It’s easy to beat up on postmodernists these days. Ever since the Sokal Hoax, the postmodernists’ Waterloo, the science wars have been a rout. Once it became clear that postmodernism was incapable of distinguishing between valid scientific perspectives and gibberish, postmodernists have bolted from the battlefield.
This was a remarkable turnabout. For much of the 1990s, postmodernists insisted that modernist science was as good as dead. Modernists, you must understand, included scientists and anyone else who was naïve enough to believe that science systematically produced better, more enlightening knowledge.
Not so, claimed postmodernists. Under the guise of truth-seeking, postmodernists contended, science had woven a worldwide web of deceit. Certainly, some scientists might have been earnest believers in admirable principles; however, the net effect of scientific progress did little more than aggrandize the West at the expense of the downtrodden. And the prime culprit for those dark deeds was none other than the concept of truth.
Whereas scientists tended to view truth as a benign standard against which to gauge scientific progress, postmodernists argued that truth was an evil instrument of cultural discipline. Ideas which complied with Western truth standards merited approval, whereas ideas that challenged the modernist truth regime were subjugated and marginalized.
As a remedy, postmodernists advocated the end of truth. In this way, Western bias could be dethroned and all of the ideas that had been marginalized by modernism would finally get a fair hearing. Of course, as Sokal illustrated, if we abandon truth, we also abandon rationality. In a world of postmodern relativism, anything goes. Without truth standards, there is no way to distinguish between good and bad ideas: all ideas are equally valid. Which is a really bad thing—unless you’re convinced that Hitler and Stalin were visionaries.
I must admit, I was perfectly happy to see postmoderism implode. Postmodernism was a gutless theoretical movement that arrogated unto itself the right to criticize everyone else’s ideas while failing to produce any worthwhile ideas of its own. The best part was that, throughout its meteoric rise, postmodernism constantly propounded the imminent demise of modern science. To that, all I can say is “Ask not for whom the bell tolls . . . ” Clearly, it would have been more accurate for postmodernists to predict their own demise. However, accuracy was never a priority among postmodernists.
So, where does that leave us?
Irksome as it may have been for postmodernists, science has forged ahead—before, during and after the postmodern interlude—with nary a hiccup. The biggest threat to science during the past couple of decades was the Bush Administration. Compared to Dubya, postmodernism was like a gnat on a water buffalo’s backside.
If we can thank postmodernism for anything, it is for refocusing attention on the knotty issue of truth in science. Rightfully, Karl Popper should get most of the credit for problematizing the concept of truth. Of course, Popper took a much different view of the role that truth should play in humanity’s never-ending problem-solving endeavors. Still, Popper made it clear that truth was not nearly as straightforward a phenomenon as most scientists, particularly positivists, liked to think.
Thus, our story.
The question that I will address in this book is: Precisely, what is the relationship between truth and science—and why does it matter? In brief, I believe that the pursuit of truth is the most important endeavor that humans have ever undertaken. In seeking the truth, humans have regularly and profoundly redefined reality for the better. If you’re happy to be living in a post-postmodern world, thank a scientist. Yet, stimulating as life in the information society may be, the world remains full of problems. Further, if anything, those problems tend to grow more challenging by the year. The 2008 global financial meltdown came within a whisker of ending civilization as we know it.
In the pages that follow, I will argue that truth-seeking is not just the surest way to build a better, brighter future for everyone, but it’s the only way to create a future that’s worth living for.
So, why does truth matter? I sincerely hope an answer to that all-important question will soon become evident as you turn the pages of this book.
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