Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword

(***Warning: If you haven't read the first paper (or at least looked at it) then this post will spoil the rest of the story***)

The rest of the story and the Afterword can be found here. I would recommend at least looking at the first article before you read the afterword.

In the 1990's people (like Alan Sokal) were concerned with the deplorable state of affairs surrounding current trends in the social "sciences" with their methods and justification for their conclusions. To demonstrate the "illiteracy" of some of these "humanists and natural scientists", as Dr. Sokal refers to them in his afterword, Dr. Sokal wrote an article consisting of "a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever." He then sent it to a prominent journal to see if they would publish it.

So the experiment ran thus: ""Would a leading journal of cultural studies," he wrote in the May/June issue of Lingua Franca, "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?"" The answer is sadly, yes. (I'm quoting Linda Seebach here who wrote an article explaining this) I had other people read over the article and even though their level of training in science consisted solely of a high school physics class (admittedly a good one) they could instantly recognize the article for what it was. The editors and those who actually agreed with Dr. Sokal's article exhibited their "total ignorance of physics, reason and the scientific method." (See the second comment on my first post about this). If someone with a high school education in physics can see the fallacies in his article then what does that tell you about the editors? The complete listing of articles and debate surrounding the affair can be found here.

This article came up in my class on Wittgenstein where we are discussing the fundamental fallacies of philosophy and why it would be possible for someone like Dr. Sokal to publish an article like this. Dr. Sokal makes some good points in his afterword about how this could happen. He also clearly outlines what you need to do to have a completely bogus argument that some people will actually believe.

This reminds me of a few verses from the Bible where Peter wrote, "These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever. For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error." (2 Peter 2:17-18)

Thus there you have it. This is why I had reservations about studying philosophy, because after studying physics I had a great many reservations about how philosophers thought (and still think) about the world. With their methods, this (meaning the nonsense written by Dr. Sokal) is the end result.

1 comment:

  1. I used to think it was very hard to get a paper published. This is good example of why it's really not hard so long as your paper agrees with what important people think. This leads me to the conclusion that author Michael Konda was right when he said "the fastest way to succeed is to look as if you're playing by somebody else's rules, while quietly playing by your own."

    The danger in this is that you can take it too far and try to go against the grain just to be different. This is problem I noted in my post on MOG.

    All in all, science is a tricky game to play.


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