Fashionable Nonsense | Alan Sokal

Summary of: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science
By: Alan Sokal


Get ready to explore the intriguing and controversial world of postmodernism, as we delve into the book ‘Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science’ by Alan Sokal. We’ll examine the defining aspects of postmodernism and how it often crosses the boundaries of rational and meaningful discourse by misusing scientific jargon and concepts. The infamous Sokal hoax serves to illustrate how far postmodernism can veer into absurdity and meaninglessness. By understanding how the Sokal hoax was conceived and executed, we will uncover some postmodernists’ tendency to misrepresent science, and the repercussions this has on rational thought and scientific progress.

Understanding Postmodernism

Postmodernism challenges the notion of an objective truth, claiming that all knowledge, including science, is a social construct and relative to the individual. By acknowledging that perspectives differ, postmodernism suggests that no single reality exists. Despite its controversies, postmodernism offers a valuable counterbalance to extreme modernism by promoting diverse voices and ideas.

Delving into postmodernism answers why it’s such a disputed subject. At its core, postmodernism disputes the existence of any objective truth in the world. Its proponents argue that everything we know, even scientific knowledge, is socially constructed and inherently biased, making it largely individualistic and far from universally true. This idea of relativism invites us to recognize that what we perceive as established facts are instead colored by personal understandings.

Let’s consider Native American origin myths, stating that their people have inhabited the Americas since their ancestors emerged from an underground spirit world. Some postmodernists regard such beliefs as equally valid and true as scientific evidence showing that the first humans entered the Americas by crossing the Bering Strait between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. This stance allows multiple beliefs and perspectives to coexist by emphasizing the interpretive nature of reality.

Despite initial reactions, postmodernism plays a critical role in balancing the negative aspects of extreme modernism. During the early twentieth century, modernism sought to scrutinize every facet of human existence in pursuit of progress. This often resulted in over-glamorizing technology and Western values while dismissing the value systems of other cultures.

Postmodernism emerged in the late twentieth century to challenge these idealistic views and draw attention to the importance of diverse cultural perspectives. By ushering in a more inclusive era, postmodernism has enriched our cultural landscape. However, caution is advised when approaching postmodernism in scientific discourse, where it could potentially cause harm by undermining objective research and knowledge.

The Sokal Hoax Exposed

The Sokal hoax, a parody paper published by physics professor Alan Sokal, revealed the nonsensical nature of certain postmodernist ideas and sparked heated debates in the academic world. Sokal used cryptic language and quotations from popular writers to illustrate how easily editors can be seduced by fancy words and jargon, ultimately proving that even postmodernist “experts” struggle to comprehend their peers’ work.

You might be familiar with the Sokal hoax, where physics professor Alan Sokal submitted a parody paper to the trendy journal, Social Text. What appeared to be an innocent academic paper was, in fact, a clever ruse titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Immediately after publication, Sokal admitted that the article was filled with meaningless postmodernist lingo.

In his paper, Sokal adopted an extreme form of relativism to present an illogical argument that physical “reality” was a “social and linguistic construct.” He supported this claim with deliberately vague and opaque language, such as “the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered.” The incomprehension that readers faced was precisely Sokal’s intention, illustrating the absurdity in some postmodernist thinking.

Sokal’s paper successfully passed the publication process due to the usage of grammatically correct sentences peppered with meaningless jargon and citations from well-known physicists. He incorporated buzzwords like “hermeneutics,” “privilege,” “transgressive,” and “Lacanian,” which, as journalist Gary Kamiya notes, are the “not-so-secret passwords” of postmodernism. Additionally, Sokal improved his chances by quoting the works of the journal’s editors.

The Sokal hoax highlighted how editors can be easily swayed by complex language and references from renowned authors. More importantly, it demonstrated that even postmodernist “experts” cannot fully grasp their colleagues’ writings.

The hoax triggered a fiery discussion in academia. Thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Barbara Epstein (editor at The New York Review of Books), and philosopher Thomas Nagel praised Sokal’s effort, viewing it as a refreshing critique of an intellectual trend that had spiraled into meaninglessness, masked by attractive packaging.

Misusing Science in Postmodernism

Alan Sokal, a physics professor, aimed to highlight the misuse of scientific concepts in postmodernism. He noticed flawed applications of scientific terms in various fields, often resulting in nonsensical statements. Examples include French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s absurd equation involving the penis, feminist Luce Irigaray’s misguided critique of Einstein’s famous equation, and philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s convoluted attempts to link chaos theory to history. Such misuse of scientific jargon ultimately serves to make ideas sound more profound than they deserve.

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