Re: Science, Psuedoscience, and Social "Science"

David DeGusta (degusta@UCLINK.BERKELEY.EDU)
Wed, 19 Oct 1994 23:08:41 -0800

Alx V. Dark writes:
>I do wonder, when physicists get to talking about pseudoscience, whether
>they are talking about "new age" appropriations of science as a kind of
>authorizing discourse for their beliefs, or fundamentalism, or if they might
>not also be referring to cultural anthropologists who suggest "science"
>is as much a culturally and socially embedded practice as any other set
>of activities which don't aim at the rationalization of conduct per se.
In the future, let's leave physicists out of this, since
(presumably) none are here on Anthro-L to answer your "question." As a
biological anthropologist, I'd say that people who think science is "as
much a culturally and socially embedded practice as any other" are ignorant
of the scientific method and the history of science.

>Physicists often don't want to hear, for example, that their
>work, and their knowledge, has been shaped by cold war economic and
>military priorities, not simply by the hypothesizing and falsification of
>theory. When "us social scientists" suggest this, I think we get
>uninvited to the roundup of the wagons.
Well, since you insist on picking on physicists, take a look at the
history of physics. Physicists have been *very* aware of the military
connection ever since it began (circa 1941). How could you be a physicist
working for the military in Los Alamos, building the atomic bomb, and NOT
be aware that your work was being shaped by the war? How could you apply
for grant programs sponsored by the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, or
the Air Force and not realize the military connections? Even young
physicists are very painfully aware of this connection, since the easing of
the cold war means no jobs for them. Look at any of the several histories
of modern physics, and you'll see excerpts from letters between physicists
worrying very seriously about the military's role in shaping their
Don't get me wrong -- cultural anthropologists have a lot to offer.
But to suggest that physicists are so blind as to not make the connection
between their work and the military is absurd and demonstrably false. I
suspect this notion stems from the stereotype of a physicist (or a
scientist in general) as a nerd focusing totally on their narrow technical
speciality, and having no knowledge of, or interest in, the society or
political system they live in.
The military-physics link leads to an interesting point relevant to
science in general. The direction of the research was largely driven by the
military (though not entirely), but what they found was NOT. Which
hypotheses they chose to test may well have been determined by the
military. The methods they used, though, and the results they got were (and
are) totally independent of the miltary's (or society's) demands. All the
social, political, & military pressure in the world could not have produced
the atomic bomb, were it not for the peculiar properties of the uranium
atom and the relation of mass to energy. Culturally embed that.

"Nature is there, and she's gonna come out the way she is."
- Richard. P. Feynman, physicist

David DeGusta
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley