Post-modernism, a modern current in academic circles (especially social sciences, for obvious reasons), basically holds that truth and our beliefs in general are not the result of inquiry but rather are socially constructed (and therefore do not reflect reality but rather social currents or elitist manipulations). They include science in that category. More concretely, post-modernists believe that, say, the theory of Relativity was not the result of Einstein’s reasoning on experimental results and his mathematical abilities, but rather of the climate of uncertainty and rapid geo-political change preceding and following World War 1, which resulted in a belief in the uncertainty of measurements.
In a way, post-modernism is absolute nonsense. Ideas about truth do not come from the social context. The individual, as an epistemic agent, is subject to all sorts of influences, including the social context, the workings of the human mind, and the exercise of his own will. To say that there is a direct and exclusive relation between social context as an input and truth as the output is to reduce a very complex phenomenon to a vast oversimplification.
In the case of science, the relation is even more tenuous, as scientists do not tend to care very much for social context, as the Middle Ages amply demonstrated. Of course, not all scientists are alike. Some scientists easily bow down to pressure from the State (government, corporations, religion, and whatnot). Some do not. But science as a whole cultivates self-contained falsifiability, and an atmosphere of “objectivity” (for good and for bad).
And of course the proposed solution to this state of affairs by post-modernists is far, far worse than the disease: substituting all individualist inquiry with what basically amounts to groupthink, with the determinant of truth becoming who believes it, not why.
It cannot be denied that there is some element of truth in the post-modernist approach, insofar as analyzing the influence of politics and religion on their subject society. It is also true that ideas survive within the social context, and memetically rise or fall on the basis of how well they are adapted to that context. So if we make the difference between individual cognition and memetic acceptance, we can see that the post-modernist approach, while false, can be seen as having a kernel of truth.
My position on generally accepted knowledge is this. In every generation, there are individuals who come to all sorts of conclusion, and it is probable that any idea whatsoever exists at all times in at least one person’s mind (unless they are of things we are not yet aware of, or perhaps we haven’t asked the right question yet). But the social context prevents most ideas from being propagated, generally because they go against commonly accepted and enforced beliefs, or go against whatever the whims of the ruling class are at a given moment. And then, when the the “time is right,” then these ideas propagate more easily. Note that this does not necessarily imply tolerence: ideas about how to better coerce people (such as fascism and communism) also must have existed for a very long time before they were fully expressed.
The more I examine things, the more I believe that no idea is truly new. We do not discover ideas, we either sift through them or fool ourselves into believing we’re being original.
So in essence I believe that the post-modernist paradigm needs to be held upside-down and shaken until all its loose change falls out. It is not the social context that dictates prevalent ideas, like some kind of omnipotent creator, but rather ideas are constantly generated and the social context weeds out the misadapted ones, like evolution. It always seems to come back to evolution, doesn’t it?