Re: [xmca] Question: Geertz & Princeton Institute?

From: Tony Whitson (twhitson@UDel.Edu)
Date: Sun Nov 05 2006 - 13:09:46 PST

Here's a more recent round:

On Sun, 5 Nov 2006, David Preiss wrote:

> For the uninformed, how could we learn about this litigation, Jay?
> David

The Science Wars Flare at the Institute for Advanced Study

    The rejection of a Princeton professor divides scholars
    at the center that was once Einstein's intellectual home

    By Liz McMillen

    Six years ago, the sociologist Bruno Latour was on the verge of an
    appointment in the field of science studies at the Institute for
    Advanced Study. But when scientists and mathematicians at the
    institute became upset about his work on life in the laboratory, he
    withdrew his candidacy.

    Now another attempt to appoint a scholar to the same post has met a
    similar fate, leaving a residue of bitterness and anger on the
    institute's stately campus in Princeton, N.J., and opening a new
    chapter in what has become known as the science wars.

    This month, the institute's director vetoed the appointment of M.
    Norton Wise, a historian of science at Princeton University. The
    director overrode recommendations from scholars at the institute and
    elsewhere. Several faculty members close to the proceedings say people
    at the institute who are hostile to science studies had succeeded in
    blocking the appointment.

    Dr. Wise, who directs the history-of-science program at Princeton, is
    the co-author, with Crosbie Smith, of an award-winning study of Lord
    Kelvin, the 19th-century British mathematical physicist. Dr. Wise has
    doctoral degrees in physics and history and is widely seen as a
    mediating figure between the increasingly divided camps of scientists
    and those who study science from cultural, sociological, and
    historical perspectives.

    According to faculty members in the institute's School of Social
    Science, who nominated Dr. Wise for the appointment, he received
    positive evaluations and his work was cited as significant and
    original. But when his case came before a six-member committee of
    institute faculty members and outside scholars, someone at the
    institute -- it's not clear who -- requested more letters of
    evaluation. Some of these letters reportedly came from people outside
    the field or from scholars who are known to be critical of it.

    The committee voted 4 to 2 in Dr. Wise's favor, with both of the
    dissenting votes cast by institute scholars: Edward Witten, a
    mathematical physicist in the School of Natural Sciences, and Glen W.
    Bowersock, a historian in the School of Historical Studies. And at
    that point, Phillip Griffiths, the institute's director, decided not
    to proceed with the appointment.

    "The sad part is that this very vibrant, engaging area of intellectual
    inquiry, with real factual and interpretive breakthroughs, won't be
    done at an institute which is supposed to be on the cutting edge,"
    said Joan Scott, a professor at the social-science school. "We're just
    going to give up."

    A faculty position at the institute is a plum. It offers freedom to
    pursue research without teaching duties, higher salaries than those at
    many universities, and a heady intellectual atmosphere on a campus
    with a grand scientific lineage. But the home of Albert Einstein and
    the mathematicians Kurt Godel and John von Neumann has become a
    staging area in the war over the study of science -- battles over
    whether someone who is not a scientist is qualified to study it, and
    whether science should be regarded as purely objective.

    Clifford Geertz, another faculty member in the social-science school,
    said a small clique of scholars in the natural sciences object to
    science studies and to the social sciences generally. "They have
    worked against us for years," he said. "The letters in this case were
    overwhelmingly positive. Then they went on a fishing expedition."

    The Henry Luce Foundation has provided more than $500,000 in grant
    support for the professorship, but Dr. Scott and Dr. Geertz say they
    have offered to return the money. "The scientists have succeeded in
    preventing this kind of work from being done here," said Dr. Scott.

    Reached last week, Dr. Wise said he was very disappointed by the
    decision but more worried about what it may mean for science studies.
    "My whole career has been built on bridging physics and the
    humanities," he said. "I was looking forward to the opportunity to act
    as a mediator between the two.

    "From everything I can tell, it was a pretty shabby business. There
    apparently were letters from physicists who don't know anything about
    my work. The lack of professionalism: it's not only disappointing,
    it's scandalous, one might say."

    Dr. Griffiths, the director, said that he could not discuss the
    specifics of the case, but that an executive committee had reviewed
    and approved the proceedings. "When there is division on the committee
    and considerable division among the faculty, the director meets in
    consultation with faculty and others outside the institute to try to
    bring the matter to resolution in as fair and objective a way as
    possible," he said. "That's what I did."

    Asked whether there was hostility to science studies at the institute,
    he said, "That's not true, as best as I can tell." He cited the case
    of another historian of science, Peter Galison of Harvard University,
    who was named to the professorship in 1994, after Dr. Latour's
    appointment did not go through. Dr. Galison ended up staying at
    Harvard because there wasn't an academic position for his wife nearby.

    Dr. Witten did not return phone calls last week. Dr. Bowersock said he
    agreed that there there wasn't resistance to science studies at the
    institute. As to his vote against Dr. Wise, he said that it
    represented "an estimate of quality. I'd rather not go further into it
    than that. It certainly has nothing to do with the field."

    One scholar who voted for Dr. Wise, Nancy Cartwright, a professor of
    philosophy at the London School of Economics, said she didn't think
    any "procedural illegalities" had taken place, "though I suspect the
    decision was influenced by opinions of people who are not experts, or
    who don't think the field has much merit."

    The decision, which came as the social-science school was preparing to
    mark its 25th anniversary last weekend, appears to have left wounds at
    the school, the smallest of four at the institute. It has only three
    permanent faculty members. Michael Walzer, a political theorist, who
    said he was as upset as his colleagues about the decision, is the
    third one.

    Smarting from two unsuccessful attempts to fill the professorship, the
    faculty members said they felt their autonomy and judgment had been
    undermined. "I've been here for 25 years trying to build this damn
    school," said Dr. Geertz. "Other appointments at the institute have no
    trouble. Ours, we always have to fight over them."

    He said that after attempts to meet with the institute's Board of
    Trustees had been rebuffed, the school's faculty members had decided
    to make their complaints known. "With the Latour appointment, I agreed
    not to say anything, to call Bruno and ask him to withdraw, and we
    were promised that this wouldn't happen again. It's now happened
    again, and we can't agree to remain silent. I don't think we should
    roll over with our paws in the air one more time."

    While Dr. Latour's studies on the workings of scientific laboratories
    have been controversial -- he is known for approaching scientists as
    members of a primitive tribe -- Dr. Wise's work is seen as more
    mainstream. His book on Lord Kelvin, Energy and Empire: William
    Thomson, Lord Kelvin, 1824-1907, won the Pfizer Prize of the History
    of Science Society in 1990. "We thought this was the leading book on
    what's called the second scientific revolution of the 19th century,"
    said Dr. Scott.

    Dr. Wise is now working on a study of the dominant modes of
    explanation in the history of science during three eras. Last summer,
    he had an exchange with the Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg in The New
    York Review of Books over a piece that Dr. Weinberg had written about
    Alan Sokal's hoax in the cultural-studies journal Social Text.

    Dr. Sokal had attempted to show the intellectual bankruptcy of much of
    the thinking that goes into the cultural study of science. Dr.
    Weinberg praised Dr. Sokal for doing a "a great service" in raising
    the issue. Dr. Wise, in a letter to the editor, questioned whether Dr.
    Weinberg was promoting his own cultural agenda.

    Had it not been for this exchange, said Dr. Scott, Dr. Wise's
    appointment might not have been contested.

    Dr. Wise said he was concerned about what the decision may mean for
    scholars in less secure positions than his own. "If the rumors about
    what happened at the institute are correct, it would seem to indicate
    some of the most intimidating aspects of the science wars -- a call
    for what Mario Bunge has called a truth squad, to expel the charlatans
    from the university," he said. "There is a very specific aspect to the
    science wars, and it has to do with relativism. It's always read as
    radical relativism -- any account is the same as another. Very few
    people actually believe this.

    "Relativism has become the great bugaboo. It's almost like Communism.
    It has the same damning association, whether you're a party member or


    Copyright (c) 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
    Title: The Science Wars Flare at the Institute for Advanced Study
    Published: 97/05/16

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