Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
New York: Picador, 1998
300 pp., $23.00 hc

Matthew Benacquista

In 1996, an article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" was published in Social Text, an academic journal of cultural studies. What made this article unique is that it was a hoax. The article, written by physicist Alan Sokal, parodied, according to Sokal, a misuse of science and scientific language by the academic left. He wanted to see if an article which was patently absurd from a scientific point of view could be published in a prestigious journal simply if it aped the style of other articles in the genre.

The article itself is chock-full of obscure scientific jargon held together by liberal citations from a multitude of postmodernist articles of the type being parodied. All the citations and references in the article were real, and it is quite evident that Sokal had a wealth of examples of bad writing and general scientific gibberish from which to draw. So many, in fact, that he has now reprinted a number of them in this book, Fashionable Nonsense.

The book devotes a chapter to eight postmodernist presumably the most egregious abusers of scientific concepts. Interspersed among these chapters are "intermezzos" which attempt to analyze "certain scientific and philosophical confusions that underlie much postmodernist thinking" (17). The chapters devoted to individual authors are delightful displays of positively wretched writing. The intermezzos fall somewhat flat. Although they address current anti-science trends, they don't get far beyond: "By the way, anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. I live on the twenty-first floor" (269).

Sokal and Bricmont say that their intent is not to attack the social sciences in general but to warn students in these disciplines of a specific type of charlatan, one who uses difficult technical jargon to hide an intellectual vacuum. "If the texts seem incomprehensible," they explain, "it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing" (6). They demonstrate this by liberally quoting from their chosen intellectuals and then dissecting each excerpt. Sokal and Bricmont try to be fair. "In some cases we have quoted rather long passages, at the risk of boring the reader, in order to show that we have not misrepresented the meaning of the text by pulling sentences out of context" (17). Since most of the authors are French, Sokal and Bricmont use published English translations, but sometimes have to use their own, staying "as faithful as possible to the original French," which they sometimes have reproduced in toto. "We assure the reader that if the passage seems incomprehensible in English, it is because the original French is likewise" (17). If Sokal and Bricmont are quoting accurately, then science is certainly being abused. But this abuse is incidental to an overall abuse of logic, clear thought, and language.

Most of the excerpts cited by Sokat and Bricmont fall into two categories. In one category, a scientific or mathematical principle has been adopted and used in a context that is wholly inappropriate--although the principle itself is correct. Often this is a result of the author misunderstanding the original concept. In the other category, the science or mathematics is simply false. In a third category they place a few excerpts of pure nonsense for which there is no hope of determining appropriateness or falsity.

An example of the first category is Julia Kristeva's attempt to use set theory to develop a formal theory of poetic language:

Having assumed that poetic language is a formal system whose theorization can be based on set theory, we may observe, at the same time, that the functioning of poetic meaning obeys the principles designated by the axiom of choice. This axiom specifies that there exists a single-valued correspondence, represented by a class, which associates to each non-empty set of the theory (of the system) on of its elements. [...] Said otherwise, one can choose simultaneously an element in each of the non-empty sets that we consider. So stated, the axiom is applicable in our universe E of the pl. It makes precise how every sequence contains the message of the book. (43)

The description of the axiom of choice is essentially correct: there exists a set containing exactly one element chosen from each of a collection of non-empty sets, but the last sentence of the excerpt seems to be unrelated to the axiom of choice. After an extended discussion clarifying the axiom of choice and its application to set theory, Sokal and Bricmont add, "We're unsure whether this assertion does more violence to mathematics or to literature" (44).

Jacques Lacan provides an excellent example of the second category, when he is describing a psychoanalytic topology.

If you'll permit me to use one of those formulas which come to me as I write my notes, human life could be defined as a calculus in which zero was irrational. This formula is just an image, a mathematical metaphor. When I say "irrational," I'm referring not to some unfathomable emotional state but precisely to what is called an imaginary number. The square root of minus one doesn't correspond to anything that is subject to our intuition, anything real--in the mathematical sense of the term--and yet, it must be conserved, along with its full function. (25)

This is simply false. In mathematics, an irrational number is one which cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Zero is an integer, and so zero is definitely not irrational. Furthermore, the square root of minus one is an imaginary number--and it is not zero. Paul Virilio provides the finest example of the third category, which, in the original French, is a 193 word sentence.

When the depth of time replaces depths of sensible space; when the commutation of interface supplants the delimitation of surfaces; when transparence re-eslablishes appearances, then we begin to wonder whether that which we insist on calling space isn't actually light, a subliminary, para-optical light of which sunlight is only one phase or reflection. This light occurs in a duration measured in instantaneous time exposure rather than the historical and chronological passage of time. The time of this instant without duration is "exposure time," be it over- or underexposure. Its photographic and cinematographic technologies already predicted the existence and the time of a continuum stripped of all physical dimensions, in which the quantum of energetic action and the punctum of cinematic observation have suddenly become the last vestiges of a vanished morphological reality. Transferred into the eternal present of a relativity whose topological and teleological thickness and depth belong to this final measuring dimension and which propagates itself at the same speed in all radial directions that measure the universe. (174-5)

A naïve person may assume that this means something to an expert in the field. But the field is not science.

In demonstrating the nature of the works cited by the authors, I have fallen into the same trap they have. The writing is simply so bad that the urge to quote it at length is irresistible. Unfortunately, the original intent of the authors to describe the abuse and misuse of science is often lost in the maze of such tortured writing. If this book is to truly succeed, it must demonstrate that postmodernist criticism truly abuses science and that this endangers science and the well-being of the population at large. In many ways, the authors fail to demonstrate their case. First, the postmodernists they cite are (for the most part) an obscure collection of French intellectuals. Second, the vast majority of the works cited are at least 15 years old. As a physics professor, I occasionally receive unsolicited papers describing revolutionary new theories of the universe. When the majority of the citations in these papers are more than ten years old, then all the alarms on my "crackpot meter" go off at once. If no significant new work has occurred in ten years, then the issue is usually irrelevant. If new work has occurred, then the more recent work usually contradicts the author of the paper.

The authors try to address the question of relevance in the final chapter of their book. In many ways the arguments fall flat because they offer little more than banal truths. For example, the lessons they draw from the exposure of the cited works include: "It's a good idea to know what one is talking about," "Not all that is obscure is necessarily profound," "Be wary of argument from authority," and "Specific skepticism should not be confused with radical skepticism" (187-9). They ask, "Why spend so much time exposing these abuses? Do the postmodernists represent a real danger? Certainly not for the natural sciences, at least not at present' (205). They conclude that the real danger is to the social sciences and yet admit "It could be argued that the authors of the texts quoted here have no real impact on research because their lack of professionalism is well-known in academic circles. This is only partly true: it depends on the authors, the countries, the fields of study, and the eras." In effect, they are saying that it is not a particularly big problem and seems to fizzle out as fashions change. Apparently the dangers to the natural sciences, the social sciences, and even to cultural studies are considerably overblown. In reality, the only true danger provided by these texts is that they demonstrate that it is possible to publish extraordinarily bad writing in academic journals. Although this danger is not stressed, the authors do mention it

Students learn to repeat and to embellish discourses that they only barely understand. They can even, if they are lucky, make an academic career out of it by becoming expert in the manipulation of erudite jargon. [...] The deliberately obscure discourses of postmodernism, and the intellectual dishonesty they engender, poison a part of intellectual life and strengthen the facile anti-intellectualism that is already too widespread in the general public. (206)

However, I wonder what proportion of the general public reads such texts. In short, this is a very enjoyable book, and of great value in an English composition class, where it should succeed magnificently. But, unfortunately, it falters in its stated goal of alerting the public to a dangerous abuse of science by failing to show how science is being undermined. I would recommend this book for its amusement value, but not for its daring exposé of a dangerous academic trend.

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