From the Friday Room discussion “Science and Politics”: 27 January 2012
Quote from an article “Decline and Fall” by Shawn Lawrence Otto in the New Scientist 29 October 2011 about the rise of anti-science and unreason in US politics.
“………… Postmodernism emerged, drawing on cultural anthropology and relativity to argue that there was no such thing as objective truth. Science was simply the cultural expression of western white men and had no greater claim to the truth than the ‘truths” of women and minorities. This fit well with the politics of civil rights and also conveniently placed the humanities back on top. In pop culture it became a secular religious movement that preached creating your own reality –the New Age.
Many positive things came out of postmodernism but the idea that there is no objective truth is just plain wrong. And yet a generation of Americans was taught this incorrect idea. As they became leaders in politics, industry and the media this thinking affected their regard for truth and science. Without objective truth, all arguments become rhetorical. We are either paralysed in endless debate or we must resort to brute authority. This is the abyss the US now faces.”
It seems to me that the ideas of postmodernism are being used, wrongly, to give comfort to climate deniers, which is potentially dangerous to all of us.
There seems to be a sort of double bind: You cannot deny that “postmodernism applies to everything” because that denial is itself “just one more view” to which postmodernism applies.
I suggest that useful aim to this discussion would be to attempt to clarify the limits of postmodernism in terms convincing to die-hard postmodernists.
My take on all this is as follows:
Data and Meaning
Data is something “Out there” which we share and is the same for everyone. For example, you and I (or a computer) can read the same piece of text. When I bring this text into my mind, I clothe it with “Meaning”, by which I mean all that comes up in my mind when I perceive and think about that particular piece of data.
In my mind the Meanings of different things are all linked together to make my personal Meanings Universe, a hugely complex thing. My Meanings Universe exists only in my mind and my interpretation this piece of data is uniquely dependent on the extent and nature of my Meanings Universe.
When you do the same, you do so in terms of your Meanings Universe, which is completely different to mine. Our full interpretations will never be the same.
Everybody’s Meaning universes is different and will differ more with culture, age, education and gender.
A Meaning is not the same as a definition; If, for example, the data includes the word “tree”, and you ask me what a tree is, I would try and define it or refer you to the definition in a dictionary. If you ask what tree means to me what comes into my mind is a collection of images, definitions and connections which, if I tried to describe, would come out as a disjointed stream of consciousness: memories of trees that I have climbed, fallen out of, picked fruit from, cut down, trees I have read about, tree as a metaphor etc. This would be much more than a definition but only the feeblest precis of what is actually in my mind.
If a number of people are asked about a particular poem they will give a variety of answers. Each response depends on how the words of the poem becomes part of each persons Meanings Universe.
However there are data topics, such as mathematics, where particular questions are expected to produce the same answer. Note that each individual bring their own Meanings to their understanding, but these will either “work”, and give the right answer or not, in which case we say that the individual does not understand. We do not say that they have a valid alternative understanding.
So we have two distinct types of data: the poem is essentially about the unique Meanings in the poet’s mind; and maths, which is about statements that are not dependent on any particular persons Meanings. I suggest that “postmodernist type” thinking is only applicable to the former and “Rational Type” thinking is only applicable to the latter.
Furthermore I suggest that the inverse is true: “postmodernist type” thinking is not applicable to maths and if I am applying “Rational type” thinking to poetry, I have probably missed the point!
Science is a body of data accumulated from many individual observation of the world “out there” from which, as far as possible, content referring to any particular individual’s Meanings is excluded. I suggest that, like maths, “Rational Type” thinking is applicable and “postmodernist type” thinking is not.
With my science/engineering background this seems obvious, but how can we explain it in terms that postmodernists can understand?