It was a delightful episode. For nearly two generations, the philosophical French Pox had suffused through North American universities. "Postmodernism" created artificial new disciplines, set a still unmatched standard for obfuscation, and lambasted science whenever its practitioners found the opportunity. Being busy with other things, researchers had little time to respond with more than a sad shaking of the head. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, physicist Alan Sokal [who?] produced an article on quantum gravity, drafted in the best elusive "pomo" style and publised it in a leading postmodernist journal, Social Text.
It was a hoax. Beautifully conceived and wonderfully executed, Sokal's article demonstrated to all what a different kind of hoax had been perpetrated on North American education. In this lively recapitulation of the episode, Sokal uses the article - with updating comments - to explain his motives and to expand on them with additional essays. The original is reprinted with Sokal's commentary on what spoofs, solopsisms, outright flattery of Socal Text's editors and purposeful scientific errors even a first-year physics student would question. Obviously, none of that mattered, since the syntax was so clearly in a form those editors cherished, the "peer reviewers" overlooked or were ignorant of, the gaffes. Besides a scientist writing for a journal long known to criticise science. He was one of their own!
Revelation of the parody in another pomo journal brought much glee to the scientific community, among others, but the project failed in one significant regard. The pomo movement did not wither away - indeed many of its adherents still occupy university chairs. "Truth" is still being equated with "belief" and objective facts are readily dismissed for unverifiable alternatives and "feelings" accepted more than data. The following essays demonstrate that illogical thinking, rejection of the scientific method did not diminish and pseudoscience is actually on the rise. In one truly frightening essay, Sokal describes the psuedoscience that is permeating the North American nursing profession. Deemed - among other terms - "Therapeutic Touch", its practioners claim certain healing skills by not "touching" at all! Although the practice was exposed by an 11-year-old girl at a science fair, classes in the technique are given in at least 80 college and university schools across North America, with an equal number of hospitals sponsoring its use.
As he notes, Sokal's original - and ongoing - aim is to protect students from falling prey to the mass of false or misleading claims about science, about the finding and use of evidence, about the evils of "credential-mongering" and to encourage critical thinking generally. He provides numerous examples, even ranging so far afield as an examination of the rise of postmodernism in India. There, the attacks on science seen in the West have expanded and intensified in Vedic Hinduism, a movement wrapped in anti-colonialist nationalism and ethno-centrism. Social commentators Meera Nanda and Vandana Shiva - oft-cited by Western relativist academics, are shown as Asian heirs to the French tradition. Both call for "alternative sciences", which remain poorly formulated.
This discussion of a religiously-based rejection of objective science is a proper lead to his final chapter, "Religion, Politics and Survival". If there is one area where "evidence" is discounted and even avoided, it is in the promulgation of religion. For Sokal, the issue goes well beyond simple personal considerations because making decisions without assessing valid information distorts how we make choices. Evidence, he argues, must come first, whether in social situations, politics or even buying an auto. "Faith", he says, "is not a rejection of reason, but the lazy acceptance of bad reasons". Using Sam Harris' "End of Faith" and Rabbi Michael Lerner's "Spirit Matters", the author closely examines the books and the questions they raise. Among these is the attitude of his countrymen at election time. "Moral values" was the highest rated reason given for making a choice in the 2004 presidential election - with the term being a code-word for opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Given that most people have no real idea what is involved in such situations, Sokal argues that decisions based on deluded sources are flawed. Ethical ideas can be assessed in secular terms and that's an idea he wishes extended.
Although this book may seem dated to the uninitiated - we don't encounter the term "postmodern" as much as we used to, the basic philosophy remains widespread. By eschewing realistic foundations for our patterns of living, we may be heading into a pre-Enlightenment version of modern society. Should anybody wish this sort of regression, they are free to try it outside a society where the powers available are kept out of harm's way. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]