I have an academic friend who went through a postmodernist phase, as he admitted later, to liberate himself from the shackles of orthodox Marxism. He read Derrida and thought he understood him. After a while, though, he started reading a biology textbook because “in addition to being interesting, it might actually be true.” The whole point of postmodernism was to treat scientific knowledge as a social construct and deny the very possibility of objective truth, so I took my friend’s remark to be a sign that his postmodernist phase was over.
The postmodernist critique of science has had little effect on the way science is done, but it did spark what is known as the science wars. A salvo from the science camp in those wars was the Sokal Hoax. Physicist Alan Sokal had an article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” accepted for publication in the spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue of the postmodernist journal Social Text. The article proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct, which was utter nonsense, something the editors of Social Text missed. On the day it was published, Sokal revealed in another journal that the piece was “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations he could find about mathematics and physics.”
The science wars are pretty much over and postmodernism’s influence in academia is waning. But in at least one area the postmodernist insistence that scientific knowledge is merely a social construct continues to influence elements of the political culture and bedevil legitimate science. Anti-GMO activists of the left outdo climate change denial activists of the right in ignoring a broad scientific consensus. If fact, the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is greater than that on climate change.
Combining a willful ignorance of science with an anti-corporate militancy, the anti-GMO movement has been blocking the development of life-saving technology. A striking example is Golden rice, which is genetically modified to produce the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene to prevent blindness and death in Asian populations. Vitamin A deficiency is a major problem in populations dependent on rice as a dietary staple and is most severe in Southeast Asia and Africa. Some 400 million rice-consuming poor suffer from impaired vision, blindness, and death because of vitamin A deficiency.
Animal testing of Golden Rice had demonstrated no health risks at all, and it could be saving millions from dying or going blind. But golden rice is still in limited use because of anti-GMO zealotry. Discourse, even marginal academic discourse, matters.