Way back in 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal provoked a storm when he wrote a hoax paper for the postmodernist journal Social Text called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. The journal published the piece, seemingly unfazed by Sokal's assertion that science should be seen in its ineluctable historicity, and arguing for a new, liberatory mathematics. He later published a book, with Jean Bricmont, called Intellectual Impostures, which took apart some of the more pseudoscientific and pretentious claims of writers including Lacan and Baudrillard.

Were any lessons learnt? Not if this interview (Dividing the species: Race, Science and Culture) in Mute magazine is anything to go by, although it is amusing and instructive to compare what Luciana Parisi has to say with what Alan Sokal wrote in his original Social Text paper.

Thankfully, RSB interviewee Marek Kohn is on hand to inject a note of sanity into the proceedings. Parisi has clearly picked up a few undigested insights from modern science, and attempted to use them as a basis for her frankly impenetrable politico-philosophical musings. Of course, we should be careful not to lapse into anti-intellectualism when faced with difficult and specialist language, but there is a difference between necessary difficulty and an author being willfully obscure to cover up the fact that what they're saying is twaddle.

The argument, as made clear by Sokal and Bricmont, is not that postmodernist philosophy has nothing important or interesting to tell us. As Sokal said (from Wikipedia):

My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself... There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.

I agree with Kohn that the intellectual cold war between cultural and biological ways of seeing humankind should come to an end. But on the basis of this interview, it looks like a cease-fire is some way off. The two sides are not yet even talking the same language.

Readers Comments

  1. While we're on hoaxes, you may be interested in this book ...
    The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed

    I just came across this the other day. Ever heard of Bourbaki?

  2. Hi Michael,

    Nope! Never heard of Bourbaki, but this looks fascinating! Thanks for the tip-off ...

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