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Intellectual Impostures Paperback – April 3, 2003
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'A splendid book.' Richard Dawkins, Nature 'A delicious revelation that even the perpetrators of postmodern philosophy often have no idea what they're saying.' The Observer 'The exposure of ignorance, pomposity and pseudo-science in this book are truly breathtaking.' Sunday Telegraph 'A forensic examination of sackloads of ordure from the postmodern stable.' Financial Times
About the Author
Jean-Francois Abgrall was a senior detective in the French police. He developed an extraordinary reputation for his psychological insights into criminal behaviour. He is now a private detective.
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"I sure made a mistake when I told the Goddess Minerva that She couldn't square the circle. In response, She drew a circle next to me, a truly beautiful and perfect circle. And right in front of my panicky brown eyes, She turned pi into four! Not just the circumference divided by the diameter, but the series expansion as an inverse tangent as well. What would She do next, make me unwell by dropping the first letter from my first name? i tried to apologize, but it was too late."
I was not the only one to dream of mangling pi. In "Contact: A Novel," Carl Sagan went me one better when he had aliens send messages to each other at infinite speed by hiding them in a numerical representation of pi and then, you guessed it, changing pi everywhere!
Still, Alan Sokal went beyond even this, getting the following published in the journal "Social Text:"
"In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between the observer and the observed; the pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally decentered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a spacetime point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone."
Sokal put this and many more whoppers into his hoax, which defended an equally absurd thesis: that "physical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct."
While this joke may not prove much, it does raise the issue of whether a few people in academia are misusing the vocabulary of science to create absurd statements in defense of an antirationalist point of view. This book shows that they are.
The authors show that Jacques Lacan makes completely arbitrary analogies between topology and psychoanalysis. We then see some of the same irrelevance and superficial use of topology in the early works of Julia Kristeva. After an interlude in which Sokal and Bricmont seriously discuss the philosophy of science, there are more examples of academic nonsense. The next victim is Luce Irigaray, who in what I agree is about as ridiculously antifeminist a statement as one could make says:
"Science always displays certain choices, certain exclusions, and these are particularly determined by the sex of the scholars involved."
That's rich: objective truth is different depending on whether one is a Woman or a man! I must admit that I half expected Irigaray to say that pi was different for Men and women.
After that, we see Bruno Latour's idea that Einstein's Theory of Relativity has implications for sociology. The authors point out that this is manifest nonsense. Were we to discover tomorrow that the ratio of the mass of a particle to its energy were slightly different from what relativity predicted, there would be a revolution in physics, but no need to alter theories of human behavior.
Later, we see Jean Baudrillard say, "It is a sign that the space of the event has become a hyperspace with multiple refractivity, and that the space of war has become definitively non-Euclidean." And there are more, um, words, from Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Paul Virilio.
Sokal and Bricmont conclude that all this inanity is a threat. That either it will lead to even more irrationalism in academia or to an academic abandonment of social critique. And I think it's worth warning us to avoid such a future. But I also think we simply need social journals to get scientists to review (and reject) papers that use big scientific words instead of making coherent statements.
-- Alan Sokal
In the international community and in academia, *leftist* has always referred to Marxism in its various derivations. The term references Marx's idea for a system of government and economics so radical that it has never been attempted anywhere in its purest form. This makes his untested system the perfect springboard for pseudo-rigorous theory.
Unfortunately, in recent years, *leftist* has become one of the most abused words in America: Various partisans have misused the term as a synonym for *liberal democrat*. It's a mistake that Alan Sokal never makes once in this book.
There is nothing wrong with being opposed to the positions of liberal democrats. There is, however, everything wrong with calling them leftists. To do so involves changing the entire shape of world politics to fit a partisan view of a localized American spectrum. If an American politician who believes in fund-sourcing social programs within a capitalist economy is a "hard leftist" (in the words of a New York Post columnist), then how are we to classify political leaders in China -- as "the hardest of harder hard leftists"?
To place postmodernist critics on the left and fundamentalists on the right, as Sokal has done, is entirely correct. Most known postmodern thinkers are elaborating on Marxist systems and are therefore leftists. Fundamentalists advocate sweeping religion-derived social restrictions -- which get bundled with the advocacy of zero economic constraints due to common interests shared with allies -- and this places them on the far right. The point is not to agree or disagree with either side ideologically, but to identify them accurately so as to understand what's being said.
When Sokal addresses various shortcomings of *leftist* pomo thought, he isn't talking about democrats or liberals, he's using the term correctly: in this case, to refer to Marxist and post-structuralist critics who try to use pseudo-Marxist *terminology*. He isn't resorting to ad hominem to make this claim, he's dissecting the writers' logic. Sokal's purpose is to promote clear thought and discourage pseudo-science, not vilify or malign any particular political side.
In pedantic hands, Marx's stringent economic formulae have become an excuse for inexact jargon and inapplicable equations. One gets the feeling certain literary academics envy the hermetic exclusivity of scientists but lack the discipline to achieve it. They have sought to get around this by appropriating scientific/mathematical/economic language without understanding it. This is the problem that Sokal seeks to address.
Sokal's premise is that theory should be lucid and logical no matter where it falls in the political spectrum. In the words of Wittgenstein, "Anything that can be stated can be stated clearly."
In *Intellectual Impostures*, Sokal goes after inflated pseudo-jargon that happens to be employed by leftist academics. He does so admirably, in part because he is specific. Whether outraged or amused, he never taints his argument by resorting to hyperbole or bluster. His attacks hit their target because his gaze never strays from its mark.
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