Sunday, February 24, 2013

Some Thoughts on Sokal and his Hoax

I've recently finished reading Alan Sokal's Beyond the Hoax, which I was rather annoyed to find is a collection of works previously published (rendering it a hoax?) and am given to muse a bit about what the Sokal Hoax or the Sokal Affair as it's also been called tells us about science, philosophy, the "science wars" and other things.  It may not be as big a deal as it once was among the cognoscenti, and postmodernism may be less a force than it was, but I think the Hoax retains some  relevance in these dark times.

I'm neither a scientist nor a philosopher.  I'm not a literary critic or a social scientist either, nor am I an academic.  So in some manner I'm probably not qualified to opine on the Hoax or anything related to it.  If the dangers of pontificating regarding complicated matters of which one has little knowledge was what Sokal was trying to demonstrate, I think he did demonstrate those dangers, and so am entering into dangerous territory myself.  But I think more was involved than a rather sharp reminder that our ignorance is most on display when we not only stray into such matters but take it upon ourselves to make claims regarding them in print. 

Such reminders are useful and appropriate, I think.  I've often found myself dismayed by what's called the philosophy of law when those writing in that area display a profound ignorance or even disregard of the actual practice of law.  I tend to think that practicing law would inform any philosophy of law and am suspicious of philosophers of law who have not done so.  But I recognize, grudgingly perhaps, that philosophy of law is something different from the practice of it.

Reading Sokal would probably do those who know nothing of physics and especially of quantum physics some good.   Those who are not physicists often seem to have a tendency to indulge in fantastic inferences from the little they know of quantum physics, and there is no harm in putting a stop to such inference.  But Sokal clearly feels he was out to accomplish more than this, or did accomplish more than this even if he did not set out to do so.

In Beyond the Hoax and elsewhere, Sokal identifies himself as a Leftist, and claims that the denizens of postmodernism and academics out to denigrate the sciences by asserting that, e.g., the findings of science are no better, no more correct, than the assorted myths of various cultures do us all a disservice.  Those of the Left, according to Sokal, and progressives generally have advocated social programs and other efforts to better the lives of the downtrodden and in doing so have maintained that certain policies more effectively achieve this than others, and refer to empirical studies in doing so.  When academics, historically important figures in liberal politics, go about claiming science and scientific reasoning is no more reliable than, say, dowsing, the entire agenda of the Left is endangered.

I sympathize with the view that efforts to denigrate science and reason and rationality generally are dangerous, glib and silly, though not because I'm of the Left.  I think I understand Sokal's point in emphasizing his political leanings, however, as those called conservatives delight in exposing academia as a kind of fountainhead of relativism.  For my part, I think those who engage in such efforts are disregarding what should be obvious--the successes of experimental science--primarily by being over impressed by the obvious, i.e. the fact that culture, customs, personalities, politics, money and other things influence the focus of the scientists and science.

The manner in which such things impact science is no doubt interesting and worthy of study.  However, the fact that they do should surprise nobody, as all human conduct is so influenced.  It doesn't follow, though, that all human conduct is similarly baseless, i.e. that one kind of conduct or thought is no better than another.  Science and reason, and rational inquiry, are distinguished from other human conduct by the method employed by them in problem-solving and addressing questions, and this method has had significant success in solving problems and answering questions, to our great benefit.

To nonetheless argue that such success is insignificant in judging the worth of an approach, or that the success is mere coincidence, is senseless.  What is it that drives certain people to insist that despite this success there's no good reason to prefer this method over mythology or other "narratives"?  I can't accept that this can be attributed only to stupidity, or even laziness (rational thinking is hard, so attacking it as without merit can be comforting to those who would rather avoid the difficult).

We seem to have a depressing and I think bewildering tendency to maintain, sometimes regardless of what is in fact the case and what we accept to be the case if our conduct is any guide, that we can't really know what is the case; that everything is a matter of opinion, for example, or all is relative.   Of course, we nonetheless act as if we know well enough what is appropriate, and how to conduct ourselves.  We know what is important, we know what problems are when we encounter them; we try to resolve them intelligently if we have any wisdom.  We purport to think X but we persistently do not act is if we think X.  Oddly, we seem to feel that this is not disingenuous or false, or idiotic.  Indeed, we seem to believe that this reflects a kind of sophistication, that thinking in this fashion distinguishes those who do from those of the "common herd."

C. S. Peirce was right.  We should not pretend to doubt in philosophy (or in other areas) what we do not doubt in our hearts.  When we do, we make fools of ourselves in more ways than one, as we are proud to be foolish.

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