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RESPONSE LOGO Why I am Not a Postmodernist

Edward R. Friedlander, M.D.
I'm an honest doctor. I have chosen science over prejudice, health over disease, opportunity over slavery, and love and kindness over mean-minded make-believe.

There was a time when people were openly grateful to scientists and physicians who dedicated their lives to making us healthier and happier. There was a time when it was fashionable to express appreciation for the system of government and the practice of dispassionate inquiry which have brought us the unparalleled health, freedom, and prosperity which we enjoy today.

There was a time when people thought that a proposition was "valid" or "true" if, and only if, it ultimately squared with the observable world around us.

There was a time when people thought it was right to judge each person by what he or she had done as an individual, rather than for their race, skin color, ancestry, religion, gender, sexual preference, or anything else.

There was a time when people enjoyed discovering how much we all have in common, and how most of us wanted the same things despite the superficial differences. There was even a time when we thought the best way to overcome misunderstanding, prejudice, and hate was by means of reason, common sense, clear-thinking, and good-will.

We called this being scientific. We called this being rational. We called this being enlightened. We called this being mliberal.

We called this being modern.

I am concerned here only with the use of the word "postmodernism" as it usually gets used in rhetoric, not with its use in real epistemology.

Real postmodernism is a thoughtful study of the limits of scientific inquiry, the origins and perpetuation of unreasonable prejudices, and the ambiguities of language. Even though I am not a professional philosopher, I appreciate real postmodernism as far as I'm able to understand it.

By contrast...

Here is my collection of "postmodernism" links from the Net:

It's a fact. People want to believe lies that make them feel intellectually and spiritually superior to others.

At its best, contemporary postmodernism is a reaction against all the stupid people who pretend to have answers to everything ("meta-narratives"). Science, rightly used, does the same thing.

In its more typical forms, contemporary postmodernism is a sustained attack on the three hopes of the "modern" era:

Science, at it is, or should be, practiced, is the serious business of looking at the world of nature as it really is, taking elaborate precautions against self-deception and one's own prejudices. As such, it has proved its power again and again. Like it or not, we owe our health and longevity to the public-health initiatives and therapeutic techniques which scientific knowledge has given us. Like it or not, our planet sustains six billion people only because of scientific agriculture. Like it or not, the postmodernists can post their stuff on the "Net" only because of our much-hated "technology".

Postmodernism grew out of literary criticism and the focus on the ambiguities of language. I understand how this applies to the language of literature, advertising, and propaganda. I understand all too well how this applies to the "knowledge" of sub-sciences like sociology, psychology (outside some narrow lab applications), and education, where real experiments are (regrettably) almost impossible, successful theories are (regrettably) few or nonexistent, and where ideology and politics dominate in the public arena and do tremendous harm. (I'll stand by this controversial statement, and believe that most readers who bring their own real-life experience will agree. In fact, I've received appreciative notes from academic psychologists and students of culture who deplore the misapplication of their subjects by ideologues. Here, I'm with Michel Foucault completely, and my own godawful experiences with "expert" after "expert" underlies much of my appreciation for this great thinker.) And works of literature are not produced or read in a social or cultural vacuum. The latter is the focus of today's literary criticism at its most intriguing.

But I am at a loss to understand how the language of science ("centimeter", "oxygen", "hemoglobin", "six") and fundamental human experience ("This is blue", "I itch", "I feel cold") shares this indeterminacy.

Postmodernists complain that science is a cultural prejudice, and/or a tool invented by the current elite to maintain power, and/or only one "way of knowing" among many, with no special privilege. For postmodernists, science is "discourse", one system among many, maintained by a closed community as a means of holding onto power, and ultimately referential only to itself.

No reasonable person would deny that politics and the profit-motive do influence what science studies, and who gets to use the laboratories. But it seems to me that the feature of real-world science which distinguishes it from other forms of description is rigorous measurement and the experimental method, which we can apply to atoms, to the galactic radiation, to our bodies, and to the medical techniques of indigenous peoples. All scientific knowledge is tentative, and scientific statements are judged by their predictive value. (Postmodernists themselves sometimes say, "What's true is what works.") As scientists look at nature, science corrects itself over time, and all scientists thrive on finding flaws in one another's works. Like it or not, science works. Superstition doesn't.

More seriously, postmodernists blame science for Hitler's atrocities and the other evils perpetrated against humankind. This is noxious falsehood. Every tyrant uses the language of science (who doesn't, nowadays?) But oppression happens and continues because people choose to believe (or pretend to believe) ugly lies. If anything will free us from this, it's knowledge of the world as it really is. And if my own experience has taught me anything, it's that reason, not make-believe, is the best way of dealing with the real evils of our world. After all, it was superior science and understanding, translated into superior military power, that gave the free world the victory over Hitler.

We still hear a great deal today about "multiculturalism" and "relative values". But everybody that I know, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, seems to want the same basic things. This begins with health, reasonable personal liberty and security, and a reasonable chance to have one's initiative rewarded. Postmodernists talk about being "dehumanized" by science and technology. If they really believed this, they would trade their academic positions for the lives of subsistence farmers in the world's poor nations, or (if they could) the short, sickly, miserable lives of chattel-serfs in the ages "before technocracy". There they will discover that what people want isn't "cultural integrity" or "multicultural sensitivity", but health, food, safety, and a reasonable opportunity to choose one's own course through life. Those who would deny them these basic human needs aren't the scientists. It is the tyrants and ideologues of the right and the left.

Of course, it's silly to believe that science gives ultimate answers about our place in the cosmos, or what things mean, or what's right and wrong. But as far as I can tell, the best way to make a good decision is to understand a situation as it really is, and the best way to do mischief is to choose make-believe instead.

I believe the material to which I've linked this page speaks for itself, even though it is written in a peculiar doublespeak that is hard for the uninitiated to understand. Postmodernist writings consist largely of effusive praise for each other's works, and obvious appeals to the prejudices of their liberal audience. Since the constituency is liberals, there is a preoccupation with how wealth and opportunities are to be redistributed by the government, and the question of how wealth and opportunities are produced and defended gets ignored. A satirical website about the postmodernist work ethic is a blank page.

The more recent writings are less hostile to science itself. There are even writers at the "Postmodern Culture" site who look to popular science writers to buttress postmodernism's attack on the supposed monolithic ideology of classical science. Harvard's paleontologist, Dr. Gould, is a favorite; unlike the creationists of the 1980's, the postmodernists who take Dr. Gould as an authority seem to really want to understand him. Alongside this are the totally-discredited Duesberg claims about the cause of AIDS. In between are various environmentalist and social-science polemics papers. You'll need to decide on their merit; it's interesting to see postmodernists using the evidence of empirical science after all, when it suits them.

As a visitor to "Postmodern Culture" who worked hard at literary criticism as a college undergraduate, I'm struck by the lack of internal self-criticism at the site. In college, I examined empirical evidence to decide whether Milton really drew on particular neoplatonists in creating his "Chaos" scene, whether John the Baptist was a conscious forerunner of Jesus, whether the Wellhausen hypothesis of the origin of Deuteronomy was true, and what Shakespeare was trying to tell us in "Antony and Cleopatra". I examined the ideas of others, compared them with the facts of the real world, and had the same done to me. As a scientist-physician, I have thrived on finding the errors in others' work. By contrast, the world of postmodernism shows the same lack of internal criticism that I've come to expect from pseudoscientists and charlatans of all stripes.

Somebody has to say "No!" to all this. So far as I can tell, I'm the first person on the "Net" to do so in an accessible way.

If you are a postmodernist, I'm fully in support of your appreciation for your neighbor's culture, your concern about the future of our planet, and your care for people who are genuinely oppressed. I enjoy the great diversity of humankind, in our food, our dress, our music, our literature, our sexuality, and our forms of spiritual expression.

I am only asking you to reconsider (1) whether empirical science should have a privileged place in your thinking about how the world of nature really is, and (2) whether western-style democracy isn't the best way of getting what you and your neighbors really want. And if you love books as I do, ask yourself (3) whether some passage in literature has touched you in a special way, reaching something in you that is universal to humankind, something "beyond the text", beyond all cultural prejudice.

Especially, look at the world around you. Most scientists, most white people, most men, and most European-Americans, are good, sensible people who care about the world in which we live. Science isn't a conspiracy of power-hungry monsters against the human race. The real enemy is superstition, ignorance, and silly lies. And if you live in America, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, or Western Europe, most people in the world would gladly trade places with you.

Learn about the world as it really is. Health and friendship!

NOTE 1. Postmodernists typically cite Hitler's atrocities and the evil A-bombing of Japan as the prototypical outcomes of science and technology. ("Genocide! Mass murder! Let's talk about the death camps again!") I used the search engine to find the references to Stalin. Peter Baker, who is against "liberal democracy", speaks admiringly of an old French "analysis that seriously attempts to contextualize Stalin's violence by comparison to the violence present in liberal democracies", and explains that this "shows a need to understand the argument for liberal democracy within a specifically postwar historical context." Neil Larsen notes that "postmodern philosophy normally refrains from open anti-communism, preferring to pay lip service to 'socialism' even while making the necessary obeisances to the demonologies of 'Stalin' may make it appear as some sort of a 'left' option." No kidding, Neil. Noam Chomsky mentions Stalin and his "bureaucracy" as bad Marxists, not left-wing enough. Eric Petersen presents a history of dialectical materialism. Marxism is "a guide to human liberation by social revolution.... (d) Stalinism turned dialectical materialism into an authoritarian state religion. (e) Mao used dialectical materialism to justify Stalinist politics in China. (f) Trotsky used dialectical materialism to misunderstand Stalin's counter-revolution." And so forth. PMC-Talk archives contain a single flame, from a Professor Kessler, about folks such as Sartre who fell for Stalinism; he also has the insight to call Lysenkoism "nonsense". Continuing, Kessler mentions Stalin's paranoia and his one-time sparring partner Norman Miller asks for "some pm words on such matters as Stalin's murders and even more the bloody complicity of most of the left in these events." The only contributor to take up the challenge said he didn't know which was worse, right-wing tyrants or left-wing tyrants, and was too preoccupied with his own liberal agenda to care. Vitaly Chernetsky, a real Russian, mentions Stalin's tyranny in passing, with particular reference to Stalin's control of the movies and cultural life. Russell Potter gives a sympathetic review of a quasi-Marxist who is sympathetic to Stalin's ideas. "Bataille's difference--and a significant one it is--is that unlike many theorists of Marxism, who prefer to think of Stalin as a kind of bad dream, Bataille looks directly at the economic structures of communism under Stalin as a starting point for his theorizations." This Bataille prophesied that "today, sovereignty is no longer alive except in the perspectives of communism", and that "Soviet society is the medium in which the question of the sovereign will be resolved". Apparently written just before the collapse of the Soviet union (ha ha).... The Symposium on Russian Postmodernism calls Stalin "sinisterly modernist", and "Stalin's state" as "the fulfillment of modernist (avant-garde) project", and focuses on the poor aesthetic quality of Stalinist cultural products. Marjorie Perloff wonders whether Stalin's rejection of "modern art" influenced Tom Wolfe. The bottom line is, despite all the postmodern rhetoric about "genocide", and "mass murder" in modern times, one could read the entire contents of the principal postmodernist site and never learn that Stalin the Communist killed a single person.

The word gratitude appears only a few times at the Postmodern Culture site, and never with respect to science, medicine, or democracy. First, a reviewer of "Schindler's List" talks about how appropriate the gratitude shown to Oscar Schindler was. Nearby, you can find "The Fairy Tale of The Just War" ("The hero receives acclaim, along with the gratitude of the victim and the community.") So how do you think the free world finally overcame Hitler? Apparently, gratitude is a virtue or a fairy-tale, depending on whether the postmodernists like (Schindler) or dislike (the free world) the recipient.

NOTE 2. It is obvious to me that people who are wilfully deceiving the public stay off the Internet. Pseudoscience targeted to exploit blacks ("melanin science", "the Portland Baseline Essays") has almost completely disappeared from the 'net. (See Gross & Levitt "Higher Superstition", Johns Hopkins 1994 for a review of the "Baseline Essays" author's falsified credentials; despite his claim to be a distinguished research scientist, he reportedly has no education past high school, and no record of scientific publication.) More on the "Baseline Essays", all negative: Center for Equal Opportunity. American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker says "It uses pseudoscience to promote a political agenda. At the same time, it cheats students of a chance to find out what real science is like, and it deprives them of a founcation on which to build future learning. This would be bad news for any of our youngsters; it is criminal for poor, minority students." Revisionist Discoveries by Anti-Racist Historians quotes the Baseline Essays: "Afrika was the epitome of civilizations in times when western Europe lived in a state of savagery and barbarity featuring filth, sexual disease, incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and anarchy."

NOTE 3. These are the folks who spent a million dollars of tax money to generate learning objectives for American History. The resulting document did not mention George Washington as our first president, mentioned Abraham Lincoln only as a speechmaker, and was utterly silent on America's contribution to science (no mention of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, or what they did). Yet there were nineteen separate references to McCarthyism, and reverse racial, class, and gender prejudices permeate the work. Check out the main site and its links yourself. The influence of postmodernist pseudo-epistemology is obvious. Click here to see how a participant cites thermodynamics against "individualism", and quantum theory "indeterminacy" to explain why it's not worthwhile mentioning the individual heroes and achievements for which most of us are proud and grateful.

NOTE 4. There is one essay here on the relationship between the Chilean astronomers and Pinochet's brutal repression of the people who almost succeeded in setting up a Castro-style communist state in Chile. The author considers Chile's observatories to be collaborators in Pinochet's human-rights violations merely for remaining open ("the ideological indifference of scientific value-neutrality"), and frames an analogy between astronomy and torture: "Astrophysics, which itself is a will to pure factuity, compels the universe to confess its secrets."

NOTE 5. Typical is the incident reviewed by Mark Turner. When cognitive scientists discover, based on their experiments, that human beings everywhere agree on the meaning of "This is blue", the postmodernist reply is that "human beings are a recent invention, a wrinkle in our knowledge that will inevitably be displaced as new wrinkles arise." (Mark Turner's written me, 1/1/97 to point out that he's describing the postmodernists, and is himself a cognitive scientist. Shoulda been obvious... Sorry, Mark! Thanks for speaking out for understanding and reason.) Also typical is Suvir Kaul, apparently thinks that the purpose of literary criticism is to promote partisan positions in the struggle for world ideological domination, and thereby solve "the problems of racism, sexism, economic inequality, and lack of equal opportunity."

NOTE 6: "Whether you're talking about the manifestations of universal reason in the final solution of the Holocaust or you're talking about the manifestation of universal reason in nuclear arms, there seems to be something inherently violent here." The authors are not the first members of the religious right to: (1) assert that Hitler's atrocities are the logical outcome of the Enlightenment and the triumph of science; (2) claim to champion the poor and oppressed against evil, secular science and technology; (3) claim that science etc. pretends to have answers to everything ("...the assumption by means of universal reason that Western culture has the truth, and that necessarily marginalizes..."). But these two are apparently the first to identify as "Postmodern" their familiar right-wing overstatement of the limits of rational inquiry. And while I appreciate your Christian zeal, gentlemen, your statements are on a level with the creationist ("neck of the giraffe") material elsewhere on your server. The root of tyranny, lawlessness, over-population, racial hatreds, world hunger, avoidable disease, and rank stupidity isn't "universal reason" or "meta-narratives" or "modernism". It's something inherent in human nature. Mainstream Christians like myself still talk about sin.

Click here for my reply to the first postmodernist posting I found on the "Net".

E-Mail to: erf@alum.uhs.edu

[As of December 20, 1997] I have received over 170 expressions of strong support and encouragement from academicians and students, one polite reminder from a real philosopher that "postmodernism" is also the name of one of the two major schools of contemporary epistemology (this correspondent regrets the use of the word by "English departments" to experess "angst-laden Marxism"), one obscenity-laced personal characterization (too much truth here, Karen?), a very long attack on my character from two graduate students in philosophy (I have a "boring personality" and am "enslaved to modernist thinking"), one complaint from a research scientist that he did not understand what I was saying about Stalin, a remark from a Finnish sociologist that my page was "highly offensive" without further explanation, a reminder from a professor in Germany that Stalin joined the free world in overcoming Hitler, a few angry folks who accused me of being stupid and pretending to have answers to everything, one ideologue who insisted vehemently there was no basis whatever for preferring one "way of knowing" over another (he did not answer my inquiry about whether he'd go to a dentist or a Christian Science practitioner if he got a toothache), two correspondents who (as it turned out) agreed both with my appreciation of "postmodernism at its best" and rejected its imbecilities, two notes from Bill Clearlake ("Beethoven was black. There, I've said it."), and no attempt at any other kind of reply from any postmodernist. If postmodernism were true, I would think that somebody would (by now) have told me how to deconstruct "six", "hemoglobin", and "I itch".

The most interesting anecdote so far came from a doctoral student in the humanities, who asked to remain anonymous: "I have just gone through a huge battle in my 'supposed' doctoral seminar [at a major university], where I pointed out some of the fallacious logic in Postmodernist rhetoric. The professor, ___ ___, a PM author, could only respond with 'F--- you.' A very literate thing to say... ". Joshua Hersh, one of the students, described his own course at Ohio State University. "This one is called 'Values, Science and Technology in a Global Perspective.' We learn about things like the particle physicist's subculture in which their particle beams represent a phallic symbol. We also learn about how all science is socially influenced and knowledge does not really exist (epistemological relativism). Finally, we learn that the people in the class that have bad vision are cyborgs because they augment their vision with eyeglasses."

I also ran (Jan. 15, 1996) a MEDLINE literature search for "feminist theory". I found 52 references. Of these, 50 were postmodern-style rhetoric, ranging from common-sense-common decency stuff to the familiar we-hate-men stuff. There was a large representation from the nursing literature, including an exhortation to "include feminist theory as a major component of the nursing curriculum." Only two were empirical studies, both of sexual violence. In each case, the predictions of "feminist theory" turned out to be totally wrong. Try it yourself; there's MEDLINE links nearby. In science, any "theory" which has, even once, failed to show predictive value must be modified or discarded. That's the key difference between science and politics.

The conservative anti-science, anti-empirical, anti-common-sense movement is every bit as vigorous and nasty as its liberal counterpart. These people have not (yet?) discovered postmodernism as a rhetorical device. I'd welcome your suggested titles for a essay to stand as a counterpart this one.

Other people who are happy not to be postmodernists, either:

  • College Republican Nation
  • Jason Kuznicki, an undergraduate. Welcome to the club, Jason!
  • "How To Deconstruct Anything". Welcome to the club, Chip!
  • Freethought Magazine
  • What's Wrong with the Social Sciences? The Perils of the Postmodern More on Sandra Harding and her kind.
  • Alan D. Sokal, a physicist at NYU, perpetrated the now-famous hoax on "Social Text", which published his nonsense article ("quantum gravity has implications for 'political goals and strategies'"). Read about it in Newsweek, June 3, 1996. Dr. Sokal explains, "The editors were oblivious to the articles illogic. [Their] acceptance of [it] exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory -- postmodern literary theory." A Norman Levitt (math, Rutgers) is also quoted: "The left has lost itself in a lot of crummy theory and bad philosophy. Science studies is not the only realm where this occurs, but it's the one in which people's predilection to make asses of themselves is easily exposed." Dr. Sokal continues, "I could throw their language around even though I didn't know what it means. Which suggests to me that maybe it doesn't mean anything." Welcome to the club, Alan!
  • "Pomolotov Cocktail", a comment on Dr. Sokal's hoax from "The Nation". Even genuine liberals are disgusted by postmodernism. Welcome to the club, Katha!
  • "Transgressing the Transgressors: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Total Bullshit" Welcome to the club, Gary!
  • Another Sokal site.
  • Professor Sheaffer, fellow CSICOP-member
  • A workbook for Evangelicals, including a section on "Assessing Postmodernism" which one does not have to be Christian to appreciate. It is VERY refreshing to hear an Evangelical say of postmodernists, "They exaggerate the difficulties involved in scientific objectivity and neutrality." Highly recommended.

  • Jim Faulconer at Brigham Young University

  • Camille Paglia. LesBiGay activist. "Culture is an achievement made more in opposition to nature than in concert with it. Nature is not the pretty innocence of Greenpeace agitprop or Bambi... Culture requires overcoing nature, creating a human realm apart from the natural, that provides a context and the hubris to paint, write novels or songs, fall in love, die for one's beliefs.... If we are whatever we say we are..., if our freedom consists in constructing an identity all our own, if there is no larger historical continuity, then it is tempting to define ourselves to serve only our immediate interests." Nicely put.

  • Postmodernism in Daily Life Christian (Evangelical Protestant) site summarizes postmodernism as pseudoscience and goofball left-wing politics justifying itself by a radical skepticism. It's pleasant to see these people (apparently soft-creationists) with a generally good overall understanding and appreciation for "western science".

  • "Premise", a mainstream Christian site.

  • D. Martin Fields, a pro-Christian philosopher, but you do not have to be a Christian to find this historical review to be helpful.

  • Postmodernity: "Whereas modernity was characterized by creativity and production, energy and meaning, the postmodern world signals the death of these values." From liberal Brown, even!

  • What's Wrong with Postmodernism... Belaboring the obvious, that if you're realling doing science (in this case anthropology), there's some objective truth which you can find regardless of your politics.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich in "The Nation", not noted for being conservative. "No sooner had the word 'experiment' passed her lips than the hands shot up. Audience members pointed out that the experimental method is the brainchild of white Victorian males. Ellsworth agreed that white Victorian males had done their share of damage in the world but noted that, nonetheless, their efforts had led to the discovery of DNA. This short-lived dialogue between paradigms ground to a halt with the retort: 'You believe in DNA?'... This climate of intolerance, often imposed by scholars associated with the left, ill suits an academic tradition rhetorically committed to human freedom. What's worse, it provides intellecutal backdrop for a political outlook that sees no real basis for common ground among humans of different sexes, races and cultures."

  • Lee Campbell, Ph.D. on the postmodenist hostility to science. Quotes anti-science postmodernist Paul Feyerabend's complaint that "he is still not permitted to demand that his children learn magic rather than science in school."

  • Ohio Board of Regents: "There is one component of today's university life (by no means the major component) that springs from campus thought and behavior, and not from the larger external marketplace. In this component there are extremes of political correctnesss and ideological faddishness such as relativism or deconstructionism, espousing the belief that no such thing as truth exists -- only how you perceive it. Try setting up a system of fiscal support for universities under that ideology."

  • Mary Lefkowitz on Afrocentrism. "Bernal argues that Greek philosophy was "massively borrowed" form Egypt, others have alleged that Aristotle stole his philosophy form the library in Alexandria (even though the library was only built after his death), and that Socrates and Cleopatra were black. These contentions, and others like them, are apparently being taught as truth in a course on 'Africans in Antiquity' at Wellesley College. When I mentioned to the then-dean of Wellesley that there was no evidence to back these claims, she assured me that the instructor of the Africans in Antiquity course had his view of ancient history and I had mine. Another colleague insisted that the issue was unimportant."

  • Radical Afrocentrism debunked: Mary Lefkowitz as "the woman who defied political correctness"; Grover Furr; Ibrahim Sundiata, an Afrocentrist who tries to regain credibility by urging his colleagues to be truthful; Camille Paglia (no conservative); Pearce Williams "Why I Stopped Reading 'Black Athena'. The "Beethoven was black" sites have mostly disappeared from the 'web (there was this incident at Stanford...); I'll let you find the remaining few yourself. Dwight Eisenhower's mother was black, etc., etc.

  • The "R" Word (Reality) David Pocock

  • Vaclev Havel, president of the Czech republic and hero of the liberation from Soviet domination, on "The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World". Urges people to set aside both cultural differences and the reliance on "modern" institutions. "The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it."

    This site is a mirror of the original work.

    Friedlander operates the world's largest free personalized medical information service. It's an outgrowth of his modernist vision of a world made healthier by science, communication, mutual understanding, and common kindness.

    KAIROS Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments.
    Vol. 3 No. 1. Spring 1998