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?
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
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
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
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