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FW: Beyond the Hoax

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  • chris lofting
    Beyond the Hoax: A review by James Ladyman Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture by Alan Sokal (Oxford University Press) £20/$34.95 (hb). In 1996
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 15, 2008
      Beyond the Hoax:

      A review by James Ladyman

      Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture by Alan Sokal (Oxford
      University Press) £20/$34.95 (hb).

      In 1996 Alan Sokal published a spoof article in the journal Social Text.
      “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of
      quantum gravity” purported to be a serious discussion of the relationship
      between the most advanced mathematical physics and various postmodernist and
      poststructuralist ideas. In fact it was submitted to the journal to show
      that complete nonsense about science and mathematics could be passed off as
      profound insight, providing it was surrounded by sufficient citations of the
      right people, and suitably sprinkled with buzzwords. Sokal told the editors
      what they wanted to hear, lent scientific credibility to their favoured
      “theorists”, and did so in the kind of language they liked.

      This book is worth buying just for the hoax article, reprinted with an
      extensive set of annotations. The latter explain the gaffes Sokal included
      to test whether anyone who knew about science or mathematics would check the
      article, as well as giving sources for some of his pastiches. The
      astonishing thing is how knowledgeable Sokal is about his targets, and the
      annotations are also full of citations of people saying the kind of crazy
      stuff parodied in the article.

      Sokal’s article was the single most important intervention in the “science
      wars”. Together with Intellectual Impostures, co-authored with Jean
      Bricmont, it demonstrated the intellectual bankruptcy of many so-called
      philosophers and of the large constituency of their acolytes in the arts and
      humanities. Unfortunately, of course, the targets of the hoax were unmoved.
      Sokal was denounced as right-wing and anti-French, and a decade later, I
      think contemporary academia is at least as, if not more, afflicted by the
      lack of rigour, deference to the undeservedly celebrated, and
      pseudo-political posturing that set Sokal off. If there is a disciplinary
      boundary, it must be crossed, and if there is a hegemonic notion, it must be
      problematized. Dialogue between the past and the present is to be preferred
      to history, and if the dialogue is dynamic all the better. I recently
      produced a spoof announcement called “The Performance of Self-Pleasure:
      Masturbation, an interdisciplinary workshop”, and one of my colleagues took
      it to be genuine (even though the call for papers on “Masturbation and
      post-colonialism” seems a bit of a giveaway) because we get similar stuff
      coming round from the faculty on a regular basis.

      The main problem is that there are so many allegedly educated people who
      have no real experience of genuine rigour. When they encounter someone
      claiming that something an idol of theirs like Lacan or Haraway has said
      about mathematics or science is nonsense, they would rather shoot the
      messenger, who can handily be denounced as a denier of Otherness, than face
      the fact that they have wasted so much of their time and that so much of
      their learning is worthless. I have been informed that “truth is a
      discourse”, and that my belief that academics must seek, and sometimes can
      and do find, the truth makes me a positivist (and a realist, but then
      apparently I am also a rationalist and an empiricist).

      One of the biggest problems facing the arts and humanities is the prevalence
      of people who think they are engaging with philosophical ideas when in fact
      they wouldn’t get through the first year of a philosophy degree because of
      their inability to make themselves clear, to formulate an argument, to
      separate an epistemological from an ontological issue, and so on. The same
      narcissism that makes Sokal’s targets think that they are saying deep things
      about topology, non-linear dynamics, relativity, quantum mechanics and
      mathematical logic, makes their acolytes believe that if the philosophers
      they encounter are unimpressed by crude and ill-informed forays into
      philosophy, this is symptomatic of the narrowness of analytic philosophy as
      it clings to an outdated modernist/enlightenment paradigm.

      It is particularly galling that the flaky end of academia regards itself as
      the vanguard of political progressiveness, and that it is so ready to accuse
      its critics of defending some imagined hegemony. As Sokal points out
      repeatedly, without a culture that defends the importance of rigour, reason
      and evidence, there is little to stand in the way of the naked exercise of
      power. This has been realized by the true inheritors of postmodernism,
      namely the Republican right and religious fundamentalists. Hence, we find
      the former making use of relativism and constructivism about science to
      undermine the idea that the scientific consensus about global warming is a
      sufficient reason for governments to take action, and we find the latter
      employing the likes of Steve Fuller to defend the idea that “intelligent
      design” has a place in science education.

      On a more prosaic level, within universities one finds that the same people
      who denounce the idea that truth is the aim of inquiry as somehow
      iniquitous, accept the managerial imperatives for visions and strategies and
      the associated jargon and gibberish with alacrity. It is depressingly common
      in debates about policy to witness arguments of the form: something must be
      done, this proposal is something, therefore this must be done, being met
      with the widespread nodding of heads.

      As a guide to and critique of some of what has gone wrong in academia and in
      wider culture, Sokal’s book is superb. The first section of the present book
      reviews the Social Text affair and has an illuminating discussion of science
      studies and its influence. The middle section contains two essays on the
      philosophy of science that are well-informed and well up to the standard of
      professional work in the area, and the modest scientific realism defended
      there is an open-minded and balanced attempt to take account of both
      arguments for realism based on the success of science, and arguments against
      realism based on theory change in the history of science. The third section
      discusses the link between pseudo-science, alternative medicine and
      postmodernism, includes an essay that takes on religion, and ends with a
      brief discussion of ethics.

      Anyone who is in any doubt about the calamitous effects of relativism and
      constructivism about scientific knowledge as it has spread into the wider
      culture should ponder the fact that a growing proportion of parents in
      Britain are opting not to have their children vaccinated against terrible
      diseases like whooping cough and diphtheria, thereby undermining the herd
      immunity that has allowed us to forget what it was like when they killed
      infants by the thousand. Sokal was right to warn us in 1996 and he is to be
      congratulated for keeping up the fight. Without a commitment to reason and
      evidence in intellectual life and public policy we are at the mercy of faith
      and fashion.

      James Ladyman is professor of philosophy at Bristol University and author of
      Understanding Philosophy of Science (Routledge).
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