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 A War of Words

by Alison Davis

      IBM's Deep Blue dealt a final blow to Garry Kasparov this past weekend when the computer's soulless circuitry snatched victory from the unbeaten chess master's reluctant hands. The chess match is yet another battle in an ongoing war -- one being waged between people and numbers.

      This particular fray might suggest that the numbers are winning, but a truer statement is that this "war" isn't really a war at all. Pentium chips and electronic mail are drawing people and numbers closer together. The language computers speak has become the language we speak. We spit out thoughts in byte-sized pieces, and the way we think -- speeding from one link to the next -- is causing an alarming revolution in our style of debate. Neat and tidy chunks of information are tossed back and forth -- nobody wins, but no one loses either. As a society we are becoming digitized.

      A case in point is the current struggle being played out between scientists and science studies scholars, the sociologists and historians who study them. It's been a year since the previously unknown New York University scientist Alan Sokal climbed the fence by publishing his postmodern physics parody in the prestigious cultural studies journal Social Text. His hoax, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," sparked both sides to start picking fights with each other.

      The intellectual sparring continues today. In one huddle are the scientists, brandishing formulas and calculations. The scientists' pinpoint oxford-and-tweed opponents, the science studies scholars, hurl polysyllabic constructions they call "words" out onto the field.

      Both teams might as well be playing solitaire.

      As theoretical physicist David Mermin describes it, the conflict, dubbed "The Science Wars," can be likened to a comic opera, whereby both sides are guilty of pontificating on matters without really thinking about them. The truth is, each side is desperate to draw lines between the two encampments. It's a game of Stratego: the battleships are impenetrable phrases of jargon -- idiosynchratic language obscure enough to keep the sides apart.

      In such a scenario, it's not difficult to imagine hurt feelings. But are the factions truly at war with one another? To be sure, scientists aren't pleased with non-scientists digging around in their world -- one they argue is dedicated to the objective pursuit of truth. Science studies scholars, who study of the practice of science -- including how it's done and how its conclusions impact our lives -- resent the cool welcome their subjective views evoke from calculation-wielding scientists. Both sides should rightly confess to name-calling.

      It's much easier for our increasingly digital minds to comprehend black instead of gray, to give something a name rather than to just let it lie. Yet names rarely capture sentiment -- they more often provoke debate. Such is the case between the hermeneutics of quantum gravity and quantum gravity itself. The editors of Social Text neglectfully approved Sokal's manuscript because they desperately want there to be a hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Connectivity between such disparate fields has to exist, they say, and language must be the savior to untangle persistent differences.

      But rather than clear things up, language -- old words, new words, huge words -- is tying tighter knots. Language is being used and misused to create the so-called Science Wars. Then, language is being used to fight the fictitious battles.

      Even Deep Blue can feel a part of the game. Computers are no more than an organized jumble of numbers, threaded together with a mind-numbing web of directions, called programs. Numbers are by definition themselves a language, and therefore computers are communicators. Scientists have their own language. It is specialized and complex -- differences in dialect often make fields as seemingly similar as molecular biology and cell biology mutually incomprehensible. To scientists, sociologists likewise may as well be speaking in tongues. Sociological terms like "hermeneutics" and "epistemology" are everyday rivals for scientists' jargon, such as "plasmid," "spectrograph," or "telomerase."

      It is becoming more and more the case that society's solution to simplifying bewildering problems is to assign a number to them -- or at least to create some type of mystical unbreakable code that no one understands, but no one doubts either.

      Yet science must remain undigitized. The progress of science as a whole cannot be quantified -- it is a continuum. Scientific investigation is, of course, based upon the quantification of observations, so that such observations can mature into what are called "results." Old results are constantly being challenged with new observations. New results are the consequence of weaving new tools and novel contexts through old observations -- the product being a closer-knit understanding of a particular problem. But that understanding will become closer-knit still when gazed at with a future pair of eyes, using tools yet undiscovered by today's scientists. Ultimately, the answer to any scientific question is unlikely to be "42." Twenty years from now, that particular solution might be 41.87, or even 45, given a detail of nature that unexpectedly unraveled itself before a future scientist's astute eyes.

      While digital thinking might be a preponderant reason for the so-called Science Wars, miscommunication is the nature of the contest. At the heart of the mess is language -- how it is used and abused, how it can shape the way we think -- that which in turn affects how we speak and how we fight. Kasparov may furiously lament his defeat by a number-crunching machine. Instead, he should gracefully concede, knowing full well that nobody won after all -- it was merely a clash of syllables, a war between allies, a war of words.

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