No sense in nonsense

Intellectual Impostures
April 9, 2004

This book claims to be primarily an exposé of postmodern nonsense but is of wider interest as a source for understanding conflicts between science and the humanities. While its large menagerie of dubious quotations might justify intellectual jibes analagous to the US Congressional restaurant's renaming of French fries as "freedom fries", neither this, nor publication of Alan Sokal's hoax paper in the journal Social Text , is sufficient to explain the fiery rhetoric of the ensuing debate. A Marxist might point to the ongoing decline in funding, prestige and student enrolments in physics, while a Freudian might prefer the authors' allegedly mediocre physics careers. But Roland Barthes, a major inspiration for recent French thought, argued against analyses based on authorial motivation; instead, one should examine how texts are read or, in the jargon that Sokal and Jean Bricmont attack, how readers construct texts.

Jonathan Ree's review in The Times Higher (July 10 1998) of the book's first edition (from which the second differs mainly in its preface) showed how easily the editors of Social Text could read Sokal's hoax as authentic, since what Sokal and Bricmont call its "glaring absurdities" are far from obvious to non-physicists. But this observation only deepens the mystery: if not the gullibility and/or generosity of postmodern editors, nor the lapses of postmodern writers, let alone their French connections, or Sokal and Bricmont's authorial motivation, then what does fuel this bonfire? What deeper values are at stake, and for whom?

Two clues are the delight of conservative popular media in using Intellectual Impostures to ridicule leftist intellectuals (noting that Sokal considers himself a leftist), and the shocked response from the left. This polarisation demonstrates that many constructed the debate in political terms. Another clue is that the quotes in the book are not random rubbish but are systematically constructed as "abused scientific concepts and terminology" supporting "epistemic relativism", defined as relativism about assertions of fact (although a better definition of that term is relativism about what can be known).

We should, therefore, ask what is at stake with relativism, and what is its political significance? In a society concerned with moral decline, it is natural for conservatives to promote values that support social stability as absolute and to see any form of relativism as threatening. Although Intellectual Impostures distinguishes epistemic from moral relativism, in my view it is their link that gets readers so agitated. The authors' awareness of this suggests that they exploit it to gain exposure for their own (somewhat veiled) political agenda.

Sociologists do not promote moral or epistemic relativism, but professionally they must practise methodological relativism, which requires understanding why scientists do what they do, without assuming truths that the scientists themselves do not know. For example, the existence of gravity waves is disputed. How can sociologists know who is right when scientists do not? But Sokal and Bricmont confuse methodological relativism with epistemic relativism, as illustrated by the following from Sokal's Lingua Franca paper revealing his hoax: "Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment." As well as confusing the two relativisms, this also confuses the laws of physics, which are written in mathematics and interpreted by humans, with the lawful behaviours of bodies, which are not.

The book's criticism of Bruno Latour's discussion of Einstein's special relativity misconstrues Latour's clear explanation of methodological relativism. This is perhaps due to French literary style, but it also makes serious technical errors that are less easily forgiven. Latour's "third observer" is not a third frame of reference, as claimed by the authors, but instead invokes the need for (Lorentz) transformations between frames of reference and, more significantly, for the translated values to agree. By confusing observers with frames, they delete the scientist, whereas Latour reminds us that the equalities in physical theories are subject to empirical verification. This is one example of how the book's pervasive identification of mathematical description with empirical regularity invalidates many of its criticisms.

While postmodernism is much abused and is also too broad for easy definition, many lumped under its banner share a concern for diversity and coexistence and for peaceful survival in the face of conflicting values.

This is arguably the most important problem of our times. Sociologists of science such as Latour are in the vanguard of such concerns, and therefore merit encouragement - which is not to say that their excesses are beyond criticism.

My own view, like that of the Dalai Lama, is that compassion is the most important prerequisite for human survival. It is also what effective sociologists must have for their subjects and what is notably lacking in Sokal and Bricmont.

Joseph Goguen is professor of computer science and engineering, University of California, San Diego, US.

Intellectual Impostures

Author - Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 6
Price - £7.99
ISBN - 1 86197 631 3

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