Alan Sokal highlights the incompatibility of science and religion

As I noted recently, Massimo Pigliucci has left his Rationally Speaking website to found a new one: Scientia Salon, which will, it seems, host a greater diversity of authors.

Alan Sokal has put up a new post (actually part 2 of 3) at Scientia Salon ; the title of the tripartite essay is “What is science and why should we care?”, and you can find part 1 here. Part 3, which was published yesterday, is here (I don’t yet know the permalink).

You will remember Sokal as the physics professor who perpetrated the greatest scientific spoof of our time, the famous “Sokal Hoax,” in which he submitted a bogus, postmoderny article to the pomo journal Social Text, and got it accepted and published. It’s a really funny spoof, using real quotes from postmodern science-distorters, and is indistiguishable from most of the pomo science criticism that was pervasive then from people like Judith Butler and Stanley Aronowith. The title of Sokals piece was “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“,  and if you haven’t seen the article, the link takes you to it. If you were too young to know about this hoax, do at least look over the “Hermeneutics” piece, which has howlers like this:

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity”. It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.

That piece was a terrific embarrassment to the editors of Social Text, particularly to the prolix and overrated editor Stanley Fish, who accepted it without any scientific review (if a physicist had looked at that article for about two minutes, it would have been outed as a fraud). As it was, Sokal later revealed the hoax in the journal Lingua Franca. The Social Text editors counterattacked, saying they thought the article was real (indeed, which shows what tripe can pass for academic discourse among pomo “scholars”), and that Sokal had behaved unethically. But their defenses weren’t convincing, and I think Sokal’s hoax was partly responsible for the slow disappearance of postmodernism (and its claim that science doesn’t provide objective truth) from the humanities departments of American universities.

But that’s background. If you’re familiar with Sokal’s work, including his book with Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Scienceyou’ll know much of what he says in his new three-part essay. He deals with the nature of science (Sokal conceives of it, as do I, as a toolkit for studying the empirical realities of nature, but adds that it’s also the accumulation of facts gathered by those tools), and with the abuse of science by “other ways of knowing,” including pseudoscience and religion.

I don’t think Massimo will be down with everything that Sokal has to say, for Sokal conceives of “science” broadly, including—gasp!—plumbing: in other words, every discipline that uses reason and empirical study to find out truths about the cosmos. To Sokal, as to me, every “way of knowing” that tells us something about nature’s reality comes from the application of the tools of science.

Massimo doesn’t like “science” to cover such a broad spectrum of disciplines, preferring to use the word “scientia” instead. But that’s just a semantic squabble.

Here is a good quote on that from part I of Sokal’s essay (my emphasis):

Thus, by science I mean, first of all, a worldview giving primacy to reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world. This methodology is characterized, above all else, by the critical spirit: namely, the commitment to the incessant testing of assertions through observations and/or experiments — the more stringent the tests, the better — and to revising or discarding those theories that fail the test. One corollary of the critical spirit is fallibilism: namely, the understanding that all our empirical knowledge is tentative, incomplete and open to revision in the light of new evidence or cogent new arguments (though, of course, the most well-established aspects of scientific knowledge are unlikely to be discarded entirely).

. . . I stress that my use of the term “science” is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science” (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)

Massimo gets really exercised when plumbers are said to use science, and has criticised me several times for that analogy. So be it.

But I’m glad to see Alan on my side here, because what’s important is not how we precisely demarcate the boundaries of science to distinguish it from what is done by, say, historians or plumbrs, but that one demarcate science from pseudoscience and non-science, which have a different (and ineffective) toolkit for finding truth. Of course, people like David Bentley Hart (I’m still reading him) will claim that religion isn’t in the business of making empirical claims, or at least that Hart isn’t: he’s just telling us how God is conceived of by Sophisticated Theologians™, so that atheists can know what they’re attacking.  (Let me add that Hart’s God contrary to his claims, does not completely comport with all the attributes of God adumbrated by either Church fathers or “regular believers,” and so it does no work towards helping us to understand the real, empirical claims of modern faith.  Hart’s God, for example, is at odds with the God of Catholicism, and with many of its practices that are justified by the will of their God. Hart’s God is his alone, stripped of all the accoutrements added by the historical theologians he cites, and one suspects Hart defines this apophatic God precisely to immunize it from empirical scrutiny.)

But I digress. In part II of his essay, Sokal distinguishes religion from science, showing how they’re incompatible. I’ll quote in extenso, but there’s a lot more, so go read the essay. It’ll take about an hour. I’ve put one paragraph in bold.

And so, if I were tactically minded, I would stress — as most scientists do — that science and religion need not come into conflict. I might even go on to argue, following Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion should be understood as “nonoverlapping magisteria”: science dealing with questions of fact, religion dealing with questions of ethics and meaning. But I can’t in good conscience proceed in this way, for the simple reason that I don’t think the arguments stand up to careful logical examination. Why do I say that? For the details, I have to refer you to a 75-page chapter in my book [16]; but let me at least try to sketch now the main reasons why I think that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at the world.

. . . Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all “faith” is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals.” [17] It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. “Faith” is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.

But of course we never apply these lax standards of evidence to the claims made in the other fellow’s holy scriptures: when it comes to religions other than one’s own, religious people are as rational as everyone else. Only our own religion, whatever it may be, seems to merit some special dispensation from the general standards of evidence. [JAC: Note that this is similar to John Loftus’s well known “Outsider Test for Faith.”]

And here, it seems to me, is the crux of the conflict between religion and science. Not the religious rejection of specific scientific theories (be it heliocentrism in the 17th century or evolutionary biology today); over time most religions do find some way to make peace with well-established science. Rather, the scientific worldview and the religious worldview come into conflict over a far more fundamental question: namely, what constitutes evidence.

Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience (that is, experiments and observations) combined with rational reflection on those empirical observations. Religious people acknowledge the validity of that method, but then claim to be in the possession of additional methods for obtaining reliable knowledge of factual matters — methods that go beyond the mere assessment of empirical evidence — such as intuition, revelation, or the reliance on sacred texts. But the trouble is this: What good reason do we have to believe that such methods work, in the sense of steering us systematically (even if not invariably) towards true beliefs rather than towards false ones? At least in the domains where we have been able to test these methods — astronomy, geology and history, for instance — they have not proven terribly reliable. Why should we expect them to work any better when we apply them to problems that are even more difficult, such as the fundamental nature of the universe?

Last but not least, these non-empirical methods suffer from an insuperable logical problem: What should we do when different people’s intuitions or revelations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly sacred texts — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact sacred?

As John Shaft would say, “Right on.”

h/t: coel

98 Comments

  1. Stephen Barnard
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I like it that Sokal uses the phrase “begs the question” correctly.

    • Marella
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      Yes indeed, so lovely to see.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm, the way I read that sentence is that he’s using it in the modern (or as some of us think of it, “wrong”) sense. It started out OK given what it follows, but then it turns out to actually refer to the subsequent part of the sentence instead.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted March 30, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        I don’t read it that way. He’s saying that the argument assumes the conclusion.

  2. Ken Pidcock
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Sokal’s pulling off Transgessing the Boundaries was due in no small part to his careful flattering of his target audience combined with insulting their critics. Which, come to think of it, is a good way to get anything admired.

    • Gordon
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps Sokal might change “gravity” to “quantum theory” or something and submit the paper again! proably a better than average chance of acceptance. Might have to use a different name though.

  3. fivegreenleafs
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I think I rate Sokal as somewhat of a hero for showing a proverbial log into the postmodernist grinding wheel in the middle 90s.

    Besides the original book “Fashionable Nonsense” Jerry referenced above, I can also recommend to check out his later book, “Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture”, (2010, Oxford University Press), which besides several later essays, also contains an annotated version of the original “hoax” paper, with lots of explanatory footnotes and comments.

    • Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      This book has the expanded “religion as pseudoscience” work, which is no doubt going to make him some enemies (again) but in my view is correct.

  4. Chris Slaby
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    “But their defenses weren’t convincing, and I think Sokal’s hoax was partly responsible for the slow disappearance of postmodernism (and its claim that science doesn’t provide objective truth) from the humanities departments of American universities.”

    Postmodernism (or some version of it) seems to be alive and well in many humanities departments of American universities, at least as far as I can tell.

    • Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      Oh yes. It is particularly rife among artsy fartsy types.

  5. Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I so admire Sokal for what he did to pomo with his hoax. I hope this isn’t too far off topic, but I so wish there was an alt-med equivalent of Alan Sokal. Maybe even someone who is like a hoax version of Deepak Chopra.

    He can be at it for 2 years, just enough to gain some prominence, and then he reveals it was all a hoax to everyone. For it to work though, even skeptics(except for some collaborators) would have to be unaware of the truth until the day of the revelation.

    I’m not sure if this would work though.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      Well, there was the Carlos hoax. That the sort of thing you mean?

      But so many quacks and psychics have been exposed as hoaxes over the past 150 years or so, surely it’s obvious to everyone that that’s what they are? Sadly, apparently not.

    • cremanomaniac
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      I thnk you may be enjoy the movie “Kumare.” There you will discover how easy it is to bait those with deep desitres to “know” truth. It’s funny at times, yet sad that people can be so easily duped. Substitute Deepity for Kumare and you have your joke.

    • Dan
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      There was an article on Science-Based Medicine a while ago talking about an amusing hoax that a doctor perpetrated on an Integrative medicine conference. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/integrative-medicine-is-the-butt-of-a-sokal-type-hoax/

  6. potaman
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Sokal is a hero also for keeping scientists honest. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/19/mathematics-of-happiness-debunked-nick-brown

  7. Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    That plumbers can make excellent scientists was proven by Leonnard Susskind .. ;-)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Susskind#Early_life_and_education

    • Kevin
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      I had the opportunity to watch Susskind many times in small seminars. He is one of those humans who has piercing intelligence and inveterately ten steps ahead of my knowledge…like some plumbers I have met.

      • abrotherhoodofman
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        I attended his lecture on the holographic principle at De Anza College a few years back.

        Susskind is warm, funny, affable, and of course, brilliant.

    • Gordon
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      My plumber told me it’s nothing to do with pipes. It’s about understanding how water behaves. This while listening to my drive with a stephoscope to find where a pipe was leaking. Result a one square foot hole and not half the drive dug up.

      • Marella
        Posted March 30, 2014 at 12:34 am | Permalink

        Picture of plumber lying on belly listening to driveway with stethoscope; priceless.

  8. Kevin
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Plumbers use science. Get over it people, they do not use faith to heal your pipes.

    If anyone thinks science is greater than what a plumber can do, then that person has not done science. It is the method of creatively applying critical thinking skills to observations.

    If you are a scientist ask yourself: What percentage of your work is not routine?

    • kraut
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      I am not a plumber, but a gas fitter/heating tech. with plumbing experience that comes to the trade via four years university (agrology) and a background as a lab tech.

      The research skills, science background are the backbone of my trouble shooting skills and help in analyzing problems in system layouts and performance.

      I do not relay on prayer, I rely on measurements and physical principles.

      • kraut
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        As an anecdote: The majority of the plumbers I deal with now as a salesman for heating and pressure systems are atheists or at least without any interest in religion. Seems dealing with shit that other people produce gets rid of the notion of humans being special in any way really fast.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

          That is interesting.

        • Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          I can accept that, but there are also exceptions. In our town the biggest & most aggressive plumbing and heating service is loud and proud about being ‘Christian owned’. It is stated on their vans, in their adds, and on their storefront. They are also the most expensive.

          • Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

            ‘ads’.

          • abrotherhoodofman
            Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

            Sucking shit for Jesus?

          • Marella
            Posted March 30, 2014 at 12:37 am | Permalink

            It’s probably because of his wife. ;-)

    • Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      “If anyone thinks science is greater than what a plumber can do, then that person has not done science.”

      Nor have they had blocked up plumbing!

  9. Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Even Warren Zevon knew that transformative hermeneutics will kill ya.

  10. uglicoyote
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Road.

  11. Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Excellent post. This is related to the topic of my next research project: perceptions of (in)compatibility between religion and science within the UK. (Not funded by the Templeton Foundation I may add.)

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:49 am | Permalink

      Interesting blog, James. I may follow it for a while.

  12. Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    “The Social Text editors counterattacked, saying they thought the article was real…”

    Well, yeah…that’s kinda the point. How do those editors think that’s a defense?!

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

      Duh, right? I thought the same thing reading that.

    • Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Worse, the egregiously bad bits were, for the most part, in *quotations* from the people Sokal was ridiculing.

  13. Stephen P
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so.

    This is often claimed. But, in the case of the Bible, does it actually say that anywhere? I haven’t come across such a passage. And when I’ve asked Christians about it on a couple of occasions, all they’ve come up with is the 2 Timothy passage which says that it is profitable to study scripture, which is hardly the same thing.

    • Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Regardless of what the Bible claims of itself, there’s a very real reason that Christians, if they are to be even remotely honest with themselves, are obligated to take it as absolute and unquestioning.

      And that would be the simple question: Has Jesus read the King James Bible?

      Not, of course, did he read it during his alleged ministry; the works in the New Testament wouldn’t be written for another century and they wouldn’t be canonized for a few more nor re-worked by the order of James for over a dozen centuries.

      But, rather, has the Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father and who judges the quick and the dead; has that Jesus read the KJV Bible?

      If not, Christianity is the worst joke imaginable.

      If so, either Jesus is perfectly happy seeing it in motel rooms everywhere in exactly its current form, or he’s impotent to even issue a press release about inaccuracies in his official biography.

      So he’s gotta be happy with it exactly as it is, or else even the simplest and most obvious and foundational of Christian doctrine not only doesn’t pass the sniff test, it smells like it’s been left out on the counter for the better part of a week.

      That that in turn means that he’s happy for people to think that he wants Christians to make a massive blood sacrifice of all non-Christians poses all sorts of other problems, of course, and not just for Christians….

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Stephen P
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        Well, this is true enough, but not really an answer to my point. Christians aside, I’ve noticed a number of atheists claiming or implying – as here – that the Bible itself asserts that scripture is factually accurate. And I don’t actually think it does, though I don’t rule out the possibility that I’ve missed a few passages.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          It seems to be a popular belief that the Bible says that. I expect that’s where the atheists got the idea from. I did.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Magic texts isn’t my thing, today they bore me to tears. But I remembered that “Genesis” starts out with a lot of bald assertions: “… this is …”. (Usually a genealogy.)

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      Christians use lots of verses for this:

      “If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken” (John 10.35) might be the second-most common.

      “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16) is certainly the most common.

      Then there are zillions of verses In the psalms and proverbs with something like “The (or, every) word of god is true/pure/righteous etc.” Sample:

      “Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him” (Proverbs 30.5). The entire 119th psalm is full of this type of unevidenced claim.

      What strikes me as bizarre is, why would anyone accept the claim that “this is the word of god” without verifying it? After all, the koran does exactly the same thing, and I’m willing to bet that it would not be difficult to find other books that do as well.

  14. Lee
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Would someone please define “pomo” for me?

    • gbjames
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Post-modern.

      • Lee
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        Tanks!

      • Leo
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        Yeah, in the slightly too small font at which I am looking, I misread it as a ligature of “porno.”

        • potaman
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          hehe.. did that a few times myself.

  15. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    What a great set of essays! So we’ll written that my brain gave me little happy chemical rewards as I read it!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Well not we’ll. damn you autocorrect!

      • cremnomaniac
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        Ahh, auto-correct.

        Microsoft’s version of d*g; mistaken as something useful, equally unreliable, but we do have evidence of it’s influence on the physical world.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

        Autocorrect, I’m tired of your shirt!

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:53 am | Permalink

          :-D

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 30, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

          😸

  16. Vaal
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    That was great! So beautifully put by Sokal!

    And Prof. Coyne, as I’m slogging through Hart’s book I am getting precisely the same impression you described. It’s also full of lazy strawmen concerning atheists, new atheists, materialism and naturalism, sprinkled with and schoolyard taunt tactics (“fundamentalist materialists atheists”)

    Not that it has been any surprise.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      Are the fundamentalist materialist atheists also shrill and strident? Do they have no purpose in life? Are they emotionless automatons? Can they not appreciate love, joy, laughter, poetry, sunsets, kittens?

      I’d think that it would be pretty difficult to demonstrate this empirically; yet without evidence, doesn’t the main pillar of the woomeister attack on the New Atheists sputter to a halt?

  17. cremnomaniac
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I’m glad Sokal mentions this, “Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience…”

    And this, “Religious people acknowledge the validity of that method, but then claim to be in the possession of additional methods for obtaining reliable knowledge… such as intuition, revelation,or the reliance on sacred texts.”

    This, I see, as the primary divide between religion and science. It’s the difference between physical evidence we can all see and confirm versus the misattribution of feelings and emotions as evidence for something that can never be found in the physical world.

    To suggest that the latter is one “way of knowing” isn’t all wrong, but it only applies to an individuals internal experience. Its ignorant to suggest anything more.

  18. Edward Hessler
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    One of many essays by the late Stephen Jay Gould that I admire and find myself re-reading was published in “The Atlantic”, September 1982. It was written shortly after the Overton trial on the teaching of creationism. These are the last two paragraphs.

    “As I prepared to leave Little Rock last December, I went to my hotel room to gather my belongings and found a man sitting backward on my commode, pulling it apart with a plumber’s wrench. He explained to me that a leak in the room below had caused part of the ceiling to collapse and he was seeking the source of the water. My commode, located just above, was the obvious candidate, but his hypothesis had failed, for my equipment was working perfectly. The plumber then proceeded to give me a fascinating disquisition on how a professional traces the pathways of water through hotel pipes and walls. The account was perfectly logical and mechanistic: it can come only from here, here, or there, flow this way or that way, and end up there, there, or here. I then asked him what he thought of the trial across the street, and he confessed his staunch creationism, including his firm belief in the miracle of Noah’s flood.

    “As a professional, this man never doubted that water has a physical source and a mechanically constrained path of motion—and that he could use the principles of his trade to identify causes. It would be a poor (and unemployed) plumber indeed who suspected that the laws of engineering had been suspended whenever a puddle and cracked plaster bewildered him. Why should we approach the physical history of our earth any differently?”

  19. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I forgot to mention that I was glad Sokal talked about how rejection of science is political and that science based (ie: properly reasoned, evidenced-based) decisions are essential in a democracy. My PM not only shit down the science studying pollution and climate change (firing the scientists, closing their research programs and in some cases “misplacing” or denying the displaced scientists access to their life’s work), he also severely limited the census. Because who needs data and evidence when it doesn’t comport with your assertions and policies?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Haha best auto correct ever – shit down instead of shut down. I think it actually was a Freudian typo.

      • fivegreenleafs
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        Oh my, you are on a streak today Diana ;)

        Auto correct is a dangerous thing… I once managed to send an email to a friend, that began: “Hi Gorilla,” … I have turned it off ever since.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          Once when my friend was meeting me, I sent her a text saying I was there. She wrote, “you are so fat”. She meant “fast”. It didn’t help that we were meeting for lunch.

          • Gordon
            Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

            Don’t even start on voice recognition software. My email aaking a student how she was getting on with her “foetus” was fortunately not takenly badly

            • Diane G.
              Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

              That’s an especially good one! :D

    • Keith
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      The great tragedy of post modernist scholarship is how it contributed to the pollution of public policy and public discourse about addressing social, economic and environmental issues. The “reality is optional” ethic that has taken hold of various institutions and political factions (exhibit A: Republicans) is truly worrisome.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Sokal himself said “I’m an old-fashioned socialist who simply doesn’t believe deconstruction will do anything to help the working class.”

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

          I love him for his politics as much as his anti-pomo efforts.

      • fivegreenleafs
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        I am afraid I got sidetracked by Dianas “auto correct” spelling spree, but I very much share her and your concern in this regard.

        As an extreme example I can direct your attention to what has happened with the Swedish school system since the late 1970s, when a group of academics populating the pedagogy institutions and departments responsible for teacher education, gained what can only be described as a defacto control of the policy and political process concerning basic education.

        This group, which are informed by cultural relativist, constructivist and post modernist “theory”, then began to rapidly reshape both aims, methods and curricula content, as well as teacher education and training.

        In the first half of 1990s, Sweden probably still had one of the better school system in the world in regard to student performance, (it is perhaps a less well known fact that the Finnish school system today, in a large part is modeled on the “old” Swedish system).

        But in the latter part of the 1990 when the effects of all the changes started to really “bite”, things began to change at an alarming rate, and in the last PISA study reported late last year, Sweden scored well below the OECD average, and even significantly worse then for example the USA in all assessments, (maths/science/reading), coming in on place 38/38/36, respectively.

        And if I understand correctly, Sweden now holds the crown as the country (in the history of OECDs studies), that have worsened its results the most, and the fastest.

        In practice, approx 20% of all pupils leave school after 9 years without a complete set of grades, and 25% of all boys leaving 9:th grade in Sweden today, has such a limited ability, that they can not reliably read a normal daily newspaper.

        And this despite the fact that Sweden has among the highest density of teachers in school, and spends more resources/pupil then almost any other country in the world.

        It is a complete disaster, pure and simple, and sadly, one of the best examples I am aware of, of the tragic and pernicious effect of the postmodernist/constructivist influence on policy/politics.

        • Keith
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          I wasn’t aware of this–what a sad legacy! I wonder if Sweden is now experiencing reform movements like we see in the U.S., with public education being undermined via student voucher programs and charter schools.

          • fivegreenleafs
            Posted March 30, 2014 at 4:10 am | Permalink

            With the caveat that my understanding of the situation in the U.S. is limited, yes, but in a somewhat roundabout, or backwards sort of way i think.

            Up until 1991, Sweden had one of the most centralized school systems in the world, tightly controlled and managed by the state.

            But in a “convulsive” set of political decisions from 1989 to 1994, the state transfered the principal responsibility to the municipalities, creating in one stroke, one of the most decentralized school system in existance.

            At the same time they also opened up for “private” schools (I am uncertain about the best term to use here, but it refers to schools owned and managed by companies, individuals or foundations), and the pupils are free to choose which school they want to go to, and the “money” will follow the pupil.

            So “free” or “private” schools have been in existance since then, and in the country as a whole, around 15% of all pupils in grade 1-9 do attend them, but in the big cities this value goes up to 30-50% or even higher in some cases.

            These schools were originally seen as controversial, since many suspected that this “mobility” would exacerbate the impact of social, cultural and economic factors. Which I think no one now denies is also exactly what happened.

            If you couple this, with the overall rapidly decreasing quality and perfomance in schools, we have a situation where many parents to one side decries the general inequalities within the school system, but when it comes to their own children, “everyone” fights “beaks and claws” to get them into the “better” schools, driving them across towns or to other towns if necessary.

            So if someone now would propose to remove the ability to freely “choose” school, it would terrify many parents (i.e. a political impossibility), and the sad thing is that it in most cases is not a positive choice for “good”, but to choose the least “bad”.

            It is something of a “death” spiral I think, and I do wonder how far it will fall before it eventually hit the bottom…

        • Ken Pidcock
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t know that, either. What a damned shame.

          • fivegreenleafs
            Posted March 30, 2014 at 4:45 am | Permalink

            No, it is not generally known yet I think, maybe because it clashes so dramatically against many peoples perception and image of Sweden, and this is equally true for Swedes themselves in many cases I believe.

            I know it has been noted to a degree in newspapers in the UK, since Swedens system has earlier been “the shining example” and somewhat of a role model for the Education secretary Micheal Gove.

            He found himselves in somewhat of a “pickle”, efter the last PISA results were published in December…

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

          Loosely related, hold your nose and check out this cartoon.

          The following one is pretty good, too.

          OK, now I’ll go take a shower and try to wash the stink off.

          • fivegreenleaf
            Posted March 30, 2014 at 4:59 am | Permalink

            Tragic, but hilarious, Spot on!

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted March 30, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

              Oh dear! Now that would’ve made math interesting!

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

        One of my favorite scary quotes along these lines:

        “In a famous October 2004 New York Times article on the Bush administration, journalist Ron Suskind described his encounter with a “senior adviser” to the president:
        The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality.” (Chris Mooney, The Republican War On Science, p. 243)

  20. jstackpo
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    In the original text:

    ” to the pomo journal Social Text”

    Is that an example of bad kerning of the word “porno” (reflecting your judgment of the journal in question) or just a home-made abbreviation for “post-modern”?

    • Posted March 29, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      A very well-established but apparently not so well-known one.

      /@

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

        I’m surprised any WEIT readers are unaware of it. (Or didn’t then at least think to Google it.)

  21. Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Bentley Hart’s pretend description of his gods are really counter-descriptions whereby his beings are referred-to by what they are not. Damned clever. Add that to deliberate obfuscation of what he purports to describe so that we are left with gods designed neither to be found nor recognised. They are certainly not the late Fred Phelps’ gods who told him to hate gays. Bentley Hart’s argument is so similar to the words of a murderer when asked by the court to explain his fingerprints on the bloody knife. S’funny how the desperate mind is able to lapse into extreme abstraction and unbelievable scenarios…

    (I borrowed (sic) that knife to a fella I met in a pub, M’lud!)

    Perhaps the subtitle to Bentley Hart’s book should be,
    “Wiping the Gods’ Fingerprints from the Face of the Earth”

    As to the Sokal Hoax. I have copied paragraphs of social anthropology written by distinguished academics (and published by Brill academic publishers), both here and on other sites where they have attracted scorn by those thinking it was my own work. Surely hard evidence that Social Anthropology is a cult that remains detached from reality.

    Finally, Pedant Watch.

    “…does not completely comport with all the attributes of God adumbrated by either Church fathers…” JAC in a hurry?

    Comport is to do with bearing and posture, and the good professor may mean ‘compute’ or ‘equate’.

    Adumbration is a painterly work meaning shading. In particular, ‘adumbrate’ suggests bringing out the face by shading behind, and it is not really an alternative to ‘outlined’ or ‘proposed’.

    Sorry for raising it.

    • Posted March 29, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      Jerry uses “comport” often and knows perfectly well what it means: 2. (intransitive) To be in agreement (with); to be of an accord. [from 16th c.]  [quotations ▼]
      The new rules did not seem to comport with the spirit of the club. [Wiktionary]

      /@

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

        A definition I’d have thought was widely known, as well.

        • Posted March 30, 2014 at 5:04 am | Permalink

          Ant, you might be using a second error to cover-up the first. In the USA the word ‘comport’ is occasionally misused as a synonym of ‘compute’. The occasional misuse of a word does not constitute a new meaning for that word. See the OED, or follow dance master Turveydrop in Dickens’ Bleak House.

          • Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

            Oh, come now, George. Have the good grace to admit you were just wrong!

            I don’t have ready access to the OED, but The New Oxford American Dictionary comports with Wiktionary: 2 [ no obj. ] (comport with) accord with; agree with: the actions that comport with her own liberal views.

            And the Historical Thesaurus of the OED has “comport with” being used with the sense agree/harmonize/be congruous with from 1589 to the present.

            Hardly a recent US mistake!

            /@

            PS. Of course, “comport” (without “with”) also has the sense you describe.

            • Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:11 am | Permalink

              Dear Ant,

              Don’t get me going on the many rong words in the American dictionaries ! I suppose that Palin’s ‘refudiate’ is there.

              So I had a word with the Queen who agreed with Me. She said that her grandpappy, George III should have made a charge of a penny everytime a North American used an English word correctly. She may have made a coupla dollars by now. She said, “They cannot even spell ‘cat’ properly, and write it as ‘c*t’”. She has decided to withdraw English from America. You all have to talk among yourselves in the native language, Yuki-Wappo, from henceforth. Makes Kerry’s meeting with Lavrov somewhat strained. But it does improve former President Bush’s intelligibility.

              Noting your desire to make me ‘admit’ to mistakes, I have phoned ahead and got you’re an interview as an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay.

              And so CGAAAAT, which is Yuki-Wappo for ‘cheers’. (and, incidentally, is Alvin Plantinga’s complete DNA sequence)

              • Posted March 31, 2014 at 2:26 am | Permalink

                Hmm… American dictionaries?

                Given the date I cited above, the Queen and George III are less than relevant. The first Elizabeth was on the throne when this meaning of “comport with” was first used in British English (my native tongue, in case that hadn’t penetrated).

                Your continued objections are ill-informed and boorish.

                /@

              • Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:46 am | Permalink

                Still haven’t read the OED 1933 to 1955, then?
                A rare and unusual use from 1589 does not outmatch the very many common uses in English literature.It suggests to me that the American use is out of a confusion with another word. The French use of comporter agrees with the English usage.
                And, yes, I knew you were English. Only the English would argue such lost causes ; – )

                And you did quote the Oxford AMERICAN dictionary, which suggests to me that the professor’s use of ‘comport with’ is a largely American usage.

                Good luck with the interview, but I would say that you are a shoo-in.

              • Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:57 am | Permalink

                The key word you should have noted was Oxford.

                At this point all I can say is that your lack of comportment here is exceed only by your lack of reading comprehension.

                /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

                “And, yes, I knew you were English.”

                No you didn’t.

              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

                Yes, I did! Ant and I have often debated in the past and he has revealed much of himself over the months. But my letters tend to be aimed at a North American audience, supposing that’s where most of the readers are. I assumed that Ant would have a copy of the OED to hand since he is English.

  22. Jimbo
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    [cue ’70’s funk soundtrack]
    “Alan Sokal, he’s one bad mother…”
    “Shut your mouth!”

  23. Sastra
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Massimo will be down with everything that Sokal has to say, for Sokal conceives of “science” broadly, including—gasp!—plumbing: in other words, every discipline that uses reason and empirical study to find out truths about the cosmos. To Sokal, as to me, every “way of knowing” that tells us something about nature’s reality comes from the application of the tools of science.

    I just looked around for my last issue of Free Inquiry and can’t find it. I was hoping to quote from the second part of Susan Haack’s article on scientism. It seemed to me that she was not only supporting your broad definition of science. Iirc she actually called the tendency to want to define science narrowly a form of “scientism.”

    If I’m right, then that would be awesome. Next time Massimo accuses you of scientism you could turn around, cite Haack, and throw it right back at him.

    I know you are, but what am I?

    Rather, the scientific worldview and the religious worldview come into conflict over a far more fundamental question: namely, what constitutes evidence.

    I’m going to disagree with Sokal here because I don’t think he goes back far enough. Yes, there’s a huge disagreement on what constitutes evidence … but FIRST there’s a whopping big disparity on how we categorize different claims. Theology (and to an extent pseudoscience) is Category Error raised to a principle and practiced as an art form. And this error is the reason for the Special Pleading.

    What if God is not a Being, but it’s Being itself? Then it’s in a new category where the normal rules on evidence don’t apply. Obviously.

    And what if what constitutes God are reified abstractions and emotions like Consciousness and Intelligence and Love and Fairness and Purpose? Why, then we would look for the kind of evidence we use when we deal with these things. Obviously.

    And what if God is not something we study like an impersonal thing outside of ourselves but something we relate to like we relate to our own minds … or to the minds of other people? Why, then we would be talking about evidence like motivations and desires and reciprocal connections. Personal evidence, not physical evidence.

    And what if belief in God signifies a capacity and right to be wise, sensitive, caring, compassionate, and open-minded? Why, then we’d lower the bar on the kind of evidence we find convincing — because who would NOT want to be convinced, considering the setup and the stakes?

    Category error. All theists do it. Some (like, I suspect, Hart) play it to the hilt.

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m sokaled in wisdom of course. But I started to fidget when I read this:

    I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.

    Not _every_ question of ethics and aesthetics is off table. There are practical considerations when laying down its plumbing, say how symmetries in faces are considered more aesthetic (but not if they are too strong), that are questions of fact.

    Similarly, if there is no magic the likelihood of ultimate purpose is brought down with it.

    Science has, luckily, a great feature creep into other domains as long as they are about actual experience (or not). That’s not to say that generic experience is amenable to pin down as fact though.

    So, while it is as hard to extrapolate its future uses as its future finds, science is what science does.

    On the other hand, here is a straight up easy extrapolation:

    one suspects Hart defines this apophatic God precisely to immunize it from empirical scrutiny.

    That is a failed project out of the gates.

    1. If it isn’t immunized, it will inevitable fail. We know that much now.
    2. If it is immunized, it is hogwash. The only and obvious purpose it would serve is to fool its proponents.

    In both cases, this is squatting right in the sanatorium. The only difference is that #2 is covering itself with its effluvium as it sinks as deep as the insanity goes. And, I note on the ironic proclamations made on the behalf of Hart’s book, it is both the _weakest_ argument ‘for’ magic agency that anyone can produce and the _easiest_ argument to debunk.

    My take so far is that Hart has managed to put himself into category 2.

    • Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      There are practical considerations when laying down its plumbing, say how symmetries in faces are considered more aesthetic (but not if they are too strong), that are questions of fact.

      Anybody with a music degree from a reputable institution should be able to empirically analyze in great detail the aesthetics of music; that’s the whole point of music theory. You can certainly get into questions about personal preferences, but there is a great deal of well-established hard science behind all sorts of aesthetic questions in music. And, yes, there are both rules and examples of breakage of the rules, and much of the history of the advancement of Western art is all about breaking the rules in various ways and inventing new rules along the way. But there is absolutely a scientific (broadly constructed) approach to understanding pretty much anything you can think of about music, and that’s the whole point of the piece of paper you get at the end of your tenure.

      I would rather suspect the same holds with most, if not all, of the other arts — at least, those not infected by pomo.

      English composition, for example, has grammar and rhetoric, to take an example everybody reading these words should be familiar with. Indeed, as much as I vigorously object to Aristotelian metaphysics, I have to give him a great deal of credit for his Rhetoric and Poetics, which still stands as a necessary text for composers of words to this day. Not as any sort of unquestionable gospel, by any means, but certainly as a tour de force of which one should absolutely be cognizant.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, Aristotle wrote the books of comedy and tragedy (the book of comedy was lost). In the book of tragedy, he explains what makes good tragedy. It’s very good. It’s really all I paid attention to Aristotle about and how I knew that “fatal flaw” was a mistranslation of hamatia (grk: ἁμαρτία):to make a mistake or miss your mark.

  25. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Two notes.

    1) Stanley Fish (the pomo editor who accepted Sokal’s essay) did a reasonably OK rebuttal to Dinesh D’Souza’s book “Illiberal Education”, but overall he’s a philosophical mess.

    One of the most eloquent criticisms of Fish’s pomo work is from David Hirsh whom as Wikipedia puts it ‘compares Fish’s work to Penelope’s loom in the Odyssey, stating, “what one critic weaves by day, another unweaves by night.” “Nor,” he writes, “does this weaving and unweaving constitute a dialectic, since no forward movement takes place.” Ultimately, Hirsch sees Fish as left to “wander in his own Elysian fields, hopelessly alienated from art, from truth, and from humanity.”‘

    Interestingly, Fish been heavily attacked by the worst critics !*ever*! of the New Atheism, Terry Eagleton, who describes Fish’s work as sinister. I know this is perhaps grossly unfair, but I’m mentally flashing to a news story I recently read about the Ku Klux Klan protesting (sic!!) Fred Phelps.

    2) Post-modernism was quite popular at the liberal seminary I attended in the 2000s, and I was especially disappointed to see it promoted by Unitarians, who in the 1st half of the 20th century were strong supporters of the American Humanist Association!! Now it seems the religious left is clearly compounding the problems science already has from the religious right.

  26. Posted March 29, 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Reading through the comments below the Sokal piece I cannot help but feel that Massimo Pigliucci had a more reasonable set of commenters on his old blog.

  27. Hopalong Cassowary
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    This may be somewhat off-topic, but I wanted to put in a plug for Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax, published in 2008 by the Oxford University Press. The text is, of course, worth reading (especially if you enjoy footnotes inside footnotes inside other footnotes)…(which I do, not being snarky), but the physical appearance of the book itself, the weight of the paper, the look of the print on the page–everything is far superior to most hardcover books published these days.

  28. Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Dear Ant, Referring to a few posts above…
    Don’t stress the ‘Oxford’, stress the ‘American Dictionary’, and all is revealed. It is a common North American usage.

    By the way, fifty years ago I was a reader for the OED when it was edited by the New Zealander, Prof. Robert Burchfield. I would bring back novel American usages of English words, and so I faintly remember being surprised at the American usage of ‘comport’.

    The Prof. used to keep all his millions of records on cards in shoe-boxes, and once dropped one from a high shelf so that a thousand cards fluttered to the floor. Wouldn’t be surprised if that had something to do with our disagreement!

    Been fun joking with you… G


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