Cannon-fodder for the science wars

by John Krige

[Published in Physics World, December 1998, pp. 49-50. Copyright © IOP Publishing Ltd. 1998, 1999. All rights reserved. This page may not be copied without permission of IOP Publishing, Ltd.]

See also reply by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Physics World, February 1999.

Intellectual Impostures
by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
1998, Profile Books, 276 pp., £9.99pb

Impostures Scientifiques: Les Malentendus de l'Affaire Sokal
(ed) Baudouin Jurdant
1998, Editions La Découverte/Alliage, 332 pp., FF 150pb

Intellectual Impostures is the latest fusillade in the so-called "science wars" by the US physicist Alan Sokal and his Belgian colleague Jean Bricmont. Sokal rose to fame two years ago when he hoodwinked an American journal into publishing a deliberately meaningless paper that parodied the thinking of some academics in cultural studies. In this book, the two physicists train their sights on a number of eminent continental thinkers, whom they accuse of transporting the language of mathematics and physics into psychology, philosophy and the social sciences without having the least idea of what they are talking about.

The result, Sokal and Bricmont claim, is a mishmash of seemingly profound but actually meaningless, incoherent and untestable statements -- an endless stream of verbal diarrhoea. By presenting their ideas in pseudo-scientific terms, Sokal and Bricmont tell us, authors like Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan are attempting to create an aura of authority and bolster their prestige. By shrouding their texts in mystery, they protect themselves from rational criticism and violate the basic values of intellectual life, education and democracy.

There is no doubt that the language of some of the authors discussed by Sokal and Bricmont raises disturbing questions about the use of unnecessary jargon and the naï&ve appeal to the authority of science by influential intellectuals and educators. However, this is not the main issue here. Indeed, Sokal and Bricmont's text, which was originally published last year in French as Impostures Intellectuelles (Editions Odile Jacob, 1997), is essentially a political tract. It cuts and pastes extracts from its subject's work without making the slightest attempt to situate the material in the intellectual and political context in which it was produced. Their book ignores the fact that many of the fragments are long since out of date, and have been rejected by the authors themselves.

This kind of detail is, however, irrelevant to Sokal and Bricmont. Their aim, rather, is to use Deleuze, Lacan et al. as cannon-fodder in a war currently raging inside US academia. As Sokal puts it: "My concern is explicitly political [his emphasis]: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse -- and generally a penchant for subjectivism -- which is, I believe inimical to the values and future of the Left." Sokal has fought against oppression, as he saw it, in Nicaragua, where he sided with the Sandinistas. Now he is taking up arms against a new form of domination: the abuse of science to secure prestigious teaching positions, and to mystify and control minds.

At what level is one to argue with a political pamphlet? Being of that genre, it is inevitably and lamentably indifferent to the history and philosophy of science, and to the evolution in the social and historical studies of science itself. After all, admirers of modern science and its methods have -- since the start of science -- tried to apply concepts developed for the natural world to the social domain. Indeed, Niels Bohr's use of the principle of "complementarity" in just this way would be a prime candidate for a Nonsense Prize awarded by Sokal (see Physics Today, September 1998, pp. 29-34).

Does Sokal care that his spontaneous response to those "relativists" who are puzzled about the epistemic status of a world that is always mediated by our unreliable senses, our context-laden language and our scientific instruments (he invites anyone who isn't sure that the world exists to step out of the window of his high-rise apartment) is nothing more than a 1990s uptown New York version of an age-old common-sense reaction to a deep philosophical problem? Have Sokal and Bricmont followed the carefully crafted and empirically enriched studies of scientific practice by sociologists and historians of science over the last two decades (see Physics World, April 1998, pp. 19-20) -- work that has breathed a new vitality into these fields?

If one cares to move beyond the realm of polemic to serious debate, there is no better place to start than Baudouin Jurdant's excellent new collection of essays. The contributors to Impostures Scientifiques are not uncritical of certain tendencies among French intellectuals, and situate the "Sokal affair" squarely in its US academic and political framework. They engage in a systematic and deliberate way with Sokal and Bricmont's arguments and accusations, relating the whole issue to broader social currents. Here, at least, are the grounds for a serious exchange of views, a dignified response to a political assault.

There is a supreme irony in all of this. The effort by some French intellectuals in the 1970s to imbue their analyses with concepts and procedures imported from the study of nature was often symptomatic of an uncritical admiration for mathematics and physics. Seeking new ways to probe complex phenomena, these intellectuals tended to place an excessive faith in science, while at the same time taking considerable poetic licence with its formulae and concepts from quantum mechanics.

The editors of the journal Social Text, in which Sokal's spoof article was originally published, have also been overwhelmed by the authority of these fields. Indeed, it is just for this reason that they accepted Sokal's article as a sincere attempt by an academic author to apply concepts from physics, which they did not understand, to cultural studies. They trusted him, all the more so since he was a physicist at a prestigious institution. But he deliberately betrayed that trust by producing what he knew to be drivel with a view to exposing and humiliating them.

The lesson is obvious. Those of us working in the humanities and social sciences -- as well as our students and the public at large -- should not be so quick to trust people in the "hard" sciences, notably physicists. We should not take them uncritically at their word. Which is, of course, just what researchers in the history and social studies of science have been insisting on for the last two decades.

John Krige is director of the Centre de Recherche en Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques (CRHST) at the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, Paris.