Jan 10th, 2006 by ravi
L’Affaire Sokal: The lowest form of humour

Doron Zeilberger at Rutgers publishes a page of opinions that is a wonderful read, even if you are not a mathematician. In opinion 11 he points out better than I can exactly what was wrong with Sokal’s prank on the pomo philosophers:

Opinion 11 of Doron Zeilberger:
Great Scientists, Lousy Philosophers

The intersection of the sets of great mathematicians or scientists and great philosophers is a rapidly decreasing function of time.

[…]

Nowadays, Traditional God has been replaced, in part, by another God: `Absolute Truth’. Practicing scientists get really annoyed when they are reminded that after all they are also human, and their view of science is time- and fashion- dependent. So Alan Sokal had a good laugh at the expense of post-modern cultural-relativists. But he used the same cheap trick of Euler, intimidation by jargon. He went one step farther: making fun of the sociologists’ jargon. He had the advantage that their jargon is closer to spoken English than his, so he could master it superficially.

Making fun of other people’s language is the lowest form of humor. Like Euler, Sokal did not prove anything, except that physical scientists and mathematicians are arrogant and look down on everybody else. They are also religious fanatics, for whatever religion they may have. Social science has probably lots of rubbish, but so does regular science, and in either case it is not the content that matters so much as the act of expressing oneself’s.

For more info on the Sokal Prank see the Wikipedia.

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3 Responses

  • Joseph Green says:

    The above comment of Doron Zeilberger was forwarded to the PEN-L list, where I saw it. There has been a discussion about Sokal on this list. My views about Sokal’s work are rather different. I think he has performed a service to materialism.

    Indeed I found Alan Sokal’s work to be a useful and enjoyable refutation of postmodernist pretensions. True, I don’t agree with everything he said, as he is a mechanical materialist, and I think that modern science illustrates the truth of dialectics. But it is one thing to criticize him for being a mechanical materialist, and another to recoil from the refutation of the fashionable, self-righteous, know-it-all views of modern anti-materialist subjectivism, such as post-modernism.

    I include below the introduction to an article on Sokal’s book
    that I wrote, and a URL where the entire text can be found. In this
    article, I express what I found positive in his work, as well as defend
    dialectics against the mechanical views he puts forward. In doing so, I
    point to the role of historical materialism, as well as the existence of
    contradictions in physical nature and mathematics. In the latter regard, I point to a couple of scientific errors that Sokal himself makes in his book, errors that flow from his disregard of dialectics. For example, he proclaims that infinitesimals have been banished from mathematics, whereas the late Prof. Abraham Robinson rehabilitated infinitesimals in his “nonstandard analysis”.

    The article can be found at
    http://www.communistvoice.org/20cSokalLong.html

    A shorter and more pithy review of Sokal’s book, by Tim Hall,
    the editor of “Struggle”, a magazine of proletarian literature,
    can be found at
    http://www.communistvoice.org/20cSokalShort.html

    ———————————————-
    On Sokal and Bricmont’s book ‘Fashionable Nonsense’
    Postmodernism versus materialism

    by Joseph Green
    (from Communist Voice #20, Mach 28, 1999)

    Subheads:
    One, two, three, many realities
    Ad hominem attacks–the new “rationality”
    Postmodernism’s charlatanism
    Relativism and science
    The “strong program” in the sociology of science
    The paradigms of T.S. Kuhn
    Overcoming the crisis of the left
    The Enlightenment
    Historical materialism
    The dialectics of nature
    Does science teach anything but technical lessons?
    Dialectics, motion, and infinitesimals
    The Enlightenment and the masses
    The rise of Marxism
    The current crisis
    In defense of materialism

    Text:

    The left-wing scientist Alan Sokal became the center of controversy
    in 1996 when his spoof on postmodernism, an article with the pompous title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, was accepted as a serious article by the postmodernist journal Social Text and published in its Spring/Summer 1996 issue on the “science wars”. This article denied, in the name of “science”, the basic materialist view that people live in an external world, whose existence and features are independent of the desires and feelings of human beings. It was full of pseudo-profound assertions about science that were ludicrously wrong. But as it repeated all the postmodernist catchwords and referred in glowing terms to various postmodernist authors, the editors of Social Text couldn’t tell it from an ordinary postmodernist article. Indeed, they were so impressed by the
    article that, even after Sokal revealed that it was a hoax, one of the
    editors, Bruce Robbins, still felt it was a serious contribution to
    postmodernist philosophy.(1)

    The next year Sokal, now joined by Jean Bricmont, a theoretical
    physicist from Belgium, continued to poke fun at postmodernist ignorance of science. They published in France a book entitled Impostures Intellectuelles which showed the many leading postmo dernist writers, including the famous psychologist Jacques Lacan and the sociologist of science Bruno Latour, were spouting nonsense in the name of “science”. For many postmodernists it is a point of honor to write in an obscure language that is difficult to understand. Sokal and Bricmont showed that the passages about science in various works of these authors were incomprehensible not due to their depth of thought, but because they were mistaken or even meaningless. A good deal of serious postmodernist writi ng is indeed hard to distinguish from Sokal’s spoof of 1996.

    Impostures Intellectuelles brought the debate to a new level,
    spreading it from the U.S. to France, and the book is currently being
    translated into about a dozen languages. Many postmodernists were
    outraged that their favorite authors were being judged by the standards of rational thought and objective knowledge whose relevance postmodernism denies. Meanwhile the book finally appeared in English last year in Britain; and at the end of year it was published in the U.S. under the title Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.

    The book centers on two subjects. Besides puncturing postmodernist windbaggery about science, it also sets forward some basic materialist views about the nature of science and its relation to the external world. Mind you, Sokal and Bricmont rarely use t he word “materialism”, although it is not clear whether they are simply bowing before the general prejudices of academic circles against such an allegedly crude doctrine as materialism or whether they themselves share these prejudices. They avoid the term “materialism” by instead emphasizing that they are attacking “a potpourri of ideas, often poorly formulated, that go under the generic name of ‘relativism’ ” (p. 51). “Relativism” however is a rather broad term that covers many different concepts. Sokal and Bricmont distinguish between “moral or ethical relativism” about value judgements, “aesthetic relativism” about beauty, and
    relativism about the existence of an external world (“cognitive or
    epistemic relativism”), which is the only relativism that the y analyze
    in this book. They criticize the views on science of such “relativists”
    as T.S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and Bruno Latour.

    Sokal and Bricmont limit their analysis of postmodernism to these two points: pseudo-scientific jargon, and “relativism” about the existence of scientific truth. For example, they don’t discuss or pass judgment on the general psychological theories of L acan, only his mathematical claims, such as “psychoanalytic topology”. But for now, their narrowness serves a useful purpose. Their object is not to assess everything that a postmodernist author may have said or done, and certainly not to oppose every pol itical cause that a postmodernist may have championed, but to focus attention on some basic theoretical issues. They accomplish this with an admirable flair for irritating the high priests of obscurity.

    Fashionable Nonsense is certainly not the last word on the “science
    wars”. Sokal and Bricmont ignore the question of dialectics; they have
    little conception of how to apply materialism outside the sphere of the physical sciences; they don’t know how to deal with the crisis in the left other than to urge rational thought; they don’t deal with how the official scientific establishment bends before the bourgeoisie and does its will; etc. But it is long overdue that two scientists should
    demolish the scient ific pretensions of the postmodernist philosophers; indeed, Sokal and Bricmont laughed at them. For myself, I found the book not just useful, but rather enjoyable as well.(2) It will be welcomed by all those who have felt oppressed by the high-flown verbiage and double-talk with which postmodernism has sought to silence criticism. It has also come as a great relief to some people who had made a serious attempt to understand the supposed scientific basis of what the postmodernist authors have been saying.

    Notes:
    (1) Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross responded on behalf of the editorial board of Social Text to Sokal’s revelation that his article was a hoax in a statement published in the July/August 1996 issue of the journal Lingua Franca. They pointed out that one of the editors “suspected that Sokal’s parody was nothing of the sort, and that his admission represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve.” Bruce Robbins, writing in the eptember/October 1996 issue of Tikkun, went still further and approvingly cited someone who wrote that Sokal’s article had “proposed that superstring theory [a speculative new theory in physics–JG] might help liberate science from ‘dependence on the concept of objective truth’.” In reference to this, Robbins claimed that the editors of Social Text had thought that Sokal had a good point in this interpretation, “*and we still do*.” (emphasis added)

    (2) Of course, having a basic grounding in mathematics and physics is helpful, or even essential, for understanding a number of the examples that Sokal and Bricmont use; the more background one has, the more ludicrous the examples will appear. Sokal and Bricmont try hard to help the reader by providing, for example, simple explanations of a number of technical terms which are misused by Jacques Lacan and other postmodernist authors. But this is hard to do in a few words. Those readers who can’t verify for themselves various of the technical examples in the book may, however, be interested in the fact that no one has disputed these examples, not at least in the debates that I have seen. Based on my own assessment of these examples, I am not surprised by this in the least.

    For the rest of the article, see
    http://www.communistvoice.org/20cSokalLong.html

    —Joseph Green
    mail@communistvoice.org

  • Ian says:

    Gee, I’d love to see a substantive argument regarding how contemporary science validates dialectics. The pomo boogeyman of left conservatism, with all the attendant self-serving misreadings is nothing more than a positional goods problem with a heaping dose of testosterone thrown in; another game of dueling authoritarians seeking finality and closure on difficult issues that aren’t necessarily connected to each other simply by invoking an ism………

  • ravi says:

    Ian, its good to hear from you! I thought you had vanished from the face of the earth. It would be very informative if you could expand on your first sentence.

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