The Emperor has no clothes...

Garry DeWeese (deweese@ucsu.Colorado.EDU)
Thu, 23 May 1996 07:26:29 -0600 (MDT)

It was only a matter of time...

How wide the gap has become between putatively smart academics and any
real understanding of science. Hope you all enjoy as well as regret
the following. Sigh (and chuckle).

Garry DeWeese

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 20 May 1996 18:55:32 +0100 (BST)
From: Erik Hanson <E.M.Hanson@Bristol.ac.uk>
To: Garry DeWeese <deweese@ucsu.Colorado.EDU>,

Forwarded message:
>From C.Bertram@Bristol.ac.uk Mon May 20 11:50:05 1996

-*--

LINDA SEEBACH: Scientist trolls for gullible academic fish

(May 14, 1996 2:30 p.m. EDT) --
Physicist Alan Sokal of New York
University meticulously observed all the
rules of the academic game when he
constructed his article on postmodern
physics and submitted it to a prestigious
journal of cultural studies called "Social
Text."

The people he cites as authorities are the
superluminaries of the field, the quotations
he uses to illustrate his argument are
strictly accurate and the text is bristling
with footnotes.

All the rules but one, that is: Sokal's article
is a parody. Under the grandiloquent title
"Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a
Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum
Gravity," it appeared in the
Spring/Summer 1996 special issue of the
magazine, one entirely devoted to "the
science wars," as the editors term the
tension between people who actually do
science and the critics who merely theorize
about it.

Many scientists believe that the emperors
of cultural studies have no clothes. But
Sokal captured the whole royal court
parading around in naked ignorance and
persuaded the palace chroniclers to
publish the portrait as a centerfold.

Once the article was safely in print, Sokal
revealed his modest experiment. "Would a
leading journal of cultural studies," he
wrote in the May/June issue of Lingua
Franca, "publish an article liberally salted
with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and
(b) it flattered the editors' ideological
preconceptions?"

Unfortunately yes, and Sokal's deliberate
nonsense is anything but subtle. Translated
into plain English from the high-flown
language he borrowed for the occasion,
his first paragraph says that scientists "cling
to the dogma" that the external world
exists and its properties are independent of
what human beings think.

But nobody believes that old stuff any
more, right? Now we all know that
physical reality is "at bottom a social and
linguistic construct."

Is there a sound when a tree falls in the
forest and no one hears it? Under the
theory of social construction, there's not
even a tree.

There are so many red flags planted
throughout the paper that even
non-scientists should have spotted at least
one and started laughing," Sokal said
Thursday. "Either this is a parody or the
author is off his rocker."

Sokal was prompted into parody by a
1994 book, "Higher Superstition: The
Academic Left and Its Quarrels with
Science," by Paul Gross and Norman
Levitt, which ruffled a lot of postmodernist
feathers.

"I'm an academic leftist and I have no
quarrel with science," Sokal said, "so the
first thing I did was go to the library and
check their references, to see whether
(Gross and Levitt) were being fair" and
they were. In fact, he found even more
examples of scientific illiteracy, some of
them even worse.

"It would be so boring to refute them,"
Sokal said. "I picked the silliest quotes
from the most prominent people, and I
made up an argument for how they were
linked together."

Was Sokal's experiment ethical? "It's true
the author doesn't believe his own
arguments," he wrote in Lingua Franca.
"But why should that matter? If the 'Social
Text' editors find my arguments
convincing, then why should they be
disconcerted simply because I don't?"

They are disconcerted, of course, and for
reasons that transcend their private
embarrassment at being taken in. Sokal's
successful spoof calls into question the
intellectual standards of the whole field.

If you're chuckling, but inclined to think it's
just professors doing their usual
angels-on-a-pinhead thing, please do think
again. Tuition and fees at the priciest
private universities run nearly $1,000 for
each week of class. Taxpayers pick up a
big chunk of the bill for public universities.
Many of those classes are being taught, it
appears, by professors who deny the
distinction between truth and falsity and
consequently can't distinguish double-talk
from rational argument.

Maybe some of the junior professors and
the graduate students do know what
they're hearing is nonsense, but think it
would be harmful to their careers to speak
out. Living with such deception, possibly
for a lifetime, is profoundly corrupting.
Honest people just get out, leaving the
field to those who don't mind deception or
don't recognize it. It's hard to say which is
worse.

But it's easy to see why Sokal's spoof was
enticing to editors desperate for the
imprimatur of a working scientist on their
critical enterprise, and he even inserted the
evidence by quoting Andrew Ross, who
edited the special issue.

The kind of science that's needed, Ross
said, is one "that will be publicly
answerable and of some service to
progressive interests."

So that's the kind of science Sokal claimed
to be writing about.

"A liberatory science cannot be complete
without a profound revision of the canon
of mathematics," he concludes. "We can
see hints of (such emancipatory
mathematics) in the multidimensional and
nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory but
this approach is still heavily marked by its
origins in the crisis of late-capitalist
production relations." He drags in
catastrophe theory and chaos theory, too.

There is a political point to Sokal's
demonstration, but it's not the right-wing
one he's sure will be attributed to him.
He's proud to call himself a leftist, and his
resume includes a stint teaching
mathematics at the National University of
Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.

"If you take up crazy philosophies you
undermine your ability to tackle questions
of public policy, like ecology," he said. "It
really matters whether the world is
warming up."

I don't remotely share Sokal's political
views, but I agree with him that the
corruption of clear thought and clear
language is dangerous. And corruption has
to be exposed before it can be cleaned up.

(Linda Seebach is the editorial page editor of the Valley Times
(Pleasanton) and San Ramon Valley Times (Danville). Address: P.O. Box
607, Pleasanton CA 94566 Email: Valleytms@aol.com)

-*--

For another take on Sokal's article, see:
http://www2.nando.net/newsroom/ntn/health/051896/health27_4591.html

In it, Sokal wrote: "It has thus become increasingly
apparent that physical 'reality,' no less than social
'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic
construct; that scientific 'knowledge,' far from
being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant
ideologies and power relations of the culture that
produced it."

-*--

Andrew Ross, at http://www.designsys.com/socialtext/new.html, explains
that the editors of "Social Text" thought Sokal's article flawed all
along, but published it as an example of (benighted) scientists' take
on the Science Wars.

- Noel

--
                    Christopher Bertram
      Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol, UK. 
Editor of Imprints: (http://www.bris.ac.uk/~plcdib/imprints.html) 
    email: C.Bertram@bris.ac.uk http://www.bris.ac.uk/~plcdib