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.
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