minimized. A suitably modified version of this problem
is known to be "NP-complete"; the "hard core" and most difficult of the
complexity class NP. No general efficient solution to the TSP is known, and
the fact that the associated decision problem is NP-complete suggests that
none is likely to be found in the near future.
Now it may be that some suitable modification of the dynamic scheduling
problem involved in Aramis might be NP-complete, and hence polynomial-time
equivalent to TSP. But this is not at all obvious, and Gross and Levitt
provide no reference to back up their claim.
More important, however, the rider in such a transportation system is
completely uninterested in whether her car has been routed in the most
efficient manner possible. She might very well be completely satisfied if a
routing algorithm is used that guarantees a wait of at most five minutes, or
one that comes within some constant factor of the best possible. Such
approximation algorithms are well-known for the TSP under certain conditions,
and they may also exist for the optimization problem that arises in Aramis.
In any event, "solving" the problem depends as much on the underlying
mathematics as the expectations of the rider.
Gross and Levitt also do not seem to know that a request-driven
people-mover system similar to Aramis, called the Personal Rapid Transit
system, has operated in Morgantown, West Virginia, since 1975. It operates 71
cars and serves 2.5 million passengers a year. While not as ambitious as
Aramis, the West Virginia experience belies their claim that software
difficulties are the main roadblock to such a system.
Gross and Levitt are also fond of poking fun at the rhetorical pretensions
of leftist academics; "turgid" is one of their favorite words. Unfortunately,
Gross and Levitt are occasionally guilty of the same offense. Consider the
following: "[Environmentalism] envisions a transcendence of the values of
Western industrial society and the restoration of an imagined prelapsarian
harmony to humanity's relations with nature" (p. 4). How's that again?
Environmentalists are a favorite target of Gross and Levitt. Some of their
comments are on target (the environmental movement could use more skeptics),
but many are simply silly. They ask, for example, why leftist advocates of
solar power do not evince much enthusiasm for hydroelectric power, but then
misrepresent leftist environmentalists with this summary of their position: "
. . . hydroelectric power is rife with demons, for example, men, machines,
power lines, utility stocks and bonds, electromagnetic fields, and artificial
lakes full of power boats" (pp. 160-1).
Noticeably absent in this list are the deeper reasons for
environmentalists' opposition to hydroelectric power: environmental
destruction, habitat loss, depletion of fish stocks, submerging of buried
cultural artifacts, and, most important, the real danger of extremely large
amounts of water held back by a sometimes-inadequate concrete barrier-in the
1991 Ormoc disaster in the Philippines, at least 2,300 people were killed
when a heavy rainstorm burst a hydroelectric dam, causing a wall of water and
mud to descend on the unlucky villagers.
In the latter third of the book, Gross and Levitt run out of steam, and
end up making generalization after generalization for which no supporting
data are presented. For example, they disparage the idea that some animals
might be sentient (p. 199), despite the fact that many serious scientists
believe there is strong evidence of this (see Animal Minds by Donald Griffin
and the collection The Great Ape Project, edited by Cavalieri and Singer).
They offer three possible stances with regard to animal testing (p. 202), one
of which is an extremist caricature, but do not see fit to mention the
position that testing on some animals (e.g. chimpanzees) could be banned,
while testing on other, lower organisms could continue. They claim that
"[m]any college newspapers . . . run astrology columns" (p. 225), whereas an
admittedly unscientific survey by this reviewer found only 4 out of 20
college newspapers provided such a column, and at least 2 of those 4 were
intended to be humorous.
Higher Superstition is a good compendium of extremists' irrational claims,
but its serious flaws ensure that the academic left indicted there will find
it easy to dismiss Gross and Levitt's findings and continue their often
preposterous caricatures of science. And that is a shame.