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Positivsim to Postmodernism:
An Explanation and Example

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: October 3, 1999
Latest update: July 5, 2004
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Index of Topics on Site Explanations and Samples of the
Positivism/Postmodernism Debate

Recall that one of the basic debates in the theoretical approaches to the alleged end of the modernist period and the slide or break into the post-modernist period is that of the possibility of a unifying overall truth, of unifying overall enlightenment, of a unifying overall metanarrative that could tell the ultimate "truth" for humans. Positivists, trained in scientific method, trained to trust their own objectivity (which is, of course, challenged by their opponent theorists), trained to believe that there is some ultimate "reality" out there which will represent "truth" for all of us regardless of our perspectives and experiences, still search for universal truths and laws, still believe that science, as they have learned it, is the ultimate answer, and are often out of patience with those who criticize those positions.

Critical theorists and postmodernists, postmarxists, deconstructionists reject the metanarrative, the story that could encompass the "truth" for us all, reject the objectivity claimed by the positivists, focussing on the extent to which the science to which we allude is the product of multiple perspectives, multiple agendas, and many of the unstated assumptions of privilege. Across this huge continuum there are many different theoretical schools, most of whom find it impossible or unproductive to "even talk to each other," resulting in splinter groups that degenerate into a public that has lost the will to discourse, as well as the skills to engage in effective public discourse. At least the positivists are still talking to each other.

The focus of our postmodern section on this site is the skills and efforts needed to bring us to the discourse table, for we agree with Habermas that public discourse is essential to our ability to live in this world in peace. One example of the problems posed is given by Steve Epstein in Impure Science, a study of the conflict of agendas in AIDS research.

Another example of the positivist/postmodern barriers to public discourse is found in "Business Thrives on Unproven Care, Leaving Science Behind," by Gina Kilata and Kurt Eichenwald, Page One. The title of the article reveals its perspective: that postivism holds the potential to find the "truth," the ultimate and universal answer to cancer. But those who insist upon turning to untested and improbable cures confound science's ability to set up the necessary "control" groups to determine the most effective procedures to foil cancer. (Article available through archives, but not free:New York Times, Sunday, October 3, 1999.)

Odd, none of that reflects the long and continuing cooperation of our government with the tobacco industry. None of that reflects the continuing prosperity of the tobacco industry in marketing tobacco to the rest of the world. None of that reflects that if "control" groups did cooperate with the proposed scientific studies, half of them would be consigned to receive no treatment, with an almost certain death sentence. None of that reflects that epidemeological studies could use different scientific methods, like scrupulous clinical records, that might begin to reveal the actual efficacy of the many treatments now in use. These are the kinds of criticisms made by those of us who believe that positivism has been blind to its own unstated and privileged biases. The scientist who proposes the withholding of even a possible cure to a fatal disease, is not one suffering from the disease. There are other ways to approach a reasonably neutral clinical study.

Steve Epstein, in Impure Science, says this with far more eloquence, for it is his story, his dilemma, and that of his friends. Consider the arguments. Become of aware of the extent to which we privilege "science" without holding it to the accountability of its ethics.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, July 2004.
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