Postmodern Science and Western Civilization

William H. Young

Much of the American academy has come to reject the concept of natural science developed by Western civilization and has replaced it with postmodern ideology. Most importantly, this misguided contempt for Western science has contributed to placing America in a non-competitive and perilous position relative to other industrialized nations because of a lack of college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.

The ancient Greeks first formulated the mathematical description of the structure of nature, but they never carried out the empirical experimentation necessary to convert the ideals of Plato and logic of Aristotle (the Organon) into science and scientific principles. It would be two thousand years before the balance between logic and empiricism would be achieved, uniquely by the West, in the seventeenth-century scientific revolution.

In his New Organon (1620), Francis Bacon laid out a new method of inductive reasoning—the “scientific method” in which facts would first be gathered without preconception and then analyzed. He established the scientific credo as well as method: the endless pursuit of knowledge, which grows incrementally and systematically over time; the use of experiment and evidence to provide proof of truth (or falsity) and a basis for inductive logic; and practical utility as the goal of science. It would later take Newton and the Principia (1687) to establish the need for theoretical formulation prior to observation and the application of mathematics as integral to the scientific method. With the scientific method, the natural sciences made possible “the metamorphosis in humanity’s estate,” the health and well-being of the Western common man, as Stephen Balch observed in Metamorphosis, or Why We Should Study the West.

But beginning with the counterculture of the 1960s, postmodern academic thinking—other than that applied in technical professions such as natural science, medicine, engineering, finance, accounting—came to dismiss the “rationalistic” mentality associated with scientific mechanism and materialism, what Theodore Roszak derided as “objective consciousness.” Academia, especially in the humanities and social sciences, turned against Western science through misuse of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

Kuhn postulated that Western science had advanced by a series of revolutions in which creative individuals and groups, starting with new discoveries and perceptions of the ways in which nature exists and works, developed “new paradigms,” which were validated through acquisition of data—or evidence—using the scientific method. In Kuhn’s terms, there have been hundreds of such new paradigms, such as the discoveries of x-rays, the voltaic cell, electromagnetism, and Newton’s and Einstein’s laws. Such new paradigms were subject to rigorous independent verification by competent peer groups before acceptance as truth within the limits of knowledge and measurement at a given time. Kuhnian science is cumulative. But Kuhn’s work “became perhaps the most influential misunderstood book of the century,” explains philosopher Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1998). Postmodernism

says, in effect, that the world is not perceived, it is only interpreted. Different interpretations are equally valid ways of making sense of the world, and thus no interpretation is intrinsically better than another. Science is not a privileged conception of the world but merely one among many equivalent interpretations; science does not offer “truth” but simply its own favorite prejudice; science is not a set of universal facts but merely an arbitrary imposition of its own power drives. And in all cases, science is no more grounded in reality than is any other interpretation.

Postmodernism, Wilber continues, postulated that

science is not governed by facts, it is governed by paradigms, and paradigms are not much more than ad hoc constructions or free-floating interpretations….This is not at all the way Kuhn defined or described paradigms, and he strenuously denounced this abuse of his work—to no avail….This blatant misreading of Kuhn erased evidence from the scene of truth, and into that vacuum rushed every egocentric project imaginable….that allowed them arbitrarily to deconstruct any reality that happened not to suit them and insert their own “revolutionary new paradigm” into the scene, imagining that they were somehow vanguards of a revolutionary transformation that would shake the world to its very foundations, and the keys to which, they now held…

In Higher Superstition (1994), biologist Paul R. Gross of the University of Virginia and Rutgers mathematician Norman Levitt began the science wars of the 1990s by revealing that college programs were turning out graduates convinced that natural science is ideological, reflecting the postmodernist assertion that knowledge is at best relative and socially constructed, and that there is no truth, only opinion. As a result, such graduates “are hostile towards scientific knowledge and methodology themselves and deny their validity. Claiming superior ways of knowing—and courting and proclaiming pride in irrationality—they condemn science and seek to exorcise it.”

Many sociologists “view science as a social convention, reflecting social prejudice”; gender feminists “view science as poisoned and corrupted by an ineradicable gender bias”; radical environmentalists “view science as an instrumentality alienating man from nature”; postmodernists “view science as part of bankrupt Western civilization”; and multiculturalists “view science as inherently inaccurate and incomplete by virtue of its failure to incorporate the full range of cultural perspectives,” including deep racial wisdom. “With the aid of an unrelenting moralism that cloaks itself in political and social virtue… the critics enthrone a doctrine and a methodology for thinking about science that is at once scornful and ignorant.”

Science and Technology Studies and other college programs continue that anti-science ethos. Moreover, schools of education and teachers have undermined the understanding of, and attitudes towards, science taught in the public schools, guiding students to see science through the ideological prisms of social justice and sustainability—and now, ironically, seeking to divorce math from science. Most students are already not prepared in math and science to undertake the rigor of STEM degrees, especially engineering. And they are weak in critical thinking skills, such as the ability to assess the validity of evidence or the logic of arguments, faculties indispensable to scientific disciplines.

But “it’s not just a K-12 preparation issue,” notes a New York Times article, “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard).” Latest research suggests that grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences provides an incentive for students to leave STEM majors. STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors.

What is the result in the real world? According to the National Academies of Sciences, the U. S. has fallen to 27th out of 29 wealthy countries in the proportion of college students with STEM degrees. As recounted in his biography by Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs told President Obama that Apple employs 700,000 factory workers in China because it can’t find the 30,000 engineers in the U. S. that it needs on site at its plants. Could the need for change be clearer?

As NAS has recommended, our universities urgently need to return to teaching the knowledge of Western civilization about science, to restore understanding of and respect for the scientific method, to improve rather than further degrade the teaching of math and science in secondary schools, and to foster an increase in the number of graduates—both men and women—with STEM degrees, if America is to regain competitiveness in the global economy through technological innovation.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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