From the Pages of

 

Sokal 1

Michael Albert

 

By now most Z readers have likely heard at least a little about the affair in which Alan Sokal, a physicist at NYU, submitted an essay to one of the premier left cultural/philosophical journals, Social Text, which they assessed and then published. Sokal thereupon revealed that his essay had been a parody designed to reveal the bankruptcy of post modernist (pomo) ideas -- and there followed a relative avalanche of articles ridiculing Social Text in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, many local mainstream papers throughout the country, plus The Village Voice, The Nation, ITT, and so on.

This was not the first shot in what might be called the "science wars," however. So what is the disagreement? Well, many folks on the left, including many scientists, have long criticized the misuse of science to justify immoral choices, or the pawning off of lies as science, or the narrow focus of many scientific endeavors. But pomo-inspired philosophers, anthropologists, literary theorists, and women's studies scholars go much further than this claiming (1) that the scientific method and "Western Rationality" are imperial and masculinist at root, and (2) that regarding the world around us there are no truths, just lots of different stories, each with its own rhetoric and utility. "One wonders," says the anti-science, pomo philosopher, "whether cosmologists at universities are less fanciful than astrologers in understanding the stars, or is it that they have more funding and better PR?" In other words, there is cosmology and there is astrology, two contending stories that we can choose between however we like - for example based on their funding, or on their elegance of presentation, or on how they make us feel -- so long as we don't make our choice based on references to truths, of which there are none. "Scientists and technologists have risen to the top of the shaman scale surpassing theologians and ministers even though they have gotten no closer to explanations of cause whether in quantum mechanics or molecular biology" adds the pomo philosopher, going on as well to note that not only don't scientists get to the truth, but due to the inadequacies of their method, they impose their will, incorporate sexist biases, etc.

In reaction, scientists and (non-pomo) leftists have for a long time been challenging those who say that the scientific method corrupts our perceptions and that everything is just another story, that they ought to climb out on a ledge and tell the empowering story that they can fly and that gravity is non-existent and then jump off and see what happens; or if they suffer a virulent flu they ought to tell themselves the uplifting story that they are physically fine and forego medical treatment; or to save a little money they should creatively tell themselves the economical story that their old typewriter can store their fine prose as well as a costly new computer and thereby forego the expense of the latter.

Neither side has given much ground over the past few years, and then along comes Sokal with his ploy. Does it help resolve the exchange? Will anyone give ground now? Well, this is going to depend on how folks view what Sokal has done. If his article was just a duplicitous trap, its publication will show little or nothing about pomo and Social Text. But if it was a well conceived test, then its publication may show quite a lot.

How could a submitted parody be a trap, those on the science side of the debate might derisively wonder? Suppose a post modernist wanted to show that some scientific journal was self-absorbed. He writes a piece accurately copying scientific style and argument and makes his piece far more enticing by indicating that it is coming from someone in the opposite camp, a defector to the scientists' cause. The scientists are all excited. They publish the piece. Then the author publicly proclaims that he wrote the piece as a put-on and that it is, in his opinion, worthless drivel. Everyone laughs and says, see, those scientists are blind to anything but their own beliefs. They can't even tell when they are being had. Ha ha, got ya.

Clearly, this wouldn't be fair. For if the post modernist author did a good job of reproducing the logic, evidence, and argument typical of the science journal's usual pieces, then his article deserved to be published according to the journal's norms. Of course the author thinks the piece is junk, he thinks everything the journal publishes is junk and this is, by design, just another piece like all the others. And of course the editors of the journal like the piece, they like everything they publish, and this is, by design, just another piece like all the others. Nothing would be revealed by the trap.

So if Sokal had studied lots of pomo articles and then by carefully mimicking them had written a piece that by pomo standards was quite good, making the arguments they make, highlighting the points they highlight, etc., which of course would also mean that by Sokal's standards it was an atrocity, then of course his parody would run.

I bring all this up because I think it explains why most advocates of post modernism and the post modernist inspired critiques of science, and the editors of Social Text as well, think that they have nothing to be upset, apologetic, or embarrassed about. They feel that they published an article that they should have published, a good article, from their perspective. So what if it was created by someone who didn't believe its contents? It's insights (even if the author doesn't understand them) are more valid than its creator's shenanigans. In replying to Sokal the editors of Social Text wrote: "What were some of the initial responses of the journal's editors when we first learned about Alan Sokal's prank upon Social Text? One suspected that Sokal's parody was nothing of the sort, and that his admission represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve. Another was less convinced that Sokal knew very much about what he was attempting to expose. A third was pleasantly astonished to learn that the journal is taken seriously enough to be considered a target of a hoax, especially a hoax by a physicist. ...." In other words, in their the article is good, the only thing to understand is Sokal's psychology or motives, or those of other critics, perhaps.

Similarly, a friend who teaches an Introduction to Pomo course told me that even after hearing that Sokal's article was a parody and then re-reading the piece, she nonetheless still thought that the article was excellent and instructive. So what if he wrote it by mimicking us? She sees Sokal's piece as a good example of the genre which was manipulatively constructed by someone playing a bad joke, but which, since it was such a good copy, has a lot of worth anyhow.

So, does the affair prove anything? Well, when I actually read Sokal's piece I was incredulous. It was a test, not a trap. What has been missing from the discussion so far is clear recognition of Sokal's many intentional errors, and therefore how ignorant Social Text's editors are about science, and how vacuous the obscurantist formulations of pomo are, more generally.

I have tried to explain it to friends this way: Imagine a periodical which focuses on criticizing modern sports and their role in society, with controversial views on the effects of being athletic on people's values and behaviors. Imagine that the tone and style of the writing is quite distinct and very obscure. A professional athlete submits an article favorably quoting frequent writers for this anti-sports periodical using their terminology and sentence structure. But he goes out of his way to construct his sentences and paragraphs so that while they read like those typical of the periodical, they are incoherent and lack argument or meaning. Also, the professional athlete includes many references to sports, such as accounts of how in baseball when you accumulate five errors you have to forfeit a run; or of how in tennis after six deuces in one game you must play a sudden death point. So in addition to being intentionally obscure and without substance, the article is also peppered with falsehoods about sports.

You can see how devastating it would be for the sports periodical to run such an article. Well, this is what Sokal has done to Social Text, with the domain science instead of sports and with the intentional errors only slightly less obvious than those noted above.

In his own words, via email, Sokal reports that "the content and style [of the article] was intended to be an imitation (in some respects exaggerated, in some respects more modest than the genre) of the sloppy thinking and argument that is prevalent (albeit not universal) in the various communities I was parodying. Thus, there was an overall emotive tone -- it was obvious what I liked and what I disliked -- but the "argument" was intentionally illogical, both locally (except for the few paragraphs that were more-or-less straight science journalism for non-scientists) and globally. I can't say that the article was like what anyone else would have written -- it was intentionally an incoherent hodgepodge of styles.... I intentionally wrote it so as to provoke any reasonably thoughtful editor or referee to come back with questions, criticisms, and objections. In particular, I wrote the final ("political") part of the article so that it would be full of holes even to someone who had understood none of the scientific part. Repeatedly throughout the editorial process, I asked the reviewers for comments, criticisms, and suggestions; I got none."

And in the piece he published in the periodical Lingua Franca revealing the ploy, Sokal wrote: "Like the genre it is meant to satirize -- myriad exemplars of which can be found in my reference list -- my article is a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non-sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever. (Sadly, there are only a handful of the latter: I tried hard to produce them, but I found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn't have the knack.) I also employed some other strategies that are well-established (albeit sometimes inadvertently) in the genre: appeals to authority in lieu of logic; speculative theories passed off as established science; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words."

You can find Sokal's article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in Social Text or on the internet at Sokal's web site -- http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/physics/faculty/sokal/index.html -- and read for yourself. Sokal's characterization of his piece rings true. I can barely discern logic within its sentences. I have trouble finding coherence in its paragraphs. I can see almost no flow of argument across paragraphs. Just what he intended.

So what does this tell us? The question that Sokal's ploy raises is, what explanation is there for why those in a certain discipline would think a piece that is intentionally incoherent and full of nonsense is worthy of publication?

Answer 1: The piece does in fact make sense. It is worthy. Sokal accidentally incorporated wisdom even against his efforts to avoid making sense, sort of like monkeys typing sentences by accident.

Answer 2: The pomos have made an intellectual breakthrough that is so innovative and so revolutionary that folks like Sokal see it as a mishmash because their synapses and concepts just can't take it in. Pomo is too new, too complex, too profound for most folks to fathom.

Answer 3: Most pomo is a swamp of needlessly obtuse language hiding (a) sophomoric truisms, (b) patent falsehoods, and (c) meaningless, barely literate phraseology, all melded incoherently together and dolled up to seem like wisdom. Sure there is some serious work done under the broad rubric of post modernism, but it is against the grain and beside the main point of the school of thought.

The debate between these possible explanations for how what the author claims is an incoherent article could be thought worthy is not likely to be resolved soon, at least for those at opposing poles. But there is also the issue of scientific literacy to consider. To come to some conclusion about this, keep in mind that the folks who claim that the scientific method is intrinsically imperial, or that there are multiple kinds of rationality such as Eastern and Western, or that all claims to truth are merely stories with more or less utility or rhetorical power but no greater or lesser claims to accuracy, are making highly controversial claims about science, scientists, and the act of doing science and then extrapolating them into diverse fields such as anthropology, women's studies, literary criticism, etc. Presumably they should know something about what they are addressing.

For those who care, here are just a few examples from Sokal's article. It claims that the famous constants pi and G are variables. It claims a connection between Morphogenetic fields (a crazy New Age theory) and quantum gravity, pure invention and lunacy. It has a footnote calling complex number theory a new and quite speculative area of mathematical physics though it is in fact a 19th century branch of pure mathematics, regularly taught to undergrad math and physics majors. It comments favorably on a Lacan quote that confuses imaginary and irrational numbers, two different things. It comments favorably on Latour's claim that relativity (which is about what is unchanging regardless of ones frame of reference) can't deal with two frames of reference, and on Stanley Aronowitz's claims about quantum mechanics being related to "industrial discipline in the early bourgeois epoch" (outrageously) citing work in Bell's theorem in his support. And so on and so forth. For the non-scientist these are arguably no big deal and certainly obscure. But for someone in science or purporting to philosophize about science, to let this stuff pass is very damning.

So what does Sokal make of the hoopla about his parody: "The most important scandal is in the content of my article, which is an annotated bibliography of charlatanism, nonsense, and sloppy thinking by dozens of the most prominent French and American intellectuals."

But interestingly Sokal also reports that "people have told me that this is the talk of every dinner, cocktail party, etc. I've received an incredible amount of e-mail saying the same thing. A significant amount of it is from people in the humanities and social sciences -- many of them on the left -- who have been fed up with this nonsense for years, and are thrilled that an outsider (who therefore had nothing to lose) has dared to reveal the emperor's nakedness. The Emperor's New Clothes metaphor is recurrent, and indeed I do identify with the little boy who blurts out, naively, that the king is naked."

And again, says Sokal, "My point isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the left from a trendy segment of itself that is purveying ideas that (a) are wrong, (b) are so silly that they bring discredit upon the left, and (c) undermine our attempt to carry out a progressive social critique."

What kinds of ideas was Sokal bothered by? Here's Andrew Ross from the pages of Social Text, February 1996, as quoted by Sokal. "I won't deny that there is a law of gravity. I would nevertheless argue that there are no laws in nature, there are only laws in society. Laws are things that men and women make, and that they can change."

What does this mean? If Ross is merely saying that our understanding of the laws of physics changes over time, why not say so and what's the big deal? (This is the truism part.) But if he means what he says, then he means the law of gravity is something we legislate and is valid as long as we say it is valid and becomes invalid when we decide the law is no longer binding. So if we say it is no longer valid, can we then fly? (This is the patent falsehood part.) In fact, as Sokal indicates, "the laws of nature are not social constructions; the universe existed long before we did. Our theories about the laws of nature are social constructions. The goal of science is for the latter to approximate as closely as possible the former."

Who cares, one might ask? Well, this is not just a silly little squabble. If one says there are no truths and there are only stories, then there is no reason to strive for objectivity, no reason to bother with facts, no reason to be logically consistent, no reason not to make up any old thing just because we like the way it sounds or favor its implications. More, the only sanction for any claim would be the linguistic or emotive quality of the supporting rhetoric, or the stature of its proponents, or whether we liked the implications, pretty much what one finds in much of pomo, or in the acceptance of Sokal's article.

So what is there to be said, usefully, about science and rationality?

Feminism assails scientific machismo. Multiculturalism abhors scientific racism. Social ecology attacks excessive scientific reductionism. Anthropology rejects exaggerated reliance on scientific abstraction. Humanists battle elevating the "scientific method" as the only way of knowing things. Common sense refutes scientific propaganda. The working class hates intellectual elitism. And all of these critics are right on target, as well as eminently rational in making these claims, so long as they don't exaggerate them into claims about science per se.

As a body of verified knowledge, science is sometimes limited or biased. (Scientists sometimes propound propaganda, as well, though then it isn't knowledge.) As the practice of accumulating verified knowledge, science is sometimes distorted in its questions and answers, sometimes dominates those with different agendas, and is sometimes just plain bought and paid for. As the behavior of the people who accumulate verified knowledge, science is sometimes narrow, mechanical, colonizing, or hypocritical. All told, science can be an illegitimate totalizing project, can marginalize less scientifically presented knowledge, and can argue, seemingly quite rationally, for the most odious projects. In short, what wears the label science is sometimes sexist, racist, ecologically destructive, imperial, arrogant, opportunist, and exploitative, and so are many scientists.

So what's wrong with a little "anti-rationalism," you might wonder? There is nothing wrong with struggling against the nearly overwhelming arrogance and hypocrisy of much of establishment "science." There is nothing wrong with railing at noted scientists for having despicable values, for contributing to war, or for imperially usurping the rights of others. There is nothing wrong with criticizing bourgeois economics (which purports to be science) as vile propaganda propounded in pursuit of profit and status. There is nothing wrong with developing intellectual methodologies to counter excessive reductionism and economism and to incorporate concern for gender, culture, and power equally with concern for economics in left theory and practice. There is nothing wrong with criticizing intellectually elitist mentality and practice in the left and in society or with developing and arguing for an economic vision that truly removes knowledge-based inequalities of power and influence from economic and social life. But none of these endeavors requires that one take the excessive and wrong step of disavowing science or reason. You can do all this and more, aggressively and uncompromisingly, without recourse to words like "discourse," "deconstruction," and "disembedded." And you can do it all without ever making the mistake of criticizing rationality or logic. Therefore the idea that the only way you can adhere to the positive impulses and insights that spawned and fueled much of the best of post modernism is by adhering as well to their most extreme views is simply false.

To critique bad science and scientists is part of understanding the world to make it better. To suggest methods people could use to avoid excessive reductionism, to guard against exaggerating the scope of scientific insights into domains where it is inapplicable (and there are many), or to ward off sexist, racist, and classist biases is a useful way to aid sincere scientists (and left political activists). But to critique reason and logic as being at the root of science's many evils is wrong and has no role in making the world better. And that is what rejecting the scientific method amounts to.

Consider poetry. There are many poems with racist, sexist, classist and otherwise oppressive and dishonest content. There are plenty of poets who behave in vile ways. Yet no one would accept that these prevalent ills of poetry (quite analogous to the same ills of science) are evidence that the practice of writing poetry inexorably give rise to these horrible outcomes. In fact, everyone would regard such claims as silly nonsense. (a) There is no argument showing how writing poetry causes one to be racist, sexist, classist, or imperial. (b) There is a sufficient explanation of the ills often present in poetry based on social relations and pressures, with no need for resort to nonsensical claims.

The fact is, overarching institutions establish boundaries for what scientists (and poets) do and this easily explains the ills found in modern science (and poetry) just as it easily explains related ills in sports, drama, work, family life, and all other domains of contemporary society. To explain racism, sexism, classism, and authoritarianism in science (or poetry), we no more need to appeal to a "more basic" corrupting cause in the "ways of thinking" (or rhyming) that all scientists (poets) use than we have to appeal to a more basic corrupting cause in the ways of metabolizing that all athletes use, or in the ways of memorizing lines that all actors use, or in the ways of coordinating eyes and hands that all workers use, or in the ways of speaking with mouths that all family members use to explain similar ills of sports, drama, work, and family roles. The racist, sexist, classist, and authoritarian ills of science (and poetry) derive from the overarching institutional context of the whole society, just as do related ills characterizing the other sides of social life. The ways our brains work is not the problem. The world they work in is.

In fact, what actually distinguishes science, or more accurately the ideals of science, from non-science is precisely:

o Science's eagerness to continually improve its ideas rather than trying to preserve them as fixed dogma o Science's openness to simultaneously celebrating multiple conflicting explanations, at least while there is no convincing way to choose among them o Science's disregard for credentials, authority, or even past achievement in judging any person's claims, and o Science's elevation of experience to the prime arbiter of disputes.

In other words, real science is distinguished by its allegiance (not always fully implemented) to exactly the aims the anti-rationalist critics of science say they seek. Therefore, science's critics are either not looking very hard or are very disingenuous. Moreover, due to the way its emphasis on verification combats socialized biases of all kinds, instead of tending to produce racist, sexist, classist, and authoritarian claims, employing rationality, particularly with scientific rigor, helps counter these distortions. It is bad science, not science per se, that is a problem.

Finally, in addition to being diametrically wrong, anti-rational, anti-science, pomo in its broad sweep has three devastating strategic implications.

First, in the struggle over how to improve society, activists confront established power with essentially our minds and bodies. Anti-rationalism says let's not use a significant portion of our minds -- logic, appeal to evidence, etc. -- thereby giving away a chief asset before the contest even begins. Elites not only have the guns and money, now we let them have "truth" too. It would hard to conceive a more self-defeating stance.

Second, while anti-rationalists can't sensibly urge people to be permanently non-rational, they can sensibly urge everyone to ignore evidence and logic whenever these disagree with preferred views. Obviously, most of the folks offering anti-science arguments don't have this as their purpose, but I think anti-rationalism leads to this kind of stifling dynamic more or less inexorably. One can easily hear the anti-rationalist responding to a disliked presentation--"Gosh, listen to the way the speaker argues, offers evidence, uses logic, and says things are true and false. We don't have to pay any attention to the content. It's obviously compromised by being too scientific." There is no reply, only an end to collective communication and, therefore, an end to democracy, participation, and any hope of effective activism, not to mention losing valuable insights.

Third, once one removes evidence and logical argument as the favored means for choosing among analyses, what's left? How should we decide what explanations to support, what policies will work, what tasks we can reliably undertake? Revealed wisdom? Dogma? Credentials? Number of big words?

The claim of science is that whenever we are operating in a domain where we can do so effectively, we should use our experience and the experiences of others, our intuitions and the intuitions of others, and even our fears and guesses and the fears and guesses of others, all mediated by logic and the rules of evidence and tested by experiment. We should assemble this whole aggregation into "an argument" where we distinguish facts from wishes and collectively assess whether we have a compelling or only a very tentative case. In contrast, if we set rationality aside, instead of comparing evidence and using logic to help examine and verify connections and implications, we will have to rely only on largely uncommunicable and untestable feelings, emotions, preferences, whims, and revelation--or on mindless obedience to authority that derives from power, position, credentials, or appearance. In political struggle, this is a recipe for disaster.

In this day and age, even many scientists might empathize with anti-scientific rhetoric. Who doesn't laugh at humorous potshots directed at scientists? First the joy we take in exaggerated attacks on science is rooted in sensible fears and desires. Then, however, we are carried further by anti-rationalist rhetoric playing to our mood. Soon, we repeat the rhetoric ourselves in other contexts. Finally, we say the scientific method is imperial. Logic is male. Math is oppressive. We dismiss views we don't like and adopt those we do like, as we would with stories, facts be damned. This is an unenlightened, reactionary, and defeatist trajectory, politically and personally.

There is nothing truthful, wise, humane, or strategic about confusing hostility to injustice and oppression which is leftist with hostility to science and rationality which is nonsense. There is nothing insightful, innovative, or helpful about academics who get paid to think using that privilege to tell other people that thinking is not such a good idea after all. There is nothing redeeming about political commentators claiming that there is no truth, there are only a bunch of competing viewpoints, and that science is just another story, and we should go with what we like or what sounds best.

No, we do not have to get beyond or otherwise transcend science or rationality as a prerequisite to developing worthy vision and strategy. We need some new concepts and methods of inquiry, to be sure, but logic and the rules of evidence are here to stay. Moreover, they're on our side.

By contrast, even with the good intents of many of its left leaning practitioners, pomo as a whole destroys progressive and left prospects in various ways including:

a) confusing technology with the social warping of technological options and science with the social warping of scientific researches, leading to the false, counter productive views that technology and science per se are evil

b) intimidating and de-politicizing many young students and faculty, forcing them to utilize obscurantist "discourse" lest they appear ignorant, lose status, or even lose jobs

c) eschewing the use of logic, evidence, and comparison with experience and even rejecting sound arguments on the basis of their being western, rational, or scientific

d) denigrating efforts to publicly and democratically develop societal goals and vision as totalitarian or, in any event, worthlessly compromised due to being too logical/rational

e) denying the possibility of true statements and thereby turning all evaluation of claims into a matter of assessing credentials, utility, or artistry, reducing not only journalism but most scholarship to sophistry, faith, or taste

f) leaving the left as a whole open to attacks for pomo's transgressions.