A postmodern holiday: recent nonsense from the humanities

Reader Loren sent me this video (with an introduction by Noam Chomsky) on some of the shenanigans of postmodern nonsense (yes, I know that not all of the humanities or “science studies” is riddled with this stuff). A lot of the material presented comes from the Twi**er site New Real Peer Review, which is worth following.

Can you recognize the scholars pictured at the end?

You can find a lot of these papers simply by googling the titles. For instance, the paper by Eviatar Zurubabel, which the video summarizes (4:36) as saying “Science and reason are bad”, does in fact claim that. It was in the journal Cultural Sociology, and you can find it here. Here’s its first paragraph:

The realization that ‘reality’ may not be what I had always thought it was, and that our notion of absolute objectivity is ultimately social, blew my mind when I first read Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s classic The Social Construction of Reality (1967 [1966]) as a college senior 44 years ago. And the mechanism most responsible for how we come to view something as objective, I discovered, is the process of reification.

I haven’t looked at all of the papers (I’d go nuts if I had to), but not all of them appear to be completely as characterized. For instance, the paper at 4:49 supposedly arguing “Why ‘Marxian selection’ has better explanatory power than Darwinian selection”, is really about how some sociocultural phenomena need a teleological approach because they’re the result of human “purpose.” That said, I wonder whether any of these papers have made a substantive contribution to human knowledge. Insofar as we’re supporting this research with institutional or government funds, we appear to not be expanding humanity’s knowledge, but propelling the careers of humanities scholars.

I received an angry email the other day from a prominent “science studies” scholar who will remain unnamed, telling me that I had no right to criticize that field because I hadn’t read widely in it, or had a degree in it.  I didn’t respond, but if I had I would have said that I’ve indeed read a great deal of “science studies,” from Popper and Kuhn down to modern days, and I know that a lot of it is worthwhile—the work of Phil Kitcher and my colleague Bob Richards, for instance, both of whom I’ve discussed on this website. But there’s no denying that even today “science studies” is riddled with postmodern nonsense, and you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in the field to conclude that.

For example, in one minute of Googling, I found the journal Catalyst (subtitle: “Feminism, theory, technoscience”) with a paper last year having this title and abstract. And there are many others:

“El tabaco se ha mulato”: Globalizing Race, Viruses, and Scientific Observation in the Late Nineteenth Century

Jih-Fei Cheng

Abstract

This article traces the earliest identified recorded descriptor for viral infection: the racialized Spanish expression “el tabaco se ha mulato” (“the tobacco has become mulatto”). The phrase appears in the late nineteenth-century travel writing of French colonial scientist Jules Crevaux, written as he journeyed through post-Spanish Independence Colombia and observed the demise of the once-thriving tobacco industry. I theorize the literary translations and visualizations, or what I call “visual translations,” of the phrase across scientific and historical texts that cite Crevaux to track the refraction of racial, gender, and sexual discourses in virology. I argue that the phrase refers to the historically dispossessed Indigenous and Black subjects of the nascent Colombian republic and their resistance to subjection when forced to work the tobacco fields.  The article historicizes virus discovery at the juncture between science, nation-building, global industrialization, and the disciplining of race and sex under the long shadow of Euro-American empire.  Drawing upon Ed Cohen’s concept of “viral paradox,” Nayan Shah’s notion of “strangerhood,” and Mel Y.  Chen’s framework for thinking about “queer animacies,” I deconstruct the visual, conceptual, and etymological roots of the phrase “el tabaco se ha mulato” to argue that the expression renders the virus as both “queer” and “strange” to the nation. The virus signifies the mulato subject as a stubborn challenge to racial hierarchies and to the host-guest-parasite relation, both of which are foundational to the social organization of the nation and polis. This signification insistently refuses the human/non-human binary that undergirds racial regimes and biological conceptions of life. In turn, I expand historical thinking about race, submit that pandemics result from global industrial resource extraction rather than merely poor hygiene, and offer a framework for “queer decolonizing.”

Virtually every paper in the three issues of that journal has an equally impenetrable and jargon-ridden abstract. I’m amazed that people get paid to write this stuff; it’s as if writing this way confers you membership in some secret and elite club with its own secret jargon.

106 Comments

  1. Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    With a name like “Eviatar Zurubabel” it’s got to be a hoax/spoof, right? 🙂

    • J.Baldwin
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      It would be a remarkable coincidence that someone with the unscrambled anagram name Avitar Ruze Bable wrote such prose, but it’s possible I guess.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      No, he is just a descendant of ancient Babylon. 🙂

  2. GBJames
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    This is too painful.

  3. eric
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I received an angry email the other day from a prominent “science studies” scholar who will remain unnamed, telling me that I had no right to criticize that field because I hadn’t read widely in it, or had a degree in it.

    LOL, I wonder how many of those science studies scholars could perform a successful benchtop experiment in the science fields they criticize. My guess is few of them proceeded in actual science beyond the 101 lab classes, if they even did that. Certainly my undergrad philosophy of science professor (whom I genuinely respected) could not.

    I’d be careful to invoke such requirements, if I were them.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      I should add that IMO Dunning & Kruger’s findings are especially relevant to the subject of lab sciences and the people who criticize them. I expect most benchtop biologists would not claim expertise in benchtop chemistry or physics, and vice versa. Heck, my guess is scientists in various sub-fields in each discipline would be hesitant to claim their competent at another sub-field’s experiments. But yet people who have done no such experiments tend to think they could do all of them without much problem. Its just like baking a cake, right!?! Well, (a) no, it’s not just like that, and (b) most people can’t bake a top-notch cake in the first place.

      • chris moffatt
        Posted January 10, 2017 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        agree completely. I found labs in Earth Sciences (mostly geology)and physics to be interesting and informative and quite doable. Labs in Comp Sci were a joy. I hadn’t done biology since highschool and IMPO they were the most difficult and the required mastery of organic chemistry put a biology degree out of question. I’m still in awe of people who mastered organic chem. I still think a high in POMO for me was the “feminist glaciology” paper that came out, to much ridicule, a while back. It was a joy to read, despite the POMO jargon, because it was so absurdly funny.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 11, 2017 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      LOL, I wonder how many of those science studies scholars could perform a successful benchtop experiment in the science fields they criticize.

      I’m sure they’re all experts in the practical ballistics of lithified RFMs in enclosures comprehensively circumscribed by panels of vitreous silicate material.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 12, 2017 at 1:51 am | Permalink

        *that* took a bit of decoding.

        glass houses…

        cr

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Happy to be of service in your daily braincell exercise.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

            My braincell is flat out getting through the day as it is. But I’m thinking of attempting multi-tasking and trying to revive a second one.

            cr

  4. mfdempsey1946
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    It appears that those who excrete this kind of jargon by the yard consider it to be an infallible sign of Profound Seriousness.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Also, “nuanced.”

  5. Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    “I received an angry email … telling me that I had no right to criticize that field because I hadn’t read widely in it, or had a degree in it.”

    There’s the Courtier’s Reply again!

    Unless you’re thoroughly familiar with the intricate weaves and fine fabrics used by the world’s most skilled clothing manufacturers, you have no right to claim the emperor has no clothes.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      It may be a pattern that those holding to our more vacuous areas of belief will fall into the defending themselves with the C.R. Or rather they think they are defending themselves but no, they are not.

      • Miro
        Posted January 11, 2017 at 2:19 am | Permalink

        The emperor truly has no clothes. It’s not that we’re too ignorant to see it, it’s just that he really goes naked. These same people would never accept a priest’s argument, while debating religion, that they didn’t know what they’re talking about because they didn’t study five years (?) of theology.

  6. Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    It always amazes me how these papers start from tiny excerpts, ripped from their context, then make a mushrooming cascade of sweeping generalizations and irrelevant associations, purporting to comprehend entire histories from nothing more than a hallucinatory introspection on single sentences or even subsentence. I’m always reminded that many of the folks in these academic circles like to call their discipline “theory”, just “theory” without any qualification or specialization, because they claim a shamanistic power to span all fields at once. But those not versed in “theory” had better not criticize it because we lack the specialized training required.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Well, you have a lot of academics competing to make big discoveries. Most don’t. The honest ones just keep trying; the dishonest ones try to take “interesting but not new” or “new but not interesting” and use the alchemy of big words to make people think what they have is “new and interesting”.

      • Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        From those I’ve known in this field, I get the impression that most of them are quite sincere in thinking they’re onto something.

        • BobTerrace
          Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

          They are onto something- making a living out of nothing.

          • somer
            Posted January 10, 2017 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

            but self righteously so

    • darrelle
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Just like theology.

      • Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        Maybe. There are definitely some similarities in method, but I don’t think “sophisticated theology” wields much actual influence. Postmodernism and “critical theory” command a lot of undue influence in academia and in progressive politics. On the right-owing side, there’s certainly a lot of influence for less sophisticated theology, which I’ve always thought had more of a resemblance to creative fan fiction (i.e. entertaining narratives on the theme “what would Jesus do”).

        • GBJames
          Posted January 10, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          IMO “sophisticated theology” wields great influence, although it is indirect. It provides the aura of intellectual legitimacy to believers of all kinds. Your average believer thinks, for example, that “really smart people” have thought it through and found out that the phantoms are real for sure.

          • Posted January 10, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

            I’m sure I’m not the only reader at this site to have fallen prey to this. I think if I were to pin a single giveaway in the whole charade, it goes back to the earliest question I had for my parents who were devout Catholics, “how do you know Catholicism is right?” Despite a good answer, I was still duped by the aura of those who studied it more up through early adulthood l. It took some time in the weeds to realize that Sophisticated Theologians of all stripes jump at answering my question, all convinced they’re right, yet all giving mutually exclusive explanations as to why their particular brand is right. Ironically, most of them stand staunchly against post modernism, and therein lies the predicament.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      Quite so. Big words and bigger generalisations magically compensate for the few small facts.

      It’s a sort of academic equivalent to conspiracy theory; increased self-regard and a sense of superiority await those who can connect several semi-random dots in a megapixel picture and then persuade others that these few dots are the real picture.

      • Kiwi Dave
        Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

        Ophelia Benson at ButterfliesandWheels has also just put up an equally obscure piece of pomo posturing – Have a carnal hermeneutic – should anyone still yearn for more pollysyllabic obscurantism.

        • Kiwi Dave
          Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

          …polysyllabic…

          • Dave
            Posted January 11, 2017 at 3:53 am | Permalink

            “Pollysyllabic” would be a great name for an unusually talkative parrot.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted January 11, 2017 at 5:19 am | Permalink

          A talking parrot?

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted January 11, 2017 at 5:22 am | Permalink

            Memo to self – refresh before posting.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 11, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      It always amazes me how

      Why does the fact that some people find working for a living undesirable amaze you?
      (On which point – I hear my pint sloshing around in the barrel, sounding unfulfilled. Or unful-emptied. Or something. Sounding.)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 12, 2017 at 4:21 am | Permalink

      I’m reminded of debates about angels dancing on the heads of pins.

      cr

  7. Brian Salkas
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Your view of postmodernism is riddled with a panoply of hedonistic power struggles placed upon Consciousness and interlocking hegemonies susaining my subjective Verstehen and has Antediluvian prejudice.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      If ever you fall on hard times…

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted January 11, 2017 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        … there are several PERL modules which can generate high-grade bullshit.
        I assume they’re written in the “Patently Eclectic Rubbish Lister” – using “D” or “C++” would seem just plain wrong.

  8. stizostideon
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Chomsky’s comments remind me of Richard Feynman’s famous remarks from 1974 about “Cargo Cult Science.”

    http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm

    • Merilee
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Since Feynman is a descendant and benefactor of the white elite bourgeoisie and a well known serial philanderer, one should not accept his thoughts on those who cannot think for themselves. If we were to do so, then we would be endorsing his form of the gender binary code where females are subjected to …

      … oh, hell, I don’t see how anyone can write like that without throwing up on their keyboard.

      • Posted January 10, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        and a well known serial philanderer

        half his luck!

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted January 11, 2017 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        I don’t see how anyone can write like that without throwing up on their keyboard.

        I believe there is an operation you can get to sever a nerve (low on the vagus nerve?) to render the muscles involved in vomiting ineffective. Alternatively, there are laser projection keyboards that you can project onto the floor of the wet room, then vomit to your heart’s content (eh?).

  9. eric
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    This article traces the earliest identified recorded descriptor for viral infection: the racialized Spanish expression “el tabaco se ha mulato” (“the tobacco has become mulatto”).

    Oh good lord, do these people do any research whatsoever? 2 minutes of googling turned up the fact that gonorrhea and cholera are ancient greek words referring to diseases the knew about and attempted to treat. In addition, the ancient greeks also gave us the words leprosy, anemia, migraine, allergy, acne, plague, and diabetes, because they knew about and tried to treat all of them. And my guess is there are Chinese references to infection even older than these reek ones.

    Now, arguably those things are bacterial rather than viral. But then again, AIUI nobody really knew the difference until the modern era.

    • tubby
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      As near as I can tell, the author latched on to a racial word and then went down the rabbit hole of colonialism, racism, and sexism without first making a stop at linguistics. They also seem to have a weird understanding of science and virology.

  10. Monika
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Oh yes, this reflects my own feelings about some papers I had to read at university. I studied biology and German to become a teacher. It was hard labour to read those papers, to make things worse they often were in a foreign language (English). It felt like each auther defined – rather made up his/her own language.
    Perhaps that was the reason why I sticked to medieval German and language history after I gave up on the teacher part. Those topics were a lot less full of weird jargon.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Heh, I remember reading a German chemistry publication and thinking “thank goodness they use the same chemical terms; that makes it understandable even though I don’t know German.” Would you like to guess the German jargon for ‘gas chromatography?’ Its ‘gaschromatograpie.’

      • Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        My father (a retired chemist) has a GermanEnglish dictionary for chemists. It seems to me looking at it the more recent stuff is obvious, but the further you go back it becomes increasingly difficult – though sometimes one can guess with intermediary translations. Sauerstoff, anyone?

        • Monika
          Posted January 10, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

          Wasserstoff? Stickstoff? Kohlenstoff? 😉

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted January 11, 2017 at 9:36 am | Permalink

          Sauerstoff rings bells for me. Loud, “wake up time to die!” bells, accompanied by flashing lights. It might be any generic acidic gas (CO2, HCl) but my response (favourite MP3) suggests it’s hydrogen sulphide.

          • Posted January 11, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

            Wrong: Sauerstoff is *oxygen*. Lavoisier thought (wrongly) that all acids contained acid. (So this is a borrowing from the French, which was sort of Greek, translated literally into German.)

            • Posted January 11, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

              Er, thought that all acids contained *oxygen*.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted January 11, 2017 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

              I’d still rather over-react than under-react w.r.t. H2S

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted January 11, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        In my occasional efforts to learn Russian, I repeatedly make the pronouncement “they stole that from Greek.”
        Anyone might think that these people could talk to each other in those pre-mobile phone days. How weird would that have been? I mean, why didn’t the proto-Russians seal things from Tierra del Fuegans, or Easter Islanders.

    • chris moffatt
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      At least the jargons of Science, Engineering and Technology are meaningful, precise and necessary for communication between practitioners. POMO jargon OTOH is largely obfuscatory, prolix and intended to sound impressive while actually conveying little.

  11. Kevin
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    So many. Ouch. I could make this stuff up in my sleep.

    Not really sure what Chomsky was getting at but physics that works is informed by nature. And actually there are not any complex words in physics, not when compared to chemistry or biology.

    • Posted January 10, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Chomsky isn’t defending postmodernism. He’s been a consistent critic of postmodernism and poststructuralism: his debate with Foucault is a classic.

      His reference to ‘big words’ was about the way postmodernists think, not the way he thinks.

  12. Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    This passage from Masao Miyoshi has stayed with me since I first read it over a decade ago:
    “To all but those inside, much of humanities research may well look insubstantial, precious, and irrelevant, if not useless, harmless, and humorless. Worse than the fetishism of irony, paradox, and complexity a half century ago, the cant of hybridity, nuance, and diversity now pervades the humanities faculty. “

    • Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      +1

      That guy nailed it. And he was one of them!

  13. Historian
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    “The article historicizes virus discovery at the juncture between science, nation-building, global industrialization, and the disciplining of race and sex under the long shadow of Euro-American empire.”

    In my many decades of studying history, I have never seen an historian use the term “historicize.” I guess you learn something new every day.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Well, that’s just because their puny training in History has not adequately prepared them to understand the depth and profundity of History Studies.

  14. Dave
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    “….submit that pandemics result from global industrial resource extraction rather than merely poor hygiene,”

    So what “global industrial resource extraction” was taking place in 1347? Perhaps all those Europeans who perished in the Great Plague really deserved it for being so despicably white.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      what “global industrial resource extraction” was taking place in 1347?

      They were getting the fleas off the rats without the rats consent. Damn those cross-species imperialists!

      • Posted January 10, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        You mean, they appropriated the fleas.

        • merilee
          Posted January 10, 2017 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

          rats sayin’, like, keep da fleas, dude///

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Likewise Justinian’s plague of 541-42 which so weakened the Byzantine empire through loss of manpower and taxes that it was unable to sustain the recapture of Italy and, 100 years later, unable to resist Arab aggression.

      • Posted January 10, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        “God must be punishing us for our many sins,” as a Byzantine historiographer wrote at that time.

  15. Sastra
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    The realization that ‘reality’ may not be what I had always thought it was, and that our notion of absolute objectivity is ultimately social, blew my mind when I first read Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s classic The Social Construction of Reality (1967 [1966]) as a college senior 44 years ago. And the mechanism most responsible for how we come to view something as objective, I discovered, is the process of reification.

    I’ve run across this claim (that the belief that reality exists independent of the observer involves reification)and have always considered it an example of the “I Know You Are But What Am I?” strategy of defense.

    Reification is defined as “a complex idea for when you treat something immaterial — like happiness, fear, or evil — as a material thing.” If I understand it correctly, the postmodernists are saying that since we only directly experience the outside world through our internal subjective state, then we have NO epistemic justification for believing there’s any such thing as an observer-independent “outside world.” We don’t just construct our understanding of an objective reality, “objective” material reality doesn’t really exist. It’s all subjective and immaterial. Thinking otherwise means we’re reifying our abstract experience of an object into a concrete object. This, by the way, is similar to the argument made by eastern nondualists.

    But it seems to me that it’s the other way around. They’re taking our thoughts, concepts, and experiences of objective objects — which they consider immaterial — and turning them into the only real things which exist. There is no rock; there is only your experience of the rock. Your experience is then concrete and the ball is an abstraction which has no real existence. They’re the ones guilty of reification, not the folks who believe the rock would or could exist and go on existing even if nobody could or would observe it.

    I hesitate to get into philosophy, because I know I’m unsophisticated and over my head. But when it comes to postmodernist claims concerning the ‘reification of objective reality,’ I say bounces off me and sticks to you.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      I think the concept of reification is certainly worth exploring in terms of when we do it without being aware of it, and how it affects modern society. However, you’re absolutely right that its ridiculous and crazy to go from ‘people reify’ to ‘everything is socially constructed.’ That’s like saying “humans eat, therefore nothing but food exists.” A reasonable philosophical position for some d*gs and cats I’ve been around, not so much for us. 🙂

    • Richard
      Posted January 11, 2017 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      If these people really think that there is no such as objective reality, then I invite them to walk off a cliff (*) whilst loudly proclaiming that gravity is only a social construct. Who knows, perhaps it would work for them.

      (*) Only a very low cliff. I’m not really that cruel.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 12, 2017 at 3:59 am | Permalink

        Reality is that which, when you stop thinking about it, doesn’t go away.

        – old tagline

        cr

  16. Historian
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I took a look at Zerubavel’s article, especially the section on God in which he states “religion presumes to be able to account for any social arrangement one encounters. And it does not itself require any further legitimation because it is considered axiomatic.” I think it would be hard to argue that religious belief is not a social construction of reality. At least in this one aspect, he got things right.

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I wonder whether any of these papers have made a substantive contribution to human knowledge.

    I wonder about that, too. Still, I’m in favor of construing concepts like “substantive contribution” and “human knowledge” as broadly as is reasonably possible. History has shown that valuable nuggets turn up at times in unlikely nooks and crannies.

    I understand the need to justify the expenditure of limited resources. But it’d be a shame to see all academic inquiry herded toward the middle.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      It is a balancing act; since we can never predict what research will lead to humanity’s benefit, we must keep it as broad as reasonably feasible while at the same time trying to limit wasting resources on things unlikely to pay off (or things which, even if they do pay off, won’t make the world better).

      In general, I think a hand’s off approach is good, where we allow the experts in each subject (history, philosophy, biology, etc…) to identify the proposals and research directions in that field most worthy of research funding. However, society does have a role to play in deciding how much resources of their collective resources they want to put in to general areas. Mainstream social science areas such as psychology and sociology seem very reasonable to me, but ‘science studies’…maybe less so.

      I still don’t have too much of an issue with it, because I think the US underfunds basic research in general, and that’s the big problem that needs to be fixed. I’d rather see some rising water raise all boats than complain that their boat is getting more help than it should.

      • darrelle
        Posted January 10, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. I’d just add / clarify that I think criticism such as this post and the comments, in other words not just from experts in the same field but anyone who cares to, are a beneficial part of the process and should not be discouraged.

  18. TJR
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I may have mentioned this before, but at my previous university the maths and social science departments were on the same corridor, so I had a theoretical physicist on one side and a social scientist on the other.

    One of the social scientists was a perfectly normal bloke who played football with us, but his papers were written in exactly that type of obfuscatory verbiage.

    His comment was that you had to write like that in order to get published.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Sounds like a good reason to start another journal.

  19. Posted January 10, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I’ve encountered an angry “science studies” scholar, who also made the same claim in class to me.

    I suspect you’d get back a “Popper is obsolete”, which is correct, but also a shifting goal-post.

    As for the “degree in it”, we know where *that* leads. (Sounds like theology!)

    Incidentally, in the seminar I mentioned above, Lewontin was a guest. He made a point of saying to the seminar that one should know something about the science one is “science studying” – a practice I try to follow myself in the philosophy of science/technology, and found not to be anything more than a truism. On the other hand, the scholar alluded to looked *very* pained at this remark.

    (I know some of my fellow graduate students in other branches of the “umbrella” field were *not* even capable or willing to skim the thermodynamics textbook I had found to see what historically if anything was presented on the [non-question] of life and the 2LOT. I had borrowed one from the library from the period needed and offered to give it to a colleague who surreptitiously asked me about this [non]-debate, since “I knew some of the science we were discussing”. I told her she could have it so long as she promised to return it to the library for me. Didn’t want to even *attempt* to look at it.)

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      This is sad. While a qualitative understanding of scientific concepts is a reasonable place for a B.A. humanities person to stop, anyone who wants to claim they study how science functions and what could be wrong with it had better darn well be able to do quantitative undergrad-level physics and chemistry calculations. If you can’t solve for deltaH, you can’t tell me you know what’s wrong with thermodynamics.

      QM is probably the poster child for this problem. How many people are out there, I wonder, making claims about what QM means who can’t even do a particle in a box calculation.

      • Posted January 11, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        I would say instead they should have the knowledge necessary to understand the field at the level being discussed. Since that is usually ridiculously elementary – my knowledge of thermo is from textbooks of physics that I borrowed and freshman thermochemistry – I think that’s setting the bar pretty low for most contexts. Right now, in *philosophy* of science, the standard for philosophy of physics is graduate degrees in both. But this was a philosopher of biology, after a fashion, psychoanalyzing Schrodinger (_What is Life?_) and what not, so … (sigh).

        I never did get all the graduate education I would have wanted, but I tried to get myself up to the undergraduate level in computing in some respect or other, which given my career now seems to have been successful 😉

        QM is tricky – I’ve forgotten the little I was taught way back when (“Waves and Modern Physics”, which is required where I went through) but some interpretive questions like the question of realism do not actually require that much knowledge. The question of how decoherence actually works – *that* I leave to the experts 😉

  20. Posted January 10, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    To these people who claim objective reality and truth is a social construct, on what basis do they ground that supposedly true claim?

  21. Carl
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    The Chomsky statement at the beginning of the clip seems perfectly reasonable and accurate. Theory followed by criticism is the way humans acquire knowledge.

    A lot of theories fall to self criticism by their authors before seeing the light of day. It just seems to me that some fields have an overabundance of poor theorists and a dearth of good critics.

    • eric
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      The academic article-writer who has himself as a peer reviewer has a fool for an author? 🙂

  22. Posted January 10, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  23. Sastra
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    At least some of those papers look like they might be relevant or interesting. I think it’s a little too easy to either mischaracterize a science paper, or miss its larger significance.

    So I’ll scoff at the particular extreme pop postmodernist excesses which deserve scoffing, but I’m not going to castigate the entire lot of the papers here. I’ve watched too many conservative pundits shake their heads over basic research they knew nothing about.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      The paper on focusing on FGM marginalizes oppression of women in the West does look a tad interesting, but the rest I’m initially inclined to think look a bit ridiculous.

  24. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    IMO, there is a “soft” reading of Berger and Luckmann’s “Social Construction of Reality” that does not lead to an endorsement of this kind of silliness.

    Once again today I find myself quoting Monty Python, From “Life of Brian”

    Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
    Reg: But … you can’t HAVE babies!
    Stan: Don’t you oppress me!
    Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?

    Judith: [on Stan’s desire to be a mother] Here! I’ve got an idea: Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb – which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’ – but that he can have the *right* to have babies.
    Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother… sister, sorry.
    Reg: What’s the *point*?
    Francis: What?
    Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
    Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
    Reg: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.

    • Pali
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Splitter!

    • somer
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      its symbolic of post modernism, structuralism and critical theory!!

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 12, 2017 at 4:10 am | Permalink

      I *love* that scene, particularly Reg’s last throwaway line.

      For anyone who has been living under a rock for the last 40 years –
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFBOQzSk14c

      cr

      • Merilee
        Posted January 12, 2017 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        How prescient they were😀 I had forgotten that Cleese was called “Reg”‘ which is somehow very funny in the context.

  25. Gareth Price
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Jerry – perhaps your next contest should have readers inventing absurd titles for sociology papers.

    • Gareth Price
      Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      After posting this comment, I realised it sounds like I am telling you what your contests should be. Sorry!

      • Posted January 10, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        I think that, anyway, readers will face too tough competition from real sociology titles.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted January 11, 2017 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        In any case, there is the POMO Generator, which will construct an entire essay for you complete with citations. As I type this I see Mark Sturtevant has beaten me to it below.

  26. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    In such matters, it is always fun to see if someone has made a nonsense generator for the language at hand. And sure enough there is, indistinguishable from a peer reviewed journal article in the field:
    https://tnextphase.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/post-modern-gibberish-essay-generator/

    • Posted January 11, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Bunge and I agreed that postmodernism is silly to crazy, depending on the instance. We, however, disagreed on whether genuine full (strong, in Searle’s sense) AI was possible. I came into class once before him and wrote on the board the URL to one version of the postmodernism generator and labeled it something like “AI?” crossed out followed by “artificial postmodernism”. (Some of the class didn’t get it, but he did.)

  27. Posted January 10, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Every time I read one of these abstracts I think, “What is the sweating professor trying to say?”

  28. Larry
    Posted January 10, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Chomsky is being sloppy in his generalized use of the term anthropologist. The ones he is accusing of pseudo-science happen to be a very particular sub-group of anthropologist.

    Those doing very good scientific work include paleoanthropologists, molecular anthropologists, ecological and environmental anthropologists, applied anthropologists, and archaeologists, among others.

    Come on Chomsky, words are supposed to be your specialty.

    • GBJames
      Posted January 11, 2017 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      It is a particular sub-group, but a significantly large subgroup. The discipline really ought to separate and let the pomo cultural anthropologists shuffle off somewhere.

      I don’t think the problem is with Chomsky. But I completely understand scientifically oriented anthropologists being embarrassed by the mush-brained members of the discipline.

      • Posted January 11, 2017 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        20 years or so ago, I met some undergraduate anthropology students in Bunge’s _Philosophy of Social Science II_ class. They told the shocked class that the McGill department had basically split into two factions not talking to each other: physical and cultural. The students were taking the PofSS class to learn how to bridge this gap. Since Bunge is resolutely antiPoMo I fear they may not have received anything to use but encouragement.

  29. CFM
    Posted January 11, 2017 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    I have to admit I got my PhD (many years ago, and I now longer work as a social scientist) by analyzing how regional/ national identities are constructed discursively (in a specific context/ in specific texts). And I used (linguistic) Critical Discourse Analysis to do so.

    I still think there are many concepts that are obviously social (and cognitive) constructs. Many of these constructs inform politics – national (or regional) identity is just one example.

    Deconstructing these constructs and looking at why they are constructed by whom can help us to criticize ideologies in all their forms: religious, political, pseudo-scientific.

    Please note that this kind of criticism implies that some accounts of reality, even social reality, are wrong. That there is a difference between ideology and knowledge. There is a difference between science and pseudo-science (an example from my discipline, human geography, would be German “Geopolitik”).

    Does this kind of work have the same relevance as the findings of natural science?

    In my opinion, it has another kind of relevance: it helps us to understand how we make meaning of the world around us and construct ourselves – and others.

    But to be taken seriously it needs to draw on the findings of psychology, cognitive linguistics and many other social sciences. It needs to employ clearly defined and well argued for methods. Maybe most important: If you aim at any kind of social relevance, people should be able to understand your texts…

    I absolutely agree that much that is written in this context is methodological unsound waffle using impenetrable language to imply deep meaning.

    • CFM
      Posted January 11, 2017 at 4:24 am | Permalink

      NO longer, of course..

    • Posted January 11, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      “That there is a difference between ideology and knowledge.”

      If you take that seriously, and a few other realist principles, I have no problem in general terms. But this is *not* what many of these folks used to claim. (They’d always claim a mild version when cornered, of course.)

  30. Bent Backenforth
    Posted January 11, 2017 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I knew I had seen the name Zerubavel somewhere. I read his book The Seven Day Circle, about the historical origins of the notion of a ‘week’, a long time ago. Interesting read; do not remember getting a whiff of post-modernism from the prose–& I pride myself on being able to distinguish post-modernist obfuscation from more innocent forms of unclear academic writing.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 11, 2017 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Watch out for fatigue fracture!

  31. Posted January 11, 2017 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    So much to read so little time. Dislike obfuscation.


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