Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax

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I greatly enjoyed Alan  Sokal’s hoax (described below) at the time, and now he has a follow-up book. The review, by Michael Bérubé, begins:

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal played an elaborate trick on some unsuspecting humanists and social scientists — namely, the editors of the leftist journal Social Text — by submitting an essay filled with at least six kinds of nonsense. The editors didn’t catch (or were willing to countenance) the nonsense and published the essay. In response, humanists and social scientists embarrassed (or outraged) by Sokal’s hoax lashed out, sometimes in ways that made them look even worse than the editors; and Sokal found himself hailed by legions of fans and supporters who credited him with finally exposing the vacuity of (a) cultural studies, (b) literary theory, (c) postmodernism, (d) obscurantist jargon, (e) science studies, (f) people who write about disciplines they don’t know much about, and (g) all of the above. Over the past 12 years, accordingly, I’ve met a number of colleagues who spit and curse at the very sound of Sokal’s name — and a much larger number of colleagues, journalists and general readers who credit Sokal with having proved once and for all that everything humanists have done since 1970 has been bunk.

Since then, Sokal has teamed up with Jean Bricmont and taken aim at epistemological relativism in the philosophy of science. Sokal and Bricmont note, for example (in an essay reprinted — with revisions and updates — as chapter seven of Sokal’s new book, Beyond the Hoax), that major figures in science studies are given to making such assertions as “the validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence” (Kenneth J. Gergen) and “there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such” (Barry Barnes and David Bloor, founders of the “strong programme” or “Edinburgh school” in science studies). “All this,” remark Sokal and Bricmont, “indicates the existence of a radically relativist academic Zeitgeist, which is weird.”

It is weird, but then, standards of weirdness tend to vary from discipline to discipline. Sokal, coming from a field with significantly stricter protocols for interpretation than those of literature, never seemed comfortable dealing with people who like to hypothesize imaginary gardens with real toads in them or to meditate on cold pastorals that tease us out of thought. But now that Sokal has left the terrain of literary theory, he has indeed gone beyond the hoax and into realms where the distinction between justified and unjustified belief actually matters to the world: specifically, the history and philosophy of science (which is sometimes conducted by people who are rigorously indifferent to the question of whether a scientific theory is actually true) and religion (which is practiced by people who are rigorously indifferent to the claim that beliefs should be rationally justified).

Beyond the Hoax actually devotes its first hundred pages to the hoax, but perhaps this is just a matter of providing context, like a recap of last week’s episode (“Previously, on The Hoax . . . “). Sokal admits a bit too often that he’s “proud” of his Social Text article, and there’s too much repetition among the essays that follow, such that one finds oneself reading Bertrand Russell’s snarky line on the advantages of theft over honest toil twice in 30 pages. The book’s center of gravity lies in Parts II and III, where Sokal discusses “cognitive relativism in the philosophy of science,” offers a “defense of modest scientific realism,” charts the symbiotic relation between postmodernism and pseudoscience, and questions the place of religion in contemporary culture.

Sokal’s defense of scientific realism is, as he claims, modest, and its modesty is what makes it cogent and convincing. Sokal starts from the proposition that…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 January 2009 at 7:59 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

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