Wednesday, July 4, 2012

That Fashionable Nonsense reference

Ideology is especially important in democratic societies, where it may constitute the principal form of social control….

The enforcement of mainstream ideology in our societies is the task of what has been called the secular priesthood, an analogy for the religious priesthood in traditional societies…. (p. 31)

One of my better posts here, I think, was a response to the frequent suggestion that Alan Sokal saw the Left as inimical to science and took a more rightwing position against all leftist critical analysis of science in the “science wars.”

Since I’ve seen this notion raised again recently, I thought I might update that post a little. Back in 2009, I pointed out, first, that Sokal stated very clearly at the time that he’s a leftist and that part of the impetus for taking on the anti-science leftwing academics was that he thought their ideas harmed progressive causes and aided the forces of reaction. I should also have called attention to the focused nature of his and Bricmont’s critique: it was not a broad brush used to paint all critical work on the social nature of scientific knowledge as unfounded and ridiculous. Sokal wrote more than once that he recognizes solid empirical work being done in this area; the objection was to certain authors and works that misused scientific terms and concepts and made extreme, silly arguments about the social construction of reality.

I also talked about Sokal’s more recent statements, in which he correctly identifies corporations and governments as the most important forces arrayed against science, and by implication against movements for social justice. (Religion, by the way, is second.*) Here are two key quotations:

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 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.

Sokal’s coauthor Jean Bricmont is also a leftist. The quotation at the top of this post, about ideology and the “secular priesthood,” is from his 2006 Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. In it, he challenges the Western ideology of “humanitarian intervention,” both in terms of the imperialistic drive and hypocrisy behind it and in terms of its real-world consequences. It’s not a bad book, though I found it somewhat simplistic when it came to activism on the Left in the metropoles and thought it misrepresented the arguments of anarchists, at one point even bordering on apologia for Stalinism. I’d recommend it, I suppose. Here’s an interview with Bricmont on the subject (Part 2 is the best, in my opinion):

My point isn’t to raise Sokal and Bricmont as some kind of argument from authority about what skepticism today should look like, although I do agree with Sokal’s ranking of the dangers to the scientific worldview today and (for the most part) with Bricmont’s critical approach to so-called humanitarian intervention. My point is to urge people to resist the reflexive rejection of critical approaches to some or another aspect of contemporary science – or that which claims to be science - especially when simply triggered by the mere mention of ideology or use of concepts and terms related to Marxism or feminism or postmodernism. Since Fashionable Nonsense is often cited in support of this sort of reflexive rejection, I want to correct the widespread notion that its authors are hostile to all criticism of science from the Left or to the Left in general (in fact they’re very much coming from a social justice perspective), and point out that they see not a handful of academic poststructuralists but corporate and government ideology as the primary threat to science and social justice.

*I was mistaken in that piece, as I later learned. It wasn’t that Sokal had started openly criticizing religion that led Mooney to turn against him, but that Mooney had stopped (and then proceeded to sell out completely to the rightwing, anti-science Templeton Foundation).

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