Friday, February 16, 2007

If you've just arrived from Mars, please read Alan Sokal's paper

It is such a tragicomic piece... Dr Sokal is a Physicist, and he wrote a little, hilarious, non sequitur paper and had it published in "Social Crap Text". This piece, with its "syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever", should be mandatory reading for all students in the sciences, humanities, etcetera. Someone might also want to rip a couple of pages from the Q'ran and thrown this one in there. If you're into this kind of thing I'm sure you'd like to take a look at the (modern Eliza) postmodernism generator. But nothing beats Sokal:

The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the ``reasoning'' adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity -- the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter -- has profound politicalimplications (which, of course, are ``progressive''). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with ``postmodernist epistemology.'' Next, I assemble a pastiche -- Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity -- held together by vague rhetoric about ``nonlinearity'', ``flux'' and ``interconnectedness.'' Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that ``postmodern science'' has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.

In its concluding passages, my article becomes especially egregious. Having abolished reality as a constraint on science, I go on to suggest (once again without argument) that science, in order to be ``liberatory,'' must be subordinated to political strategies. I finish the article by observing that ``a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics.'' We can see hints of an ``emancipatory mathematics,'' I suggest, ``in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.'' I add that ``catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis.'' It's understandable that the editors of Social Text were unable to evaluate critically the technical aspects of my article (which is exactly why they should have consulted a scientist). What's more surprising is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article's overall illogic.

Here's the original article. Here's the above-quoted piece; and here's a third piece that was later rejected in "Social Text", for "not meeting their intellectual standards".

What a joyride!