Alan Sokal on the Nature and Use of Science

I just got home from Alan Sokal's talk at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on the outskirts of Stockholm. He was on the same stage where astronaut Christer Fuglesang spoke a year ago. The headline was "What is Science and Why Should We Care?".

Sokal's reply to his first question was, briefly, that science is to use reason and observation when approaching factual matters pertaining to any aspect of the single real world we live in. It's thinking clearly and respecting the evidence. Not only natural scientists proceed in this manner. Sokal also mentioned historians, plumbers and detectives -- anyone who needs to engage successfully with the world. He thus has the same unitarian attitude to science and scholarship that makes it natural for an archaeologist to blog at Sb.

The reason that we should care about what science is, Sokal said, is basically that if we forget how to engage scientifically with the world, then it will punch us in the face. He identified four groups hostile to science, in ascending order of weight and dangerousness.

  1. Post-modern relativists. These are largely a thing of the past since the Bush administration taught the academic Left where a hostile attitude to reason leads. Even Bruno Latour has apparently backed down.
  2. Purveyors of pseudoscience. Homeopathy is rampant in the UK.
  3. Advocates of religion. No matter how theologians spin it, all religion boils down to believing the dogma in the holy book because one of these dogma is "thou shalt believe in what the holy book says". Circular reasoning.
  4. Propagandists, PR firms, spin doctors and the politicians and companies that employ them. Their business isn't about muddled thinking, it isn't about sloppiness, it's about defrauding the public. Sokal explicitly pointed out George W. Bush and Tony Blair as fraudsters in the case of the rationalisation of the second Iraq war.

The lecture hall was about 2/3 full. Including Q&A Sokal spent an hour and a half on stage. It was an enjoyable talk, though he was reading from the apparently unaltered manuscript of a lecture he gave in London a year ago. I found this a little disappointing -- the guy was hunched over his paper and at some points had to halt, look up and apologise for some reference that was topical in the UK in early 2008 but not so today in Sweden. Anyway, his humorous and informal approach was nice, he didn't mince words and everything he said was eminently sensible. No surprises really. The scripted part was pretty short and then he took questions. I stood up and briefly told the sad story of the Kuhnian Huns. Afterwards I said hi to my buddies from the Swedish Skeptics and the Archaeological Research Lab, Ãsa from Ting & Tankar, Martin from Sneer Review and staunch pro-science debaters prof. Arne Jarrick and prof. Olle Häggström, before going home through the summer evening.

It pained me a little that not a single colleague from the non-lab, humanities-orientated section of the archaeology department was there even though their offices are a stone's throw from the speaking venue. I guess after all these years they still haven't quite weaned themselves off of the wordy nonsense that goes for intellectual discourse in those quarters.

With thanks to Rikard from the Swedish Skeptics web forum, here's a published paper of Sokal's that closely resembles the talk he gave yesterday.


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I missed a fifth group, namely (idiosyncratic) cranks, both inside and outside academia. Although, they're more entertainment than threat (at least i hope).

By devadatta (not verified) on 27 May 2009 #permalink

That's a good summary of the talk, Martin.
The one thing that confused me slightly was that he began by saying that some of his conclusions would be controversial or even surprising. In the end, like you, I didn't find that much of a surprising nature discussed. I suspect to a religious audience, such as he is more accustomed to in the US, the statement that the scientific world-view and the religious world-view are incompatible IS perhaps controversial. He took a pretty non-accomodationalist stand on the religion-science compatibility question (although he did acknowledge the political need for religious moderate allies).
He made a somewhat mild criticism of Richard Dawkins book 'The God Delusion' that I didn't quite understand. Sokal stated that he thought Dawkins had gone for two broad a target in the type of God he was criticising and should have confined himself to pointing out the lack of evidence for the biblical God. I think he missed the point of the broadness of Dawkins targeting and also made the mistake of underestimating the ability of theologians to sidestep the question when presented with a highly defined deity ("well THAT'S not the sort of sophisticated God that I believe in").

Off topic: on the Sb list of posts for the Last 24 hours, there is a post listed for Aard called "The Man who wasn't there", but the link gives an error message and the post is not listed on the Aard main page.

Martin, the book Sokal should read is probably Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis.

Leif, yeah, Olle is a regular contributor to Folkvett, the journal of the Swedish Skeptics. We recently ran a neat piece of his about the characteristics of pseudoscience, where he used climate skepticism for all his examples, haha.

Thinker, the Sb machinery has been cracking at the seams for a while, but I hear repairs are being done.