Richard Harter's World
Site map
December 1998
Reviews
Essays
Literary
email

Fashionable Nonsense

Fashionable Nonsense, Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Picador (St. Martins), 1998, ISBN 0-312-19545-1, 300pp, hardcover.

This is the English version of Impostures Intellectuelles, originally published in French in France 1997. Elsewhere I have commented on Richard Dawkin's extended review that appeared in Nature.


Introduction

Fashionable Nonsense (hereafter FN) was inspired by the notorious Sokal hoax, an article consisting of a collection of physics gibberish liberally salted with quotes from sundry post modernist authors. The hoax appeared in the Science Wars issue of the journal Social Text. In the course of constructing the hoax article Sokal collected quite a number of quotations from "post modernist" authors, most of whom were French intellectuals.

Sokal and Bricmont (both Physicists) take a sardonic look at what they call the abuse of Science by said intellectuals. In the course of doing so they raise issues about attitudes towards Science in American academia. Their "expose" has been enthusiastically greeted and enthusiastically damned. The back cover has the following quote from Barbara Ehrenreich:

"Take the most hallowed names in current French theoretical thinking, divide by one of the sharpest and most irreverent minds in America, multiply by a half dozen examples, render in good clear English - and you have a thoroughly hilarious romp through the postmodernist academy. Two years ago, Sokal struck a devastating blow against intellectual obscurantism with his famous Social Text parody, and Fashionable Nonsense delivers the perfect coup de grace."

As a note FN has picked up the deplorable postmodern vice of speaking of "texts" and "discourses", terms which are not wrong as such, but which are prefatory to postmodernist linguistic abuses.

The bulk of this article consists of chapter notes, elaborations of thoughts that occurred to me whilst reading each chapter. These should not be taken as an accurate description of the chapter contents; as often as not they are simply nits being picked. Since the book is jointly authored I refer throughout to FN rather than presuming that one author or the author is the originator of cited passages.


Chapter Notes
Preface

The preface establishes the objectives and scope of the book which is intended as a polemical critique. Two objectives are cited, one being a critique of prominent intellectuals (principally French literary philosophers) and the other a critique of trends within the American academic humanities, sometimes referred to as the Academic Left. The following two paragraphs summarize the objectives:

... We show that famous intellectuals such as Lacan, Kristeva, Irigary, Baudrillard, and Deleuze have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology: either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest justification - note that we are not against extrapolating concepts made from one field to another, but only against extrapolations made without argument - or throwing around scientific jargon in front of their non-scientist readers without any regard for its relevance of even its meaning. We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of their work, on which we suspend judgement.

...

A second target of our book is epistemic relativism, namely the idea - which, at least when expressed explicitly, is much more widespread in the English-speaking world than in France - that modern science is nothing more than a "myth", a "narration" or a "social construction" among many others.

The bulk of the preface is devoted to reassurances about what the book is not about, e.g., right vs left, economic left vs social left, French thought vs Anglo-American thought, or science vs the humanities. They are forthrightly against intellectual confusion and aver that "Our aim is not to criticize the left, but to help it defend it against a trendy segment of itself."

Introduction

In the introduction Sokal and Bricmont present counters to objections which they feel that the reader might raise. They consider the following objections:

  1. The quotations are marginal
  2. You don't understand the context
  3. Poetic license
  4. The use of metaphors
  5. The role of analogies
  6. The issue of competency
  7. Don't you rely on argument from authority
  8. These authors aren't postmodernist
  9. Why these authors and not others
  10. Why not write a book on more serious matters

What is not considered is the possibility that they (the authors) might simply have been wrong, either because they have completely missed the point or because they have confused jargon from another discipline with particular usage in science. They also make no real allowance for usage that reflects popularizations of Science rather than Science itself.

Popularizations of Science may be a cure worse than the disease. There are a number of fields of Science which are badly popularized and are quite fashionable - they include Godel's theorems, relativity, quantum mechanics (particularly the uncertainty principle), chaos theory, and catastrophe theory. As such, these fields (often bastardized) are part of the intellectual culture.

In considering these fragments of text we have to consider (more precisely, we don't have to - and some won't - but we should IMO) the possible context, how much of it is an ill-digested bit of pop science, how much is a fundamental misunderstanding, and the extent to which errors are intrinsic to the argument. There is a great tendency in FN to condemn out of hand anything that is not by the numbers, i.e., anything where the usage is not precise (or is not carefully delimited by definition.) Quite often, little effort seems to have been made to determine the sense of what is being said; in consequence there are a number of misreadings in FN of quoted passages.

Jacques Lacan

A fair amount of space is dedicated to Lacan who has, I am given to understand, quite a reputation as a psychoanalytic theorist. Judging from the cited passages Lacan is a premier example of the abusing Mathematics. It is not just that he uses mathematical terms and imagery - he misuses them and does so both badly and blatantly. Some of the passages may be jokes, e.g., the "derivation" of the phallus as the square root of minus one. It might seem that he is using terms such as topology and compact space as analogous structures but he regularly denies that he is doing so.

FN notes Lacan abuses mathematical logic less than other fields. Oddly enough it is here that the critique is weakest - FN misreads some of the quoted passage, misses some of the errors, and gives wrong counter-examples.

Julia Kristeva

The chapter on Julia Kristeva is devoted to her early work in which she makes some fanciful sorties into mathematical logic much in the style of a mad poet. The object of her investigation is to ground poetic language in set theory; the result is neither mathematics nor poetry.

There is a misreading of the passage quoted on pages 39-40; it is clear from the text that Kristeva is using 0 to mean finiteness, 1 to mean aleph-1 (countable infinities) and 2 as aleph-2 (the power of the continuum assuming the continuum hypothesis.) This is a confusing (and IMO silly) thing to do but the text is clear.

That said, Kristeva's usage in the passage quoted on pp 41-42 is very bad. She is confusing "next larger" and "outside the sequence". FN comments on the passage quoted on pp 42-43 "These paragraphs are meaningless ...". FN errs; the passage is meaningful but it is wrong.

On p45 FN makes the point that texts are finite in length and that the set of all possible texts is a countable infinity. FN remarks "It is hard to see how the continuum hypothesis, which concerns nondenumerable infinite sets, could have any application in linguistics." Au contraire, it is easy to see the thought - the rationale is that the meaning of a text cannot be fully established by any text or finite sequence of texts, ergo (!!) the "meaning" of a text is an infinite text (countably infinite). A given finite length text has, on this interpretation, a nondenumerable number of potential "meanings".

Kristeva's musings on Marx and set theory beggar description.

In summary, Kristeva has the germ of an interesting (but probably unsound) approach; she lacks the mathematical competence to undertake what she attempts.

Intermezzo: Epistemic Relativism and the Philosophy of Science

This chapter is a survey of modern notions in the philosophy of science with a particular emphasis on those authors, e.g. Kuhn and Feyerabend, who are regularly quoted in support of epistemic relativism in the philosophy of science. The discussion is competent and interesting. FN makes the interesting observation that Kuhn, et al, write in a manner that lends itself to a dual interpretation, one moderate and one radical, the latter being seized upon by the "postmodernists".

The chapter doesn't do a very good job of establishing that there is such a thing as epistemic relativism in the form that FN purports to demolish or that, if there be such, that it is of any consequence. This is not to say that there is not. It is not difficult to find examples of epistemological twaddle in high academic places. However the chapter doesn't do much more than claim boojums exist. Where these beasties be and to what extent they look like the boojum so lovingly denounced by FN is left as an exercise for the reader.

Luce Irigaray

Luce Irigaray's writings deal with a wide variety of topics, e.g. psychoanalysis, linguistics, and the philosophy of science. At the beginning of the chapter FN quotes her as follows:

Every piece of knowledge is produced by subjects in a historical context. Even if that knowledge aims to be objective, even it its techniques are designed to ensure objectivity, science always displays certain choices, certain exclusions, and these are particularly determined by the sex of the scholars involved.
This is an interesting and important thesis, one worthy of consideration in depth. Savor that paragraph - it is a small island of reason and sanity. The rest of the material quoted from Irigaray runs thick and deep and is filled with effluent. Perhaps Irigaray has written something worth writing but the stuff that FN dredges up is truly awful.

A real objection to Irigaray and those who follow in her footsteps is that her maunderings mask by obfuscation real questions, e.g., the "masculinity" of physics, the real tendency to treat the questions that one can answer as the only meaningful questions, and the effect of preferred metaphors.

Bruno Latour

The sociologist, Bruno Latour, is well known for his work, Science in Action. The chapter on Latour concentrates on a less well known article, a semiotic analysis of the theory of relativity. It demonstrates fairly convincingly that Latour doesn't understand the theory of relativity and, as a consequence, his analysis is a mishmash of error.

Towards the end of the chapter FN presents the following passage from Latour:

First, the opinions of scientists about science studies are not of much importance. Scientists are the informants for our investigations of science, not our judges. The vision we develop of science does not have to resemble what scientists think about science.
The last two sentences are plausible; the first, however, lays the groundwork for a fundamental error that dogs the strong programme and science studies, to wit the belief that one can understand social actions and psychology while remaining ignorant of the full environment of the subjects (scientists) being studied.

Intermezzo: Chaos theory and postmodern science

On p136 the following passage appears in FN anent fractal dimensionality and catastrophe theory:

Like all scientific advances, they have provided new tools and focussed attention on new problems. But they have in no way called into question traditional scientific epistemology.
This is an overstatement, at least when one speaks of "all scientific advances". Science operates in part by the questions it does not consider and by restricting what are admissible as valid lines of reasoning. These restrictions change over time. Thus, arguments based on "innate tendencies" were once acceptable whereas statistical arguments were not. Science not only increases the stock of reliable knowledge over time; it also improves its methods for discerning reasonable knowledge.

In general the discussion of chaos theory (which is not a single subject) is not the happiest. For example, there are two forms of the logistic equation, one form being a differential equation and the other a difference equation. The differential equation form is:

(1) dx/dt = r*x*(1-x)
whereas the difference equation form is
(2) x(t+1) = r*x(t)*(1-x(t))

FN (p174) refers to equation (1) as the logistic equation. Both forms are used in biology as simplified formulas governing population growth, the first being used when there is no distinct breeding season, the second when there is. The difference between the two forms is critical: Equation (1) is a differential equation; the solution, x(t), is a smooth function (the sigmoid function) in time. Equation (2) is a difference equation; the function may converge to a fixed value, oscillate between multiple values, or be chaotic, depending on the value of r. Equation (2) is of fundamental importance in chaos theory; equation (1) is irrelevant.

There are other minor infelicities which are not, perhaps, to the point. The major point that is made, and it is made clearly, is there that there is a great deal of popular confusion about determinism, causality, predictability, and solvability and between the notions of linearity in mathematics and linear thought.

Jean Baudrillard

FN quotes a lengthy passage from Baudrillard and concludes with the remark:

The last paragraph is Baudrillardian par excellence. One would be hard pressed not to notice the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology - inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning.
This is, one supposes, correct: there is indeed a high density of said terminology and as far as the authors of FN can make out, it is devoid of meaning. In truth, Baudrillard does use a lot of terminology that is either techno-babble or which makes it eminently clear that he has a less than perfect grasp of theories he is appealing to. (I was particularly charmed by the notion that a fixed point attractor is a strange attractor!) However matters are not so simple.

It is fairly clear (or so it seems to me) that Baudrillard has some grasp of the relevant aspects of chaos theory and has applied them more or less correctly to his chosen topic, "the end of history". A discussion of this passage in detail is beyond the scope of this article; I may discuss it elsewhere.

The final paragraph of this section begins:

In summary, one finds in Baudrillard's works a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant. Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see what role they could play, except to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations about sociology or history....
The first sentence is clearly true; Baudrillard's "science" reads like star-trek fan fiction written by an eight grader. (This is unfair - the eight grader will produce pseudoscience with more verisimilitude of style.) The second sentence, however, reflects what I feel (perhaps unfairly) is a fundamental bias in FN. Despite the protestations in the introduction and elsewhere that the authors are not passing judgement on the non-scientific content of the authors they consider they do pass judgement. The judgement is: If the science is bad, the work is bad; mis-users of science are intellectual imposters, using babble to cover up the lack of depth in their thought.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari

In the beginning of the chapter FN remarks of them, "In our opinion, the most plausible explanation is that these authors possess a vast but very superficial erudition, which they put on display in their writings." This is both profoundly right and profoundly wrong. The authors in question (and indeed many of the authors discussed) have a vast erudition of varied depth. The depth, however, lies in an entire philosophic tradition, a large body of writings, complete with jargon, forms of expression, and indirect references to issues considered at depth by prior authors. The shallowness lies in their understanding of science, its jargon and viewpoints. The commentary in FN at times is an excellent example of Kuhn's description of people with different paradigms talking past each other.

Thus in pp 155-158 there is an extended passage from Deleuze which, at first sight to anyone with a scientific background (or a background in analytic philosophy) is nothing but meaningless gibberish. Yet, on a careful reading, there is a clear and distinct thread of meaning. The problem is that Deleuze is using words and concepts that are clear to him and to someone familiar with the tradition that he is writing from but which are quite obscure to anyone not familiar with that tradition.

On the other hand pp 159-166 has a passage in which Deleuze considers ancient difficulties in the foundations of Calculus which is quite revealing. He makes a jaw dropping error which, FN notes, is a repetition of an error by Hegel. What is going on here is that Deleuze is considering the philosophic problem of infinitesimals. When calculus as a subject was young this was a live issue which was discussed communally by philosophers and mathematicians. Over time two traditions developed. As FN notes, the issue was resolved in the mathematical community by Cauchy's theory of limits, et al, and the Calculus was placed on a rigorous foundation. As FN does not note, Cauchy's treatment does not solve the philosophic problem but rather it eliminates the issue from needing to be considered in Mathematics. (It has been pointed out to me that limits and the delta-epsilon formalism is a regular sticking point in teaching Calculus.)

Be that as it may it would seem that Deleuze and perhaps many of the other philosophers in continental philosophy are dangerously insular with respect to science.

Pp 166-168 has a passage from Guatarri; my notes read "Eeek!!". I see no reason to reread it.

Paul Virillo

Virillo purportedly writes on the philosophy of speed. It is hard to take seriously a philosopher of speed (except, perhaps, the chemical kind) who confuses acceleration and speed.

Gödel's Theorem and Set Theory

In this chapter FN has fun with Debray who propounds the following:

The secret takes the form of a logical law, an extension of Goedel's theorem: there can be no organized system without closure and no system can be closed by elements internal to that system alone.
There seem to have been a few details missing in my copy of Gödel. The quotation from Badiou on p181 is priceless.

Epilogue

The epilogue is divided into several sections. The first section contains a number of homilies about the relationship of the physical sciences and the social sciences. Grasshoppers will profit by reading this section. The second and third sections are sociological and political speculations about how things have come to such a horrid pass. It is the sort of stuff that one finds in respectable journals of opinion. The fourth section, entitled "Why does it matter?" says that radical post-modernism is not relevant to the hard sciences but is the ruination of the social sciences. The choir will profit mightily by reading this section.

Appendices

The appendices consist of the text of the original Sokal hoax article entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, an article commenting on some of jokes in the parody, and an afterword which is well worth reading. Sokal submitted it to Social Text who (rather belatedly) rejected it on the grounds that "it did not meet their intellectual standards". The Afterward was later published in Dissent and, in slightly altered form, in Philosophy and Literature. Perhaps these journals did not have the high standards of Social Text.

Science Wars


Social Text is an academic journal devoted to " studies" which, nominally, is the application of the techniques of cultural anthropology to the extant culture. It is not a refereed journal, i.e., the articles in Social Text are not passed through peer review. If one wants to see an example of the Academic Left hypothesized by Gross and Levitt in Higher Superstition (hereafter HS) in action one need go no further than the pages of Social Text.

The Science Wars issue was devoted to science studies which, nominally, are concerned with studying the sociology of science. The nature and quality of these "studies" are evidenced by the title: Science Wars. The content is commonly but not universally adversarial and politicized. The rejection of and disdain for "value free knowledge" is a commonplace in these studies along with bombastic (and little substantiated) claims for the contribution of science studies (and feminist studies et al) to Science.

The issue was in large part intended as a response to the commentary in HS. It is notable that the major claims of HS were never addressed except in tones of dismissive disdain. (In a paper which appeared in the book but not in the journal issue Roger Hart did yeoman work in dissecting some of the misreadings found in HS; he did not, however, address the major claims in HS.)

Sokal's hoax paper was an uninvited paper (papers in Social Text are typically requested by the editors.) It is patent that Sokal's paper is nonsense and that the editors had no idea that it was nonsense. It was, we are given to understand, included because it from a "real" scientist.

As an aftermath of the hoax a book version of Science Wars was published. The book includes the papers appearing in the original issue of Social Text plus a number of other papers - with the notable exception of the hoax article itself. Indeed, the only reference to Sokal is on one page of the introduction. Sokal's name does not appear in the index. This is a bit tacky - there would have been no book and no market for the book if it were not for the hoax - but it is quite understandable. Few people can handle being the object of ridicule with grace; Andrew Ross is not one of them.

As an odd note the articles in Science Wars are almost all written in clear, comprehensible English. They may reek of flatulent fat-headedness (some do, some don't) but they are tolerably well written. Sokal's hoax paper, on the other hand, is written in a style that is almost a parody of the typical Nature article.

It is my jaundiced opinion that Science Wars makes a better case, albeit unintended, for the theses of HS and FN (which can be regarded as a natural continuation of HS) than these books ever did themselves. As an example, I will offer the following juicy quote:

"Perhaps a similar book is now in order, given the surprise that science studies practitioners have expressed about the reception that the scientific community has given their work. It would seem that even these critics of science have underestimated the extent to which threatening the transcendental rhetoric of science threatens science itself. As befits Hegel's "cunning of reason" is history, it may turn out that more effective vehicles for the secularization of science will be found among the customized knowledges promoted by such New Age movements as homopathic [sic] medicine, parapsychology, dianetics, and (mirabile dictu!) Creation Science."

Science an End to History, or History to Science? Steve Fuller, Science Wars, p47

Quote Mining


The style of analysis used in FN rests on a technique which I call quote mining. The elements of the technique are to peruse a large body of literature in a field and to extracts quotations which can be used to impeach the field in question. The selected quotations, now isolated from all original context, are then used as the basis for argument.

It is a rhetorical technique of limited value, one that lends itself to abuse, and one that is all too commonly used in unsavory intellectual (and political) polemics. Quote mining is a preferred tool of creationists who commonly assemble quote books to be used in arguments against evolution.

There are small cottage industries devoted to developing quote books for selected fields. Once a corpus of quote books for a field has been established recourse to the original works in the field is no longer needed. It suffices to construct new quote books from the existing corpus. It is not an endearing form of scholarship.

The obvious danger of this form of "scholarship" lies in the loss of context which lends itself to all sorts of misreadings. Thus:

  • Technical jargon whose meaning is elsewhere established can be misinterpreted.
  • The quoted material may be a fragment in an extended argument which is misleading when read out of context.
  • The quoted material may not be representative of the author's work.
  • The topic being argued not is not defined.
  • A debate within the field may appear to be a debate about the field.
  • The credentials of the author of the quoted material are not established.

And so on and so forth. Misreading of quoted material is a recurring danger in arguments based on quote mining. In less savory usage misrepresentation is a systematic policy. In a sense quote mining is somewhat dishonest because it substitutes the appearance of scholarship for the substance of scholarship.

Doing an honest appraisal of a field of endeavour or of a particular author requires a lot of work. It requires an extensive knowledge of the field, of its lineaments and major characteristics. This knowledge is needful in order to understand what is relevant.

An appraisal of a field or an author is a reduction - a representation of a large body of work by a much smaller work. In works of honest scholarship a serious effort is made to make the representation a faithful one, one that preserves and faithfully represents the major features of the appraised field.

In serious scholarship a quotation represents much more than simple accuracy of citation. The scholar is representing, in effect, that the quoted material is not only an accurate representation of the immediate context but that it is also an accurate representation of as feature of the field in question. In short, the scholar is certifying the appropriateness of the quotation.

It is this scholarly certification that is removed by quote mining.

In FN we are given quotations from selected authors and a long list of references. Where do these quotations come from? Not, mind you, where did the quoted material appear (the citations) but where is the supporting scholarship that established that these quotations are appropriately selected. The answer is that we do not know.

We are told that Sokal has a dossier of quotations. I may have missed it but I did not see a source or sources for the dossier. I surmise that the dossier has much in common with quote mines used in HS. Gross and Levitt apparently made extensive of quote mines (some of which were explicitly acknowledged in the footnotes) but, to be fair, also did extensive original reading.

Does this reliance on quote mining impeach FN? In part, but not in whole. The scope and the objectives of FN are limited. FN is not attempting to demonstrate the general unsoundness of the work of the selected authors but merely their sloppy abuse of science and scientific terminology. It is not hard to verify that the indictments of the selected authors are, in general, warranted.

Concluding Remarks


The book is interesting; some of the quoted material is hilarious - at least it is if one has a modicum of scientific literacy. One is left with the impression that the authors are a bit too arrogant, a bit too ready to insist on the literal use of their preferred jargon, and a bit too literal in their reading of the passages that they quote. On the other hand (surely someone has remarked that a one handed philosopher would be a boon) their critiques of their chosen targets are on the mark.

I get the impression that the relationship of French Literary Theorists and Science is much like the attempts of Westerners to assimilate Eastern religion. The ideas are partially absorbed and woefully misunderstood; the result is something strange and wonderful.

As a work of serious scholarship FN has definite weaknesses; considered as a polemic preaching to a friendly audience it definitely succeeds.


This page was last updated June 26, 2008.
It was moved March 25, 2010

Richard Harter's World
Site map
December 1998
Reviews
Essays
Literary
email