Blog Roll

Anecdotal Evidence
Biology of the Worst Kind
The Book Depository Editor's Corner
Book World
Buzzwords Blog: 3AM Magazine
Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant
The Elegant Variation
John Baker's Blog
KR Blog
the Literary Saloon
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard - Updates
The Midnight Bell
pas au-delà
The Reading Experience
splinters: books, authors, literature, travel, politics
Tales from the Reading Room
This Space
University of Nebraska Press
Weblog - A Don's Life - Times Online
Weblog - Peter Stothard - Times Online
Powered by Bloglines


One of the Guardian Unlimited Books' top 10 literary blogs: "A home-grown treasure ... smart, serious analysis"

The Bookaholics' Guide to Book Blogs: "Mark Thwaite ... has a maverick, independent mind"

Tuesday 20 June 2006

Tuesday Science: the ghost of Sokal

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.

Posted by Stuart Watkins

Reader Comments

Tuesday 20 June 2006

Michael says...

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;=368197&Action;=View&Index;=Page&Book;=374581&Order;=94

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

Tuesday 20 June 2006

Mark Thwaite says...

Hi Michael,

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

Add a comment

If you have not posted a comment on RSB before, it will need to be approved by the Managing Editor. Once you have an approved comment, you are safe to post further comments. We have also introduced a captcha code to prevent spam.




Enter the code shown here:  

Note: If you cannot read the numbers in the above image, reload the page to generate a new one.

Submit News to RSB

Please let us know about any literary-related news -- or submit press releases to RSB -- using this form.

-- Mark Thwaite, Managing Editor


Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’... that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west...
What greater glory could a man desire?

-- Siegfried Sassoon
Collected Poems (Faber and Faber)

-- View archive

Word of the Day

The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or two

Pre-order Anu Garg's new book: The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words (ISBN 9780452288614), published by Penguin more …

-- Powered by

October's Books of the Month

The New Spirit of Capitalism The New Spirit of Capitalism
Luc Boltanski; Eve Chiapello
Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM
Steve Lake, Paul Griffiths

-- View archive