The Postmodern Critique of Science

Dennis McCallum



Traditional Scientific PrinciplePostmodern Critique
Scientific Progress: Science should be a quest for truth about the universe, ignoring all forces who want to deny truth and defend their superstitions.Science actually arrives at its "truths" in response to social forces both within and without the scientific community. Their periodic shifts in outlook come as a result of irrational conversions on the part of influential scientific leaders, not from systematic searches.
Scientific Objectivity: Scientists are supposed to be objective observers. They study nature by direct observation, indirect observation or through controlled experiments intended to rule out bias.Observations do not interpret themselves. They are interpreted by a mind and the biases of any particular person or group conducting the experiment. They also argue that human minds are affected by their culture and language to such an extent that the "actual" nature of things may be unknowable.

Scientific Rationality: Science is supposed to be rational. Scientists use inductive or deductive logic to: 

  1. outline a problem or question
  2. interpret an observation
  3. formulate an hypothesis
  4. articulate the logical implications of an hypothesis and
  5. test an hypothesis
Some postmodernists question, not whether science is rational but whether rationality provides any real insights into the world. They argue that there is no such thing as reason in the sense Europeans use the word, as we have seen.1 All agree that the rules of logic only apply within a given cultural paradigm, or model based on a given language/thought system.
Testing Hypotheses: A hypothesis is one possible explanation for a phenomenon. Once an hypothesis is formed, it must be tested under conditions where falsifiability is possible. The hypothesis must predict the outcome of experiments.Some historians of science and psychologistsargue that when scientists form hypotheses they lose objectivity. In a number of cases, scientists refused to see data that contradicted their current understandings.2
Handling Data: Scientists should not select data to match their hypotheses. They should try to discover whether their hypotheses really match all available data.Hypotheses do not simply rise up from raw data. Instead, they originate in the mind of the observer, who then imposes the hypothesis upon the data as a way of organizing it. How does a scientist decide which information is useful and which isn't?3
Beginning Assumptions: Although the beginning assumptions of science cannot be demonstrated by scientific methods, they should be accepted anyway as reasonable beginning points. Scientists aren't consistent with their own method unless they admit their own presuppositions aren't undeniable.4The beginning points of modern science can't be obviously true because many cultures deny them. These beginning points along with the questionable bases for building upon them constitute the basis for calling science a purely subjective exercise, telling western man only what he wants to hear.
Quantum Physics physics: Quantum physics have revealed useful models for understanding the movements of subatomic particles. However the findings in this area are tentative and in dispute.Mystical scientists have allied themselves with other postmodernists to charge that quantum physics prove the eastern mystical view of the universe--a universe that is interconnected, irrational and spiritual.


1. See Andrea Nye (1990) Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic. (London: Routledge, 1990). She claims that logic has meant different things in different eras, depending on the world view in vogue at the time.

2. For instance, nobody saw a red-shift of light from the sun until the theory predicted it, then everybody that looked, 'saw' it. Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem. What everyone should know about science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Lister found it very difficult to convince his fellow physicians to wash their hands between the dissection room and the operating table in spite of overwhelming evidence that the physicians were causing the spread of a deadly disease. His notions of infection were not the prevalent view for how disease was caused, so the data were ignored.

3. The world is full of physical data, much of which we never notice. For instance, suppose you wanted to study the cause(s) of light emission by certain fungi. What data would you collect? Is the time of day relevant; the ambient temperature; the cycle of the moon; the presence of dog urine? In order to collect data you must first decide what is important. But once you do that, you have already decided what causes can safely be excluded from consideration. In so doing, scientists may impose an artificial order upon the observations.

4. Some of the presuppositions of the sciences include the following:

  • an external world exists
  • nature is understandable 
  • the rules of logic are valid 
  • language is adequate to describe the natural realm 
  • human senses are reliable.
  • mathematical rules are descriptive for the physical world
  • unexplained things can be used to explain other phenomenon (e.g. gravity is thus far unexplained but it is used to explain the movement of planets and the bending of light)
  • observable phenomenon provide knowledge about unobservable phenomenon (e.g. cosmic background radiation provides insight into the Big Bang)