Sokal’s Hoax: Twenty years on

January 3, 2017 • 8:45 am

It’s now been twenty years since the “Sokal affair,” also known as the “Sokal hoax”, in which physicist/mathematician Alan Sokal submitted a bogus postmodernist paper to the journal Social Text, with the jawbreaking pomo title, “Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.” (Paper free at link.) The paper used real quotes from professors of science studies, as well as other postmodernist scholars, to show that the field of quantum gravity was riddled with patriarchy and deeply polluted by social attitudes. In reality, it was intended to show that the humanities (not all of them!) were infected by a profound subjectivism about ways of finding truth, as well as by a deep suspicion of science.

Here are a couple of quotes from Alan’s paper; only a postmodernist could take these seriously:

Over the past two decades there has been extensive discussion among critical theorists with regard to the characteristics of modernist versus postmodernist culture; and in recent years these dialogues have begun to devote detailed attention to the specific problems posed by the natural sciences. In particular, Madsen and Madsen have recently given a very clear summary of the characteristics of modernist versus postmodernist science. They posit two criteria for a postmodern science [JAC: italicized bits are quotes from other papers; consult original for references]:

A simple criterion for science to qualify as postmodern is that it be free from any dependence on the concept of objective truth. By this criterion, for example, the complementarity interpretation of quantum physics due to Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen school is seen as postmodernist.

Clearly, quantum gravity is in this respect an archetypal postmodernist science. Secondly,

The other concept which can be taken as being fundamental to postmodern science is that of essentiality. Postmodern scientific theories are constructed from those theoretical elements which are essential for the consistency and utility of the theory.

Thus, quantities or objects which are in principle unobservable — such as space-time points, exact particle positions, or quarks and gluons — ought not to be introduced into the theory. While much of modern physics is excluded by this criterion, quantum gravity again qualifies: in the passage from classical general relativity to the quantized theory, space-time points (and indeed the space-time manifold itself) have disappeared from the theory.

However, these criteria, admirable as they are, are insufficient for a liberatory postmodern science: they liberate human beings from the tyranny of “absolute truth” and “objective reality”, but not necessarily from the tyranny of other human beings. In Andrew Ross’ words, we need a science “that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests.” From a feminist standpoint, Kelly Oliver makes a similar argument:

… in order to be revolutionary, feminist theory cannot claim to describe what exists, or, “natural facts.” Rather, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories — not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories.

But wait! There’s more!:

Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, “neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination’ of the social.”  And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: “mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.” Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it 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. 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. Finally, chaos theory — which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity — will be central to all future mathematics. And yet, these images of the future mathematics must remain but the haziest glimmer: for, alongside these three young branches in the tree of science, there will arise new trunks and branches — entire new theoretical frameworks — of which we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive.

The paper is larded with outrageous statements about physics and math, as well as with genuine but risible quotes from “science studies” scholars (see the footnotes). Social Text accepted it anyway. Sokal’s paper didn’t go out for formal review, but was accepted after four editors approved it in house, including Stanley Aronowitz and Andrew Ross.

Soon afterwards, Sokal published a piece in the journal Lingua Franca revealing the nature of the hoax. While many postmodernists and humanities professors were outraged, to the point of accusing Sokal of unethical behavior, scientists snickered, for we were simply tired of the ludicrous claims about science (including its failure to provide knowledge any better than other “ways of knowing”), and, in truth, I can see no better way to make Sokal’s point than through such a hoax. (I’m proud to say that the first letter to the editor about the hoax published in the New York Times, which wrote about the hoax on its front page, was by me, praising Alan’s gambit. On the same day, one of my “friends”, a postmodern English scholar, read my letter and phoned me, immediately screaming, without saying “hello” or identifying herself, that I was just dead wrong!)

What was Sokal’s point? He lays it out in another Lingua Franca piece:

WHY DID I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important issues that no scientist should ignore–questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.

In short, my concern about the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths.

I have personal experience of this subjectivism, and from someone who should have known better: philosopher Michael Ruse. A while back he gave a talk to the history and philosophy of science group at my university, and claimed that Western medicine was just one “way of healing”—no better than any other form of folk medicine. In the question session, I asked him whether, if his kids were sick, he’d take them to a Western doctor or a shaman. He didn’t have a good answer, but mumbled and grumbled.

I’ll be talking about this kind of subjectivism—the claim that some questions can be objectively answered by methods other than “science broadly construed,” and there are “ways of knowing” that reveal truths about the universe hidden from science—at the LogiCal meetings in Los Angeles in about two weeks. (Sean Carroll is headlining.)

I had hoped that Sokal’s Hoax would at least mitigate the pomo nonsense, and perhaps it has, but I don’t know, for I have little contact with humanities scholars.

However, in a new piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Anatomy of a hoax,” Jennifer Ruark collects statements by several of Hoax’s participants and onlookers, and it’s an edifying read. It reveals, for example, Barbara Epstein’s complicity with Sokal in revealing the hoax, Lingua Franca‘s worries about publishing the reveal, and some of the reasons why Social Text published the paper in the first place. As Bruce Robbins, one of the journal’s editors reveals, there was some preening involved:

ROBBINS: They decided to take it because here was a scientist — even expressing himself very awkwardly and without much knowledge of what it was that he thought he was enthusiastic about — weighing in and kind of on “our side.” The fact that he quoted Stanley Aronowitz 13 times was probably not a matter of complete indifference to Stanley Aronowitz, and Stanley Aronowitz was the one surviving founder of the journal, who was 10 or 15 years older than anybody else. So if he wanted it — Social Text is not a refereed journal — if one of the founders was there and wanted it, it was probably going to go in.

But this is a long prelude to my highlighting one of the quotes in the piece, by someone who wasn’t even cited or quoted in Sokal’s paper. Here it is, with my emphasis:

HELEN LONGINO, professor of philosophy, Stanford University: Certainly there are some deconstructionists who have tried to take on science. But that was, by far, the minority of the work that was being done in science studies. If Sokal had submitted it to a serious science-studies journal, people would have seen through it. Sokal has this very sort of old-fashioned idea about science — that the sciences are not only aiming at discovering truths about the natural world but that their methods succeed in doing so.

When I read that last sentence, the soles of my shoes almost curled up. What is “old fashioned” about the idea that science succeeds it discovering truths about the natural world? Is Longino claiming that science does not in fact do this? If so, she’s dead wrong, and the kind of subjectivism that was Sokal’s target remains, in her person, a festering sore in the academy.

I wonder if Dr. Longino has ever been vaccinated, taken antibiotics, or used a cellphone or a personal computer. If so, then she has implicitly accepted that science succeeds in finding truth. Was the elimination of smallpox from the world, which began by scientifically identifying the infectious agent, and then developing vaccinations against it, simply a conjurer’s trick?

I have trouble controlling my anger when I read statements like Longino’s. If it’s “old fashioned” to think that science homes in on the truth, then what is the “new fashion”? That science doesn’t home in on the truth? I’d love to have Longino talk about that view in a room full of scientists. She’s wrong, her words are a travesty, and if she really believes them then she’s a malign influence on Stanford students—and philosophy.

Helen Longino
Alan Sokal

h/t: Matthew Cobb

114 thoughts on “Sokal’s Hoax: Twenty years on

    1. Longino was not there when I majored in Philosophy. Still, I can envision how fixed her world is in relation to what the real world is like. Long gone are the days of Nancy Cartwright and Peter Galison and Peter Godfrey-Smith (all of whom were my advisors at one point).

      1. I’m not sure I took any actual philosophy courses, but we did read many philosophers in the wonderful (and sometimes grueling, as we had to read so many “original sources” in the Reserve Book Room) History of Western Civ in the late 60s. Was this course still around/required in your day? I did take Robert MacAffee Brown’s Belief and Unbelief for some reason. I was already a committed atheist and, though Brown was an excellent writer and lecturer, I was not remotely swayed by his arguments.

  1. It would be nice to think Sokal’s parody signaled the end of postmodernism but The Guardian published this nonsense by one of the cranks taken in by Sokal on the 15th December last year:

    Science has always been a bit ‘post-truth’

    …The Royal Society and British Academy recently held a high-profile interdisciplinary conference on ‘New Trends in Evolutionary Biology’. Officially, the event was open to the widest possible range of criticisms of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. Yet the invitation did not extend to proponents of intelligent design theory who have publicized most of the same criticisms of the synthesis. It would seem that the paradigm shift demanded by advocates of intelligent design would have been a step too far.

    1. I was just now seeing a link between po mo and post-truth (‘po-tru’?), but you beat me to it. This line from the Sokal paper triggered me:
      “The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories — not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories.”

  2. The Sokal Hoax used to amaze me years ago, but it no longer does. One only need look at a simple Twitter account called Real Peer Review (I know Jerry is aware of it) to see that not only has the kind of paper Sokal intended as a hoax lived on, but has indeed become ever more popular in the humanities. Papers like his hoax are now written and published constantly, garnering serious consideration and promulgation in the halls of academia, its journals and classrooms, and among its professors and students.

    Furthermore, we’ve seen a huge wave of financial and other support over the last few years to increase the presence and size of “critical theory” departments and degrees, where the content is exclusively that of what we called a “hoax” twenty years ago. Its disheartening, to say the least. One can now be a professor and seriously call The Principia a “rape manual;” a student can now safely say that a shaman’s “way of knowing” how to strike a target with lightning is just as legitimate as real science; one can even seriously suggest that all of science and mathematics is patriarchal and white and must be “decolonized,” and have the response largely be respect and approval for these views.

    The humanities have decided to not only take on science, but to try and tear it down because too many white men are involved — and that too many white men must mean something is a force for evil.

          1. My understanding of all this is that what is called “postmodernism” means very different things. We should distinguish between: (1) how artists, musicians, creative writers, architects, etc. understand it as it guides their artistic work (their avant-garde and experimental art) from (2) how commentators and critics of science and everything else use the term to describe their radical and extreme relativist theories of alternate reality. (1)really has nothing to do, necessarily, with (2). It seems to me that these are two different meanings. So, musicians/composers, for example, who are oriented toward “postmodern” approaches, can be completely rational and scientifically minded.

          2. I see. Yes, this is different matter. Your colleagues, in this case, are thinking of the second kind of “postmodernism”.

        1. Actually, most philosophers have been more or less bystanders. Bunge, Laudan, Kitcher, and a few others have chimed on the side of science (though Laudan less correctly in my view). Mostly the pomos Sokal cites are in literature and language departments, sociology, “science studies” and other sundry fields. The latter is also a mixed bag and even sociology has some sane sociologists of science. Longino *sometimes* gets things right.

          Unfortunately, a lot of the bystanders in philosophy are *also* antirealist of the type Longino bluntly is. There are two debates in the Sokal paper context: one, which has no merit on one side at all as far as I am concerned: this is the relativism one, with the likes of Latour and Sandra Harding the target. There is a more defensible debate between realism and antirealism in science, and the latter’s flavours. I think they are all wrongheaded, but to figure some of them through (like Dummett’s) does require some work.

  3. Sokal’s hoax wasn’t a speed BUMP on postmodernism. It was a SPEEDOMETER. The problem is FAR worse now than it’s ever been, and has seeped out of the mere naval-gazing academic stage, and into the poisonous politics stage, where modern identitarians are all eager to tell us that things like biological sex differences “don’t exist”, and everything is “just a social construct”. And god help you, if you object. Because now, instead of just being an academic disagreement, it’s a moral failing on the scale of Hitler or Pol Pot.

    1. Knowledge is relative – unless you believe the wrong thing.

      Outrage trumps reason or evidence: the only way you know your knowledge is ‘incorrect’ is that someone will come after your job.

  4. It is amusing that Ms. Longino had as doctoral supervisor the same person, Peter Achinstein, as the (notorious?) Alex Rosenberg, probably Achinstein’s two most ‘illustrious’ Ph. D. students. Pretty hard to find two philosophers with more completely contradicting positions on science in general.

    As far as Stanford and philosophy, I’ve at times felt, depending on the topic exposited, that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is sometimes more an embarrassment than a credit to that illustrious institution. But I won’t belabour details again.

    1. Replying to myself, but this is relevant to both paragraphs above and to many comments elsewhere here about the possible effects in the ‘real’ world of postmodernist gibberish.

      From Ms. Longino’s Stanford Encyc… article “The social dimensions of scientific knowledge”:

      “The controversies over health risks of certain vaccines, over the measurement of environmental pollution, and over the causes of climate change have expanded philosophy of science from its more accustomed areas of logical and epistemological analysis to incorporate concerns about the communication and uptake of scientific knowledge and the ethical dimensions of superficially factual debates.”

      (2nd last paragraph)

      This would possibly give some kind of academic comfort to the climate change deniers, depending on what the slippery “…superficially factual..” is supposed to refer to. It would be ironic if an extinction of the human species in my great-great grandchildren’s day could end up being considered (by whom? one wonders) partly due to postmodernist crap coming from our universities.

    2. Stanford is a good department. (Disclosure: it is the PhD origin of a good friend, and others within my own intellectual pedigree.)

      However, the Encyclopedia is a *volunteer* effort. The articles are “So, you have a gap, Ed, can I do one for us?” Which makes for some variance in quality, to say the least. But this is true even of commissioned encyclopedias. Some of the entries in the Blackwell _Companion to the Philosophy of Science_ or … to Metaphysics are *bad*. Our old nemesis, Plantinga, for example, wrote those and a few odd entries in at least the 1996 edition of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, another decent reference.

      1. I wonder whether the time will come when Stanford (the uni) says to Stanford (the encycl)’Sorry, you can’t use that name.’

        1. It was, at least at the beginning officially funded in a way by them. Ed (Zalta, the editor in chief) is an employee there, after all, and I think their famous CSLI kicked in some money from time to time.

  5. Perhaps to the chagrin of post-modern theorists, Trump seems to be the culmination of what Sokal warned about. For Trump and the crowd that surrounds him, we live in a post-truth era. Say one thing today and tomorrow deny that you said it. In science, deny climate change although the evidence for it is overwhelming. The United States, and therefore the world, is heading into a profound crisis. And the denial of truth and science, so totally embraced by Trump and the Republican Party, is a major reason.

    1. From the time Trump entered the primary race, I kept thinking – is he pulling off a gigantic Sokal? I waffled between thinking so and trying to come up with another more plausible explanation. I’m still not sure.

      1. It’s funny to me that Trump has a similarly subjective approach to reality as do many POMO academics, yet an awful lot of Trump’s support is, in my opinion, borne out of an attempt to rebuke those very same academics.
        Self-serving BS, it’s what truly unites us all!

    2. Stay tuned. Trump the master spy is going to reveal new info on the hacking after he gets a briefing from the security agencies. He told us he knows a lot about it.

      1. He knows really really big secrets ( that nobody else knows.). We need trump-hand emojis…👐 Hey, these are even almost orange!

    3. I think you’re right about the problem Trump represents. But the postmodern movement is and always has been largely cut-off from right wing culture. I think for Trump supporters, the indifference toward truth comes from a different place.

      Where I can see real influence of postmodern thinkers is throughout the humanities, where conversations about race, gender, and equality have been put on a squishy intellectual foundation about the multiplicity of truths and perspectives. This has allowed the alt-right to reply from a posture of purportedly (emphasis on purportedly!) embracing science, and portraying the left as denying it. That is not ground I want ceded to them.

      1. I think you are correct that the right-wing and the post-modernists have had little to do with each other and have had minimal intellectual influence on each other. Yet, although coming from different directions, their worldviews are remarkably similar in their mutual denial of truth. Perhaps the convergence is that both do not like the world they see (for very different reasons) and thus create their own fantasy worlds, psychologically satisfying, but totally divorced from reality.

        1. I would just like to note that around ten years ago, the postmodernist sociologist Bruno Latour, who was of course a radical leftist like all academic relativists, and who I think was actually involved in the Social Text journal, actually apologized for spreading relativistic views. I respect that because it is very difficult for academics, who can be very vain and are always tempted to play the careerist game, to admit when they’re wrong in front of their colleagues – which is one of the problems that led to all this nonsense of politicizing everything in the first place (i.e. “lefter than thou” lead to prestige in the academy for decades, and even Sokal didn’t stop it – though the internet and outside criticism seem to be doing better these days). However, Latour apologized for the wrong reason: he saw that the relativist arguments he was making, were providing Fox News and the political right with justifications for denying climate change and science. This is disappointing: an intellectual apologizes for being anti-intellectual in the name of leftism, not because an intellectual should NEVER be an anti-intellectual, or anti-science, or anti-truth, but instead because his commitment to leftist ideas is more important than anything else, including truth, and he believes that science serves the left more than the right. SIGH.

      2. … postmodern movement is and always has been largely cut-off from right wing culture.

        I think that’s correct, but the Right has been quick to co-opt relativism’s pose when it suits its purposes, as with religion and the denial of scientific consensus — just as it’s been quick to co-opt the pose of identity politics, with its bogus claims regarding a war on Christmas (or, more generally, a war on Christianity) and by posturing that racism began with affirmative action.

        1. The far left continues refusing to learn an important lesson: in a democratic society, never build or use tools that you wouldn’t want used against you. Unfortunately, the most zealous on any side of anything always think they will be the only ones to ever have the power to use the pernicious tools they create, as they are “on the right side of history.”

    4. I have always seen a parallel between right-wing ideology, with it’s sanguinity about putting facts on the back burner, and postmodern philosophy. Amusingly and frustratingly, most people who explicitly embrace pomo are leftists and think they are championing liberalism.

  6. What I find particularly ironic here is how the very same approach from the Right — that “truth” is flexible and whatever pleases and/or convinces the listener is valid within a system closed from outside dissent — is eliciting howls of rage. Once “truthiness” gains the status of legitimacy, then Trump’s lies are now just matters of personal belief, with one opinion now on par with every other opinion. Who’s to say? Let us not be judgmental.

    One of the biggest complaints from the postmodernist community is that we secular humanists are distorting and mischaracterizing their real position. It’s much more reasonable and nuanced. Sokol attacked his own straw man. I don’t think so, but maybe. I haven’t studied the topic in depth, reading postmodernism’ best arguments.

    What I have done, however, is spend many years amongst a “spiritual but not religious” group with a shared philosophy which fits this extremist Pomo description perfectly. So yes, it’s out there. And yes, they are appalled at conservatives doing to science exactly what they’ve advocated doing to science themselves — in order to place alt med, mysticism, chakras, psychic powers, God, and even fairies on the same epistemic level as the theory of evolution and the periodic table of the elements.

    What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Or, in other words, don’t live by rules which can be turned against you so easily.

  7. Sokal published a follow-up volume, Beyond the Hoax (OUP) in 2008 (paperback 2010). It includes the original article, with all its footnotes as well as explanatory footnotes to the footnotes (which makes it a challenging read!) It also includes a number of interesting essays on science, philosophy and culture, including a defence of scientific realism and a critical analysis of “science studies”. It is not cheap (even used copies are £10 or so on Amazon) but still worth getting hold of.

      1. “R” is I, and I meant that “it is” very well worth reading. About to go to bed, and probably about time.

  8. One new problem with the hoax: it has permeated our culture to the point that postmodernist leaning people have argued that maybe the hoax wasn’t such a big deal after all. One such example:

    It might even, in the wrong parts of the internet, prompt a sneer and a comment to the effect of “oh, you still believe the hoax was real!?” So, that seems to be the stage that many people are at with Sokal these days.

    Of course, I think these responses are borne out of defensiveness, but I do think it’s important to be prepared for that kind of response if and when you cite Sokal.

  9. It’s easier to have an opinion than do the work.

    And it is far easier to argue opinion than intelligently discuss the work.

    Faith vs. Fact strikes again. Still a lotta work to do out there, PCC(E).

    Keep it up.

  10. Reminds me of how 4chan spreads fake-news to troll the extremes on the Right and the Left.

    Or this article which apparently was a troll:

    Did anyone ever confirm it was Godfrey Elfwick?

    But anyways, it’s sad to see the Sokal hoax didn’t have much of an effect… postmodernist gibberish is still going strong. I once took a phenomenology class and the teacher threatened to fail me if I kept maintaining that her and some of her students were just engaging in poetry while acting like it was serious philosophy. Suffice to say I wrote my final paper on how metaphors, while being the fuel of cognition by allowing generalization and overextension of acquired concepts, can also lead astray… we simply need to be aware of where and when we are stretching language and our concepts. Thank God the TA graded them! He thought I was a mad man, but he appreciated it and told me to try keeping my head low when engaging with social activist postmodernist ideologues. It’s always their way or the highway.

    I think we need some more hoaxes.

    1. My idea for a hoax is as follows:

      Have you ever heard of the story of the development first post-modern jetfighter, the XP-300? In the early 70s, due to increasing concern about the narrow focus on only Western scientific methods for developing flying military craft, the government commissioned a panel to explore other ways of knowing, particularly from marginalized or oppressed groups. The result was…an unmitigated disaster, with the resulting aircraft being a hodgepodge of sound science and erroneous or outdated ideas on how to build an aircraft. Picture a chimera of crap, a visual demonstration of the lunacy of po-mo.

      1. Might be too close to the mark to make for a hoax, considering that the Pentagon undertook the “Stargate Project” to investigate the potential military intelligence applications of psychic phenomena such as remote viewing.

      2. I have a particular fondness for George Plimpton’s “Sidd Finch” hoax. Especially since many Mets fans PLUS the major networks of the time actually believed it (it helped Plimpton’s hoax that the Mets went along with it, even giving Finch his own locker).

        1. All of Plimpton’s outings in participatory journalism were essentially hoaxes — as anyone can attest who saw him climb in the ring with Archie Moore or strap on a pair of cleats and line up behind center for the Lions.

    2. Indeed. Postmodernism is not dead, despite articles and essays proclaiming the opposite. It’s a mode of thought that is too attractive to ever go away, imo. It’s attractiveness is that it seems intellectual but is actually very easy and superficial.

    3. Phenomenologists are so strange. Husserl himself I think would have been appalled at what goes on. Merleau-Ponty seems to have been the last sane one, and even he writes as if the world is inside his head (which is one way to read Husserl, which I am told is wrong, but I am not sure how).

      What *is* interesting is carefully using “appearances” as *data*. (See Dennett’s “heterophenomenology”.)

  11. “I have trouble controlling my anger when I read statements like Longino’s.”

    As a layman, but one who is interested in the academic realm and believes that it has great value to society, I struggle to understand what people like Longino do all day.

    I am all for contributing to the pursuit of knowledge of the natural world, even if such knowledge does not have any apparent practical value. But I am unsure what to make of people who seem to deny that increasing human knowledge of the natural world is impossible in principle.

    1. Many philosophers spend their time teaching and researching logic, ethics, aesthetics, the philosophies of various groups throughout history, philosophy of language and the mind….the list of subjects within philosophy goes on.

      Then there is a set who seem to think that academic funding and respect is a zero-sum game, and therefore their ticket to greater respect and dollars is to tell you just how wrong-headed and bad all those icky scientists are.

      Now to be sure, there are some scientists who question the value of philosophy or even the liberal arts writ large. However the difference between the two groups is that the scientists tend to be doing it “over beer,” i.e. in their space time, in casual social conversation. Their day job is actually doing science. In contrast, the philosophers involved seem to have the day job of denigrating science.

      1. Re your last para, this could be because the scientists actually have something concrete to occupy their time at work, i.e. science. Whereas the philosophers frequently… don’t.


      2. I’m no philosopher by any stretch. But I was (like many university young men at that time, I’m sure) very interested in philosophy.

        University drove the final nails into the coffin of religion for me. (I was raised in a liberal Minnesota Lutheran church.)

        I think I thought there was “something” “out there” that was very profound (meaning of life?) to be found. Religion proved a dry well, so I turned to philosophy (and literature to a lesser extent).

        What I mainly remember from my philosophy classes at university was that they mainly stuck to established ideas and reviewed many “classic” arguments and counter-arguments around religion, god, perception, aesthetics, ethics. Mainly: They emphasized what we do not know but many of us probably thought we did. The classes I took were taught by grad students who were earnest and not high & mighty like many of my profs were. This was a good thing.

        I think this (seeing “what we don’t know”) was useful in the end; but it frustrated me at the time.

        In time, I figured out that you make your own meaning in life. Buck up little camper …

  12. “I wonder if Dr. Longino has ever been vaccinated, taken antibiotics, or used a cellphone or a personal computer.”

    This type of argument must have been addressed by a po-mo academic at some point, as it is the first thing that occurs to any intelligent questioner of the po-mo theory.

    Do they deny that these things are part of science? I can’t think of many other ways out of this. For instance, I recall a quote once by Thomas Edison where he said that although he could harness the power of electricity, he had no idea how it actually worked. Perhaps the pomos are claiming that modern science is merely a collection of useful applications, arrived at by blind trial and error, of natural forces that nobody really understands?

    I mean, that argument wouldn’t last more than 30 seconds in front of a trained physical scientist, but at least it is something!

    1. I take your point there, and it is a reasonable assumption.

      Seems to me the correct reposte is something akin to Newton gives way to Einstein, Einstein gives way to QED, QED will give way to string theory or quantum gravity or simulation theory or who knows what, (ad infinitum?) but the new realities do not obviate the prior knowledge when those theories are utilized at their proper scales.

      The Pomo illusionists need to be held to predictive theories for validation in the same way as religionists.

      Otherwise, as Aresteanu mentions above, be content with fact that your theorizing is merely poetry. And mostly bad poetry at that.

      1. Just stumbled on this short dialogue from Oscar Wilde ( Importance of being Earnest.)
        JACK: Yes, but you said yourself that a severe chill was not hereditary.
        ALGERNON: It usen’t (MO- love that construction!) to be, I know-but I daresay it is now. Science is always making wonderful improvements in things.

        1. “It usen’t to be…” I also love that. One of my great simple pleasures in life is hearing my nearly five year old daughter use the word “yesternight” with no hesitation. It makes perfect sense and is a wonderful word.

          1. Perfect! My son at that age called the visor of his baseball cap a “tack”. Finally figured out that in his book a knight in his helmet was under attack…

    2. I would actually be fine with science characterized as “a set of useful applications arrived at by trial and error” (but note I deleted the negative editorialisms).

      However, I don’t think the po-mos would even cede that. Reading JAC’s Ruse story as one example, it seems they are unwilling to acknowledge that science is useful in any sort of agreed-upon way. If Ruse had been fine with admitting vaccination was useful for stopping disease, then he would have had no problem saying he used it. Only a po-mo who doesn’t want to admit that modern medicine is useful would prevaricate about whether they use it.

  13. That people like Dr. Longino and the regressive left and snowflakes exist in universities demonstrates that they are sheltered industries and should have their funding cut.

  14. This seems like an awful lot of hyperventilating about old news that doesn’t have any relevance to scholarship today. Historians and philosophers of science generally have tremendous appreciation for science, and much greater knowledge of how it works than people are granting here. In fact, many of us got advanced degrees in science before turning to history, philosophy, or sociology.

    So where’s the evidence that crazy deconstructionists are trying to attack science? Seriously–I’m asking for some specifics, not vague impressions or recollections from a class taken years ago. Because it really sounds like most commenters here haven’t read much recent history, philosophy, or social studies of science. I know hundreds of scholars in these areas, and not a single one wants to attack science or promote some kind of silly epistemic relativism. We often do treat scientific activity as a human/cultural product, but after all it IS, and I know virtually no scientists who would object. So what’s the big deal?

    By the way, what Longino likely meant is that it seems odd for scientists to claim to “discover truth,” since scientific knowledge is by definition provisional–unless you’re some kind of Platonist (which in my mind is just as bad as being a deconstructionist). That’s all.

    1. I’ve given lots of examples (viz. feminist glaciology) and Sokal in his several books have given several more, like calling the Principia a “rape manual”. You are defending your own turf here, and maybe you don’t do this, but other people do.

      And could you please be civil? “Hyperventilating” is over the top, as if your flaunting your own degrees as if to show that every science studies scholar knows a lot about science. The fact is that many of them don’t, so what are you trying to say.

      The first three books in this list will give you plenty of examples:

      1. David’s observations I am taking as reassuring, not having first-hand knowledge of his field. But what others in this thread have called attention to in other departments and “studies” programs is real. In large swaths of academia professor Sokal’s exposé has had no impact. Just one small example, in an area that I work in, the study of indigenous cultures: the dominant view that students get is either the total rejection of the findings of population genetics and archaeology or one or another shamefully ambiguous hedging. I’m referring to research on the migration of modern humans out of Africa and the subsequent colonization of the New World. This consensus of scientists finds no place in the most programs in North America. The confusion is effectively maintained by the post-modernist mantra (“narratives”). In the field of study of indigenous cultures, it didn’t used to be that way.

        1. I am fascinated by your comment because as a total layman, I have wondered about the entire “indigenous” enterprise.

          I have had many highly educated people tell me that native americans are from “here” as opposed to Europe. Somehow the East African origins of homo sapiens is discarded…although they would readily mock people who don’t “believe” in evolution. Etc.

          What more could you add about how academics get around this indigenous issue? Any articles?

          My suspicion is that indigenous is a quasi-religious concept, a kind of secular adam and eve with europeans as serpents.

          1. Your assessment of the problem in this field is correct. The crisis is deep and very troubling. Openly creationist ideology, cloaked in vague notions of “multiculturalism” has become dominant, in particular beginning with the fantastic theories of Vine Deloria, which now have taken root in most departments. Even people who know better remain silent, intimidated by the new cultural relativism on this question. The study of indigenous cultures and languages is a true scientific field, with a long and solid tradition. In academia, however, it has been hijacked by post-modernist, creationist, so-called “multiculturalism” (they have appropriated this term as well). I’m working on an updated version of this paper that goes into the debate:
            Be glad to forward it when I get it done.

          2. The way its being taught, you’re probably right – it probably is quasi-religious.

            Though personally I have no problem with setting a (somewhat arbitrary) time demarcation for the word ‘indigenous’ and using it to discuss animals and plants that have become integrated into a local ecosystem through time. For example, if ecologists and anthropologists decided to call any flora or fauna that has been in its location for >10,000 years ‘indigenous,’ that seems like a fairly useful term to use (IMO). We could then talk about indigenous Polynesians, Australians, North Americans, Europeans (to include the Neanderthals), Asians (to include the Denisovans), etc… while still accepting the fact that all hominids evolved in Africa and then migrated out from there.

          3. This a good analogy. Strictly speaking, then, there is (was) only one really indigenous culture and one indigenous language (now extinct). All the rest (we) are migrant communities which colonized one or other part of the world. For many (probably most) of our colleagues in Cultural Anthropology this such heresy that it borders on hate-speech.

        1. Yes, I have seen this study; have to read it. It’s part of push-back that is necessary to mount against the anti-science wave hitting our universities.

    2. Their are plenty of examples in two important criticisms of pomo that preceded Sokal’s brilliant effort: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, and A house Built on Sand, edited by Noretta Koertge. The latter is particularly good.

      1. Both of these books, the Gross & Levitt and the Koertge are required reading for understanding the current crisis in academia. For clarity and broad coverage of the problem they are even better than Sokal’s take-down of post-modern nonsense.

      2. There’s also the uneven (largely because they are presentations) but still useful _The Flight From Science and Reason_, Kitcher’s _The Advancement of Science_ and its companions: _Science, Truth and Democracy_ and _Science in a Democratic Society_. (I have problems with all of them, of course, but they are better than the alternatives). Bunge’s _Finding Philosophy in Social Science_ will appear way too unfair – but he’s right for the most part. Haack has _Defending Science – within reason: between Scientism and Cynicism, which does more on the rhetoric of science than I’ve seen elsewhere.

        And, the hard to find pre-dated the hoax): Stephen Cole’s _Making Science: Between Nature and Society_.

        I have others, but this is already too long.

    3. I linked to a Guardian article pushing both Pomo and intelligent design above. That article was less than three weeks ago. Pomo claptrap isn’t confined to the fringes of academia, it’s rammed down our throats by the media.

    4. “Sokal has this very sort of old-fashioned idea about science — that the sciences are not only aiming at discovering truths about the natural world but that their methods succeed in doing so.”

      This does not seem as benign as you make it out to be. Humans evolved from earlier forms of life – this is a conclusion that science discovered that is about as close to a “truth” as you can find, despite the provisional nature of the claim. It is something that is so unlikely to be overturned that it would be unreasonable not to consider it a fact about the world we live in. If Longino is merely quibbling about the use of the world “truth”, as in it should only be used for statements that can never be proven wrong, then fine. But then she has a go at the methods of science, which attacks the notion that science can give us increasingly accurate information and explanations about the natural world.

      So this does not seem to be just a semantic critique (such as how Richard Dawkins has discussed using the word “theorem” instead of “theory” to describe evolution), but a swipe at the fundamental efficacy of science.

      1. I think that a notion of truth as statements that can never be proven wrong is inadequate. Being able to prove something wrong is by no means sufficient to establish truth to any useful extent. By way of example I suggest something like Russel’s teapot. If it doesn’t exist you cannot detect it, but you could also have difficulty disproving its existence, so would any statement about its existence or nature be true? Of course some people say much the same about god, and feel that if one cannot disprove god’s existence then that somehow provides validity about anything said about him/her.

    5. Here’s your deep thought for the day, David: when a scientist reports an observed value and error bars/margins in their measurement, the measured value may be inductive but the error bars are deductive. Thus when they report their results, they are not just reporting a provisional bit of information but a certain, deductive truth about the random error inherent in the experiment performed. 🙂

      Now, maybe you don’t count that as ‘truth.’ But if neither of those two reported things counts as a truth, what does?

    6. One character peripherally involved in the Sokal Affair who I find very entertaining is Steve Fuller. Norman Levitt was co-author of a book (Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, with Paul Gross) which motivated Sokal to perpetrate the hoax, and I think Levitt contributed to the effort. According to Levitt, Fuller also contributed an essay to the same “fatal issue” of Social Text. Levitt engaged in an email exchange with Fuller leaving vague but increasingly obvious hints that Sokal’s piece was a hoax. Apaprently the penny dropped about the same time the hoax was revealed.

      Fuller was retained as an expert witness for the defence in the Kitzmiller case over ID. Apparently he was poorly briefed before taking the stand. “Amusingly enough, the judge cited his testimony in finding for the plaintiffs; his expert testimony turned out to be something of an own goal.”

      In 2008 Anthony Grayling published a review of a book (Dissent over Descent) by Fuller, which he titled “Origin of the specious”. Grayling’s review is …errr… not exactly gushing, in fact it is not gushing at all, but it is entertaining. Fuller replied, which was probably a mistake because Grayling handed him a stern lecture on why serious people have to waste so much time debunking rubbish. Aside from Grayling’s complaints he is an entertaining, and at times passionate, writer, and his two articles are commendable for that alone. Read them. At least twice.

      In 2009 Norman Levitt died. Levitt and Fuller had some history (see above), which is no doubt what prompted Fuller to write a rather unflattering obituary. It attracted some interesting comments, such as from Eric MacDonald (Uncle Eric!): “Intellectually, Steve Fuller, you are negligible.” Even from Steve Fuller himself!: “Yes, I’m an asshole.” Clearly a champion of understatement.

      Steve Fuller is a professor at Warwick University in the UK where his major research areas include “the interdisciplinary challenges in the natural and social sciences, the political and epistemological consequences of the new biology, [and] science and religion”. For someone who has so spectacularly shot themselves in the foot so many times it’s a wonder he doesn’t need a wheelchair. I don’t know what he gets up to these days, but clearly he is still an active academic, and he has engaged in some curious intellectual adventures in the not so distant past.

      1. Liked the Grayling article you linked. It came as a needed reminder to me that my sometimes-expressed blanket condemnation of all philosophers is a badly over-broad generalisation. They’re not all Derridas or Lacans.

        And Fuller’s brief and snide obituary on Norman Levitt has found itself saved to my hard drive – not (needless to say) for the original post, but for the near-unanimous and deserved comments. As a classic example that, when shooting oneself in the foot, one should take one’s finger off the trigger. Or as one commenter explained the Streisand Effect to Dr Fuller: “As they next enter the seminar room, lecture hall, public lavatory or wherever it is you hold your classes, half your students will probably have the whole thing on their laptops, and by the end of that class they all will.”


        1. Oh, I see I stole your shooting-in-the-foot metaphor. Apologies, it must have been lurking in the back of my mind while I read through the link.


          1. Great minds think alike? Perhaps I flatter myself.

            I hope you read Grayling’s response (Bolus of nonsense) to Fuller’s response to Grayling’s review, he gets more wound up: “Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all). Alas, I did.”

          2. “Great minds think alike? Perhaps I flatter myself.”

            That may be the first time anyone has suggested that comparing their mind to mine is flattering 😉

            But yes, I did read Grayling’s response. As I implied above, if more philosophers could write as clearly as him, many of my criticisms of philosophers would evaporate.


  15. Longino should only be allowed to fly a cargo-cult plane for the next three years.
    Makes me think of Dawkins’ “show me a cultural relativist* in an airplane and I’ll show you a hypocrite”. (iirc)

    I’m shocked that what was meant as a parody/hoax has now apparently become mainstream in the pomo-cult.
    And yes, let us coin it so: pomo-cult
    (hopefully 😆 it sounds like an insult)

    * (that’s what they were called those days).

    1. “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet [in an airplane] and I’ll show you a hypocrite … If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there – the reason you don’t plummet into a ploughed field – is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sum right.”

      ― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

  16. Less well known than the Sokal hoax is a similar hoax in a moon-landing-faked journal devoted to proving that we never went to the moon. The hoax article was filled with elementary errors in science and history and passed without muster.

    Unfortunately, it was that article which first proposed the director Stanley Kubrick filmed the fake moon footage, and that meme has not died among the conspiracy theorists every since.

    1. IIRC, the urban legend that people eat an average of two spiders a year in their sleep was largely popularized by a 1950s book that was debunking it.

  17. “So where’s the evidence that crazy deconstructionists are trying to attack science?”

    A famous example is the insistence by Bruno Latour — one of the founders of “science studies” — that even disease is socially constructed. This view led Latour to deny the claim by French scientists that the mummy of Ramses II showed evidence of tuberculosis. This “anachronistic” claim was not meaningful, according to Latour, because the tuberculosis bacillus did not exist before Robert Koch “discovered” it in 1882.

  18. Alan Sokal is one of my heroes.

    At the risk of piling on to the pomos*, let me link Richard Dawkins’ review of Sokal and Bricmont’s book Intellectual Impostures, entitled (the review that is): Postmodernism Disrobed.

    Richard is no kinder to Postmodernism than he is to religion.

    *But why not, the more extreme areas of pomo are as bizarre and nonsensical as the weirdest religious cults.

  19. I am not too sure exactly what it is that Longino’s statement is supposed to mean (clearer and more thorough explanation is needed), nor am I setting out to defend her. Literary and cultural theorists, armed with ‘postmodern’ theory, launching attacks on science’s claims to “truth” are hardly worthy of attention (this was a fashionable thing to do back in the 80s and the heady days of “Theory” but less so today).

    However, surely those working in the history of science and philosophy of science have made legitimate criticisms about science’s epistemological claims.

    For example, the work of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem highlights science and scientific disciplines’ historicity, that is: transformations in ways of knowing and claims to truth.

    But perhaps this is all too ‘French’ and unacceptable in the Anglo/American discourse on science….

    This paper here, by Marjorie Grene, discusses these differences:
    “The Philosophy of Science of Georges Canguilhem: a transatlantic view”

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