Review: Beyond The Hoax

Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, by Alan Sokal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-19-956183-4, 465 pp. Paper $24.95.

The “Hoax” in the title of this book is, of course, the famous (infamous?) post-modernist parody, “Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity,” written by Alan Sokal and published in Social Text in 1996 (#46/47, spring/summer, pp. 217-252). Nearly the first 100 pages of the book is devoted to an annotated version of the original article and, I must say, it was the first time that I read it. I read of it several times over the years perhaps in Skeptic magazine or The Skeptical Inquirer (or both). Â To summarize the 1996 hoax, Sokal was convinced that the postmodernist movement that was sweeping academia was utter nonsense, a movement comprised of members who pretended to be saying something that others pretended to hear. But what was really being said was just so much double-talk and pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo.

So he set out to prove this by creating a monograph to be submitted to an academic journal that really said nothing. But it was filled with pseudo-intellectual double-speak and it cited post-modernist writers of the time. Even his bibliography included “two little jokes.” Here’s a sample of both the article and the accompanying annotation in mouse-hovers tied to the numbers:

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[1]; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential[2]; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities[3] (pp. 8-9).

The book has three parts, the first of which is about, as the title suggests, “The Social Text Affair” and, including the reprint of the original hoax-paper and its annotations, it has four other chapters. Whether you did or didn’t follow the Social Text hoax since its original publication, but have a curiosity about post-modernism, you’ll find this section a fascinating read.

The second part is “Science and Philosophy” with two chapters, “Cognitive relativism in the philosophy of science” and “Defense of a modest scientific realism.” Both are essays he co-authored with Jean Bricmont, a Belgian theoretical physicist, philosopher of science and a professor at the Université catholique de Louvain. Here’s an excerpt from the latter to wet your intellectual whistle:

Over the Last four years, we have participated in numerous debates with sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, psychoanalysts and philosophers. Although the reactions were extremely diverse, we have repeatedly met people who think that assertions of fact about the natural world can be true “in our culture” and yet be false in some other culture. We have met people who systematically confuse facts and values, truths and beliefs, the world and our knowledge of it. Moreover, when challenged, they well consistently deny that such distinctions make sense. Some will claim that witches are as real as atoms, or pretend to have no idea whether the Earth is flat, blood circulates or the Crusades really took place. Note that these people are otherwise reasonable researchers or university professors. All this indicates the existence of a radically relative academic Zeitgeist, which is weird. To be sure, these are oral statements made in seminars or private discussion… (pp. 230-231).

One of the things that Sokal discusses as “true in our culture” but “false in some other” has to do with Native American origins. He quotes archaeologist Roger Anyon as saying, “science is just one of many ways of knowing the world… [the Zunis’ world view is] just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about.” Sokal then goes on to analyze Anyon’s assertion about “knowing the world” and makes distinctions between knowledge and belief.

The final part of the book is “Science and Culture,” and it includes three chapters, “Pseudoscience and postmodernism: antagonists or fellow-travelers?”, “Religion, politics and survival”, and “Epilogue: Epistemology and ethics.”

All in all, this was an enjoyable book to read. It helps to put some of the post-modernist arguments that skeptics eventually encounter under a logical framework that examines them for the nonsense they are. Perhaps giving some real information on how to approach these arguments for the skeptic on the internet or the professor challenged by a student or peer. Admittedly, the actual parody paper written for Social Text wasn’t fun to read, but then I started to wonder if anyone ever actually read it word-for-word except Sokal. I envisioned those who lauded it the loudest probably read it the least. The annotations were interesting and I found myself reading these and only going to the paper to see what it was referring to.

This was a wonderful set of essays preceded by a fascinating and informative look at the intent and ethics of a classic academic hoax.

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References and Notes:
  1. This assertion is a commonplace (dar I say a cliché?) in radical-social-constructivist writing about science. Like most cliché, it contains a grain of truth but greatly exaggerates the case. Above all, it fails to make the crucial distinction between actual knowledge (i.e. rationally justified true belief) and purported knowledge. Without a doubt, the dominant groups in any social system will try to pass off their preferred ideology as “scientific knowledge”; that is exactly why critics of the dominant groups need to make a clear conceptual distinction between actual knowledge and purported knowledge. The radical-social-constructivist position is both philosophically and politically suicidal []
  2. The theory-ladenness of observations goes back at least to physicist-philospher Pierre Duhem in 1894; it poses problems for the most naive falsifiability theories but by no means undercuts the epistemic claims o science. []
  3. This statement is silly, but it strikes the right emotional chords: against “privilege” (especially scientists’ privilege) and in favor of the “counter-hegemonic”, the “dissident”, and the “marginalized”. []