Fashionable Nonsense

From Academic Kids

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (French: Impostures Intellectuelles, published in the UK as Intellectual Impostures) is a book by professors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Sokal is best-known for the Sokal Affair, in which he submitted a satirical article to the journal Social Text, a moderately important critical theory journal, and got it accepted as a legitimate article. The book was published in 1997 in France and 1998 in the United States.

Contents

The book's thesis

Fashionable Nonsense examines two related topics:

Note that the second claim has been more controversial and criticized than the first.

Incorrect use of scientific concepts

The book begins with a long list of extracts from the works of leading academics of philosophy, critical theory, psychoanalysis or social sciences, where, according to Sokal and Bricmont, those intellectuals have used concepts from the physical sciences and mathematics incorrectly. The extracts are intentionally rather long -- Sokal and Bricmont stated that they chose to make long quotations to avoid accusations of taking sentences out of context. For each author, they explain why they consider his or her use of scientific terminology to be faulty.

Sokal and Bricmont claim that they do not intend to directly criticize the philosophical or sociological methods or conclusions of the authors they quote. They restrict themselves to explaining why they feel that each is misusing specific scientific concepts. They claim that:

  • the authors use some advanced scientific concepts without understanding their scientific meaning.
  • the authors cannot claim to be using those concepts as valid metaphor or imagery, since these are advanced scientific concepts that few in their readership are likely to understand. Imagery is normally used for explanations by illustrating some unfamiliar notion by a more familiar one, not the reverse.

Therefore, Sokal and Bricmont contend, the authors of those texts probably attempted an incompetent show of erudition in an attempt to impress their readers. The authors who are criticized include Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Paul Virilio, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, and Jean Baudrillard.

Sokal and Bricmont criticize authors not only for pretension and for apparently discussing theories that they do not understand in the least, but also for making comments that they deem totally irrelevant. For example, Luce Irigaray is criticised for asserting that E=mc2 is a "sexed equation" because "it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us"; and for asserting that fluid mechanics is unfairly neglected because it deals with "feminine" fluids in contrast to "masculine" rigid mechanics [1] (http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/dawkins.html). (Fluid mechanics is actually an active research topic, while the mechanics of the solid body are now a closed topic; much scientific attention is devoted to the mechanics of soft matter, powders etc., intermediate between fluids and solids.)

The Postmodernist conception of science

Sokal and Bricmont highlight the rising tide of what they call cognitive relativism, the belief that there are no objective truths but only local beliefs. They argue that this view is held by a number of people, including postmodernists and the Strong Programme in the sociology of science, and that it is illogical, impractical, and dangerous.

Criticism of Sokal and Bricmont's arguments

A variety of replies to Fashionable Nonsense have been put forward. Critics of Sokal and Bricmont have alleged that their books revealed a wider incompetence on the topics they were discussing, or even their intellectual dishonesty.

Political arguments

A natural accusation against Sokal and Bricmont was that they had hidden political objectives. That is why they took the pain to point out that their own personal political feelings were left-wing too (Jean Bricmont has openly advocated strongly left-wing positions in a variety of publications.) In fact, they deplore the association of the left with radical postmodernist thought, which, they argued, undermines political struggles by the left.

Alleged lack of comprehension of postmodernism

The book was criticized by many as a rather gratuitous attack by the "hard sciences" on the "soft sciences". Many of Sokal and Bricmont's critics have argued that they have not made an effort in good faith to understand postmodern philosophy and that their use of postmodern concepts has as many inaccuracies as postmodern philosophers use of scientific concepts. They further decry the fact that rather than attempt to build dialogue between the sciences and humanities, Sokal and Bricmont seem committed to making postmodernism look foolish and meaningless.

Alleged lack of honesty

Sokal and Bricmont's own honesty has come under fire in recent years. They ultimately dropped a planned critique of Jacques Derrida from the book because they found that Derrida rarely ever talks about science and does not generally use scientific imagery in his work. Some have claimed that this points to their honesty rather than dishonesty, but this claim is compromised by the aggression to which Derrida is nonetheless subjected. The use of Derrida in Sokal's original hoax drew primarily on a recycling of quotes drawn unreasonably out of context (according to Gabriel Stolzenberg, Sokal professed himself to be inspired by one book in a series of previously misconceived critcisms of Derrida; see [2] (http://math.bu.edu/people/nk/rr/jd.html), also cited below), and these were not withdrawn but used to argue for the general integrity of both the hoax and the co-authored book. One may on this basis assess the honesty and authority of Sokal and Bricmont's study not simply on what they concede to be the infrequency of Derrida's objectionable uses of science but whether the instance cited supports their arguments in the first instance.

Furthermore, their attacks on Bruno Latour have proven considerably less defensible than they believed, in part because Latour, who is explicitly a researcher in science studies, might well expect his audience to be familiar with scientific concepts.

Alleged lack of comprehension of science studies

Most scholars of science studies have argued that Sokal and Bricmont have deeply misunderstood science studies in general and the strong programme in particular. Indeed, Sokal, Bricmont and many of their supporters have difficulty distinguishing between the claim that scientific work is socially grounded and a belief that scientific hypotheses are arbitrary. While the strong programme, along with many other schools of science philosophy, emphasizes the central importance of the former, few if any scholars genuinely believe the latter. The strong programme, in its original form, merely claimed that the success of a theory or a line of scientific research needs to be explained in the same manner as a failure. In short, if we attribute the success of a false theory to social causes, we should also attribute the success of correct ones to social causes.

Since this approach makes it difficult to distinguish false theories from true ones on some external, natural basis, it superficially seems to suggest that science, while not ultimately arbitrary, partakes of arbitrary decisions in a wider historical context. For example: a scientific theory which makes utterly spurious predictions or offers a false guide to action is unlikely to gain social acceptance on a strictly utilitarian basis, although such utilitarianism ought not be taken as a sole or even normatively privileged criterion given that it, too, is a profoundly historical phenomenon of relatively recent vintage. Many philosophers of science, and adherents of the strong programme in particular, consider the social mechanisms by which these judgements are made to be a better guide to understanding science than references to whether or not a theory is, in some sense, true on terms marked off as "internal". While the utility and validity of this perspective may well be debatable, neither is it so ignorant of science or so unsophisticated.

Sokal and Bricmont as well as their supporters reply that the view that the successes and the failures of a scientific theory should also be attributed to social causes is exactly the anti-scientific, irrational viewpoint that their book was attacking. One might reasonably expect that most scientists would agree with Sokal and Bricmont were the matter put to them in this manner. One may, however, reasonably ask whether a history of science would be possible on the terms to which one would then be reduced.

See also

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