Alan Sokal, you may recall, became famous for perpetrating the “Sokal Hoax“, in which he made up a postmodern scholarly article full of bizarre contentions but larded with real quotes, and submitted it to Social Text, an academic journal of cultural studies viewed through a postmodern lens. The article, called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, was accepted, whereupon Sokal revealed the hoax in another article. It was the first demonstration of how a completely off-the-wall article could find favor with postmodern academics. (It’s been repeated with the more recent “grievance studies” hoaxes.)
Sokal, a mathematics professor at University College London and emeritus professor of physics at NYU, has written or co-written two books on the nonsense of postmodernism, and how it damages real scholarship: Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, and Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (written with Jean Bricmont). I’ve read them, and they’re both good.
In this article on Medium below (click on screenshot), Sokal analyzes whether postmodernism, with its tenet of rejecting all objective truths, was responsible for the alt-Right’s denial of facts: not only the false claims of a stolen election, but the load of misinformation swirling around the Covid vaccines. He concludes that postmodernism is partly but not wholly responsible.
Sokal first cites some dismaying statistics taken from two reliable polls: 66-72% of Republicans think that 2020 Presidential election results were either inaccurate or fraudulent, while 47% of Republicans think that the January 6 assault on the Capitol (largely motivated by fraudulent claims of the stolen election) was “mostly a legitimate protest”. The delusion that led to the assault was, of course, promoted by Trump as well as more than half of the Republican members of Congress.
Sokal diagnoses this as more than “the breakdown of democratic legitimacy”, but also as “the breakdown of consensus of basic facts”: the view that the election was rigged despite solid information that it wasn’t. And he goes further, saying that the factual dispute didn’t really come from postmodernism directly, but from sociologists of science (quotes from Sokal are indented):
For millennia—since at least ancient Greece—philosophers have debated what constitutes knowledge and how one can legitimately acquire it. . .
Despite this, though, people agreed that reliable and objective evidence about the world could be obtained from observation and reason:
. . . That the Earth is approximately spherical, not flat. That the dinosaurs went extinct long before humans roamed the Earth. That Joe Biden won the 2020 election.
. . . But, starting about 40 years ago, a small coterie of social-constructivist sociologists of science began to break this consensus, with radical claims like:
- The validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence.
- The natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge.
- For the relativist (such as ourselves) there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such.
I don’t know how people can believe such things in the face of empirical evidence that makes verifiable predictions about the world, but there are a lot of academics who want to make a splash. (Do these scholars take their sick children to doctors, or to shamans and faith healers?) At any rate, Sokal argues that postmodernism simply appropriated the claims from the sociology of science
These ideas were in turn picked up by postmodernist scholars—mostly in departments of literature, it must be said, not philosophy—and from there percolated into the rest of society. There, they became part of the mother’s milk—the unexamined conventional wisdom—of some sectors of the “woke” left. “There is no objective, neutral reality,” writes Robin DiAngelo, author of the best-selling White Fragility.
But Sokal won’t blame the right’s (I’ll drop the “alt-Right”) denial of facts solely on postmodernism, as he says that that area of scholarship is complex, encompasses many different views, and, at any rate “the path from academic to society at large is even more complex, and has yet to be adequately investigated by sociologists.” That’s certainly true, but there’s no doubt that there is a connection between wonky views in colleges and in society at large. The connection between the media and what’s happening in campus is particularly strong, though strong for Left-wing rather than Right-wing views. This cannot be denied. As Andrew Sullivan observed, “We’re all on campus now.”
Sokal concludes this way:
When all is said and done, postmodernist academics and their activist followers are not to blame for any of the evils of today’s right wing. What postmodernist relativism has wrought is, rather, something more insidious: by devaluing the concept of objective truth, it has undermined our own ability to combat objective untruths—to develop herd immunity to a pandemic of viral disinformation, as one writer eloquently put it.
Now the genie is out of the bottle, and I honestly don’t know how to put it back in.
All well and good, but you may have noticed a problem. It’s not just the Right that’s loath to consider “objective truth”. Think about the assertions made by the “progressive” Left: that everyone is a racist, even if unconscious of it, inequities always reflect current racism, and yes, the Left, loath to look bigoted or supremacist, is particularly susceptible to cultural relativism. The New York Times and other Left-wing papers regularly distort the conflict between Israel and Palestine in favor of the latter. I could go on, but the problem of refusing to face facts isn’t limited to the alt-Right or the Right.
In fact, in their book Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay pin postmodernism’s devaluation of objective truth on the missteps of the Left, many of whose members prefer to ignore reality in favor of ideology. (We had an article yesterday on the denial of bimodal sex in humans in medicine, a harmful view perpetrated by the Left.)
I’m not saying that one side is much worse in its distortions than the other. Right-wing distortions are large and loud, while those of the left more subtle and numerous. But Sokal, while he might be correct about the history of denying objective fact, mentions the “woke Left” only once, when quoting Robin Diangelo, while he brings up the “right” and “Republicans” twelve times and mentions only the “evils of today’s right wing” in his conclusions. Sokal, of course, is a good classical liberal, much like me, I’d say. But the problem he limns certainly is not limited to Republicans. Much of the entire political spectrum is afflicted with an anti-Enlightenment tendency to ignore facts in favor of ideology.
If that wasn’t a characteristic of the Left, this website woudn’t exist.