Sometimes you open Nature magazine and are surprised by the latest discovery in quantum mechanics or molecular biology. Browsing through the March 5, 2009 issue I was stunned by an article penned by sociologist Harry Collins, entitled “We cannot live by scepticism alone” (The Brits call it “scepticism,” not “skepticism.”).

In it, Collins criticized the extreme fringe of a field called “science studies” which has “unfortunately led some ... to conclude that science is just a form of faith or politics. They have become overly cynical of science.”

The reason this is surprising is because Collins himself is a prominent member of that “wave” of “post-modernism” that has made itself ridiculous by arguing that, say, evolution and creationism are both “cultural traditions.” While Collins himself did not write about the evolution-creation wars, as far as I know, he is infamous for having been on record saying that “the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge,” a phrase that would certainly surprise the astronomers who accepted the Copernican system, or the physicists who empirically tested Einstein’s ideas at the beginning of the 20th century.

Collins, it must be admitted, has never been one of the worst offenders in the post-modernist movement. I actually enjoyed reading his book, The Golem: What You Should Know About Science, a cautionary tale about how sociological and psychological factors do play an undeniable role in the scientific enterprise, and how, for instance, there is no such thing as a “crucial experiment” in science. Rather, the process of scientific verification is much more messy and imprecise (but often successful) than most scientists would like to admit, or that one would gather from reading the sanitized versions found in textbooks and even scholarly papers.

No, the worst offenders in the post-modernist group are people like, for instance, Bruno LaTour, the French sociologist who wrote a critique of Einstein’s theory of relativity based on a comical misunderstanding of a book Einstein wrote for the general public, and in particular of the metaphor of two observers and their reference frame that Einstein uses to make the point that there is no privileged (in the sense of universally fixed, as in the Newtonian system) system of coordinates in physics.

Here is LaTour psychoanalyzing the famous physicist: “[Einstein’s] obsession with transporting information through transformation without deformation; his passion for the precise superimposition of readings; his panic at the idea that observers sent away might betray, might retain privileges, and send reports that could not be used to expand our knowledge; his desire to discipline the delegated observers and to turn them into dependent pieces of apparatus that do nothing but watch the coincidence of hands and notches.”

If you get the impression that this is nonsense on stilts, that’s because it is.

Collins, however, redeems himself to a large degree with the Nature article, which strikes a much more balanced and especially constructive, tone. He writes that he wonders “if science warriors [his term for scientists who took on post-modernists] have been right to be worried about the (unintended) consequences of what social constructivists [another term for post-modernists, in this context, though there are subtle differences] were doing.” Except, of course, that those consequences — i.e., a diminution of the status of science in society — were not at all unintended. Here is philosopher Paul Feyerabend, one of the precursors and inspirations of the post-modernist/deconstructionist movement, at his best (or worst, depending on your taste):

According to Feyerabend, Galileo prevailed “because of his style and his clever techniques of persuasion, because he writes in Italian rather than in Latin, and because he appeals to people who are temperamentally opposed to the old ideas and the standards of learning connected with them.” An idiotic statement that sounds very much like Collins’ own quoted above about the irrelevance of data to the scientific enterprise.

Or how about this: “About a year ago I was short of funds. So I accepted an invitation to contribute to a book dealing with the relation between science and religion. To make the book sell I thought I should make my contribution a provocative one and the most provocative statement one can make about the relation between science and religion is that science is a religion. Having made that statement the core of my article, I discovered that lots of reasons, lots of excellent reasons, could be found for it. I enumerated the reasons, finished my article, and got paid.” Cynical, but at least he was honest about his priorities.

And there is more: “Consider the role science now plays in education. Scientific 'facts' are taught at a very early stage and in the very same manner as religious 'facts' were taught only a century ago. ... In society at large the judgment of the scientist is received with the same reverence as the judgments of bishops and cardinals were accepted not too long ago. ... The situation is not as hopeless as it was only a decade ago. ... We have learned that there are phenomena such as telepathy and telekinesis which are obliterated by a scientific approach and which could be used to do research in an entirely novel way. ... And then – is it not the case that the Church saved souls while science often does the very opposite? ... Three cheers to the fundamentalists in California who succeeded in having a dogmatic formulation of the theory of evolution removed from the textbooks and an account of Genesis included.” [That fundamentalist success was short-lived, fortunately.]

That is why “science warriors” (i.e., scientists) got worried about post-modernism. And Collins, in the Nature essay, admits to such excesses, stating that “post-modernists have become comfortable in their cocoon of cynicism” and that “the prospect of a society that entirely rejects the values of science is too awful to contemplate.” I guess eight years of a Republican war on science have taught a lesson even to post-modernist sociologists. Better late than never.

But Collins is right that scientists are at fault as well: “Whenever a scientist, acting in the name of science, cheats, cynically manipulates, claims to speak with the voice of capitalism, the voice of god, or even the voice of a doctrinaire atheist [notice the punch to Dawkins], it diminishes not only science but the whole of our society.”

And that is exactly correct. That is why, contrary to many of my colleagues, I see much value in an intercourse between science, philosophy and science criticism — the latter being the salvageable part of the post-modernist program. Collins is absolutely correct that scientists “must think of themselves as moral leaders ... they must teach fallibility, not absolute truth ... Science can provide us with a set of values for how to run our social and political lives. But it can do it only if we accept that assessing scientific findings is a far more difficult task than was once believed, and that those findings do not lead straight to political conclusions.”

Indeed, a brighter future lies in the possibility of a cross-disciplinary cooperation among scientists and their critics in the humanities. Think of it as a balance of powers, where the activities and findings of science itself are subject to serious scrutiny, not in terms of the actual methods and findings, but in terms of the psychological, social, and political factors that may have entered into shaping research priorities and their presentation to the public.

At the same time, humanists will need to respect science as the most powerful enterprise capable of yielding knowledge about the world as it really is, and therefore — as Francis Bacon would have put it — the power to change that reality to the benefit of humanity. Now, there is a compromise between the two cultures I can heartily embrace.