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46 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language lesson, 31 July 2008
This review is from: Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture (Hardcover)
It was a delightful episode. For nearly two generations, the philosophical French Pox had suffused through North American universities. "Postmodernism" created artificial new disciplines, set a still unmatched standard for obfuscation, and lambasted science whenever its practitioners found the opportunity. Being busy with other things, researchers had little time to respond with more than a sad shaking of the head. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, physicist Alan Sokal [who?] produced an article on quantum gravity, drafted in the best elusive "pomo" style and publised it in a leading postmodernist journal, Social Text.

It was a hoax. Beautifully conceived and wonderfully executed, Sokal's article demonstrated to all what a different kind of hoax had been perpetrated on North American education. In this lively recapitulation of the episode, Sokal uses the article - with updating comments - to explain his motives and to expand on them with additional essays. The original is reprinted with Sokal's commentary on what spoofs, solopsisms, outright flattery of Socal Text's editors and purposeful scientific errors even a first-year physics student would question. Obviously, none of that mattered, since the syntax was so clearly in a form those editors cherished, the "peer reviewers" overlooked or were ignorant of, the gaffes. Besides a scientist writing for a journal long known to criticise science. He was one of their own!

Revelation of the parody in another pomo journal brought much glee to the scientific community, among others, but the project failed in one significant regard. The pomo movement did not wither away - indeed many of its adherents still occupy university chairs. "Truth" is still being equated with "belief" and objective facts are readily dismissed for unverifiable alternatives and "feelings" accepted more than data. The following essays demonstrate that illogical thinking, rejection of the scientific method did not diminish and pseudoscience is actually on the rise. In one truly frightening essay, Sokal describes the psuedoscience that is permeating the North American nursing profession. Deemed - among other terms - "Therapeutic Touch", its practioners claim certain healing skills by not "touching" at all! Although the practice was exposed by an 11-year-old girl at a science fair, classes in the technique are given in at least 80 college and university schools across North America, with an equal number of hospitals sponsoring its use.

As he notes, Sokal's original - and ongoing - aim is to protect students from falling prey to the mass of false or misleading claims about science, about the finding and use of evidence, about the evils of "credential-mongering" and to encourage critical thinking generally. He provides numerous examples, even ranging so far afield as an examination of the rise of postmodernism in India. There, the attacks on science seen in the West have expanded and intensified in Vedic Hinduism, a movement wrapped in anti-colonialist nationalism and ethno-centrism. Social commentators Meera Nanda and Vandana Shiva - oft-cited by Western relativist academics, are shown as Asian heirs to the French tradition. Both call for "alternative sciences", which remain poorly formulated.

This discussion of a religiously-based rejection of objective science is a proper lead to his final chapter, "Religion, Politics and Survival". If there is one area where "evidence" is discounted and even avoided, it is in the promulgation of religion. For Sokal, the issue goes well beyond simple personal considerations because making decisions without assessing valid information distorts how we make choices. Evidence, he argues, must come first, whether in social situations, politics or even buying an auto. "Faith", he says, "is not a rejection of reason, but the lazy acceptance of bad reasons". Using Sam Harris' "End of Faith" and Rabbi Michael Lerner's "Spirit Matters", the author closely examines the books and the questions they raise. Among these is the attitude of his countrymen at election time. "Moral values" was the highest rated reason given for making a choice in the 2004 presidential election - with the term being a code-word for opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Given that most people have no real idea what is involved in such situations, Sokal argues that decisions based on deluded sources are flawed. Ethical ideas can be assessed in secular terms and that's an idea he wishes extended.

Although this book may seem dated to the uninitiated - we don't encounter the term "postmodern" as much as we used to, the basic philosophy remains widespread. By eschewing realistic foundations for our patterns of living, we may be heading into a pre-Enlightenment version of modern society. Should anybody wish this sort of regression, they are free to try it outside a society where the powers available are kept out of harm's way. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Feb 2009 23:02:05 GMT
T. Parfitt says:
I agree that Sokal did critical theory a service by lampooning some of the sloppier thinking associated with postmodernism. But the ridiculous generalisation of French philosophy as a pox reflects how the Sokal/Bricmont hoax has been used to justify some sloppy thinking amongst those who seem very anxious to dismiss any form of critical thinking about some of the claims made for science. Does this French philosophical pox extend to those whose work is not characterised by the uncritical relativism associated with pomo, such as Alain Badiou? Does it cover Sartre? Are we going as far back as Rousseau? And what about some philosophers who are not French, but have the temerity to question science and problematise concepts such as 'objective facts' - eg Nietzsche? Or how about Kuhn? If memory serves Popper would dispute the assertion that evidence must come first. He would be more likely to aver that a hypothesis comes first and then evidence is applied in the test of falsifiability. All I am trying to say here is that the issue is rather more complex than a manichean dichotomy between an unimpeachable 'science' which is the key to revealing the truth, and a philosophical pox that obfuscates this truth. Furthermore, I'm not at all sure that an uncritical faith in science is the best response to the pseudoscientific trends that Sokal and the reviewer (and I incidentally) dislike.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Sep 2009 07:59:57 BDT
Last edited by the author on 8 Sep 2009 10:54:53 BDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on 28 May 2010 23:34:23 BDT
Obelix says:
"Thus 'gay marriage' is a blasphemy, in which the Christian Church gives blessing to what Christian doctrine regards as mortal sin."

Bigotry, in short - which most Britons, as it should scarcely need pointing out, do not share. The 'strength of feeling' couldn't be clearer.
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