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Fantasy Land

Mark Browning

A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science. Noretta Koertge, ed. 322 pp. Oxford University Press, 1998. $29.95.

For many followers of postmodern theories, the House of Science resembles the Southern plantation house, a facade of grace and stability, hiding a corrupt interior, built on the oppression of others. For Noretta Koertge and her collaborators, the House of Postmodernism is a fantasy place with only tangential connection to reality, a house built on sand. The book strives to provide "critiques of the postmodernist case studies that are cited over and over again as evidence for the claim that the results of natural science tell us more about social context than they do about the natural world." The importance of this statement is considerable. Any theory can be supported by carefully selecting the data, but these contributors have avoided cherry-picking, focusing instead on the core works in postmodern science studies.

The first of five sections covers the famous Alan Sokal hoax article in Social Text and includes laudably measured comments by Sokal himself. In Sokal's essay and in the works by Paul Boghossian and Philip Kitcher that follow, what will become a recurring theme is sounded: A place exists for critiques of science by those in the humanities and social sciences, but that place is not nearly as large as the one postmodernists have attempted to build for themselves

The section "Myths, Metaphors, and Misreadings" is the most consistent of the lot and explores the truth behind various postmodernist assumptions about science. Paul Gross's "Bashful Eggs, Macho Sperm, and Tonypandy" thoroughly debunks the idea, popularized in Newsweek, that embryologists portray a passive egg approached by a "warrior sperm" in the process of conception. Through reference to more than 100 years of literature, Gross demonstrates that this metaphor simply does not exist in any meaningful way. The same sort of truth hunt concerning charges of sexism is found in the articles of Philip Sullivan (concerning fluid dynamics and statistics) and Michael Ruse (Darwinism).

In the section that deals with the beginnings of modern science, Alan Soble masterfully defends Francis Bacon against charges that he shaped science through frequent use of rape and torture metaphors, and William Newman shatters the ahistorical view of a few feminists that alchemy represents a softer, more feminine form of science that was destroyed by a repressive scientific patriarchy.

The most notable contribution in the section exploring the serious ramifications that flow from these postmodern misconceptions is editor Noretta Koertge's account of a call for "postmodern mathematics," which suggests placing calculus in the elementary curriculum and saving fractions for college, and for "female-friendly science," which would effectively overturn all accepted methods.

The part of this collection that focuses on the construction of experiments is to me the least compelling because it is the most technical, complete with complicated equations that made this reviewer's head spin. I have held this section until the end because it illustrates my one reservation about an excellent collection. Throughout the book, but especially in this section, those who attack science are proved wrong, but they are proved wrong using the cognitive framework, methods and even the technical apparatus of science. This is, essentially, preaching to the choir. Just as the postmodernists can be criticized for their lack of science fluency, many of science's defenders need greater fluency in feminism, deconstruction and other theories if they are to move this debate outside of the respective houses of postmodernism and science and out onto the common.—Mark Browning, English, Johnson County (Kansas) Community College

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