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An issue that has followed me through my career is the fight against pretentious jargon and extreme epistemological relativism in the humanities. The latter is an old idea from the sociology of science which holds that scientific knowledge does not approximate truth about the world, but is instead a kind of agreement among scientists: knowledge is “socially constructed”. As a very young and angry grad student, during Scandy archaeology’s worst infatuation with this mode of thought, I was heartened to learn about physicist Alan Sokal’s 1996 hoax upon the hip post-modernist journal Social Text. He got them to print a bogus paper full of impenetrable jargon where he argued among other things that gravity is a social construct. Then he revealed the prank, arguing that the journal editors published the drivel not because they thought he was right, but because they agreed with his politics. The Left, argued Sokal, can’t afford that kind of science hostility, because that means an unwillingness to face reality. He has since gone on to write excellent books on the subject.

And now Alan Sokal is coming to Stockholm where I live! He’s speaking twice under the heading “What is Science and Why Should We Care?”.

  • Tuesday 26 May. 18:00. ABF Stockholm, Sveavägen 41. 50 kronor entry fee.

  • Wednesday 27 May, 18:00. Royal Academy of Sciences, Lilla Frescativägen 4 A. Free for all, but you need to register beforehand. I’ll see you there!

Photograph taken by Sven Klinge last February, from the Zoonomian blog.

Comments

  1. #1 ArchAsa
    May 19, 2009

    WOAH!
    I love Sokal – phenomenal!!

    *off to sign up for wednesday*

  2. #2 Tor
    May 19, 2009

    Though no fan of post-modernism, I have to confess I never understood what the Sokal hoax was supposed to prove. So _Social Text_ published a paper which Sokal, and scientifically minded people in general, considered to be rubbish. That had happened before. What was unusual about this paper was that its own author didn’t really believe in it — but why should that make a difference?

    Consider an analogous case in which the good guys and the bad guys have been swapped: a creationist manages to pass himself off as a Darwinist, offering arguments in favour of Darwinism that sound reasonable to Darwinists but which, in fact, he himself considers fatally flawed. I wouldn’t consider this damaging to Darwinism. It would prove that you can learn to talk the talk without actually buying it — that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the talk.

    But for some reason, people seem to think that Sokal’s stunt somehow _exposed_ radical post-modernism, beyond what could possibly have been achieved by sober, straightforward argumentation. I don’t get it.

    Maybe I should go and ask him about it.

  3. #3 ArchAsa
    May 19, 2009

    If it had just been a text that piled trendy philosophical terms on top of each other it would not have been an interesting hoax. However, there were parts of the PoMo-movement at this time that liked to make their texts even more incomprehensible and intimidating by appropriating the natural sciences in a very strange way. So conclusions reached about geography and topography were applied to language and lots of terms, equations, calculations from physics were suddenly supposed to say something deeply pilosophical about the relation between a man and his childhood. Those that championed this approach made a whole deal about how savy they were with physics, chemistry, mathematics.

    What Sokal showed was that they really did not understand the most basic student-level thing about the words and concepts and definitions they used. They honestly could not discover a completely false statement if it was written in bold print across thier faces.

    This specific pomo-movement tried to build a pedestal for themselves by using technical terms humanists do not usually know and therefore cannot critisize in a meaningful way. They claimed to know what they were talking about. Sokal showed that a computer spouting random nonsensical sentenses made about as much sense as they did.

  4. #4 Sigmund
    May 19, 2009

    As a biologist I have no objection to a creationist trying to ‘Sokal’ the scientific community. I would see it as a simple straight-forward test of the peer review process.

  5. #5 Johan Normark
    May 20, 2009

    Sokal’s hoax was interesting and clearly exposed some of the misinterpretations done by ”pomos”. However, I have read parts of his (and Bricmont’s) book “Fashionable Nonsense” and I am not impressed by their argumentation. I primarily read their chapter on Deleuze (and Guattari). Their method of argumentation is basically to cut large chunks of text from their books (that contain scientific terms used in questionable sense) and with a few comments dismiss everything they say without really explaining why. Sure, Deleuze could have expressed himself with less jargon but I guess he did not want to because as a philosopher of complexity he tried to show that everything is not as clear cut as people like Sokal tries to make it (particularly in “social sciences”).

    Since I have read a couple of Deleuze’s books I find it hard how anyone can interpret him as a relativist. What he proposes is an ontology of flows that creates more static forms. There is regularity in his view of the world, it is not relative as in social constructionism.

    Yes, Deleuze did not get everything right in his examples (he covered everything from archaeology to geology, biology, psychoanalysis, cinema, etc), but he tried to find an underlying explanation for all these phenomena, based in materialism and realism (if we follow Manuel DeLanda’s version of Deleuze, which I do). People following this “neo-materialist” and “neo-realist” trend of thought is now found in geography (Thrift, Bonta), neuroscience (Protevi), archaeology (myself), etc. They have taken Sokal’s critique into consideration and modifies Deleuze.

    Just remember that the critique against philosophers and social scientists making use of natural science can go the other way as well when “natural scientists” try to become social scientists. Dawkins is a supporter of Sokal, but his memes is simply not the best way to explain how society works. See http://neuroanthropology.net/2008/06/12/we-hate-memes-pass-it-on/

  6. #6 Tor
    May 20, 2009

    ArchAsa: thanks for explaining! I’m beginning to see the point now.

  7. #7 Martin R
    May 20, 2009

    “Deleuze … What he proposes is an ontology of flows that creates more static forms.”

    Very few people appear to feel that they need an ontology of flows to create more static forms. Indeed, very few people likely even understand what that means. In my opinion, anyone who uses that kind of jargon builds his own isolationist ghetto.

  8. #8 Martin R
    May 20, 2009

    As for counter-sokaling a biology journal, as Sigmund says, it’s hard to fake good science. You need to have real interesting data and you need to do something interesting with them. Big words won’t get you very far.

  9. #9 Tor
    May 20, 2009

    Just for clarification: what I had in mind in framing my hypothetical scenario was a creationist who is not just using the right jargon, but who actually tries and manages to live up to the standards set by biologists, despite thinking that those standards are somehow wrong-headed. That is, not faking good science, but — in violation of his real inclinations — actually doing good science. (I can see why my choice of words might have given the wrong idea.) Again, my point was: _if_ someone managed to do this, I don’t see how that fact in itself would show that there was anyting wrong with biology.

    But thanks to ArchAsa, I am now aware that the Sokal business involved a bit more than this.

  10. #10 Martin R
    May 20, 2009

    Scientific realism and hyper-relativism aren’t equal players in the game. The latter is/was a small radical opposition movement against the former. So if a scientist shows that hyper-relativists are gullible, then this does not mean the same thing as if the roles were reversed.

    There is also the qualitative difference between clear and obscure writing. If, in my capacity as a science-friendly journal editor, I can’t understand what somebody writes, then I ask them to phrase it more simply. Nothing would have been farther from the M.O. of the editors of Social Text.

  11. #11 ArchAsa
    May 20, 2009

    @Johan – Sokal and Bricmont have of course not proven that all pomo-theories are bogus. Far from it. And interpretations of Deleuze are about as complicated as his work is in itslef. I agree he is not an extreme relativist, but I am peronally not wild about this strain of thought to link “hard” science and the social sciences. But that is a matter of opinion.

    I also get extremely itchy about extreme biologism – like the selfish genes and the like. Many of these approaches are the exact same thing that Sokal critisized. Taking scinetifically accurate models and categories and applying them on social/cutural events without actually proving they are valid. The school of “cultural memes” just makes me angry. Its an incredibly neat and pretty model – if only reality of human society adhered to it in any way. It doesn’t.

    A lot of wishful thinking in my opinion.

  12. #12 Johan Normark
    May 20, 2009

    “Very few people appear to feel that they need an ontology of flows to create more static forms. Indeed, very few people likely even understand what that means. In my opinion, anyone who uses that kind of jargon builds his own isolationist ghetto.”

    Of course people will not be able to understand what it means without even trying to understand it (which I argue Sokal has not tried to do). In my view, dismissing ideas because they come in a “jargon” that someone does not like will not get research anywhere. As for the isolationist ghetto you talk about, that is usually what traditionalist/”theory” hostile archaeologists create. They have established the field of archaeology once and for all and no one shall change it, and if someone attempts to change it and use words (“jargon”) they do not understand, the heretics must be dismissed, apparently for no other reason. Sure, I may create my own ghetto towards mainstream archaeology (that is actually part of my strategy…), but I do attempt to broaden perspectives beyond the rims of archaeology, not isolate myself from ideas developed elsewhere.

    And, of course, you can do archaeology without an ontology of flows, few may want it, but if no one knows about it, how can you tell? Yes, we can let the majority of archaeologists decide, but had we let the majority of traditional scientists decide the fate of some heretics in the past we would still be thinking the world is flat or that we all descend from Adam and Eve.

  13. #13 Sigmund
    May 20, 2009

    Tpr, there have been real examples of just what you suggest. A recent case involved a paleontologist named Marcus Ross who produced several papers about dinosaur evolution as part of his PhD (giving the scientifically accepted time span – over 65 million years ago etc) yet when he got his PhD he came out and claimed he didnt actually believe those dates as they didnt fit with his biblical world view.
    The way scientists approach this is to accept the peer reviewed papers he published (they certainly seemed to be based on good empirical data) but put a question mark over the integrity of Ross himself. Its basically the old question of methodological naturalism outweighing philosophical naturalism as a way of doing science. You can believe what you want but your peer reviewed paper must be underpinned by methodological naturalism
    (there can be no “and then a miracle occurred!” sections in science).
    By the way Ross has now gone on to get a permanent teaching job at Liberty University, a Christian college.

  14. #14 Martin R
    May 20, 2009

    “had we let the majority of traditional scientists decide the fate of some heretics in the past we would still be thinking the world is flat or that we all descend from Adam and Eve.”

    Haha, no, those beliefs were pre-scientific. Science hasn’t been around for ever, you know.

    I predict that a few decades from now few archaeologists will still talk about “ontology of flows”.

  15. #15 Johan Normark
    May 20, 2009

    Åsa:
    I have also been skeptical about linking hard science and social science, but I would say that Deleuze does not link them as much as he attempts to go in-between and see the process that link them. This is an important difference since the first view has two fields of research ideally isolated from each other and may affect each other in a dialectic way. Deleuze was no friend of Hegel and his dialectics but was Spinozian and sought processes leading up to both fields rather than take them as isolated and fixed. Therefore, his assemblages consist of both material and social parts, it would be wrong to separate them in my view.

  16. #16 Johan Normark
    May 20, 2009

    “Haha, no, those beliefs were pre-scientific. Science hasn’t been around for ever, you know.”

    I may not have explained it in clear jargon. As is obvious to anyone who has studied the history of ideas and science there is always a majority (of population and researchers as well) that has their mind set already fixed. Some scientists will hold on to their old ideas no matter what happen since they have invested their careers on defending one or few ideas. I believe Darwin had opponents that were called scientists. If I am not mistaken, Linneus believed God had created the world, etc, etc. No science has not been around forever, but neither did it emerge fixed and ready. It has emerged and some ideas that were scientifically valid three centuries ago are no longer valid.

    You may be right, few may talk about an ontology of flows in few years (few do it today). But that is basically what it is all about. Thing change, and the ontology of flow will disappear as well.

  17. #17 Martin R
    May 20, 2009

    Darwin’s big idea was quickly accepted by the scientists of his time once he got around to publishing it.

    Science isn’t defined by certain truths about the world that you need to believe in. It’s defined by a set of methods that help you discover truth about the issues you take on in your research. And part of that methodology is that scientific results aren’t (provisionally) accepted as truth until there is a consensus among skilled participants in the discussion.

    So regarding Deleuze, I’m not quite sure what it is you’re proposing. Are you, in your work, asking a set of deleuzian questions about the world that few other scientists bother with? Or are you suggesting that many scientists would benefit from using deleuzian terminology in their pursuit of the truth, regardless of what the question is?

  18. #18 ArchAsa
    May 20, 2009

    Therefore, his assemblages consist of both material and social parts, it would be wrong to separate them in my view.

    @Johan – Oh definitely the material world/objects act upon the mental constructs and vice versa. There also has to be a give and take between natural and social sciences. The information generated by material studies are of vital importance, and lots of cognitive neurological research lately has begun to make an interesting bridge between social actions and biological processes. The two are part of a continuum. My tastes run more to the line of work by Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu and Haraway however. Trying to understand both the extent and limits of physical and biological realities on the human mind and actions.

    The main issue for me is to prove that there is a link between a scientific model/theory and a social/cultural phenomenon. One cannot simply assume it just because it makes a great neat unifiying theory without basis in reality. I might as well suggest that theories regarding strong and week forces in atomic physics are valid for explaining social structures.

  19. #19 Gavin
    May 20, 2009

    I have some problems with Sokal and Bricmont’s critiques of theorists like Latour, Lacan etc. although they only ever claimed to be pointing out the scientific flaws in their work, not its total validity.

    Here’s a comparison. 99% of the time I generally trust that what I read in newspapers has SOME relation to reality. Then, occasionally, some event I’ve been involved in gets coverage and I realise its garbage and begin to distrust the newspapers. The point is: if, as a physicist, you realise that the physics behind Lacan’s theories are bollocks, then you might begin to question the validity of the rest of it.

    Incidentally, yesterday I saw Alan Sokal skipping around a park with his 2 year old daughter singing a song about ducks. Very adorable!

  20. #20 Martin R
    May 20, 2009

    Åsa wrote: “The main issue for me is to prove that there is a link between a scientific model/theory and a social/cultural phenomenon. One cannot simply assume it just because it makes a great neat unifiying theory without basis in reality.”

    I take it you mean that you want to show empirically that your interpretation resembles the past reality? You don’t mean that you mainly want to show that the interpretation reflects a current social bias?

  21. #21 Johan Normark
    May 20, 2009

    First, I would not say that I always ask questions that no one else deals with but I believe that maintaining, for example, a sharp line between hard science and social science is not the best way to approach questions on, let’s say, a scatter of artefacts. Investigating these usually boils down to two opposite views. Either you have a functionalistic/hard scientific approach or you have a symbolic/idealist approach (I am generalizing here). Some people tries to bridge the approaches, link them, but this mean that they still maintain this divide. I basically argue that this dividing line should be erased and the only way to do so is to adopt a realist perspective that still allows for people’s ideas. This I have found in Deleuze and perhaps even more in DeLanda.
    Second, depending on my empirical data I may ask questions that others have not bothered with. In my dissertation I was more interested in the way Maya causeways affected their surroundings rather than continuing the traditional research on the causeways’ importance in political systems, social organizations, cosmology, etc. This I did by not arranging causeways in a hierarchically lower position than the humans, but on equal terms with the rest of my data. Hence, I do not focus on the human being (as in other social sciences).

  22. #22 Martin R
    May 20, 2009

    I agree, there should be no methodological divide between natural and social and humanistic sciences. After all, there is only one reality out there. All branches of science should proceed according to principles such as empiricism, parsimony, source criticism and Ockham’s razor. This means that in my view a lot of what goes on at universities is non-science. If I’m not trying to answer a question about the world by looking hard at bits of it, then I’m not doing science.

  23. #23 Johan Normark
    May 20, 2009

    Åsa:

    I have argued against Bourdieu on several occasions(although I was inspired by him before). Following Stephen Turner’s view, habitus is a quasi-object, that is, there is no empirical substance to it, it is something assumed to exist among and/or be shared by a group of people sharing a similar way of living, working, etc. What Hume, DeLanda and Turner argue is that only individual habits exist. We do participate in greater collectives and these collectives affect our individual habits, not something that supposedly connects them. We gain similar habits because we do things in similar ways, see others do things and repeat. But this is our habits, not something shared by a certain class of people. What we share are assemblages of people, things and other organisms.

    Neuroarchaeaology/cognitive archaeology suggests that there is no absolute boundary for the extent of the human mind. In the classic example of the blind man’s stick, the stick has become part of his body (or mind). I just do not see the problems in dissolving the mind and matter distinction. For me it sets up unnecessary obstacles (I am sure we create new ones).

  24. #24 Sigmund
    May 20, 2009

    Wait a second.
    Is Alan Sokal really coming to speak in Stockholm?
    I’ve just got this nagging feeling that I’ll go all the way to the lecture hall and find that nobody is there and its all been a joke.

  25. #25 Martin R
    May 20, 2009

    It would be totally cool to get there and find Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) behind the lectern.

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