Beyond the Hoax

Alan Sokal
2008

It’s a treat to find a book that makes you want to go up to people and shove the book in their faces and exclaim, “This is good! This is what I think!”

According to a central tenet of postmodernism, science is “nothing more than a ‘myth,’ a ‘narrative’ or a ‘social construction’ among many others.” Imagine my delight, then, when I opened Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture and found that someone with Sokal’s qualifications had written a book that put this silly, over-applied notion in its proper place.

In 1996, critical theory journal Social Text published an article by physicist Sokal in its “Science Wars” issue. Sokal’s article, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was a hoax, designed to expose the buzzword sloppy thinking of the sociological theory of “cognitive relativism,especially when applied to science.

Sokal’s book begins with a rigourously annotated version of his Social Text essay, and Beyond the Hoax is a worthwhile read for this feature alone. The rest of the book is a collection of related essays, and some of the pieces are compelling, especially those that warn the political left against the anti-intellectual dangers of unbridled relativism and those that deal with Sokal’s critiques of the often muddled thinking and jargonizing through which sociologists and philosophers dubiously conflate the aims, techniques, and results of the physical sciences with those of their own, “softer” fields of study.

He reserves some of his strongest criticisms for academic specialities like feminism and anti-colonialism, areas of study whose aims he supports but whose misunderstandings of science he finds not only wrong but also counter-productive. Sokal clearly identifies his concerns with the impact of postmodernism on progressive politics:

Against the mystifications promoted by the economic and political elites, we have to offer to our fellow citizens a coherent and persuasive account of how the existing society really works; we have to criticize that society on the basis of a coherent set of ethical values, and finally, we have to make coherent proposals for how to change that society so as to bring it more in accord with our ethical values.

As well, he criticizes the application of postmodernism to science for “the use of trendy but ambiguous phraseology,” for “how Cultural Studies has vulgarized valid philosophy of science,” for how many in Cultural Studies have questioned “the distinction between facts and values,” and for ”the failure of much trendy work”  to distinguish properly between different areas of knowledge.

(Sokal, who is a physical scientist, has little to say about the value and utility of some of the more moderate postmodernist approaches in areas like literature and history, where notions of “narrative” and “social construct” can be profitably applied. At the same time, I strongly agree with his defence of the physical sciences against these social science theories. It’s not just apples and oranges, in this case; it’s more like apples and drill presses. But more on that subtopic in a later posting.)

For philosophers of science, the technical and thorough middle section, “Science and Philosophy,” gives a closely-reasoned defence of the scientific method against the objections of postmodernist and post-structuralist thinkers, asserting convincingly that science provides, at the very least, a reasonable, useful and close approximation to reality.

Perhaps it’s a case of my relative familiarity with the humanities and the politics of the left than it is any fault of Sokal’s writing that I find these first two sections more interesting than the long third section which details the postmodernist ideas behind what Sokal calls “pseudoscience.” While I agree with Sokal that astrology, homeopathy, creationism, and the major world religions (his list) are both wrong and wrong-headed, I could have done with far less space being given to detailed critiques of Therapeutic Touch and Vedic “science.”

All in all, despite any inconsistencies, Beyond the Hoax is a clearly written, proficiently argued and thoroughly documented work, one with many more bullseyes than misses, and a book which easily refutes the criticism of one postmodernist critic that Sokal is merely “poorly read and half-educated.”

Whatever he is, he’s not either of those.

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