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Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture [Paperback]

Alan Sokal
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 11 2010
In 1996, Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at New York University, wrote a paper for the cultural-studies journal Social Text, entitled 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity'. It was reviewed, accepted and published. Sokal immediately confessed that the whole article was a hoax - a cunningly worded paper designed to expose and parody the style of extreme postmodernist criticism of science. The story became front-page news around the worldand triggered fierce and wide-ranging controversy. Sokal is one of the most powerful voices in the continuing debate about the status of evidence-based knowledge. In Beyond the Hoax he turns his attention to a new set of targets - pseudo-science, religion, and misinformation in public life. 'Whether my targets are the postmodernists of the left, the fundamentalists of the right, or the muddle-headed of all political and apolitical stripes, the bottom line is that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence, are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century.' The book also includes a hugely illuminating annotated text of the Hoax itself, and a reflection on the furore it provoked.

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From Publishers Weekly

In 1996, NYU physicist Sokal published a paper entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity in an academic journal. Shortly thereafter, and to great furor, Sokal reported that his paper was a parody of postmodernism. This collection of 10 essays, six of which have been previously published, expands upon the central ideas of that academic joke. Sokal demands a respect for evidence and attacks postmodernists, fundamentalists and the muddle-headed of all political and apolitical stripes. The opening chapter presents the original hoax paper in its entirety, with the addition of annotations describing how he came to write it and explaining all the inside jokes. In subsequent chapters, Sokal explains how postmodernists confuse truth with claims of truth, fact with assertions of fact, and knowledge with pretensions to knowledge, and demonstrates how pseudoscientists have adopted a similar perspective. In biting prose, he analyzes the concept of therapeutic touch being promoted in nursing and Vedic science being advanced by Hindu nationalists. Though he concludes with his weakest argument—that religion is simply another form of pseudoscience—Sokal consistently asks the reader to think clearly and follow the evidence, regardless of where it may lead, and for that alone he deserves respect. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

Review from previous edition: "If you're concerned about the role of science in making sense of our world, you need to read it." --BBC Focus, Robert Matthews 01/04/08

"Most scientists will be highly appreciative of and deeply fascinated by what Sokal has to say in this remarkable book." --Chemistry World 01/08/2008

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language lesson July 31 2008
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
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.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Postmodernism Turned Upside Down Feb. 24 2009
By Coach C TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I remember vaguely in my pre-academic days about this guy who wrote a spoof on postmodernism which was published by a journal. It hit the ivory tower like an earthquake and the so-called elitists were never the same after it. It was the moment we entered the post-postmodern age.

That man was Alan Sokal, NYU physicist, and his book "Beyond The Hoax" is a behind the scenes look at the article that rocked the Annales School of philosophy. The primary motivations behind Sokal's philosophical critiques against postmodernism are simple: postmodernism was an elitist philosophy which undermined the shared commitment to the struggle for social justice. Throughout the book, you do get the sense of Sokal's own secular humanist convictions, progressivism without the pretension and condescension.

Overall, I found this to be one of the best philosophical books I've ever read. Sokal is straight-forward, exploratory, and sufficiently intriguing to read. I recommend this to anyone who wants an intellectual response to postmodernism.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
66 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language lesson July 31 2008
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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]
40 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scintillating and Badly Needed June 2 2008
By JMB1014 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ever since his 1996 spoof of postmodernism appeared in "Social Text," a pretentious journal I no longer find in stores, Alan Sokal has been at pains to show that science gives us a sound basis for belief. He is well-qualified to do it. Sokal is Professor of Physics at New York University and of Mathematics at University College London. He is literate, erudite and well-informed. Certainly his views are likely to provoke splenetic responses from those who have found fame and fortune in the relatively arid realm of post-modernism and the various endeavors to extend it far beyond what it warrants. It is easy to leap from the bona fide points philosophers like Derrida and Foucault have made to silly inferences such as that there is no objective reality, as if everything we perceive is filtered through ideological lenses. The point is that we can measure things, we do get airplanes off the ground and send space probes to distant planets, and so we can believe not only in Newtonian but also Einsteinian Physics. Evolution, moreover, is now solidly supported not only by an amazing array of fossils but by the irrefutable evidence supplied by embryology and DNA.

Alas, trendy (and often shallow) social commentary overlooks or denies this, sometimes with mischievous consequences. But as Einstein said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible."

Part of the problem Sokal identifies and combats is that the extension of postmodern skepticism into the scientific realm has become the project of right-wing interests that have reason to be opposed to science, as in trying to deny the fact that we face serious consequences from global climate change, or seeking to promote what is known as "alternative" medicine. Sokal also takes up history and religion as areas where postmodernism has been invoked to challenge reality as an intellectual construct. His conclusions will not be warmly received by those who profit from alternative medicine any more than T.H. Huxley's efforts to debunk spiritualism were received by those who sought to exploit people's vulnerability in the face of loss. But at least since Francis Bacon, we have had the tools to begin to make the universe comprehensible. That should neither surprise nor alarm anyone. From the first time a baby sees or touches, he begins to apprehend the world around him.

This is a very fine book. Sokal is meticulous and thoroughly logical. His points are closely argued and exceedingly well documented. Further, it is a handsome volume at a reasonable price. It makes a major contribution to the ongoing debate about the usefulness and reliability of modern science. It deserves a wide readership.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful, logical, and enjoyable Sept. 18 2010
By J. Davis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I had never read anything by Alan Sokal prior to Beyond The Hoax, having only heard the name through an essay by another physicist, Steven Weinberg. But I am glad I read this book. Sokal is a brilliant man and a very good writer. Sokal's mission in Beyond The Hoax is simple: combat bad ideas from whatever source they arrive. He takes on a number of targets in this book: postmodernists, religious fundamentalists, pseudoscience advocates, fellow scientists such as Sam Harris , progressive leftists like Michael Lerner, among others. In my opinion, he succeeds (for the most part) with razor-sharp logic. This is a book that any science enthusiast will want to read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Practical help for getting out of misty discussions. May 10 2011
By C.J. de Jong - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Alan Sokal explaines in detail what goes wrong in discussions between scientist and pseudoscientist, between rational thinkers and wishful thinkers. After reading this book you will be able to keep your discussions clear of "New Age mist" and false arguments!
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do you want a thoughtful workout? July 20 2010
By Martha W. Bond - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
And also plan to devote several hours to chapter one - 92 pages containing the Hoax with its footnotes plus the annotations. It truly need to be read in one session. I recommend reading the Hoax with its footnotes, then re-reading the Hoax with the annotations, perhaps with a look back at some of Hoax's footnotes.

The rest of the book is devoted to other of Dr. Sokal's writings on - as the subtitle states - science, philosphy, and culture. Whether you agree with all his views, he is clear on his presentation. Unlike - say - Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins (I agree with their views, mostly, if not their confrontational styles).

And to the wishy-washy post modern/cultural relativism crowd? You are losers.
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