Saturday, November 03, 2007

Mind -> "Alan Sokal Affair"

Reader, meet Alan Sokal. We are going to be talking about him today.

Recently, I was reading my nephew-in-law blog, and he was describing and complaining about a book written by a Professor out of Penn State, Richard Doyle, trying to wring out the philosophical implication of science.

Having my curiosity piqued, I went to Google Books to get an idea of how this person wrote.

Here's a nice little quote from his book Wetwares:

"Uploading,' the desire to be wetware, makes possible a new technology of the self, one fractured by the exteriority of the future....Uploading seems to install discursive, material, and social mechanism for the anticipation of an externalized self, a techno-social mutation that is perhaps best characterized as a new capacity to be affected by, addicted to, the future."

Now mind you, I am a bit interested in the subject Doyle wrote about, and I even touch on an attribute of uploading intelligence when I discussed Penrose in an earlier post. I am not turned off on any talk on Wetware per se, but I profoundly turned off on poor rambling and incoherent writing on wetware. There seems to be a wide spread belief in the humanities (and now stretching into science) that you express your education thought by making it incomprehensible.

This leads us to the "Alan Sokal Affair," which is often shortened to simply "The Sokal Affair."

Dr. Sokal is the stereotypical physics geek. He currently teaches at NYU and you can visit his page there. He evidentially was a bit of a rebel, having taught in Nicaragua during the Sandinista regime.

In 1996, he submitted a paper to Social Text, out of Duke University, one of the non-peer reviewed journals popping up at the time. The paper was called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." The paper, in summary, said that quantum mechanics had a implication on the idea that science is actually just a made up reality, signifying that science is a belief structure. The editors at Social Text probably said, "Well of course this must be correct. It makes science more social scientific."

They published Sokal's paper. Once published, Sokal revealed that the paper was a hoax.

Sokal's paper, in function, was a loose knit chunks of hyperbole, crazy graphs, and unintelligible statements with a few political quotes thrown in. The author had carefully constructed it to be tripe and nonsense.

Social Text immediately did the proper thing: it vilified Sokal as being dishonest. One of the publishers told the New York Times, "he's ill-read and half-educated." Obviously, and this is why the editors could spot the fake right away. (My sarcasm is hopefully evident.)

After all, they were duped by a clever professor into publishing something that made no sense. They immediately claimed that Sokal did a grave injustice. To me, the problem never with Sokal. The problem is with a paper so corrupt that they couldn't admit their mistakes. When he offered to explain his hoax in a follow-up, the journal refused to publish it. However, other journals did.

So, what did Sokal have to say about his paper? Let's look at one section:

"...but the most hilarious parts of my article were not written by me. Rather, they're direct quotes from the postmodern Masters, whom I shower with mock praise. In fact, the article is structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics....

This involved, of course, advocating an incoherent mishmash of trendy ideas -- deconstructive literary theory, New Age ecology, so-called ``feminist epistemology''[15], extreme social-constructivist philosophy of science, even Lacanian psychoanalysis -- but that just made the parody all the more fun....

Now, what precisely do I mean by "silliness''? Here's a very rough categorization: First of all, one has meaningless or absurd statements, name-dropping, and the display of false erudition. Secondly, one has sloppy thinking and poor philosophy, which come together notably (though not always) in the form of glib relativism.

The first of these categories wouldn't be so important, perhaps, if we were dealing with a few assistant professors of literature making fools of themselves holding forth on quantum mechanics or Gödel's theorem. It becomes more relevant because we're dealing with important intellectuals, at least as measured by shelf space in the cultural-studies section of university bookstores."

Sokal is one of heroes of the modern age. Within 6 months, he demonstrated powerfully, more than any academic article or study, how a diseases of false thinking has climbed into our academic environment.

However, if you are a Christian, you should also be able to see bridges back to our own faith. The problem, in this case, is that the left tried to grab science and use it to support something more than it does. In the same way, often in the Church, we do the same thing. In some sense, you need to approach both Christianity, and scripture, and science in the same way.

To be successful, don't read into the data. If you find out that science says "the earth is 6 billion years old" and you read "God created the earth in 6 days," don't immediately warp the science to suit scripture. On the other hand, don't warp scripture to suit scripture.

The objective, if you are a Christian, is to approach every problem with an open heart and an inquisitive mind. In all my years, I have never found where I couldn't reconcile scripture to science.

And I never needed to check my brain at the door or hide behind incomprehensibility.

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