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The New Republic Online
Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture
by Alan Sokal

Truth's Caper

A Review by Simon Blackburn

Every reader of this magazine is likely to have heard of the "Sokal 
hoax," the most celebrated academic escapade of our time. Everyone is 
also likely to know the story in outline: how in 1996 the radical 
"postmodernist" journal Social Text published an article submitted by 
Alan Sokal, a mathematical physicist at New York University, with the 
mouthwatering title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a 
Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Sokal then revealed 
the article to be a spoof, a tissue of nonsense that he had 
painstakingly assembled in order to parody the portentous rubbish 
that flew under the colors of postmodernism. By publishing Sokal's 
submission, the emperors of that tendency revealed themselves to be 
as naked as the rest of academia had always suspected, and with this 
one coup Sokal himself became the toast of the town, a celebrity, a 
hero of the resistance.

Since then, he and others have written extensively about the hoax and 
its significance. Some have attempted to defend the editors of Social 
Text, but they could not do much to stop the laughter. Some pursed 
their lips at the impropriety of hoaxing, but ridicule is a good 
weapon. Most thought that the editors had brought it on themselves. 
Sokal himself has written numerous essays, and also a book about it, 
with Jean Bricmont (Impostures intellectuelles, published in America 
in 1998 as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of 
Science). His new book brings together ten essays, beginning with a 
thoroughly annotated text of the hoax submission itself. Most of 
these essays have been published at various times since the hoax came 
out, and the hoax itself, in all its delicious pottiness, is easily 
available on the Web.

For dedicated followers of the aftermath of Sokal's useful mischief, 
there may be a sense of deja vu here. Indeed, Sokal begins his 
preface somewhat defensively: "I have a visceral distaste for books 
that have been confected by pasting together a collection of loosely 
connected, previously published essays.... So the reader may 
legitimately wonder: Am I not now publishing just such a 
compilation?" The answer, he assures us, is that he is not, because 
the essays form a coherent whole. I expect most authors of 
collections feel the same, viscerally or otherwise.

But the more pressing problem is that the kind of postmodernism that 
was Sokal's special target is now widely held to belong to yesterday. 
Before September 11, the story goes, academe allowed its "anything 
goes" tendency to grow unchecked. With long prosperity, the 
disappearance of the Cold War, and the lack of any great causes to 
substitute for it, a certain playfulness--an ironic, aesthetic, and 
disengaged attitude to life -- was quite tolerable. This was 
history's leisure time. We did not need too much self-scrutiny, and 
certainly not nervous and serious books about who we are and what we 
stand for and where we may be heading. The relativist could hold 
court as the lord of misrule. You disagree with me? Whatever. That's 
your view, and who's to say? I expect it is true for you.

It didn't do to thump the table or insist too much: philosophers, it 
was supposed, had taught us to see any such exhibition of critical 
reason as nothing more than a bid for power, a rhetorical trick for 
imposing ourselves on others, and with such bad manners, or worse. 
Especially it would not do if the ones who were being thumped at were 
victims of the colonial past, or descendants anxious to claim the 
status of victim. In that sacred sector, respect was the order of the 
day, even if it meant smiling politely at creationist timetables of 
earth history, Hindu versions of science, homeopathic medicine, and 
any other stumbling pre-scientific attempt at understanding the 
world. In fact, the only proper targets of disrespect were those 
"metaphysical prigs," as Richard Rorty liked to call them, who wanted 
to keep the inverted commas off words such as truth, reason, or 
knowledge.

Relativism can certainly go along with complacency, and I think it is 
fair to say that even philosophers more serious than Rorty were 
tainted by that. The philosophy of the right, mainly market 
triumphalism, is of course an old friend, and still survives, even if 
it now looks a little battered; but consider in this connection also 
"political liberalism," the heading under which John Rawls could 
imagine the peoples of the world willingly leaving their ideological 
and cultural differences at the door and coming into the political 
arena carrying only that which they hold in common. What they had in 
common turned out to be a birthright of reason sufficient all by 
itself to enchant them with a nice liberal democratic constitution, 
amazingly like that of the United States, or perhaps western Europe. 
Conflict could be talked through and violence abated. When the 
philosophers explained the right way to live, everyone would fall 
happily into line. Innocent times.

But no longer. The present decade is different. The United States has 
had its wake-up call, and may have others just as loud. It has been 
told, brutally, that disagreement matters, and that if our grasp of 
what we need to defend is feeble enough, there are people out there 
only too happy to wrest it away from us. It has reacted even more 
brutally to that alarm by declaring war on people who had nothing to 
do with it in the first place, and then conducting that war with 
counterproductive barbarity. It has learned that there is not much 
common reason that is everyone's birthright -- that when disagreement 
comes, people cannot afford to shrug.

There are times when we have to do better than "whatever" and 
"anything goes." A country needs to understand what is good, and also 
what is not good, about its preferred ways of living. It needs to 
understand what is good, and why, about its science, history, and 
self-understandings; and it even needs to understand what was good, 
and why, about the politics and the ethics that it may have, let us 
hope temporarily, abandoned. When we behold a postmodernist White 
House where the president and his advisers sneer at the 
"reality-based community," then carnival time in academe is well and 
truly over.

I greatly enjoyed Sokal's hoax. There is little in academic life more 
irritating than people pretending to understand things that they do 
not understand. Who cannot want to explode the long lines of 
intellectuals posing as having a close acquaintance with iconic items 
of twentieth-century progress -- relativity theory, of course, but 
also quantum mechanics, set theory, Godel's theorems, Tarski's work 
on formal logic, and much else? Custard pies are exactly what is 
needed.

Still, I found myself not quite as wholehearted as some of my 
colleagues. I felt a little guilty about laughing, even if the joke 
was a good one. I had edited a journal myself, and so I found it 
easier to put myself in the position of the hapless editors of Social 
Text. As Sokal himself acknowledges, they had generally left-wing or 
progressive political views. They believed, rightly, that people do 
not share those views or act upon them because of an inclination to 
take too much for granted, a tendency to suppose that too many things 
about the way we live are fixed and unalterable; that dominant 
stories, about the virtues of the market, or of democracy, or about 
the place of women, or the causes of poverty, or the truths of 
religion, are unquestionable; or that our way is the only way, or 
that we always know best. The editors thought, correctly, that such 
complacency impeded progress.

They also believed, probably rather vaguely, like most of us, that 
twentiethcentury developments in science showed examples that shook 
off deeply entrenched complacencies or prejudices. They had heard of 
Einstein, and knew something of the destruction of the classical 
notion of simultaneity, or of the discovery of relativity of motion 
to an observer; they might even have heard of Max Born or Niels Bohr 
and Werner Heisenberg, and the idea that, at the fundamental quantum 
level, what is observed is a function of whether it is observed, so 
that there is no legitimate notion of how things stand independently 
of whether they are observed. This has been contested, certainly; and 
Einstein himself ran a long and ultimately rather futile campaign 
against it, just as he did against the indeterministic implications 
of quantum theory. But both are still center stage in the philosophy 
of physics. And most importantly, the editors, and postmodernist 
writers in general, were well aware of the dominant authority of 
science in every part of our culture. What humanists say does not 
much matter, but what the men in the white coats say goes. They were 
probably, like the rest of us, somewhat ambivalent about that -- on 
the one hand mistrusting the absolute sway of science, on the other 
hand eager for some of its gloss.

Against this background, in came a paper by an accredited 
mathematical physicist teaching at a very highly regarded university. 
And the whole tendency of the article was to confirm the view that 
developments in science, right up to the contemporary scene, could 
indeed hold messages that were useful for their radical hopes. The 
science was presented as confirming for them that, more than we might 
suppose, things lie in the eye of the beholder. And that was 
important to the aims of the journal. True, the editors cannot have 
understood a lot of the alleged physics, partly because there was 
actually nothing there to understand. Still, if a professor at NYU 
couldn't get that stuff right, who could?

I do not find it so surprising that they ran with it. Should they 
have had it refereed by mathematicians, physicists, and set 
theorists? I am not sure. It is better to do so, no doubt, and I 
expect that the poor editors have woken up every morning since 
wishing that they had. But there are costs of time and effort in 
finding referees, and as often as not you end up with two things to 
judge rather than just one. Anyway, it was the purported message of 
the physics, not the details, that mattered to their interest in it. 
And you do trust academics to get their own subjects right. When I 
edited Mind, if a paper came in from a well-regarded historian in an 
eminent department showing, for instance, that various facts about 
Hobbes's political experiences in Venice explain his attachment to 
some doctrine in political philosophy, I would have had to estimate 
the political philosophy myself. But I might well have taken Hobbes's 
presence in Venice as given: surely any halfway decent historian 
would not have developed the point if he hadn't got that bit right? 
Almost certainly I would not have had the history refereed, even if I 
had known whom to approach.

I also found something a shade distasteful about the position of 
those triumphalists who were crowing about the hoax. Very few of them 
would be able to make head or tail of a page of any contemporary 
physics journal. So when Sokal tells them that some sentences in his 
hoax were physically perfectly correct, while others were egregiously 
false or nonsensical, they have to take him on trust, and this alone 
puts them in a rather poor position from which to crow over the 
hapless others who took all of them, including the wrong ones, on 
trust.

And finally, we might reflect that gullibility is not the prerogative 
of wacky postmodernists. Indeed, there is a phenomenon with its own 
name, "the Dr. Fox effect," arising from an experiment conducted back 
in 1973. Fox was not a doctor but an actor. The experimenters created 
a meaningless lecture on "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to 
Physician Education," larded with double talk, neologisms, non 
sequiturs, and contradictions. Fox delivered this nonsense to three 
separate audiences of medical professionals, psychologists, and 
graduate students, but with humor and a pleasant and confident air. 
The evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. Bullshit really does 
beat brains, worldwide.

Still, if you do not know how to tell a counterfeit coin from a true 
one, you should not go around pretending that you do. And this was 
not the worst vice of the postmodernists. Far worse was their 
penchant for unintelligible writing, for drawing wild inferences, and 
for throwing around irresponsible claims, such as the wonderfully 
absurd assertions that before tuberculosis was identified you could 
not die of it, or that Newton's laws of motion make up a rape manual. 
These absurdities are also in Sokal's sights, and compared with them 
the pathetic conceit of decorating writings with a pretense of 
acquaintance with mathematics and physics is relatively minor.

It is natural to say that postmodernist writings displayed a contempt 
for truth, and in several of these essays Sokal skillfully defends a 
fairly modest kind of scientific realism, reaffirming the claims of 
science to give us the truth, or at least to put us on its track. And 
he is justly scornful of postmodernist philosophers who appeared to 
denigrate truth: Richard's Rorty's old campaign to substitute 
"solidarity" for truth is, quite rightly, a particular target. 
Gaining the agreement of our fellows is not the same as getting 
things right. It only begins to approximate to it if our fellows are 
trained in observation, evidence, and theory -- and even then 
agreement stands ready to be struck down by the arrival of yet 
further observation, evidence, and theory in turn.

Sokal is good at this, and although he disclaims any special 
philosophical expertise, he writes well about the philosophy of 
science. He is good at articulating a basic epistemology for science, 
against the skepticism of Karl Popper as much as the wilder 
constructivist writings that followed him. Yet Sokal is certainly not 
the kind of warrior in the "science wars" who disdains each and every 
attempt to say something interesting about the historical, social, 
and cultural matrix within which science has taken place. My own view 
is that science education would do well to pay far more attention to 
this context than it typically does.

I like to illustrate this with an event in my own daughter's 
education. She came back furious one day from her very good (and very 
expensive) school, announcing she was fed up with science. I asked 
why. Apparently the class had been told to solve some equations 
governing the motion of the pendulum. In particular they had been 
told to use the equation of potential energy at the top of the swing 
with kinetic energy at the bottom, to calculate the velocity at the 
bottom of the swing. I asked what the problem was. She said she 
didn't see what this so-called energy was. I asked if she had raised 
this with the teacher. She said she had, and had been told to get on 
and solve the equations. She never pursued any science again.

Yet if you look at the history of the pendulum from Galileo's work at 
the end of the sixteenth century, you will find a wonderful story of 
ingenuity, of mathematics, of contested observations, of problems of 
trade and the need to find the longitude, of the gradual evolution of 
the calculus, of debates about whether "force" should be thought of 
as proportional to velocity or square velocity (which set Newton and 
Leibniz at each other's throats). A century later there were yet more 
disputes, involving Carnot, Joule, and Helmholtz, about the 
relationship between work, heat, and energy. You do not find the 
conservation law in the form of the equation that was tossed at my 
daughter until the 1860s. And as an aside, it is a pretty silly place 
to start in explaining anything about the pendulum, since energy 
depends on mass, and Galileo asserted, right at the beginning, that 
the period and the velocity of the pendulum are independent of its 
mass.

Such dogmatic, stupid teaching not only loses bright children to 
science. It also means that the ones who remain have been spoon-fed a 
bunch of results and techniques with no understanding of how they 
were hammered out, of what their birth pangs were. This disqualifies 
students from understanding the epistemology of science, and 
therefore of engaging effectively with doubters and deniers, whether 
the issue is one of the age of the earth or the measurement of its 
temperature. Either they go off science with a shudder, or (if they 
stick with it) they know only to mock anyone who cannot see why, for 
instance, energy might not be proportional to velocity, without 
themselves knowing why. Or they suppose that science speaks with one 
voice, and the only dissenters must be Luddites such as the notorious 
Cardinal Bellarmine, who allegedly refused to look through Galileo's 
telescope, whereas the truth is that many of Galileo's assertions, 
including those about the pendulum, were contested by careful 
observers, including Descartes and Mersenne, probably the leading 
physicists of the time. And if peoples' miseducation in science has 
simply taught them to be dogmatists, they can hardly complain if 
those on the outside can see only dogmatism. But the reality is that 
science is a human activity, not an abstract calculus, and this 
properly makes its great achievements a subject of pride and awe, not 
suspicion and skepticism. It should also make us aware of its 
desperate fragility, and the hostile cultural forces that it 
constantly has to overcome.

The questions of truth, faith, and evidence loom large in the more 
philosophical of these essays. On the first, Sokal accepts a version 
of what has become known as the "no miracles" argument for science's 
claim to depict reality truly. This starts with some uncontested fact 
about the success of a science, such as its accuracy of prediction, 
or its technological application. Our lasers and our cell phones 
work, our materials have their calculated strengths, our predictions 
are borne out to extraordinary numbers of decimal places: what can 
explain this, except that we are getting things right, or very nearly 
right? Or in other words, that we are on the track of the truth? If 
we were not, it would be an inexplicable coincidence -- a miracle -- 
that we are so often so successful.

The argument is powerful, and I accept it. But it is not the end of 
the story. For we need also to wonder what it is about truth that 
makes it compelling. Consider any instance of scientific success. A 
GPS receiver tells you where you are with astonishing accuracy, based 
on its distance from four or more satellites orbiting the earth. How 
does it know those distances? It uses a time differential and the 
speed of light. For simplicity's sake, let us consider only the speed 
of light. What, then, explains the instrument's accuracy? Science 
says that the speed of light is so many meters per second, and that 
is the correct, or the true, value. It is the truth of the estimate 
that is vital to the working. If we had gotten it wrong, and not by 
much, the instrument would be useless.

Here truth is in the shop window, as it were. But the curious thing 
is that we can suggest the identical explanation without mentioning 
truth at all. Pick up the story right at the end. What explains the 
instrument's accuracy? Science says that the speed of light is so 
many meters per second, and that is true, or science says that the 
speed of light is so many meters per second and the speed of light is 
so many meters per second. The second makes no mention of truth, but 
it works just as well to explain our success. Indeed, it has some 
title to being science's own explanation of it, and that it is the 
best that there is. Science does not typically mention the concept of 
truth in describing how GPS devices work.

It is a queer thing about truth that it has this self-effacing 
quality. And it is not as if we have to choose which of the 
explanations should be preferred, the one with truth in the shop 
window or the one without it. They come to exactly the same thing. 
Many philosophers, myself included, think that this implies that the 
notion has a logical, rather than a metaphysical, function. A large 
claim such as "science gives us the truth" would be a summary way of 
collecting together a lot of examples such as "science says that 
cholera is due to a virus, and it is" and "science says that the 
earth circles the sun, and it does." Since we all assent to many such 
examples, we can summarize our confidence by assenting to the 
generalization as well.

If truth retires into the shadows as an interesting topic, so do its 
detractors. Rorty's campaign careens off the rails, because whether 
there were once dinosaurs is one thing, and whether our peers let us 
get away with saying so is patently something else. But evidence can 
occupy some of the vacuum left by any more substantive conception of 
truth. The problem with flat-earthers, creationists, homeopaths, and 
the rest is not so much that they have a duff conception of truth as 
that they have duff attitudes toward evidence. The problem with 
creationists, for example, is that they either know nothing about 
stratigraphical or radiometric dating of geological time, or they 
misunderstand them, or at the worst they have some fanciful notion 
that uniformities in nature are not the things to rely upon, in which 
case they might as well believe that they themselves and their sacred 
books were all created at the same time, say a couple of minutes ago.

If we cannot take what is uniformly the case within our experience as 
our guide for hypotheses about regions of the world beyond it, then 
reasons dissolve and all bets are off. Reliance on such regularity, 
as Hume saw, is necessary if we are to move one step beyond the 
immediately given; and in fact, as Kant added, it is necessary in 
order to think of ourselves as inhabiting a world at all. It is a 
necessary presupposition of thought itself. So when the creationist 
arbitrarily strays from relying on regularities, he must be betraying 
the very reasoning that he himself constantly uses.

The word "faith" raises its annoying head at this point. Is the human 
reliance on uniformities just as much a matter of faith as the 
creationist's reliance on whatever message tells him that the earth 
is six thousand years old? A lot of modern writing in the theory of 
knowledge more or less throws in the towel and supposes that it is. 
Wittgenstein summed it up in his last book, On Certainty, arguing 
that what we would like are rock-solid foundations for our beliefs, 
but what we find are things that simply "stand fast" for us -- and 
this raises the disturbing possibility of others for whom different 
and in our eyes deplorable things equally stand fast.

This is really only a rediscovery of Hume's own results. But "faith" 
is the wrong word here, if it implies cousinship with arbitrary stabs 
of confidence in things for which there is no evidence. Those can, 
and must, be avoided, because a modest confidence in the wonderful 
stabilities of the world goes with our capacity to think at all.

In these fundamental ways, then, the history and philosophy of 
science provide the most important defenses that our culture has. It 
is excellent to see a practicing physicist taking them seriously and 
contributing to them, as Alan Sokal has done. He is certainly to be 
envied for having his name indelibly tied to one of the more 
interesting battles that has been won on their behalf.

Simon Blackburn is a British philosopher. His most recent book is 
Plato's Republic: A Biography.