03 December 2008

I introduce to you: Alan Sokal. A physicist who hoaxed the cultural studies journal Social Text by submitting a parody of postmodern science criticism. It aimed at some relativist positions held by sociologists of science. Sokal states that the sociological study of science can claim some things and that he's no arrogant physicist that 'rejects all sociological intrusion on our "turf," as he calls it. There are three propositions on which he thinks science and its critics can agree: 1)science is a human endeavour 2)there are some external factors to science (f.e. the prevailing attitudes of mind which arise in part from deepseated historical factors) 3)the outcome of science is in part due to external factors to science like politics. So science is done by people, who can be researched sociologically and historically, as can the content and outcome of their work. From the Sokal hoax there can be deduced that some cultural study of science is nonsense, but not all. Its content are for the most part direct quotes from postmodern Masters, whom he 'showers with mock praise.' The article was structured around some of the silliest remarks that were made about mathematics and physics. In two ways postmodernists went wrong; 1) meaningless and absurd statements, name-dropping, and a display of false erudtion were made, and 2) sloppy thinking and bad philosophy made glib relativism. 

Examples: In Science in Action Latour introduces his so-called Third Rule of Method which reads as follows: 'Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome - Nature - to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.' Latour slips here, without comment or argument, from "Nature's representation" to "Nature". Sokal finds it hard to make sense of the statement, unless applying the First Rule of Interpretation of Postmodern Academic Writing: 'no sentence means what it says.' His conclusion is that Latour has no competence in the field of physics and sociologists like him employ methods that enable them to fathom both the 'inner workings' and the 'outer character' of science without having to be expert in the fields they study. The method used is to achieve by definition what one could not achieve by logic. Old words are used in a new sense which results in conflating concepts. 

The basis of Sokal's argument is that scientists generally don't listen to relativist claims about reality by science studies. And these studies should not waste their time trespassing on the expertise of sciences, ridiculing themselves by thinking they are experts in (quantum) physics and mathematics. 
As for myself; I would much rather sleep in a house built by science. But then again, I would also rather read less bricks and stones statements than more historical relativist stories. It remains interesting and informative to read what someone from the science perspective has to say about those who study science sociologically and historically. Although I am in the confident conviction that I am less interesting than the subjects I study.     


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