He offers up and then discusses an example of this dire phenomenon, and I will turn my attention to that in a moment, but first let me answer his question for myself and then ask a question of my own.
His question: Why is it that politicians who say they want to strengthen science teaching standards can sound so post-modern about science?
My answer: They almost never do.
These cynical, ignorant, short-sighted, opportunistic, greedy, hypocritical politicians he is talking about almost never say anything even remotely like the things the theorists who get brainlessly coralled together under the banner of "postmodernism" by their hyperventilating critics say in their actual work about science, knowledge, or power. Never.
Actually reading the work of Arendt, Foucault, Rorty, Haraway, Butler, Latour (or whoever else these critics mean to impugn, if they actually even have anybody concretely in mind, which is doubtful) with even the most superficial care instantly dispels the impression that they are up to anything even faintly relevant to the beliefs, conduct, norms, prescriptions, or attitudes to which their critics would connect them when they start flinging their "anti-PoMo" diatribes around.
Here's my own question for Zimmer. Why is it that intellectuals who say they want to defend science and the intellect from a rising tide of devastating anti-intellectualism can sound themselves so anti-intellectual about the intellectuals who happen to be interested in questions that do not interest them?
Long before the current crop of liberal defenders of science (every one of whom I adore in my heart, by the way, and defend with my last strength as fellow comrades in a struggle against market and religious fundamentalisms, all red in tooth and claw and to all appearances gunning right now for the fragile, lovely secular democratic ideals and institutions to which I am devoted quite as much as they are), it was the dumb-dumb conservatives themselves who pooh-poohed the "rampant relativism" or whatever of the "postmodernists" or however literary and cultural critics and post-Nietzschean philosophers were getting maligned as by the eager wags who shill for the statisticians and bomb builders and money-bag body-bag elites from moment to moment.
Why on earth reality-based liberal intellectual types think it is desirable to steal the moves of anti-intellectual conservatives from the 80s and 90s and direct them toward other liberal intellectual types in the debased and devastated era of the brainless Bushites is entirely beyond me.
Zimmer points to the example of John McCain who said this to the kidz on MTV about evolution:
"I see no reason why students should not be exposed to all theories, recognizing that Darwin's theory's certainly one that is generally accepted in most of the scientific community. I think it's not inappropriate to say there are also people who believe this. Let the student decide."
Of course, McCain is lying. He knows that "Creationism" isn't a theory in any scientific sense. It is neither a falsifiable hyposthesis, nor is it a research program that generates falsifiable hypotheses. It is an article of faith, affirmed by the faithful. McCain knows this because he is, in fact, an educated man, like most of the cynical conservatives playing the faithful rubes for their votes so that the moneyed elites he truly serves can continue to slurp down the payola they crave with the support of compliant complacent manufactured majorities.
McCain is also lying, of course, when he proposes that students should be exposed to all theories. Nobody thinks he is proposing to expose students to the vast array of religious and literary worldviews from Shinto to Silmarillion -- which I would be all for, knowing that almost anybody with a brain will emerge from such an encounter with a poet's rather than a fundamentalist's attitude toward scripture. McCain means to treat consensus science and a very particular minoritarian construal of evangelical Christianity as if they were the only two rivals for conviction on offer.
Zimmer's gloss on McCain's cynical little gambit is very much like my own:
Okay students, we've spent our science class this year learning all theories about the universe. We've learned about astrology, about the creation tales of the Scythians, and we had a special visit from Mr. Peterson who has been trying to create his own universe in his garage with tin foil and a magnifying lens. I know some of you were not happy that we had to squeeze all of modern astronomy into a ten-minute survey, but it's hard to fit all theories into a year. But don't worry about your exam. See, here it is--just one question: "Which theory do you decide is right? Don't bother to explain why.
My question for Zimmer is, why are you so sure that it is McCain and not you who sound "postmodern" here? McCain is just lying. You are the one who is conjuring up a spectacle of multiple competing regimes of knowledge with different histories, methodologies, and social entailments.
I for one do not identify as a "postmodernist" because it is never clear to me who the "postmodernists" really finally are and why they are and why it is useful to so characterize them. But I definitely have been decisively influenced in my thinking by any number of writers who regularly seem to get shoved into that category by their critics (many of whom, disturbingly enough, are also writers who have decisively influenced me, at least whenever they aren't puritanically fulminating about skeery-monster postmodernists).
It seems to me that the so-called "postmodern" thinkers spend much of their time identifying and analyzing historical, moral, social contexts in which scientific practices, claims, entailments, and recommendations occur. While this sort of focus quickly disabuses one of the fantasy that science is a particularly pure or power-insensitive practice it is hardly a focus that denigrates either science or its manifold achievements.
Frankly, to the extent that consensus science depends on a robust experimental culture rather than a presumably manifest truth, on the dedication of its practictioners and educators to its evolved protocols and standards rather than to the authority of its scriptures, and on the widest possible participation of its peers rather than the purity of priests it seems to me that many of the views that are derided as "postmodernist" are profound props to properly scientific culture rather than hurdles standing in its way.
It is science conceived as a fundamentalist faith itself that withers under the scrutiny of these theoretical interventions.
None of this is to say that folks who are disinclined to drink deep at the critical theoretical well are inevitably impoverished for their differences from me in their own taste or temperament. I am not claiming that reading Haraway, Butler, Foucault, or Rorty is indispensible to consensus science in the way a good grounding in laboratory methods will be. I am just saying that champions of consensus science need to think twice before they engage in bullying the intellectual preoccupations of other seekers after knowledge and meaning as a way of shoring themselves up against the attacks of other anti-intellectual bullies. They need to stop railing against the depredations and pretensions of "postmodernism" just because some cartoonish second-hand account makes some theorist or other sound ridiculous, or because they personally happen to find a particular theorist dull or impenetrable.
The enemies of democracy and enlightenment are aristocracy and fundamentalist faith -- same as it ever was. Human brains are making more marvellous knowledges and poetries for our use and delight than any one language or method can compass. If you would defend the human intellect against the attacks of the fearful and the panicked elites, the last thing in the world you want to be is a prig about it. Own up to what you know, know the difference, and let a billion flowers bloom.
For more on these themes, you might want to check out Is Science Democratic? and But Then Who Will Save Us?