Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture

By Alan Sokal

(Oxford University Press, 465 pp. $34.95)

Every reader of this magazine is likely to have heard of the "Sokal hoax," the most celebrated academic escapade of our time. Everyone is also likely to know the story in outline: how in 1996 the radical "postmodernist" journal Social Text published an article submitted by Alan Sokal, a mathematical physicist at New York University, with the mouthwatering title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Sokal then revealed the article to be a spoof, a tissue of nonsense that he had painstakingly assembled in order to parody the portentous rubbish that flew under the colors of postmodernism. By publishing Sokal's submission, the emperors of that tendency revealed themselves to be as naked as the rest of academia had always suspected, and with this one coup Sokal himself became the toast of the town, a celebrity, a hero of the resistance.

Since then, he and others have written extensively about the hoax and its significance. Some have attempted to defend the editors of Social Text, but they could not do much to stop the laughter. Some pursed their lips at the impropriety of hoaxing, but ridicule is a good weapon. Most thought that the editors had brought it on themselves. Sokal himself has written numerous essays, and also a book about it, with Jean Bricmont (Impostures intellectuelles, published in America in 1998 as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science). His new book brings together ten essays, beginning with a thoroughly annotated text of the hoax submission itself. Most of these essays have been published at various times since the hoax came out, and the hoax itself, in all its delicious pottiness, is easily available on the Web.

For dedicated followers of the aftermath of Sokal's useful mischief, there may be a sense of deja vu here. Indeed, Sokal begins his preface somewhat defensively: "I have a visceral distaste for books that have been confected by pasting together a collection of loosely connected, previously published essays. ... So the reader may legitimately wonder: Am I not now publishing just such a compilation?" The answer, he assures us, is that he is not, because the essays form a coherent whole. I expect most authors of collections feel the same, viscerally or otherwise.

But the more pressing problem is that the kind of postmodernism that was Sokal's special target is now widely held to belong to yesterday. Before September 11, the story goes, academe allowed its "anything goes" tendency to grow unchecked. With long prosperity, the disappearance of the Cold War, and the lack of any great causes to substitute for it, a certain playfulness--an ironic, aesthetic, and disengaged attitude to life--was quite tolerable. This was history's leisure time. We did not need too much self-scrutiny, and certainly not nervous and serious books about who we are and what we stand for and where we may be heading. The relativist could hold court as the lord of misrule. You disagree with me? Whatever. That's your view, and who's to say? I expect it is true for you.

It didn't do to thump the table or insist too much: philosophers, it was supposed, had taught us to see any such exhibition of critical reason as nothing more than a bid for power, a rhetorical trick for imposing ourselves on others, and with such bad manners, or worse. Especially it would not do if the ones who were being thumped at were victims of the colonial past, or descendants anxious to claim the status of victim. In that sacred sector, respect was the order of the day, even if it meant smiling politely at creationist timetables of earth history, Hindu versions of science, homeopathic medicine, and any other stumbling pre-scientific attempt at understanding the world. In fact, the only proper targets of disrespect were those "metaphysical prigs," as Richard Rorty liked to call them, who wanted to keep the inverted commas off words such as truth, reason, or knowledge.

Relativism can certainly go along with complacency, and I think it is fair to say that even philosophers more serious than Rorty were tainted by that. The philosophy of the right, mainly market triumphalism, is of course an old friend, and still survives, even if it now looks a little battered; but consider in this connection also "political liberalism," the heading under which John Rawls could imagine the peoples of the world willingly leaving their ideological and cultural differences at the door and coming into the political arena carrying only that which they hold in common. What they had in common turned out to be a birthright of reason sufficient all by itself to enchant them with a nice liberal democratic constitution, amazingly like that of the United States, or perhaps western Europe. Conflict could be talked through and violence abated. When the philosophers explained the right way to live, everyone would fall happily into line. Innocent times.

But no longer. The present decade is different. The United States has had its wake-up call, and may have others just as loud. It has been told, brutally, that disagreement matters, and that if our grasp of what we need to defend is feeble enough, there are people out there only too happy to wrest it away from us. It has reacted even more brutally to that alarm by declaring war on people who had nothing to do with it in the first place, and then conducting that war with counterproductive barbarity. It has learned that there is not much common reason that is everyone's birthright--that when disagreement comes, people cannot afford to shrug.

There are times when we have to do better than "whatever" and "anything goes." A country needs to understand what is good, and also what is not good, about its preferred ways of living. It needs to understand what is good, and why, about its science, history, and self-understandings; and it even needs to understand what was good, and why, about the politics and the ethics that it may have, let us hope temporarily, abandoned. When we behold a postmodernist White House where the president and his advisers sneer at the "reality-based community," then carnival time in academe is well and truly over.

I greatly enjoyed Sokal's hoax. There is little in academic life more irritating than people pretending to understand things that they do not understand. Who cannot want to explode the long lines of intellectuals posing as having a close acquaintance with iconic items of twentieth-century progress-- relativity theory, of course, but also quantum mechanics, set theory, Godel's theorems, Tarski's work on formal logic, and much else? Custard pies are exactly what is needed.

Still, I found myself not quite as wholehearted as some of my colleagues. I felt a little guilty about laughing, even if the joke was a good one. I had edited a journal myself, and so I found it easier to put myself in the position of the hapless editors of Social Text. As Sokal himself acknowledges, they had generally left-wing or progressive political views. They believed, rightly, that people do not share those views or act upon them because of an inclination to take too much for granted, a tendency to suppose that too many things about the way we live are fixed and unalterable; that dominant stories, about the virtues of the market, or of democracy, or about the place of women, or the causes of poverty, or the truths of religion, are unquestionable; or that our way is the only way, or that we always know best. The editors thought, correctly, that such complacency impeded progress.

They also believed, probably rather vaguely, like most of us, that twentiethcentury developments in science showed examples that shook off deeply entrenched complacencies or prejudices. They had heard of Einstein, and knew something of the destruction of the classical notion of simultaneity, or of the discovery of relativity of motion to an observer; they might even have heard of Max Born or Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and the idea that, at the fundamental quantum level, what is observed is a function of whether it is observed, so that there is no legitimate notion of how things stand independently of whether they are observed. This has been contested, certainly; and Einstein himself ran a long and ultimately rather futile campaign against it, just as he did against the indeterministic implications of quantum theory. But both are still center stage in the philosophy of physics. And most importantly, the editors, and postmodernist writers in general, were well aware of the dominant authority of science in every part of our culture. What humanists say does not much matter, but what the men in the white coats say goes. They were probably, like the rest of us, somewhat ambivalent about that--on the one hand mistrusting the absolute sway of science, on the other hand eager for some of its gloss.

Against this background, in came a paper by an accredited mathematical physicist teaching at a very highly regarded university. And the whole tendency of the article was to confirm the view that developments in science, right up to the contemporary scene, could indeed hold messages that were useful for their radical hopes. The science was presented as confirming for them that, more than we might suppose, things lie in the eye of the beholder. And that was important to the aims of the journal. True, the editors cannot have understood a lot of the alleged physics, partly because there was actually nothing there to understand. Still, if a professor at NYU couldn't get that stuff right, who could?

I do not find it so surprising that they ran with it. Should they have had it refereed by mathematicians, physicists, and set theorists? I am not sure. It is better to do so, no doubt, and I expect that the poor editors have woken up every morning since wishing that they had. But there are costs of time and effort in finding referees, and as often as not you end up with two things to judge rather than just one. Anyway, it was the purported message of the physics, not the details, that mattered to their interest in it. And you do trust academics to get their own subjects right. When I edited Mind, if a paper came in from a well-regarded historian in an eminent department showing, for instance, that various facts about Hobbes's political experiences in Venice explain his attachment to some doctrine in political philosophy, I would have had to estimate the political philosophy myself. But I might well have taken Hobbes's presence in Venice as given: surely any halfway decent historian would not have developed the point if he hadn't got that bit right? Almost certainly I would not have had the history refereed, even if I had known whom to approach.

I also found something a shade distasteful about the position of those triumphalists who were crowing about the hoax. Very few of them would be able to make head or tail of a page of any contemporary physics journal. So when Sokal tells them that some sentences in his hoax were physically perfectly correct, while others were egregiously false or nonsensical, they have to take him on trust, and this alone puts them in a rather poor position from which to crow over the hapless others who took all of them, including the wrong ones, on trust.

And finally, we might reflect that gullibility is not the prerogative of wacky postmodernists. Indeed, there is a phenomenon with its own name, "the Dr. Fox effect," arising from an experiment conducted back in 1973. Fox was not a doctor but an actor. The experimenters created a meaningless lecture on "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education," larded with double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictions. Fox delivered this nonsense to three separate audiences of medical professionals, psychologists, and graduate students, but with humor and a pleasant and confident air. The evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. Bullshit really does beat brains, worldwide.

Still, if you do not know how to tell a counterfeit coin from a true one, you should not go around pretending that you do. And this was not the worst vice of the postmodernists. Far worse was their penchant for unintelligible writing, for drawing wild inferences, and for throwing around irresponsible claims, such as the wonderfully absurd assertions that before tuberculosis was identified you could not die of it, or that Newton's laws of motion make up a rape manual. These absurdities are also in Sokal's sights, and compared with them the pathetic conceit of decorating writings with a pretense of acquaintance with mathematics and physics is relatively minor.

It is natural to say that postmodernist writings displayed a contempt for truth, and in several of these essays Sokal skillfully defends a fairly modest kind of scientific realism, reaffirming the claims of science to give us the truth, or at least to put us on its track. And he is justly scornful of postmodernist philosophers who appeared to denigrate truth: Richard's Rorty's old campaign to substitute "solidarity" for truth is, quite rightly, a particular target. Gaining the agreement of our fellows is not the same as getting things right. It only begins to approximate to it if our fellows are trained in observation, evidence, and theory--and even then agreement stands ready to be struck down by the arrival of yet further observation, evidence, and theory in turn.

Sokal is good at this, and although he disclaims any special philosophical expertise, he writes well about the philosophy of science. He is good at articulating a basic epistemology for science, against the skepticism of Karl Popper as much as the wilder constructivist writings that followed him. Yet Sokal is certainly not the kind of warrior in the "science wars" who disdains each and every attempt to say something interesting about the historical, social, and cultural matrix within which science has taken place. My own view is that science education would do well to pay far more attention to this context than it typically does.

I like to illustrate this with an event in my own daughter's education. She came back furious one day from her very good (and very expensive) school, announcing she was fed up with science. I asked why. Apparently the class had been told to solve some equations governing the motion of the pendulum. In particular they had been told to use the equation of potential energy at the top of the swing with kinetic energy at the bottom, to calculate the velocity at the bottom of the swing. I asked what the problem was. She said she didn't see what this so-called energy was. I asked if she had raised this with the teacher. She said she had, and had been told to get on and solve the equations. She never pursued any science again.

Yet if you look at the history of the pendulum from Galileo's work at the end of the sixteenth century, you will find a wonderful story of ingenuity, of mathematics, of contested observations, of problems of trade and the need to find the longitude, of the gradual evolution of the calculus, of debates about whether "force" should be thought of as proportional to velocity or square velocity (which set Newton and Leibniz at each other's throats). A century later there were yet more disputes, involving Carnot, Joule, and Helmholtz, about the relationship between work, heat, and energy. You do not find the conservation law in the form of the equation that was tossed at my daughter until the 1860s. And as an aside, it is a pretty silly place to start in explaining anything about the pendulum, since energy depends on mass, and Galileo asserted, right at the beginning, that the period and the velocity of the pendulum are independent of its mass.

Such dogmatic, stupid teaching not only loses bright children to science. It also means that the ones who remain have been spoon-fed a bunch of results and techniques with no understanding of how they were hammered out, of what their birth pangs were. This disqualifies students from understanding the epistemology of science, and therefore of engaging effectively with doubters and deniers, whether the issue is one of the age of the earth or the measurement of its temperature. Either they go off science with a shudder, or (if they stick with it) they know only to mock anyone who cannot see why, for instance, energy might not be proportional to velocity, without themselves knowing why. Or they suppose that science speaks with one voice, and the only dissenters must be Luddites such as the notorious Cardinal Bellarmine, who allegedly refused to look through Galileo's telescope, whereas the truth is that many of Galileo's assertions, including those about the pendulum, were contested by careful observers, including Descartes and Mersenne, probably the leading physicists of the time. And if peoples' miseducation in science has simply taught them to be dogmatists, they can hardly complain if those on the outside can see only dogmatism. But the reality is that science is a human activity, not an abstract calculus, and this properly makes its great achievements a subject of pride and awe, not suspicion and skepticism. It should also make us aware of its desperate fragility, and the hostile cultural forces that it constantly has to overcome.

The questions of truth, faith, and evidence loom large in the more philosophical of these essays. On the first, Sokal accepts a version of what has become known as the "no miracles" argument for science's claim to depict reality truly. This starts with some uncontested fact about the success of a science, such as its accuracy of prediction, or its technological application. Our lasers and our cell phones work, our materials have their calculated strengths, our predictions are borne out to extraordinary numbers of decimal places: what can explain this, except that we are getting things right, or very nearly right? Or in other words, that we are on the track of the truth? If we were not, it would be an inexplicable coincidence--a miracle--that we are so often so successful.

The argument is powerful, and I accept it. But it is not the end of the story. For we need also to wonder what it is about truth that makes it compelling. Consider any instance of scientific success. A GPS receiver tells you where you are with astonishing accuracy, based on its distance from four or more satellites orbiting the earth. How does it know those distances? It uses a time differential and the speed of light. For simplicity's sake, let us consider only the speed of light. What, then, explains the instrument's accuracy? Science says that the speed of light is so many meters per second, and that is the correct, or the true, value. It is the truth of the estimate that is vital to the working. If we had gotten it wrong, and not by much, the instrument would be useless.

Here truth is in the shop window, as it were. But the curious thing is that we can suggest the identical explanation without mentioning truth at all. Pick up the story right at the end. What explains the instrument's accuracy? Science says that the speed of light is so many meters per second, and that is true, or science says that the speed of light is so many meters per second and the speed of light is so many meters per second. The second makes no mention of truth, but it works just as well to explain our success. Indeed, it has some title to being science's own explanation of it, and that it is the best that there is. Science does not typically mention the concept of truth in describing how GPS devices work.

It is a queer thing about truth that it has this self-effacing quality. And it is not as if we have to choose which of the explanations should be preferred, the one with truth in the shop window or the one without it. They come to exactly the same thing. Many philosophers, myself included, think that this implies that the notion has a logical, rather than a metaphysical, function. A large claim such as "science gives us the truth" would be a summary way of collecting together a lot of examples such as "science says that cholera is due to a virus, and it is" and "science says that the earth circles the sun, and it does." Since we all assent to many such examples, we can summarize our confidence by assenting to the generalization as well.

If truth retires into the shadows as an interesting topic, so do its detractors. Rorty's campaign careens off the rails, because whether there were once dinosaurs is one thing, and whether our peers let us get away with saying so is patently something else. But evidence can occupy some of the vacuum left by any more substantive conception of truth. The problem with flat-earthers, creationists, homeopaths, and the rest is not so much that they have a duff conception of truth as that they have duff attitudes toward evidence. The problem with creationists, for example, is that they either know nothing about stratigraphical or radiometric dating of geological time, or they misunderstand them, or at the worst they have some fanciful notion that uniformities in nature are not the things to rely upon, in which case they might as well believe that they themselves and their sacred books were all created at the same time, say a couple of minutes ago.

If we cannot take what is uniformly the case within our experience as our guide for hypotheses about regions of the world beyond it, then reasons dissolve and all bets are off. Reliance on such regularity, as Hume saw, is necessary if we are to move one step beyond the immediately given; and in fact, as Kant added, it is necessary in order to think of ourselves as inhabiting a world at all. It is a necessary presupposition of thought itself. So when the creationist arbitrarily strays from relying on regularities, he must be betraying the very reasoning that he himself constantly uses.

The word "faith" raises its annoying head at this point. Is the human reliance on uniformities just as much a matter of faith as the creationist's reliance on whatever message tells him that the earth is six thousand years old? A lot of modern writing in the theory of knowledge more or less throws in the towel and supposes that it is. Wittgenstein summed it up in his last book, On Certainty, arguing that what we would like are rock-solid foundations for our beliefs, but what we find are things that simply "stand fast" for us--and this raises the disturbing possibility of others for whom different and in our eyes deplorable things equally stand fast.

This is really only a rediscovery of Hume's own results. But "faith" is the wrong word here, if it implies cousinship with arbitrary stabs of confidence in things for which there is no evidence. Those can, and must, be avoided, because a modest confidence in the wonderful stabilities of the world goes with our capacity to think at all.

In these fundamental ways, then, the history and philosophy of science provide the most important defenses that our culture has. It is excellent to see a practicing physicist taking them seriously and contributing to them, as Alan Sokal has done. He is certainly to be envied for having his name indelibly tied to one of the more interesting battles that has been won on their behalf.

Simon Blackburn is the Professor of Philosophy in the University of Cambridge. His new book, How to Read Hume, will be published by Granta in August.

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By Simon Blackburn