In Charles Hirschkind’s clever and disarming piece, he gives most of the good lines to Mr. Cognitivist, who could well be one of my colleagues—or me. But oddly enough, I find myself siding with Ms. Social-Cultural.
Mr. C is right to insist on the reality of polio; my own favorite example in these sorts of realist vs. relativist debates (which often occur in my seminars, as they usually include several smart undergraduates from the humanities) is dinosaurs. Who would deny that dinosaurs once existed, and that their existence is a real discovery—not an invention!—by paleontologists? Of course, these paleontologists were influenced by cognitive and motivational biases—some innate, some cultural, some idiosyncratic. Of course, our understanding of the world is never direct; there are “normative interpretive grids,” paradigms, cognitive shortcuts, and so on. Maybe it’s even true that one’s science is affected by being a man or a woman (a popular view these days) or by being a Gentile or a Jew (less fashionable, for obvious reasons). But despite all of this, scientists do discover things; the methods of science can capture objective reality, and, outside the seminar room, every rational person accepts this. As Richard Dawkins famously put it, “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.”