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Transgressing against the postmodernists.

[Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, Alan Sokal, Oxford University Press, 465 pages]

ONE OF THE PARADOXES of postmodernism is its lack of a sense of humor. Scholars who conceive of intellectual activity as a game, and who delight in exposing its rhetorical and procedural tricks, react like outraged dowagers when someone plays a trick on them. That is one reason Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University and professor of mathematics at University College London, is so despised by the deconstructionist Left.

In 1996, he published an article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," in the peer-reviewed cultural-studies journal Social Text. Its declared aim was to use the emerging theory of quantum gravity to show that science itself contradicted the "dogma" that the operation of eternal physical laws can be measured by "objective" procedures and "the (so-called) scientific method." There followed a paper written in fluent Lacanian jargon studded with references to nonlinearity, morphogenetic fields, and differential topology. That, in itself, was not new: the philosophical deconstruction of science was the great postmodern project of the late 1980s and early 1990s. What thrilled readers of Social Text was the fact that a leading professional physicist, as opposed to a philosopher, sociologist, or literary theorist, was attempting this exercise from inside the scientific establishment.

Another of the paradoxes of postmodernism is that although many of its practitioners make their careers exposing the meaninglessness of intellectual hierarchies, they roll over in delight the moment someone high up the hierarchy wants to tickle their stomachs. In this respect they resemble other apostles of what I call counterknowledge--the fast-morphing, overlapping, ever-growing corpus of "alternative" knowledge that abandons traditional methodology in response to the demands of intellectual fashion and the marketplace. Homeopaths, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and cult archaeologists sneer at academia until a maverick professor endorses their theories, after which they never stop boasting about his or her credentials. So Sokal was--briefly--a hero in cultural studies circles, for transgressing the boundary from his side of the border.

A few weeks later, he had become a bogeyman in those same circles--and he remains one now, more than a decade later. Soon after Social Text appeared, Sokal published an article in the now defunct magazine Lingua Franca revealing that the whole thing had been a hoax. "Transgressing the Boundaries" was a parody that had been accepted by a leading academic journal whose editors--to Sokal's delight--had not spotted even one of its carefully planted scientific howlers. In his own words, the essay was "a melange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non-sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever" containing speculative theories passed off as science, absurd analogies, and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words.

Why did Sokal go to such trouble? Not to defend scientists: as he put it, "we'll survive just fine, thanks," despite the withering discourse of feminist scholars. Students, on the other hand, do need to be defended, and to defend themselves, against lit-crit verbiage masquerading as physics; the hoax was partly intended to help them develop an informed skepticism with which to deconstruct their professors' deconstructionism. But--and this is what really stung--at the heart of Sokal's exercise lay his own political agenda. And it was a leftist one. If "Transgressing the Boundaries" had been a parody, however exquisitely crafted, by a conservative professor, it would have been easier to dismiss. The author, however, describes himself "an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class."

In his view, epistemological agnosticism of the Social Text variety is the enemy of progress because it destroys our ability to make moral and political judgments as well as scientific and commonsense observations. "Deny that context-dependent assertions can be true," he writes, "and you don't just throw out quantum mechanics and molecular biology: you also throw out the Nazi gas chambers, the American enslavement of Africans, and the fact that today in New York it's raining."

This, more or less, is happening. Consumers of counterknowledge tend to be gullible across the board. Some--not many, but enough--postmodernists have flirted with Holocaust denial; and Holocaust deniers, like their Nazi precursors, are often avid consumers of alternative medicine, many of whose claims are these days based on bizarre misrepresentations of quantum theory.

Sokal recognizes that the challenge to the methodology of the Enlightenment has gathered pace since 1996. His new book, Beyond The Hoax, consists mostly of previously published material, but is nonetheless valuable since the general reader is likely to be encountering it for the first time. One chapter that is new, however, is the author's very detailed annotation of the original parody, in which he explains exactly how he twisted theory, data, and language in order to smuggle a farrago of nonsense into a hitherto distinguished journal. He begins with the title. "Current practice in the academic humanities dictates that titles must begin with a gerund, consist of two phrases separated by a colon, and contain at least one play on words," he writes. Hence "Trangressing the Boundaries," which in addition to a gerund offers the double meaning of crossing disciplinary borders--"cultural-studies folks love transgression and interdisciplinarity," explains Sokal--and alludes to the technical issue of boundary conditions in quantum gravity. And all before the colon.

The new annotations do not just reveal a dazzling repertoire of teases, they also expose the extent of the scientific ignorance displayed by Lyotard, Lacan, et al. in the course of their showing off. In the parody, Sokal pretended to endorse modish assertions that the limitations of linear mathematics confirmed the redundancy of the linear thought patterns of the Enlightenment. In his new annotations, he points out that the word "linear" has two unrelated meanings in mathematics; postmodern theorists often confused them, with the result that their quasi-scientific justifications for their own "nonlinear thought" were nothing more than pretentious word-spinning.

But the famous parody was written in 1996, and linear time has since carried off several of the postmodern pioneers. Having explained what he did and why he did it, Sokal needs to move the story on to take account of the follies of the 21st century. This he does in a chapter entitled "Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow Travellers?" which first appeared in a book of essays about pseudoarchaeology published in 2006. He makes two crucial observations: that the more sophisticated pseudoscientists have taken to falling back on postmodern arguments when the credibility of their evidence is challenged and that some postmodernists display a strong interest in--and influence on--pseudoscience. Sokal discusses, for example, postmodern nursing theory. (Yes, there is such a thing.) He quotes Janice L. Thompson, a postmodern medical writer, on the desirability of "developing truth claims outside the discourses of science.... As a nondiscursive practice, therapeutic touch, like shamanic healing, may elude our current epistemic 'paradigms.' Precisely for this reason, we should be careful about how and why we judge it." Thompson, incidentally, is a highly trained nurse who seeks to influence medical practice; at least no one allowed French literary theorists to carry out "transgressive" experiments in a physics laboratory.

In his last chapter, Sokal moves from pseudoscience to religion, and this is where the problems begin. He is an uncompromising atheist who rejects the notion that the claims of faith are confined to the realm of an untestable transcendent: all religions make purportedly factual assertions, though some make fewer dubious assumptions than others. This is true enough; but, like Sam Harris in The End of Faith (which he discusses at length), Sokal also makes polemical and unsatisfactory generalizations about religion. "The bottom line is that all religions, not just Islam, are potentially dangerous--and they are dangerous precisely to the extent that their adherents take their sacred scriptures seriously, for the simple reason that reliance on revelation rather than evidence undermines the possibility of rational discussion," he writes. Really? But how can you establish a precise correlation when you have not begun to define religion, or scripture, or taking scripture seriously, or revelation, or rational discussion? Any argument against "religion," however boisterously delivered, is fatally weakened if the author does not explain what he means by the word: Christopher Hitchens does not even attempt to do so in God Is Not Great, which is why it is such a disappointing polemic.

Later in the chapter, however, Sokal does concede that "moral values" might be written into our DNA in some mysterious way and then goes on to imply that immorality in the modern age finds its clearest expression in the operation of free-market capitalism and the policies of the Bush administration. These points are not developed and--together with a strong whiff of Old Left self-righteousness--create a sense of messy improvisation that makes one wish that Sokal had stuck to his original target. When he writes about the misappropriation of scientific language by literary intellectuals he does so with a clarity and wit that have earned him his own place in the intellectual pantheon. "Transgressing the Boundaries" is a minor comic masterpiece. But, like so many boundary-transgressing scientists, when he ventures into the areas of religion and politics he displays a naivete that positively invites parody.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of London's Catholic Herald and author of Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History.
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Title Annotation:BOOKS; Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture
Author:Thompson, Damian
Publication:The American Conservative
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 30, 2008
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