"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.
- Did you read the same book I did? Sokal very explicitly states that he is not trying to pass judgment on PoMo or the featured authors' work as sociologists. He is not qualified to make such a judgment; he is not a sociologist. Instead, he's debunking their abuse of mathematical and scientific terminology, something which (as a physicist) he is very much qualified to do. The book highlights several very highly amusing "mathematical" quotes by prominent sociologists who clearly have no clue what they're talking about. The sociologists in question never once claim that math and science are socially constructed (at least in the book; I'm sure they do elsewhere). Rather, they use a very faint understanding of mathematics to support their sociological positions. I mean, when Irigaray says that "Men are 1, women are 0" or something to that effect, and then asserts that she's not being metaphorical, that's not attacking math. That's being a dumbass. -- JonathanTang
- this implies I'm misremembering (...several minutes later...) No, the preface says that the book does cover a rebuttal of epistemic relativism as I thought. Although I'd forgotten that term.
- actually, yeah, I can see how we could get both readings out of it. The format of the book was interleaved critiques and essays: Sokal would highlight the work of a prominent sociologist and rip it to shreds in one chapter, and then write his own essay on the attacks on the scientific method in the next. The critiques seem to have stuck in my mind more, while the essays must have stuck in yours. I thought Sokal was a bit too harsh in his criticisms of epistemic relativism, and perhaps didn't understand postmodernism as well as he should have to write such a book. My complaint about PoMo is not so much that it's false as that it's useless. But then again, most of the postmodernists are rather harsh in their attacks on science, and they generally don't understand the scientific method at all. -- jt
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.
- I wasn't aware there was such a thing as "the modern understanding of the nature of metamathematics".
- Sorry? You're not aware of which aspect of metamathematics?
- "the nature of it". Or "the modern understanding" thereof :) Sorry, maybe I am pedantic, but I just do not like big words and have a "socially conditioned" (is this PoMo?) dislike of philosophy.
- How can you be both pedantic and not like big words? :-) Anyway, metamathematics is the name of a subject, one that concerns the foundations of mathematics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metamathematics - it is not merely philosophy, although there is such a branch of philosophy. Some of the very most important pure mathematics of the last 100 years was in Metamathematics. GoedelsTheorem, for instance.
- Of course I know what metamathematics is. It's just mathematics. But when somebody writes "modern understanding of the nature of metamathematics", such a crafty wording suggests that there's something hidden and mysterious (deeper meanings, and other non-sense), not just trivial stuff like Godel's theorem.
- Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I meant to imply that everything you think you know about the subject is wrong, even though you haven't said anything about the subject. You are quite right to be suspicious of my motives. You caught me.
- Oh, Costin, it's you; I had forgotten your IP address. Don't say "of course I know" if you're anonymous, that's just silly. And coming from someone else, I would be dubious of the phrase "trivial stuff like Goedel's theorem". In any case, metamathematics as a branch of epistemology is actually an important topic, so if your distaste for philosophy has extended to epistemology, I must say that you missed out on something; there are important issues there, not just angels dancing on the heads of pins.
- Well, I thought it just pays to be more precise and less vague on wiki. If you don't demolish my view that metamathematics is just mathematics with no particular deeper philosophical non-sense attached to it, then I see no point in referring to such a banality as "the modern understanding of the nature of metamathematics". The later may mislead the casual reader into thinking there's something rather spectacular behind it. We could then correct the style and remove this discussion.
- No! I do mean some spectacular things in regard to deep philosophy, not just the mathematics of mathematics.
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.
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.
- Other examples include just about any modern work that cites SigmundFreud on matters of psychology - which is all to common in sociological circles, unfortunately. Many comparisons between weaponry and male genitalia, all too common in liberal arts courses, are of this sort. Practicing psychologists long ago abandoned Freud's theories, having come up with more modern theories that correlate better with experimentation and other research. (Unfortunately, the discipline of psychology is one especially damaged from constant abuse by non-psychologists; to the point that the whole thing is regarded by some to be pseudo-science. Certainly, any use of psychology for purposes other than diagnosing, studying, and treating mental illnesses/disorders is questionable. Speaking of "cultural mental illness" is a common example often found here in Wiki.)
- Yes, but be careful of the baby and the bathwater, Freud wasn't wrong about everything, only about many things. :-)
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.
- Do be careful about unwarranted leaps to assumptions of AmericanCulturalAssumption; I believe that PoMo has always been most centrally a French movement, IIRC. You are correct about possible misunderstandings of labels, of course, since they are often both language and culture specific. I don't know what PoMo translates into in Hong Kong, for instance.
- It occurred to me that "po mo" is already perfectly good Chinese, just lacking tone markers. The first google hit was on "po mo" as Wade-Giles romanization of a term meaning "broken ink", which I rather like. :-)
- Leih chi sin. :)
- I'm not pretending to be anything remotely resembling fluent, help me out with your joke.
- Cantonese for "you're crazy". Literally, "you have (a) short circuit". Missing tone marks, of course... of 'course, I'm not fluent either, but I am able to communicate with my mother-in-law in Hong Kong...
- Please note that the wikipedia entry for "postmodern philosophy" (which is quite a bit more precise than PoMo) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy, characterizes it as an "eclectic and elusive" movement, therefore I may have been right in pointing out the danger in demolishing it en masse.
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.
- Literary device != scientific theory. I can construct whatever allegory you like; that doesn't mean that I should base scientific hypotheses on it.
- Absolutely true, and if literary critics believe that their literary criticism is scientific hypothesis, they're deluded.
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.
- One hopes that science is getting better.
- Is hope part of the scientific method? Sorry but couldn't help it.
- If anything, the failures of science over the years (and there have been many!) have occurred when the ScientificMethod was not observed - when prevailing dogma was allowed to trump experimental results, when conjecture (even expert conjecture) was conflated with tested hypotheses, and when experiments weren't carefully analyzed for bias (and here I mean any external influence that would skew the results; not bias meaning prejudice specifically). Over the years, the scientific method has been refined in numerous ways:
- Extensive application of statistics and statistical analyses to virtually every scientific discipline.
- Use of both control groups and experimental groups in studies in order to isolate differences to the parameter under variation
- Use of placebos and other double-blind techniques (where appropriate) to screen out psychosomatic and psychological factors
- The system of peer review itself.
[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"?]
- Nope. Today, what scientists investigate correlates strongly with what is commercially lucrative. Science is frequently expensive, and much research money comes with strings attached.
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.
, applied to science, is very much a bedfellow of creationism and other forms of theologically-inspired PseudoScience
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
: Serious refactoring is in order; this page is TooLargeToGrasp
: on the contrary, it's interesting and fun to grasp. Thanks to all the contributors from RandomReader?
See also DeconstructAlmostAnything