Fashionable Nonsense

Sokal affair

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science’ (French: ‘Impostures Intellectuelles’) is a 1997 book by NYU physics professor Alan Sokal and Belgian theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont. Sokal is best known for the Sokal Affair, in which he submitted a deliberately absurd article to ‘Social Text,’ a critical theory journal, and was able to get it published. The English editions were revised for greater relevance to debates in the English-speaking world.

As part of the so-called ‘science wars’ (a series of intellectual exchanges, between scientific realists and postmodernist critics), the book criticizes postmodernism in academia for what it claims are misuses of scientific and mathematical concepts in postmodern writing. According to some reports, the response within the humanities was ‘polarized.’ Critics of Sokal and Bricmont charge that they lack understanding of the writing they were criticizing. Responses from the scientific community were more supportive.

‘Fashionable Nonsense’ examines two related topics: the allegedly incompetent and pretentious usage of scientific concepts by a small group of influential philosophers and intellectuals; and the problems of cognitive relativism, the idea that ‘modern science is nothing more than a ‘myth,’ a ‘narration’ or a ‘social construction’ among many others’  as seen in the Strong Program in the sociology of science. The sociology of science refers to the study of science as a social activity. The strong program is a reaction against previous sociologies of science, which restricted the application of sociology to ‘failed’ or ‘false’ theories, such as phrenology. Failed theories would be explained by citing the researchers’ biases, such as covert political or economic interests. Sociology would be only marginally relevant to successful theories, which succeeded because they had revealed a true fact of nature. The strong program proposed that both ‘true’ and ‘false’ scientific theories should be treated the same way. Both are caused by social factors or conditions, such as cultural context and self-interest. All human knowledge, as something that exists in the human cognition, must contain some social components in its formation process.

The stated goal of ‘Fashionable Nonsense’ is not to attack ‘philosophy, the humanities or the social sciences in general…[but] to warn those who work in them (especially students) against some manifest cases of charlatanism.’ In particular to ‘deconstruct’ the notion that some books and writers are difficult because they deal with profound and difficult ideas. ‘If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.’ The book includes long extracts from the works of Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, and Jean Baudrillard who are considered to be leading academics of Continental philosophy, critical theory, psychoanalysis, or social sciences. Sokal and Bricmont set out to show how those intellectuals have used concepts from the physical sciences and mathematics incorrectly. The extracts are intentionally rather long to avoid accusations of taking sentences out of context. Sokal and Bricmont claim that they do not intend to analyze postmodernist thought in general. Rather, they aim to draw attention to the abuse of concepts from mathematics and physics, subjects they’ve devoted their careers to studying and teaching.

Sokal and Bricmont define abuse of mathematics and physics as: Using scientific or pseudoscientific terminology without bothering much about what these words mean; Importing concepts from the natural sciences into the humanities without the slightest justification, and without providing any rationale for their use; Displaying superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms where they are irrelevant, presumably to impress and intimidate the non-specialist reader; Manipulating words and phrases that are, in fact, meaningless; and Self-assurance on topics far beyond the competence of the author and exploiting the prestige of science to give discourses a veneer of rigor. The book devotes a chapter to each of the mentioned authors, ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of a group of intellectual practices that can be described as ‘mystification, deliberately obscure language, confused thinking and the misuse of scientific concepts.’For example, Luce Irigaray is criticized for asserting that E=mc2 is a ‘sexed equation’ because ‘it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us’; and for asserting that fluid mechanics is unfairly neglected because it deals with ‘feminine’ fluids in contrast to ‘masculine’ rigid mechanics. Similarly, Lacan is criticized for drawing an analogy between topology and mental illness that, in Sokal and Bricmont’s view, is unsupported by any argument and is ‘not just false: it is gibberish.’

Sokal and Bricmont highlight the rising tide of what they call cognitive relativism, the belief that there are no objective truths but only local beliefs. They argue that this view is held by a number of people, including people who the authors label ‘postmodernists’ and the Strong Program in the sociology of science, and that it is illogical, impractical, and dangerous. Their aim is ‘not to criticize the left, but to help defend it from a trendy segment of itself.’ Quoting American economist Michael Albert, ‘there is nothing truthful, wise, humane, or strategic about confusing hostility to injustice and oppression, which is leftist, with hostility to science and rationality, which is nonsense.’

According to ‘New York Review of Books’ editor Barbara Epstein, who was delighted by Sokal’s hoax, within the humanities the response to the book was bitterly divided, with some highly amused and some enraged. Philosopher Thomas Nagel has supported Sokal and Bricmont, describing their book as consisting largely of ‘extensive quotations of scientific gibberish from name-brand French intellectuals, together with eerily patient explanations of why it is gibberish,’ and agreeing that ‘there does seem to be something about the Parisian scene that is particularly hospitable to reckless verbosity.’ Several scientists have expressed similar sentiments. Richard Dawkins, in a review of this book, said regarding the discussion of Lacan: ‘We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.’

The book has been subject to heavy criticism by post-modern philosophers and by scholars with some interest in continental philosophy. Bruce Fink offers a critique in his book ‘Lacan to the Letter,’ where he accuses Sokal and Bricmont of demanding that ‘serious writing’ do nothing other than ‘convey clear meanings.’ Fink asserts that some concepts which Sokal and Bricmont consider arbitrary or meaningless do have roots in the history of linguistics, and that Lacan is explicitly using mathematical concepts in a metaphoric way, not claiming that his concepts are mathematically founded. He takes Sokal and Bricmont to task for elevating a disagreement with Lacan’s choice of writing styles to an attack on his thought, which, in Fink’s assessment, they fail to understand. Fink says that ‘Lacan could easily assume that his faithful seminar public… would go to the library or the bookstore and ‘bone up’ on at least some of his passing allusions.’

This latter point has been disputed by Arkady Plotnitsky (one of the authors mentioned by Sokal in his original hoax). Plotnitsky says that ‘some of their claims concerning mathematical objects in question and specifically complex numbers are incorrect,’ specifically attacking their statement that complex numbers and irrational numbers ‘have nothing to do with one another.’ Plotnisky here defends Lacan’s view ‘of imaginary numbers as an extension of the idea of rational numbers—both in the general conceptual sense, extending to its ancient mathematical and philosophical origins … and in the sense of modern algebra.’ The first of these two senses refers to the fact that the extension of real numbers to complex numbers mirrors the extension of rationals to reals, as Plotnitsky points out with a quote from Leibniz: ‘From the irrationals are born the impossible or imaginary quantities whose nature is very strange but whose usefulness is not to be despised.’ However, with regard to the second sense, which Plotnisky describes by stating that ‘all imaginary and complex numbers are, by definition, irrational,’ mathematicians generally agree with Sokal and Bricmont in not taking complex numbers as irrational. Indeed, the concept of rational numbers has been extended into the complex domain to include Gaussian integers and Gaussian rationals.

Plotnitsky goes on, however, to agree with Sokal and Bricmont that the ‘square root of –1’ which Lacan discusses is not, in spite of its identical name, ‘identical, directly linked, or even metaphorized via the mathematical square root of –1,’ and that the latter ‘is not the erectile organ.’ Lacan’s assignment of new meanings to standard mathematical terms in this way, though supported by Plotnitsky as valid within the context of his work, is of course one of the things which Sokal and Bricmont object to. While Fink and Plotnitsky question Sokal and Bricmont’s right to say what definitions of scientific terms are correct, cultural theorists and literary critics Andrew Milner and Jeff Browitt acknowledge that right, seeing it as ‘defend[ing] their disciplines against what they saw as a misappropriation of key terms and concepts’ by writers such as Lacan and Irigaray. However, they point out that Luce Irigaray might still be correct in asserting that E=mc2 is a ‘masculinist’ equation, since ‘the social genealogy of a proposition has no logical bearing on its truth value.’ In other words, gender factors may influence which of many possible scientific truths are discovered. They also suggest that, in criticizing Irigaray, Sokal and Bricmont sometimes go beyond their area of expertise in the sciences and simply express a differing position on gender politics.

In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s response, ‘Sokal and Bricmont Aren’t Serious,’ first published in ‘Le Monde,’ he writes that the Sokal hoax is rather ‘sad [grave],’ not only because Alan Sokal’s name is now linked primarily to a hoax, not to science, but also because the chance to reflect seriously on this issue has been ruined for a broad public forum that deserves better. Derrida reminds his readers that science and philosophy have long debated their likenesses and differences in the discipline of epistemology, but certainly not with such an emphasis on the nationality of the philosophers or scientists. He calls it ridiculous and weird that there are intensities of treatment by the scientists, in particular, that he was ‘much less badly treated,’ when in fact he was the main target of US press. Derrida then proceeds to question the validity of their attacks against a few words he made in an off-the-cuff response during a conference that took place thirty years prior to their publication. He suggests there are plenty of scientists who have pointed out the difficulty of attacking his response. He also writes that there is no ‘relativism’ or a critique of Reason and the Enlightenment in his works. He then writes of his hope that in the future this work is pursued more seriously and with dignity at the level of the issues involved.


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