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Book Review: Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture by Alan Sokal

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In 1996, two physicists wrote a paper for the postmodernist journal Social Text called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." It was a long paper, running to over 35 pages, with hundreds of references to works by philosophers, scientists, social theorists and literary critics. Social Text accepted and published it, and then the fireworks started.

In Alan Sokal's words, "my article is a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever". He had, nonetheless, managed to persuade a leading postmodernist journal to take the spoof seriously and publish it. They couldn't tell the difference between the spoof and their own work.

The postmodernist philosophy movement had become enraptured by the writings of Baudrillard, Lacan, Irigaray, Derrida, and many others whose focus was on deconstructing texts, eliciting meaning from sub-texts buried in narratives. From literary criticism, where the source material was fiction, they transferred their attention to all forms of narrative. Alas, they included science as a narrative too.

Some scientists had observed these moves with mild amusement as they came across debates about whether electricity was male or female, and whether gravity was a macho concept. The debates considered science itself as a collection of discourses, which would reveal their true meanings and values by deconstruction, exposing the subtexts by a process of criticism. For scientists, this was a very curious approach, but as it didn't impact their work, they rarely took it at all seriously.

But it wasn't just an air of levity that inspired theoretical physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont to write a spoof paper. Books were being written by postmodernists arguing against the methodology of science itself, and that required an answer. The spoof was the first blast.

There followed a book in 1998 called Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse of Science. It was such a comprehensive demolition job that one would have thought that would be the end of it. But unfortunately these subjectivist attitudes to science are still being promoted in university departments, especially in literature courses, and so Alan Sokal has again entered the fray, this time with Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture.

The book starts with an annotated explanation of the original paper in which, with wonderful humour, he illustrates the absurdities it contained: he exposes his own subtext. But the main meat of the book comes in the subsequent seven chapters, in which he explains how the constraints of the physical world influence the development of theory.

He argues that despite what the postmodernists would have us believe, there IS an objective reality which constrains our actions, and if we want our theories to have any explanatory power, we have to test them against the real world. Scientific truth is not an opinion or something revealed from deconstructing texts, but is identified and explored by experimental science. This attack on cognitive relativism is an essential stance if we are to avoid confusing science with opinion.

In his chapter on Science Studies, he looks at how postmodernists have shifted its focus from the processes of science to the method itself. By including poststructuralist and postmodernist discourse theory, they launched an attack on the epistemic claims of science itself. Lest we miss quite how virulent some of these attacks had become, we might mention Sandra Harding's description of Newton's Principia Mathematica as a "rape manual". This is not just madness, but respectable academic madness, the stuff of rarified PhDs.

Sokal does an excellent job of explaining the issues of cognitive relativism.  He looks at falsifiability, the counterfactual, Kuhn's paradigms, Feyerabend, Quine, and others, and shows how science is very practical about its epistemological foundations. He argues for a position of "modest scientific realism" and he considers the case for epistemological opportunism. Since reality is the arbiter of physical truth, we should adopt an epistemological opportunism in our decisions about how to investigate it. That doesn't invalidate the knowledge obtained at all. It simply means that we don't restrict our methods because of some philosophical dogma. It extends back to philosophy the principle of drawing theory from the data. Scientific knowledge needs no justification from outside – the justification is its objective validity.

Sokal identifies two very common fallacies. The first is the belief that because there are problems with Popperian or logical-positivist accounts of science, then there must be some other account that does work perfectly. In fact, there might be no account that completely works. The second fallacy is that because we don't completely understand how scientific knowledge is obtained, it is therefore in some way less reliable. Regardless of epistemology, science stands on its predictability and explanation of the real world. Popper might be wrong, but Einstein's theory of relativity still stands up.

The long chapter on pseudoscience and postmodernism explores and explains the irrational underpinning of the growth of "alternative medicine" in nursing. Since science is assumed to be just one narrative amongst many, why not choose another, irrational one and try that? Sokal looks at the growth of fake medical theory finding its way even into university textbooks, including mention of healing touch, energy fields, and Eastern mystical ideas written up as medicine. These are underpinned with academic references to just those postmodernist philosophers who were taken in by the spoof paper.

It is this pernicious undermining of rational thinking that so concerns Sokal. When nurses going through training are led to believe that there really are meridians and chakras and healing energies, and that any belief system is equivalent to science, the very basis of health care is being undermined from within.

In a detailed examination of the beliefs of Eastern medicine, Sokal shows how they mesh wonderfully with postmodernist stress on the individual. Theories that support personal preference are seen as more profound, regardless of whether they are grounded in reality. The stress on the individual reduces the need for testing any theory against the real world. Having choice is seen as more important than whether or not the theory is correct. But a wrong theory is misleading and potentially very dangerous, so it's important to find out if it is incorrect. Postmodernism sidesteps this inconvenience.

Finally Sokal looks at spirituality and religious belief. He shows that much of what is considered valuable in both are actually secular beliefs. He explores the theology of both Christian and Islamic faiths and shows how they have no adequate epistemology (theory of knowledge). But neuroscience does provide some answers to why some people are religious. It now seems likely that all humans have some intuition about morality and fairness, and that religion is in large part an after-the-fact rationalisation for moral concepts that we all share.

This thought-provoking book ought to be required reading for anyone who was brought up in the intellectual tradition of postmodernism or who has been convinced that science is nothing more than one discourse amongst many. It's written in a lively entertaining style, and although meaty and authoritative, it's not heavy.

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