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Prior Knowledge

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Postmodern Abuses of Science

I’ve just come across the most delicious hoax! In 1996, Alan Sokal, a New York University theoretical physicist submitted an essay to Social Text, an influential cultural studies journal, entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. It claimed to be a scholarly article about the postmodern philosophical and political implications of twentieth century physical theories. The central thesis of this article is that quantum gravity (a highly theoretical and still speculative theory of time and space on minute scales - scales of one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter) has profound and far reaching progressive political and social implications. The article was reviewed by five members of Social Text's editorial board and accepted for publication; it appeared in a special issue of the journal devoted to the ‘Science Wars’ - an ongoing debate between the social sciences and cultural studies on one hand (specifically, postmodern science studies), and natural sciences on the other. Supposedly, this special issue was supposed to vindicate claims of the incompetence of postmodern science studies.

Sokal later revealed the article as a hoax. Alongside some truths, it is an array of deliberately concocted partial-truths, blatant falsehoods, non-sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that are ultimately meaningless. Have a read: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/, it is absolutely hilarious! Take this example: ‘Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and are ‘pro-choice,’ so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice. But this framework is grossly insufficient for a liberatory mathematics, as was proven long ago by Cohen 1966.’

While I am certainly no expert in mathematics or set theory, it's pretty hard to believe that any editor who knew what the various terms actually mean would not have had some doubts about this passage. What the hell does the axiom of equality in set theory have to do with liberalism, or, indeed, with any political philosophy? Similarly, the axiom of choice clearly has nothing to do with the issue of choice in the abortion debate. Even so, no argument is offered to this end. Wouldn't any editor who had the vaguest knowledge of mathematics have required just a little more by way of explanation here, in order to make these connections just a bit more clear? (Also: ‘liberatory mathematics’? Classic!) Such examples abound – at one point Sokal explicitly, and without argument, denies the existence of the external world. (To assert otherwise would be to ‘cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook...’)

The article, which is almost entirely a pastiche of quotes from a variety of postmodern theorists such as Lacan, Lyotard, Derrida, and Latour et al, constructs a parody almost entirely out of the parodied – something which, ironically, some of the postmodernists under attack would surely appreciate! The disturbing thing I find here is not only the fact that this article was accepted and published as a serious piece of scholarship (what happened to peer review? Any maths or physics undergrad would see through the nonsense!), but that Sokal based it on strategies that are well-established within the postmodern literary genre: appeal to authority instead of logical argument; speculative theories passed off as established science; absurd analogies; ambiguous rhetoric; and confusion between everyday and technical uses of words.

Check out this actual example of postmodern sheer pseudo-scientific brilliance, courtesy of Felix Guattari: ‘We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multi-referential, multidimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their extension: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.’

What happened to the standards of academic scholarship? Any thoughts on postmodernism, or the intellectual sloppiness often found in postmodern writings? Anyway, read Sokal’s article if you want a good chuckle.

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  • Disclaimer :) I am only talking about postmodernists’ uses (abuses?) of science and scientific concepts in their work. I'll try and be responsible and refrain from drawing conclusions about other areas of their work :)

    10/13/2005 11:49:00 AM  

  • Sigh - it is easy to publish rubbish even in top journals, I guess you guys will find that out too in a few years.

    It is particularly good if you specialize in tautologies. Of course these anti-science people are particularly easy to fool I guess.

    10/20/2005 09:15:00 PM  

  • Yes, postmodernists and other humanities types are easy to fool. I think this is because they aren't actually all that bright to begin with. I should know. I work for an academic publisher.

    We receive several thousand journal articles each year for publication in peer-reviewed journals. The ones on medicine and life sciences are generally well written and proceed through the publishing process quickly and smoothly. The authors are usually willing to co-operate with any suggestion we make to speed publication, e.g. redrawing artwork to fit better on a printed page.

    Those from sociologists and associated disciplines are generally poorly written, have loads of spelling and grammatical errors, and the authors make a fuss about any helpful editorial changes we propose, e.g. about citing firm published evidence for conclusions they have drawn. Peer review in sociology-land is often a joke and papers are regularly published by journal editors because 'we need a few more to fill the issue'. The reviewers seldon notice missing material, e..g. 'as shown in the Table 5' when no tables accompany the submitted article.

    12/11/2005 07:50:00 AM  

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