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“If there’s no math in it, it isn’t science.” Thus went the rejoinder propellerheads offered religious enthusiasts when, in the ’80s, hinterland zealots attempted to get Genesis taught in public schools under the rubric of “creation science.” But what of the inverse? If there is math in it, is science an inevitability? As any kid who sat through the first month of Mr. Glahn’s 9th-grade geometry class can tell you, the second statement doesn’t necessarily follow from the first.
Over the past 30 years or so, an entire generation of psychoanalysts, literary theorists, cult-studs, and other postmodern types has made hay by virtue of the fact that its readers lack the benefit of my math teacher’s wisdom. By the mid-’90s the problem had gotten far enough out of hand that New York University physics prof Alan Sokal felt compelled to cook up a heady stew of anti-scientific pigheadedness and pseudotechnical misprision, season it liberally with quotes from such theoretical leading lights as Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Luce Irigaray, and set the steaming dish down in front of the editors of the Duke University Press cultural-studies journal Social Text—who promptly served it up in their Spring/Summer 1996 issue.
Sokal then outed himself, exposing his parody in an article rejected by Social Text, which judged the correction to the published goof beneath its “intellectual standards.” Dissent and Philosophy and Literature picked up the second piece, but by the time they hit the stacks the popular press had already had a field day with Sokal’s prank.
Needless to say, Social Text editors Andrew Ross and Stanley Aronowitz weren’t amused. Nor were the hordes of tenured radicals who had built their careers on what had been exposed as institutionally codified idiocy. They counterattacked, and now Sokal has teamed up with Belgium-based theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont (it helps to have a Francophone on your side in such matters) to respond with a book-length popular treatment of postmodern ideological excess and methodological madness.
Chapter by chapter, Sokal and Bricmont calmly, meticulously tear new assholes for Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, and Paul Virilio. The physicists aren’t staging some sort of anti-theoretical pogrom; they’re just standing up for rationality. Jacques Derrida keeps his hands off science; Sokal and Bricmont keep their hands off Derrida. They refuse even to judge the theorists’ overall programs, limiting their criticisms to their areas of expertise and suggesting that their targets could have benefited from similar circumspection.
What they reveal is scandalous. Lacan indulges a fondness for topology, which he barely understands, and suffers a penchant for arbitrary metaphors, which he often refuses to acknowledge as anything other than literal truths. Kristeva does the same with set theory. Virilio misunderstands concepts that are covered in the first week of 11th-grade physics. Almost everybody jumps from one discipline to another with the mindless alacrity of a puppy visiting an unexplored row of lampposts.
When they aren’t picking apart the efforts of individual writers, Sokal and Bricmont go after entire subfields of bad thinking that have found widespread acceptance among intellectual poseurs. Between-chapters “intermezzos” are devoted to “Epistemic Relativism in the Philosophy of Science” (i.e., the notion that verifiable physical truth exists only as a cultural “myth”), “Chaos Theory and ‘Postmodern Science’” (in which precisely defined scientific notions about predictability and nonlinearity are confounded with their squirrelly linguistic kin), and the abuse of Gödel’s theorem and set theory (where very specific mathematical results are generalized to shed light on areas to which they have no connection whatsoever).
The literary drawbacks of an intensive debunking of heaps of nonsensical verbosity are immediately obvious. Heedless of the dictates of pleasure or readability, Sokal and Bricmont have selflessly, mercilessly larded their work with extensive quotes from their primary sources. It may be necessary, but the authors’ assiduousness does not make for the “thoroughly hilarious romp through the postmodernist academy” promised by Barbara Ehrenreich’s jacket blurb.
There is no romping to speak of. There is true hilarity, but it is on the whole confined to the chapter concerning Irigaray’s feminist critique of science. Even readers who have already made their minds up about Lacan and his ilk owe themselves a few minutes at the bookstore discovering such howlers as:
Is E=Mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest…
What makes Irigaray so funny is that she exposes herself with clear writing. Her thinking may be utter hogwash, but her sentences are generally parsable. This is not commonly the case among her peers. Any educated reader who has attempted to skim a dense scientific work he knows he could understand given the time will recognize the appeal of scientific-sounding obfuscation to the nontechnical author. If you aren’t proceeding through an equation term by term, your eyes simply bounce off it; its meaning is held in reserve until you take the time to extract it. Nontechnical readers as a rule can’t distinguish between meaningful equations and sheer poppycock; their eyes bounce off both. Putting in the time to extract the meaning isn’t an option open to them. An impenetrable equation signals erudition even if it has none to offer. And the same is true of a sentence composed of technical gibberish.
Sokal and Bricmont are aware of the limits of the scientific purview, as they now stand, and acknowledge the difference between science and everything else. What the authors don’t state explicitly (and perhaps do not believe) is that the scientific mind, which prefers precision to poetry, single meanings to double ones, and trudges to leaps, is fundamentally different from the nonscientific one, and that many a pomo misstep has been inspired by a refusal to accept this fact.
It’s natural to crave science’s strengths and to shun its weaknesses; sadly, they come as a matched set. The authority and verifiability of the natural sciences are formidable, but science has been most successful with the simplest, most precisely defined problems. It’s no accident that Fashionable Nonsense was penned by physicists. Physics is the hardest of the sciences; its successful theories have been established with greater mathematical precision than have concepts in any other field of endeavor. But physics works best with things that matter least to outsiders—the arcana of quantum mechanics, for example. Once sucked in by the elegant system presented in freshman physics classes, who isn’t at least a little bit disappointed to find that nothing really works as cleanly as it does in its classical estimation? (Quantum mechanics may reveal a physical universe stranger than we could possibly have imagined, but it left this former physics student, at least, pining for the world of Newton. Since the 17th century is unlikely ever again to represent the cutting edge of scientific knowledge, I threw over science for art, dropping out of grad school after three semesters and trading a handful of correct answers for a wealth of pretty good ones.)
The trouble with working among what my high school physics teacher called the “fuzzies” is that you may feel as if you are right, but you can never prove it. If the fuzzies in question are sociologists, psychologists, linguists, or other quasi-scientists, the temptation will be strong to hijack the certitude of hard science to serve ideas you wish you could be sure about. Although it may be tempting to ascribe malice or lunacy to traffickers in pseudoscience, their quest, however misguided, is really quite poignant. They crave adulation for discovering something demonstrably true about things that, at least when they idealistically set out on their intellectual journeys, were serious “real-world” problems.
But, as Batman whispered to Lacan, when the theorist lost his grip and slipped away into the bottomless maelstrom of text: “Poor, deluded child.”
Sokal and Bricmont don’t abandon all hope for a cross-fertilization of ideas, but I’m not sure that scientists and non-scientists really can talk to each other about the things that really matter to them. And I don’t think such a development, because it forces a bit of humility on us, is all bad. Knowledge has fragmented to the point that a degree of specialization is necessary. I’m a generalist at heart, and it pains me to say it, but whenever someone today is called a “Renaissance man,” you can bet that the speaker holds a grossly inflated opinion of that person’s intellect. The world has simply gotten too big for any one person to get his mind around it. It’s been said that Coleridge was the last person to know everything, but I wonder if even he wasn’t born too late.
Sokal and Bricmont know the genie isn’t going back into the bottle, and they dispassionately deliver a corrective to innocents (even belligerent innocents) who think they can sidestep the problem either by usurping the language of science or, having given up on certainty, by discounting science altogether. Tough-minded to a fault, the physicists not only establish the circumstances under which no reasonable interdisciplinary discussion can occur, they also tell us when nonscientists shouldn’t be talking at all.CP