Saturday, August 8, 2009

Alan Sokal, science, and politics

I recently left a comment at Jason Rosenhouse’s EvolutionBlog (still in moderation, I assume because of the links), on a post containing Part III of his review of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s wiffle book, Unscientific America. In it, he discusses their stance on Alan Sokal’s famous hoax and the so-called “science wars.” I thought the comment should be expanded to cover some issues that have been on my mind, as the discussion of Sokal raises larger questions of science, politics, and ethics.

Rosenhouse notes:

Then there is M and K's strange antipathy towards people like Paul Gross, Norman Levitt and Alan Sokal, leading players in the great Science Wars. Recall that certain left-wing academics in the humanities had taken to saying some very silly things about science. Surprisingly, as ignorant and misinformed as these people were, they rose to levels of great prominence in their fields. Dismayed, a handful of scientists fought back by writing books and, most famously, by hoaxing the leading journal promoting this nonsense.

He quotes Mooney and Kirshenbaum:

The great problem with the Science Wars wasn't that they were ineffective but that they were ultimately irrelevant. The influence of post-structuralism within the academic realm peaked in the 1990's and has been declining since -- not because of Alan Sokal or Higher Superstition but because that is the way academic trends work. ...But all the energy spent fighting the Science Wars distracted from the real enemy at the gate -- the dumbing down of American culture. (p. 48)

Rosenhouse’s criticism is that this is yet another example of M&K forcing a complex history into a simplistic narrative in which scientists bear most of the blame:

Once again M and K are trying to fit things into a narrative rather than really get their hands dirty going after the real problems. Their story is that scientists, through their general tone-deafness towards the society around them, are seriously exacerbating the problem of science illiteracy. Sure, a certain subset of the humanities was making a good living telling lies about science, but it's the scientists who engaged them who were the real problem.

I agree with this more or less, but would like to add and clarify a few things.

M&K’s criticism of Sokal (among others, to be sure) actually at first appears surprising in light of Mooney’s co-authorship of this piece with Sokal as recently as 2007. However, the explanation may lie in Sokal’s more recent public statements about religion. Touring in support of his more recent book, Beyond the Hoax,

Sokal has come down fairly clearly on the side of those who view science and religion as fundamentally epistemologically incompatible and religion as one of the major hindrances to the spread of an evidence-based, or scientific, worldview.

This is easy to see, as Sokal likes repeating the same talk in different venues. You can watch the talk (which is not long, and quite good) here:

or at this link, or read the text from last year here.

In it, Sokal argues for the importance of the scientific worldview in deciding matters of fact in all spheres of life, and lists the social forces that promote muddled thinking and unreason. “At a superficial level,” he says,

you could say that my topic is the relation between science and society; but as I hope will become clear, my deeper theme is the importance, not so much of science, but of the scientific worldview - a concept that I shall define more precisely in a moment, and which goes far beyond the specific disciplines that we usually think of as “science" - in humanity's collective decision-making. I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence - especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions - are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century. I aim to show that the implications of taking seriously an evidence-based worldview are rather more radical than many people realize.

In contrast to the accomodationists, and like Jerry Coyne and others, Sokal emphasizes that by “science” he means not only the group of professional scientists or the body of knowledge accumulated by professional researchers in certain fields, but a specific approach to questions of fact that, while highly refined in the sciences, characterizes (or should characterize) any and every factual investigation:

I stress that my use of the term “science" is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science" (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)

Science – regardless of the subject of investigation or the specific methods used – is rational, empirical, skeptical, and critical. Sokal goes on to discuss four categories of people antagonistic to the progress of the scientific worldview, in order of increasing seriousness. The first is a category of academic postmodernists, the extreme social constructivists Bricmont and Sokal dealt with in their Fashionable Nonsense:

Today as then, Sokal doesn’t see them as a major threat, but still problematic in other ways, as I’ll discuss below. (He also notes the decline of the power of the more extreme variants of this intellectual movement and the contrition of some, including Bruno Latour - who published this a few years ago - unable to resist offering a quick “I told you so.”)

The second is the vast category of pseudoscience (focusing on what’s called complementary and alternative medicine). But it is the third category that likely roused M&K’s ire: religion. Unlike in the LA Times article he co-authored with Mooney, which pointed to the threat of specifically fundamentalist religion to science, Sokal is very clear here that in discussing threats to the scientific worldview he has in mind all religious truth claims:

Tonight I want to address only the most fundamental issue, namely, the intrinsic merit of the various religions' factual doctrines. And within that, I want to focus on the epistemological question - or to put it in less fancy language, the relationship between belief and evidence. After all, those who believe in their religion's factual doctrines presumably do so for what they consider to be good reasons. So it's sensible to ask: What are these alleged good reasons?

Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but they ultimately boil down to one: because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are free from error? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all “faith" is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals." It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. “Faith" is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith" is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.

I believe public statements like this are at the heart of Mooney’s new-found interest in criticizing Sokal.

But the fourth category of opponents of the scientific worldview, political and corporate propagandists, also needs to be mentioned, especially as it seems Sokal’s defense of science is often either depoliticized or, worse, seen as an attack on the left. I’m not particularly familiar with Gross and Levitt, though the subtitle of their book alone suggests an agenda that differs from Sokal’s and fits with other things I’ve read about them. Sokal’s a different matter, though. He clearly sees states and corporations as the largest threat to the reality-based project:

Which brings me to the last, and in my opinion most dangerous, set of adversaries of the evidence-based worldview in the contemporary world: namely, propagandists, public-relations hacks and spin doctors, along with the politicians and corporations who employ them - in short, all those whose goal is not to analyze honestly the evidence for and against a particular policy, but is simply to manipulate the public into reaching a predetermined conclusion by whatever technique will work, however dishonest or fraudulent.

The scientific worldview, to Sokal, is subversive and liberating. It is an inherently left-wing approach, in that it rests not on acceptance of authority but on skepticism and empirical investigation. As he argues:

The affirmative side of science, consisting of its well-verified claims about the physical and biological world, may be what first springs to mind when people think about “science"; but it is the critical and skeptical side of science that is the most profound, and the most intellectually subversive. The scientific worldview inevitably comes into conflict with all non-scientific modes of thought that make purportedly factual claims about the world. And how could it be otherwise?

Science poses revolutionary challenges to entrenched power, as anarchists from Kropotkin to Chomsky have noted. In Sokal’s words:

The critical thrust of science even extends beyond the factual realm, to ethics and politics. Of course, as a logical matter one cannot derive an “ought" from an “is". But historically - starting in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and then spreading gradually to more or less the entire world - scientific skepticism has played the role of an intellectual acid, slowly dissolving the irrational beliefs that legitimated the established social order and its supposed authorities, be they the priesthood, the monarchy, the aristocracy, or allegedly superior races and social classes.

Indeed, Sokal's criticism of social constructionists in the ‘90s was not an attack on the left, but a voice from within the left challenging others whom he saw as acting in a manner contrary to their stated goals. As he wrote at the time in "Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword" (repeated in almost or exactly the same words in Fashionable Nonsense):

But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them. (If science were merely a negotiation of social conventions about what is agreed to be ``true'', why would I bother devoting a large fraction of my all-too-short life to it? I don't aspire to be the Emily Post of quantum field theory.)

But my main concern isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you). Rather, my concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse -- and more generally a penchant for subjectivism -- which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the Left. Alan Ryan said it well:

It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth ... Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you've had it*. ... But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess.

Likewise, Eric Hobsbawm has decried

the rise of ``postmodernist'' intellectual fashions in Western universities, particularly in departments of literature and anthropology, which imply that all ``facts'' claiming objective existence are simply intellectual constructions. In short, that there is no clear difference between fact and fiction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental.

(Hobsbawm goes on to show how rigorous historical work can refute the fictions propounded by reactionary nationalists in India, Israel, the Balkans and elsewhere.) And finally Stanislav Andreski:

So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.

In the more recent work, Sokal discusses the ethical dimension of epistemology that I referred to in a recent post when I cited Allen Wood. He discusses this specifically in the political realm, but as anarchists know, and Sokal of course appreciates, his four categories have historically often colluded. Moreover, they cannot be considered individually - the promotion of muddled, mystical, authoritarian thinking in any sphere bolsters it in others. Thus, the ethical dimension of epistemology is not area-specific: promoting muddled practice in one sphere makes you complicit in others, regardless of the alleged harmlessness of your particular set of unsubstantiated beliefs or their confinement in one part of your life.

I’ll have a lot more to say about several of these points in later posts.

I still hope to see a review of UA by Sokal.

*At the risk of sounding Courtier-like, I don’t believe this fairly represents Foucault.


  1. I think this entry is the most fair thing I've ever read about Sokal. Usually stuff out of the sciences that talks about various of the literary-critical "isms" gets it so wrong it's beyond missing the point.

    Speaking as someone who's at least got their academic learner's permit in the field (I have a Master's degree in what amounts to applied rhetoric), there is room within the field of lit-crit to use all the various isms (Postmodernism, Modernism, Deconstructionism, Feminism, Marxism, etc.) as analytical tools, as opposed to a sort of academic weltanschauung. One can, should, and does, at least if one has one's head screwed on straight, pick up three or four of these at a time and run some kind of intractable problem through them -- whatever changes least is probably most likely to be something resembling a fact. Which applies perfectly well to texts, of course, but less so to anything that isn't one.

    On the other hand, I've never had much patience for the school of thought that dictates that impenetrable writing and elusive neologisms coupled with an insufferable amount of pretension make one some sort of radical. Even something as useful as an analysis of power dynamics isn't useful at all if one has to slog through a densely-written tome the size of the Manhattan phone book, all rendered in the most academic-discursified of impenetrable prose. Fancy bullshitting is still bullshitting.

  2. Another, related, problem with the postmodernists (and allied "schools") is that by weakening intellectual standards they encourage gullibility about the very things that many of them are interested in. For example, the history of science: H. Collins used to give a lecture/has written about the supposed social effects at work in the acceptance of special relativity. Not once in the talk did he mention any whatsoever about the relationship between special relativity and classical electrodyanmics.

    Also, although there were a few remarks about this, it is now amazing to watch the reactionary right make use of the "create our own reality" schtick. I have always found science (not necessarily technology!) to be emancipatory and there is a huge swath of people influenced to various to degrees to think of it otherwise. Unfortunate, to say the least.

    As for getting Foucault right, I am certainly not an expert, but it seems to me that he, like many others often criticized in these respects, says many almost-to-contradictory things. Subsequently it is difficult to pin down an exact position. (The turgid style is also a barrier, as is, I suspect, bad translations.) I know that his debate with Chomsky (!) was fairly interesting, though very inconclusive.

    Gross and Levitt claim to be on different ends of the spectrum, with Levitt closer to Sokal, and Gross being some sort of conservative.

    Finally, Mario Bunge has also held for a long time views similar to Sokal and has some interesting (though sometimes merely "suggestive") remarks useful in these matters.

  3. I quite enjoyed that talk, thanks for posting it. It is pretty clear that he gets almost everything right.

    Philosopher-animal, it's funny you should mention Bunge. I came across a bunch of his papers just yesterday and was surprised how familiar they seemed. He was making some of the New Atheist arguments a decade before they arrived on the scene.

    Bunge is remarkable in that he's a physicist-philosopher (not just an epistemologist), he seems to have a tolerable grasp on the philosophy (as opposed to, say, Lewis Wolpert), and he's a firebrand incompatibilist.

  4. Thanks for your comments (especially the Bunge reference). I apologize for the delayed response - social obligations this week.

    I have always found science (not necessarily technology!) to be emancipatory and there is a huge swath of people influenced to various to degrees to think of it otherwise. Unfortunate, to say the least.

    I'm writing a post about this right now. Plan to have it up by tomorrow at the latest.

    As for getting Foucault right,...

    Hmm. Hard for me to talk about someone like Foucault. As a sociologist, I've always considered myself far more in the tradition of C. Wright Mills than of Foucault. When I think about it, though, Foucault's work has been of significant interest to me. I have my large stack of works by Foucault here with me, so with any luck I'll be able to post something soon about what I see as useful or correct in his thinking.

  5. Thanks for linking to Sokal's talk, SC - I hadn't seen or heard him before. His ranking of the enemies of rational enquiry seemed about right to me - except that he didn't mention advertisers.