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Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science

96 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0312195458
ISBN-10: 0312195451
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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1996, an article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" was published in the cultural studies journal Social Text. Packed with recherché quotations from "postmodern" literary theorists and sociologists of science, and bristling with imposing theorems of mathematical physics, the article addressed the cultural and political implications of the theory of quantum gravity. Later, to the embarrassment of the editors, the author revealed that the essay was a hoax, interweaving absurd pronouncements from eminent intellectuals about mathematics and physics with laudatory--but fatuous--prose.

In Fashionable Nonsense, Alan Sokal, the author of the hoax, and Jean Bricmont contend that abuse of science is rampant in postmodernist circles, both in the form of inaccurate and pretentious invocation of scientific and mathematical terminology and in the more insidious form of epistemic relativism. When Sokal and Bricmont expose Jacques Lacan's ignorant misuse of topology, or Julia Kristeva's of set theory, or Luce Irigaray's of fluid mechanics, or Jean Baudrillard's of non-Euclidean geometry, they are on safe ground; it is all too clear that these virtuosi are babbling.

Their discussion of epistemic relativism--roughly, the idea that scientific and mathematical theories are mere "narrations" or social constructions--is less convincing, however, in part because epistemic relativism is not as intrinsically silly as, say, Regis Debray's maunderings about Gödel, and in part because the authors' own grasp of the philosophy of science frequently verges on the naive. Nevertheless, Sokal and Bricmont are to be commended for their spirited resistance to postmodernity's failure to appreciate science for what it is. --Glenn Branch

From Publishers Weekly

The authors of this audacious debunking apparently want nothing less than to embarrass some of the foremost academic stars of the postwar period?including Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray and Paul Virilio, among other luminaries in the humanities?for their "abuse of science." Sokal, a professor of physics at NYU, and Bricmont, a theoretical physicist with the Universite de Louvain in Belgium, offer an argument that's an offshoot of Sokal's notorious 1996 prank in which he submitted an article, high in jargon and low in logic, to a cultural studies journal, which accepted it immediately. After Sokal revealed the hoax, bitter debates raged within academia. Here, he and Bricmont continue where the hoax left off, waging a war of wits with thinkers who, they say, adopt science as a metaphor for their own more literary purposes. The authors also attack critics who fabricate pseudoscientific theories of their own, and much of their book is dedicated to building methodical cases against the academics' principles and logical flaws. The authors fervor and the precision of their writing makes this a most engaging read.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Picador USA (December 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312195451
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312195458
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.8 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #189,123 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

171 of 191 people found the following review helpful By Laon on December 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Hard work to write, easy to read: instead of vice versa November 2, 2000
This book is not, centrally, an attack on deconstruction, post-modernism, social constructionism and so on. It is instead a tightly focussed attack on some French writers who are often associated with those ideas, Lacan, Deleuze, Kristeva, Baudrillard and others.
Without confronting those writers' central ideas, "Fashionable nonsense" devastates their reputations. It shows them claiming authority in various scientific fields, using scientific "expertise" to enhance their authority and credibility, to bolster arguments on non-scientific propositions by analogy with scientific propositions, and to scare away dissenters. For example Lacan makes claims about topology for both his analogy and his argument on some matter concerning phallic psychology. Most readers, like me, would not know whether Lacan's topology was reasonable or absurd, but Sokal and Bricmont show that Lacan wasn't merely "inaccurate"; he was "meaningless".
It's reasonable to ask if Sokal and Bricmont are right about topology (and the other branches of science cited by the book's targets), while Lacan and the others were wrong. In a symposium in the November 2000 edition of "Meta Science", hostile critics of "Fashionable Nonsense" confronted Sokal and Bricmont. But only one critic even attempted to dispute that the book's targets wrote ignorant nonsense about science. This was Lacanian, who attempted to defend Lacan's topology: and that sole attempted defence was clearly and crushingly rebutted. It seems clear that in its science the book's credibility is unshaken.
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66 of 77 people found the following review helpful By The Spinozanator VINE VOICE on September 24, 2005
Format: Paperback
In 1994, physicist Alan Sokal from NYU, became fed up. A certain postmodernist influence within the academic community was challenging standards of logic, truth and intellectual inquiry. Could he possibly write a sham article bad enough to be obvious nonsense to any undergraduate physics student, yet good enough to get published in a leading pomo periodical? Unfortunately for the members of the screening committee for "Social Text," the answer was "yes."

The article itself is presented in the back of "Fashionable Nonsense," complete with explanations about the misrepresented physics and the embedded jokes. It caters to agendas of pomo authorities rather than relying on logic, drips with unreadable prose and has outrageous claims about scientific theories. It includes an illogical train of thought, but apple-polishes the gurus it parodies. Sokal says, "The fundamental silliness in my article lies in the dubiousness of its central thesis and in the 'reasoning' adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity had profound political and social implications."

When Sokal saw that his article was actually going to be published, he began writing his expose of the hoax. They were published in different magazines on the same day. Sokal achieved instant infamy and the fallout lasted for years.

In preparing to write his article, Sokal researched writings from many offending authors, but could only use a small part of the data. This book taps the files of his research and attempts to document more completely the repeated abuse of concepts from math and physics by postmodernist authors.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Vincent Poirier on August 9, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It used to be that thinkers thought precisely and correctly but recently this mode of thought has come under attack by self-appointed critics of modern society. Alan Sokal and Jean Brimont have taken a long overdue stand against these pseudo intellectuals.

The twentieth century has seen verbiage establish itself within academia. Just think of Martin Heidegger. Certainly there have always been charlatans and snake oil salesmen but their influence was occasional and never permanent. Something changed in the late 19th century; perhaps it began with Hegel. Perhaps it started as a reaction to Descartes and Newton. Perhaps it's a side effect of the explosion of knowledge--one man can no longer understand everything that is known about the world. We must specialize.

In any case, the liberal arts have produced personalities, the Post Modernists, jealous of the success of physics and other sciences, the study of which these people have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue. Yet they want the authority accompanying the mathematical certainty and precision of the sciences. Their solution is to pepper their papers and books with the vocabulary and ideas of mathematics and physics.

Sokal and Brimont have read and analyzed a representative selection of the works of Post Modernism. Their conclusion is that every reference they found to mathematical or physical concepts is either gratuitous or out-of-context. In other words, the papers make no sense because their conclusions depend on incorrect arguments.

Sokal and Brimont don't merely destroy the Post Modernist study of how we know what we know (epistemology) they also offer their view on the topic. It is possible for us to know something of the world and of how it works, in fact we do know quite a lot.
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