Max Nova's Reviews > Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science

Higher Superstition by Paul R. Gross
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's review
Jul 27, 2017

really liked it
bookshelves: 2017-focus, science, scientific-integrity, philosophy-of-science

This is the hardest I've laughed for any book in my 2017 reading theme. "Higher Superstition" is a wickedly perceptive takedown of the absurdities of the "academic postmodern left" and their "perspectivist" critique of science. Gross and Levitt defend the epistemological integrity of science from the relativist onslaught with a biting wit and a cavalier disregard for political correctness. The book is a useful conservative counterbalance to Otto's generally liberal "The War on Science".

Originally published in 1994, this book just pre-dates Harold Bloom's equally hilarious and unapologetic "The Western Canon". Similar in conservative approach and acidic tone, both works take on "The School of Resentment" and its attack on the foundations of Western culture and civilization. On the menu for evisceration are "Marxists, feminists, Afro-centrists, and relativists" (and "ecotopians" for good measure). I suspect that neither book could find a publisher courageous enough to publish it today.

The core argument of the book is that postmodern critiques that treat science as "just another self-referential discursive community" fail to appreciate the unique, self-correcting relationship that science has with reality. Gross and Levitt do a remarkably good job surveying the giants of the philosophy of science - from Kuhn and Feyerabend to Latour and Shapin. I found his refutation of relativism compelling and his no-holds-barred demolition of leftist misinterpretations of chaos theory to be satisfyingly brutal.

Speaking of brutality, here's a list of some of the sickest burns in the book:

* "To put the matter brutally, science works."
* "What Hayles does is not analysis. It is name-dropping."
* "This is exhilarating: it is radicalism without risk."
* "Wishful thinking is the customary name for this such “analysis.”"
* "There is not masculinist or feminist science, just good and bad science."
* "Apocalyptic movements don’t do honest and comprehensive cost/benefit analyses."
* "the only book foretelling the end of the world that routinely advertises next year’s edition."
* "Science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise."
* "In sum, we are accusing a powerful faction in modern academic life of intellectual dereliction."
* "One can’t assume, in these matters, that possession of an advanced degree or a professorship equates to intellectual legitimacy."

The book is full of quotes like these. They makes the text a joy to read, but also underscore how bitter discourse in the academy has become. Gross and Levitt echo Bloom by highlighting this resentment, "It is impossible to understand fully the academic left’s attack on science without taking into account how much resentment is embodied in it." They argue that the humanities envy the increasing funding and prestige of science departments, and thus they have leveled their constructivist weapons upon them. Seems a bit too... Freudian?

My big takeaway was that much of the conflict between the left and science comes down to a matter of perspectivism:
Perspectivism on the left is the true legacy of the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when it was assumed that the oppressed are endowed with uniquely privileged insights, and that the intellectual, as well as moral authority of victims is beyond challenge

Overall, this is a cranky but useful read. It was certainly quite helpful in helping me frame some current scientific controversies in their recent-historical context.

A word of warning: because the authors attempt to engage with contemporary postmodern academic literature, the books is awash in complex, confusing vocabulary ("hermeneutics" comes up with astonishing frequency). In general, the vocabulary level of this book is quite high - I often found myself having to look words up. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised - after all, we're neck-deep in epistemology now.

Full review and highlights at

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Reading Progress

June 30, 2017 – Started Reading
June 30, 2017 – Shelved
July 27, 2017 – Finished Reading
August 5, 2017 – Shelved as: 2017-focus
August 5, 2017 – Shelved as: science
August 5, 2017 – Shelved as: scientific-integrity
August 5, 2017 – Shelved as: philosophy-of-science

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Miles (new)

Miles I will definitely have to check this book out. How goes the year of science?

message 2: by Max (new) - rated it 4 stars

Max Nova It's been a trip! I'm now beginning to think about writing everything up. Would be great to bounce some ideas around with you before I start - it's such an intimidatingly complex topic!

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