Fashionable Nonsense

"Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science", Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, ISBN 0312204078

Back cover: "In 1996, Alan Sokal published an essay in the hip intellectual magazine Social Text parodying the scientific but impenetrable lingo of contemporary theorists...document the errors made by some postmodernists using science to bolster their arguments and theories. Witty and closely reasoned, Fashionable Nonsense dispels the notion that scientific theories are mere "narratives" or social constructions, and explores the abilities and the limits of science to describe the conditions of existence." In brief, the literary postmodern school of deconstruction has produced vast amounts of anti-scientific urban legends about human nature, which are just plain wrong, but still widely believed due to being taught extensively in college humanities and soft science programs for decades; this book helps to demonstrate very specifically where the movement went wrong when it moved out of literature and into science.

No doubt I will now be flamed by someone who was brought up to believe in this pseudo-science, but what can I say, it really is wrong, just like astrology is wrong.

Like, for example, ...

Astrology is wrong in claiming that the configuration of the stars and planets influence our fates. Believers ask for definitive disproof, but shrug off studies that demonstrate it doesn't do what it claims. It shouldn't matter, though, because the burden of the proof is on astrology to prove that it does work - believers have anecdotal and emotional "evidence" and consider that good enough. But of course that isn't proof.

No, I meant to ask what does this book debunk? Of course astrology is a scam.

It debunks the claims that postmodern deconstructionism is the definitive approach to epistemology in all realms. PoMo claims that all "truth", all "reality", is socially constructed narrative, without exception, including in math and science.

It is very interesting to read of mathematical developments that happened in cultures far from the western mainstream, but PoMo crosses the line into pure nonsense when they claim that, potentially, anything whatsoever goes in mathematics; this goes under the heading of "ethnomathematics". This misunderstands essentially the entire history of development of mathematics, from its origins up through the modern understanding of the nature of metamathematics.

It is very interesting to read knowledgeable discussion of the foundations of science and scientific method, e.g. Kuhn, Popper, even Feyerabend. PoMo crosses into insanity by claiming that any old approach to "science" is equally valid as a social construction. This completely ignores issues of e.g. potential repeatability, value of theories that make testable predictions, etc.

They handwave all of that away by appealing to a lack of knowability of absolute truth, but that handwaving misses some not-so-subtle points, like that their approach to science would not and could not have lead to modern physics and engineering.

Epistemology is a difficult topic with a long history, and it's not as if the subject is finished, but PoMo basically claims that what worked for literature works for all areas of epistemology. It is basically, extraordinary naivety and ignorance hiding behind the shield of the ultimate unknowability of absolute truth. The latter does not justify application of PoMo outside of literature.

This page was created in reaction to a repetition of the highly infamous PoMo claim that gender roles are purely a social construction, unrelated to biology. That is just wrong, and study after study from multiple fields have refuted it, but that doesn't deter the PoMo supporters, because they want to believe in it due to its egalitarianism.

PoMo is enamored of the tabula rasa theory of mind, which is indeed very egalitarian, but is also completely wrong.

Like Astrology, PoMo makes assertions that support its own assumptions, so it is a self-sustaining logically consistent system in some sense - it just happens not to be in accord with any testable facts. But that doesn't matter, you see, since there is no such thing, according to the extremists. Anything goes, so according to PoMo, you can't disprove any PoMo assertions, so they are free to say what they like and claim that it is some kind of ultimate truth - although of course never with quite that wording, since that would be a self-contradiction. (It's not clear to me that PoMo actually has a problem with self-contradiction, actually, but they usually are fairly skilled at the art of rhetoric, so that alone is reason to avoid obvious self-contradiction).

Highly distasteful, at best. Intellectually dishonest. Yes. Sounds like DogmaticFallacy.

Very mild forms of PoMo might usefully enter into debates about logical positivism, but it doesn't seem to come in mild forms; it becomes virulent quickly.

Actually, do you mind elaborating who/what is this PoMo? Coming from a rather parochial culture I was only aware of post-modernism in literature, and with a rather fuzzier identity in the other arts. But I wasn't aware or not paying attention to PoMo as a label for what - "philosophical school"?.It may be a cultural confusion, much like you could get an American to debunk liberalism when he actually refers to exactly the opposite notion that an European does. Post-modernism in literature was both successful (arguably as anything else in literature) and fashionable, so it would seem as an attractive target for highjacking. But since we're demolishing something on wiki, could we give it an identity? I don't believe there's such an identity recognizable outside very specialized circles.

I'm not sure what you're asking, since I would have thought that the above already answers it. Look at any college course in e.g. sociology anywhere in the world. There is a good chance that even today, that course assumes the tabula rasa theory of mind - that we are born with the mind a "blank slate", which is then filled in by culture and experience. This is wrong, and this is a hallmark of PoMo science (the tabula rasa theory wasn't invented by PoMo, but it is the reason that it is still taught). It is everywhere.

If you're just asking about labels, first off it is a school of philosophy. It can be recognized regardless of labels by its assertions that all truth/reality is socially constructed, and by any theories that assume that. Oh, I thought, that was called constructivism. May the difference be in the interpretation of the consequences?

Ok, a reference should be enough http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism#Postmodernism_in_philosophy . It's just the idiosyncrasies of parts of US academic world are not widely recognized on the rest of the globe. For example you can say that the same part of academy is "liberal", and "anywhere in the world" the word liberal will be taken at its face value, therefore you may be communicating the wrong meaning. Your later explanation makes it much clearer, thank you. The term Epistemic Relativism, which I had forgotten, appears to be apropos here.


I think a lot of people misunderstand what the postmodernists are about. It's a mistake to assume that a deconstructionist argument is supposed to mean anything (!) or should be the basis of decisions, in the same way that it's a mistake to assume that "Utopia" endorses a political and social organization that governments ought to adopt. Postmodernism (and I hate to even use the word, because it carries so much baggage and so little meaning) is essentially a literary pursuit, used to toy with ideas and compose logical structures with them, as a way to illustrate the logical consequences of various points of view. They're not intended to describe the natural world in the way that science and mathematics do. The starting points - you mention the "tabla rasa" idea, and Freud is another common one - are known to be lousy models without factual basis, but useful literary devices nonetheless.

I think it's helpful to think about it as a cousin of fiction. We don't get foamy-mouthed when James Joyce's characters behave in ways that conflict with our understanding of human psychology. Joyce isn't attempting to write a psychology textbook. It doesn't diminish the value of his work in the least.

You seem to be misunderstanding the point of the page; this page is not at all talking about it in regard to literature. The point of this page is that a large number of academics have bought into postmodernism philosophy as a primary approach to science. You seem to be suggesting that that has not happened. Sorry, but you are incorrect. Check out the book, for instance. We don't misunderstand postmodernism, they do. Unfortunately, they have been wildly influential.

The PoMo page is empty, but obviously available for discussion of PoMo as applied to literature.

Pomo as applied to science is the same thing as pomo applied to literature. The academics treat science as a piece of literature, which can be twisted, mangled, and distorted as a sort of thought experiment. Scientists are, perhaps rightly, offended that the exacting models of the natural world that are the fruit of many generations of hard toil are placed on the same footing as the products of fruitful imaginations in literature; both as grist for the deconstruction mill. That seems to be the complaint made in the blurb from the back cover of the book quoted above. For literary purposes, science may be treated as a socially constructed narrative, doing no harm to science in the process. It should not be treated that way in science classrooms or on the floor of the legislature, and I don't think you'll find too many literary critics who think it should (unless they work in the Bush administration).

But it does get treated that way in classrooms - not necessarily science classrooms, but classrooms nonetheless. Quite a few fields of study out there - women's studies is a well-known example - that abuse science by: 1) drawing on outdated or deprecated scientific theory, a la Freud; and 2) dismissing whole branches of science (or at least inconvenient theories) as being "sexist", "racist", or somesuch. Perhaps the physical sciences are spared this abuse somewhat - it's hard for anyone to argue that the speed of light depends on cultural factors, after all - but fields such as psychology, biology, medicine, psychiatry, economics, etc. - which do have human factors - are so abused.

[But science in the past has clearly been influenced by sexist and racist ideologies. Retrospectively, many of these can be dismissed as PseudoScience, but at the time, it seems, things were not so clear. Science as a process is clearly not infallible, and sometimes arrives at conclusions which have negative and long-lasting societal consequences. I think it has to be fair game for criticism, as all of our institutions must be.] The legislatures of the world have more severe problems than pomo philosophy masquerading as science - the government and financial world tend to ignore postmodernism. However, other sorts of PseudoScience do hold sway in politics - stuff that wouldn't survive an hour in academia. Much of the "science" quoted on the floors of legislature consists of over-extrapolated claims, ideologically-motivated research, "filtered" research (where undesirable results are suppressed), and even outright fabrication. Unfortunately, this sort of stuff is not the province of any single political ideology. The notion of scientists as dispassionate, neutral observers tends to fall flat on its face when millions of dollars are at stake.

[Scientists are not neutral observers any more than journalists are neutral observers. Scientists rightly strive for neutrality. But science, as an institution, makes choice about which fields to investigate and which not to investigate, at the very least, which can introduce bias. Science spent the Cold War examining particle physics very, very closely. Was that "neutral"?]

The extent to which academics treat the output of this process as factual and not merely literary is the extent to which the field has gone off the page entirely. The appearance of papers in Social Text making ridiculous scientific claims does not necessarily indicate that mistake, however. Social Text ain't a scientific journal. Readers expect it to contain literary criticism, and they don't expect literary criticism to reflect the state of the real world.


PoMo, applied to science, is very much a bedfellow of creationism and other forms of theologically-inspired PseudoScience.


Reading AgainstMethod and then this page is an interesting experience. People here defend the "scientific method" but personally I've always known that there is no such thing. It's the reason why I've never been interested in epistemology before AgainstMethod. People here also attack "epistemic relativism" and I have to hand it to PaulFayerabend?, he makes a convincing argument for it.

Oh, I still hate PoMo with a passion. But for the reason Jonathan stated; not because it's wrong but because it's useless. Well that and its culture-neutrality is wrong (not incorrect but evil).

In any case, I doubt I'll ever read FashionableNonsense. Sight unseen, I'd give it a 99% probability that it's just FashionableNonsense. -- RK


EditHint: Serious refactoring is in order; this page is TooLargeToGrasp.

RandomReaderRemark?: on the contrary, it's interesting and fun to grasp. Thanks to all the contributors from RandomReader?!

See also DeconstructAlmostAnything

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