Still worth reading to spot purveyors of intellectual snakeoil,
This review is from: Intellectual Impostures (Paperback)Alan Sokal was a physicist who submitted a spoof article in the post-modernist journal Social Text: a farrago of gobbledygook, incorporating all manner of scientific and mathematical references, but packaged in the style of postmodernists' `discourse.' He didn't expect it to get published but it was. The resulting `scandal' did more than just leave egg on the faces of the journal's editors: it exposed that a whole intellectual movement's foundation that had taken hold in many social science and humanities departments was based on nothing but hot air.
This book is the follow up - in which Sokal and collaborator Jean Bricmont examine several postmodern writers and expose them for being mere assemblages of pretentious verbiage. Their targets are those thinkers who use mathematical and scientific terms without knowing what they are talking about. The authors do not object to laypeople speaking or writing about science. They object to the misuse of mathematical and scientific language in the pursuit of pseduoprofundity.
The authors give their targets their due, and much of the book damns post-modernist thinkers in their own words. Their obfuscations, the authors assure us, were no more intelligible in the original French in which they were written. One can easily believe it.
However, science itself is couched in language and mathematics that the untrained layperson cannot understand. Does this fact put it then on the same footing as postmodernist writers' obfuscations? No, there is no equivalence. For the concepts and language of science can be explained in lay terms - as writers like Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh et al have clearly demonstrated (read Simon Singh's brilliant Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It if you don't believe me). This cannot be said of the writers Sokal and Bricmont examine, who depend on keeping the meanings of what they say obscure, because for them to be obscure means to be profound. In as much as the lay public do understand any of it, then it comes down to the sorts of platitudes and banalities one hears in casual conversation, such there is no such thing as objective truth, etc. etc, from people who have never read a single one of these writers. But this can hardly console the writers Sokal and Bricmont examine, wanting as they do to be thought of as deep thinkers, with insights into reality that surpasses those offered to us by science.
I drop one star of the rating because the extensive quotations that Sokal and Bricmont incorporate into the book from the authors they criticise. I accept that they do this legitimately, in the interests of fairness of representation, but for me this hindered the book's flow and readability, as one tries to wade through a swamp of verbiage. I felt that more space could have been added into a positive defence of the scientific method. The chapter in which the authors do just this is the finest of the book, as is their epilogue and their introduction to the book, where the authors answer their critics, both brilliant pieces of exposition. They are right to point out that those who talk about the myths of science cannot point to any experiments or discoveries that expose the theory of relativity (for instance) as `a myth.' They are right to stress the predictive power of science - it's not just about falsification. They are right to point out that paradigm shifts do occur in science but this is not to say that Einstein's physics displaces Newton's. The former complements the latter. When they roll up their sleeves and defend the glories of the scientific method, they shine.
But does any of this matter now - sixteen years after the original hoax? I am not sure if postmodernist thinking holds such appeal as it used to in some quarters of academia but I think the book is still worth reading. The style of mystification in which postmodernist writers have cloaked themselves is comparable to other forms of obscurantist thought that masquerades as science. Plus, as mentioned above, a lot of postmodernist cant has percolated down to everyday conversation, a pernicious consequence that needs to be countered. This book equips one to do this although it should be read with others - a couple of examples that come to mind are Lewis Wolpert's excellent The Unnatural Nature of Science (unaccountably a neglected classic, and out of print) and Ben Goldacre's Bad Science: just two of the many places one could start, alongside this book.