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Book Review: “Fashionable Nonsense” 20 Years Later

Jaime Villanueva

“Moreover, this also implies postmodern writers should be far more modest and careful when criticizing the virtues of science and reason, since it is not clear that they fully appreciate what it is that scientists actually do and believe.”

Details

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

Picador Press, New York

1998

Introduction

In 1996 physicist Alan Sokal published a seemingly pretentious but otherwise innocuous paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the postmodern journal Social Text. After its publication, Sokal announced that the paper was designed as a deliberate parody of post-modernism’s appropriation of scientific jargon. It was filled with largely meaningless or even absurd claims that nevertheless “flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” Sokal immediately became infamous across the academic world, with some welcoming his efforts and parody and other’s accusing him of dishonesty and a lack of integrity. More importantly, Sokal’s parody immediately set off a political firestorm. Many on the Left accused him of lending ideological support to conservative efforts to repress critical and transgressive scholarship. And some on the Right were only too happy to use Sokal’s hoax precisely for that purpose. For his part, Sokal decried these efforts to either paint him as a conservative or to excessively politicize his work. He consistently claimed his primary motivations were intellectual; he wanted to criticize bad or misleading interpretations of scientific terminology and concepts by post-modern authors. Sokal observed that to the extent there was a political motivation behind his hoax, it was an “unabashed Old Leftist” who wanted to save progressive scholarship from a “trendy segment of itself.” He firmly supported efforts to undermine prejudices and inequalities in society and firmly believed that the Left would be better served by appealing to reason and evidence in support of these efforts rather than post-modern skepticism and obfuscation.

Whatever one thinks of his efforts, they certainly did not abet the production of post-modern scholarship—including about the sciences.  One of the motivations behind the recent Sokal Squared hoax was to take another jab at the ascendancy of academic post-modernism. It naturally generated a tremendous amount of press. This conjured up many of the old debates about Sokal’s tactics and ambitions, with many of the familiar battle lines being drawn. Given this renewed attention, I thought it would be an ideal time to reexamine Sokal’s own extended discussion on these issues. These were presented most thoroughly in his book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, which was co-authored with Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont and published in English in 1998. This well-written and frequently-hilarious book presents a more sustained examination of the relationship between post-modern scholarship and science. Sokal and Bricmont discuss the reasons behind their critiques, examine the use of scientific terminology and concepts by several major post-modern authors, and conclude with some philosophical and political arguments for abandoning post-modern skepticism and leftism. In my mind, Sokal and Bricmont’s book remains the best popular argument along these lines yet put forward. I will discuss why below.

The Parameters of Sokal and Bricmont’s Critique

Unlike so many modern critics of post-modernism, from Jordan Peterson to Stephen Hicks, Sokal and Bricmont’s critique has genuine intellectual bite to it. This is for two interrelated reasons.

The first is that Sokal and Bricmont have read a substantial number of texts by major post-modern authors, right down to the secondary literature on the subject. Moreover, they are keen to interpret these figures in good faith. They readily acknowledge when Lacan might actually present plausible arguments about mathematics—or that they have some sympathy for the purely “political” opinions of Paul Virillio. This liberal approach towards interpreting one’s ideological opponents extends to the generous quotations provided throughout the book. At points, Sokal and Bricmont will provide entire pages of text by post-modern authors, accompanied and followed by footnotes and explanations as to where these post-modern authors went wrong when using or discussing scientific terminology and concepts. This indirectly benefits Sokal and Bricmont’s overall argument. Wading through page after page of dense post-modern prose becomes extremely frustrating when accompanied by solid evidence that many of these efforts result in learning little of substance about the scientific topics post-modern authors aspire to discuss.

The second reason why Sokal and Bricmont’s critique hits hard is its comparatively modest parameters. Many contemporary critiques of post-modernism are prone to both sloppy generalizations and flat errors, and more pertinently, to over-ambition. Authors like Hicks will present their work as both a takedown of post-modern theory, an account of the philosophical discourse of modernity, an indirect defense of a very particular interpretation of reason or morality, and a takedown of left-wing politics and political tactics. Sokal and Bricmont’s ambitions are far more limited. They openly state in their introduction that they are not concerned with analyzing the philosophical and political arguments of post-modern authors, except to the extent these draw on scientific terminology and concepts. This might disappoint those looking for a more knock down argument against post-modern philosophy or who want to read a thorough critique of left wing critical theory. But this works in Sokal and Bricmont’s favor, since what they lose in breadth they gain in depth. In my interpretation, they are primarily concerned with arguing for three points in descending order of priority. The first is that many post-modern authors abuse or simply don’t understand scientific terminology and concepts. The second is to argue that the skepticism of reason and science shown by many post-modern authors is unwarranted. And the third—and least important objective from their point of view—is indicating that the political left has little to gain from such skepticism towards reason and science. I will discuss each of these points in turn.

Postmodern Intellectuals Abuse of Science

As indicated, the book’s primary objective is demonstrating how many post-modern authors abuse scientific terminology and concepts. This was partially demonstrated by Sokal’s initial hoax, where an academic paper filled with scientific nonsense or banalities was published by the well-known post-modern journal Social Text. Since one parody in a single journal is not in itself conclusive evidence of this, Sokal and Bricmont’s book discusses a number of major post-modern theorists’ and their approach to scientific terminology and concepts. This includes: Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigary, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Paul Virillio. Each of these thinkers is given a full chapter to analyze their respective slights. There are also “intermezzos,” which discuss different but related topical concerns, including relativism in the philosophy of science, and the misuse of chaos theory and Godelian incompleteness theorems by post-modern authors. 

By the end of the book, it is hard to deny Sokal and Bricmont’s conclusion that many post-modern authors are prone to abusing or misusing scientific terminology and concepts. They readily acknowledge that some of the offenders are worse than others. Sokal and Bricmont also go out of their way to recognize when post-modern theorists get something right—or where they happen to agree with a given interpretation. But, by and large, they demonstrate convincingly that many of post-modern authors would do well with adopting a far more modest and careful approach to the terminology and concepts they use. Moreover, this also implies they should be far more modest and careful when criticizing the virtues of science and reason, since it is not clear that they fully appreciate what it is that scientists actually do and believe.

There are innumerable examples provided throughout the book—far too many to discuss even a fraction of them here. Perhaps the most glaring include a scathing takedown of Bruno Latour’s claim that he can “teach Einstein” something about the theory of relativity, their observation that Julia Kristeva not only got Godel’s incompleteness theorem wrong but that is says “exactly the opposite” of what Kristeva claims, and a truly amusing critique of a monumentally-opaque quotation in Felix Guattari’s Chaosmosis. 

Sokal and Bricmont observe that Latour confuses Einstein’s references to “observers” with the sociological concept of observer, that he attributes to Einstein arguments the latter never made, and that he arrogantly dismisses such concerns by saying “the vision we develop of science does not have to resemble what scientists think about science.”  With regard to Kristeva, they note that she argues that Godel provided a proof that one could never establish a mathematical system’s inconsistency, when in fact the proof establishes the opposite. Godel’s proof established that one could never establish a mathematical systems consistency. Such an elementary mistake seriously belies claims that Kristeva understood Godelian logic and its implications enough to claim it has anything to tell us about semiotics. Finally, Sokal and Bricmont observe that Guattari’s immensely dense comment in Chaosmosis contains “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific, and philosophical jargon” they have ever encountered.” In two brief pages, it includes reference to linguistic theory, non-linear mathematics, fundamental ontology, theories of cognition, time, the biosphere, “infinite speeds,” objectivity, quarks, “existential machines,” dialectics, and many, many more. The point is well made: one immediately becomes deeply suspicious that this actually can all fit together in any logical fashion.

Conclusion

So by the end of its 200-odd pages, Sokal and Bricmont’s point about post-modern author’s abuse of scientific terminology and concepts is well-taken. Indeed it is a sharp reminder to those (including myself at times) who are prone to deploying these terms without sufficiently researching them. But what is the point to this examination? Is there really that much to be gained by demonstrating that a number of academics in the humanities occasionally overreach in their ambitions and are capable of writing some truly grotesque sentences?

Sokal and Bricmont think that there is. This brings me to their two other points in this book: to argue against unwarranted skepticism towards science and reason, and to caution the political left about embracing this skepticism. These are obviously immense philosophical and political issues, and Fashionable Nonsense wisely refrains from discussing them in any depth. This essay will follow them in that. I will only briefly add my interpretation and analysis here, in order to theoretically provoke future discussion on these issues.

Sokal and Bricmont observe that there are many potent arguments one could make about the absolute objectivity of science. Indeed, in their most substantial intermezzo, they run through some of the more rigorous philosophical arguments made by Popper, W.V.O Quine, Kuhn, and Feyerabend which they find reasonably convincing.  And they concede that there are many problems with flatly claiming that any given scientific proposition simply describes the world as it is, as though there is a one to one correspondence between the propositional content and the empirical reality it aspires to describe. But they also observe that many scientists are aware of these difficulties, or at least they do not pretend that scientific propositions accurately describe more than they purport to. They point out that radicalizing these philosophical problems into claims that all propositions are relative is going too far.

Moreover, it has significant consequences in the real world if these radicalizations are taken seriously. Sokal and Bricmont point out that in many circumstances, such as the guilt or innocence of a person under criminal investigation, claiming that there is no factual way to make such a determination amounts to saying anything goes. The same is true in many development contexts, where many efforts at improving medicine depend on gradually mitigating the practical influence of medically-dangerous cultural practices in favor of a scientific approach to the body and its functions (female genital mutilation comes to mind). This claim has the most bearing on their third point about skepticism and left wing politics. Sokal and Bricmont observe that for a long time, the goal of the left was to “speak truth to power.” Those on the Left believed that reason ultimately would demonstrate the salience of their progressive opinions-whether about the liberal equality of women, the need to reduce pollution, or the debilitating impact of racist policies on human psychology, while undermining the position of their adversaries. Given this history, Sokal and Bricmont express confusion as to why so many on the Left increasingly turn to opaque and jargon ridden forms of skepticism in their efforts to establish a more equal and fair society.  It is a good question that goes beyond the purview of this essay. But Sokal and Bricmont’s book certainly makes one ponder it more seriously.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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