Skip to main content

Beyond the Hoax – Alan Sokal ****

I ought to say straight away that this is only a borderline popular science book as the heavy use of footnotes and massive bibliography for each chapter suggests. It’s half way between a collection of light scientific papers and a book for the general reader. The other proviso up front is about those four stars. In practice this is an average score. It really is five star for some of the content, but three star for presentation and other parts of the content.
The ‘hoax’ in question is a famous one in physics and an infamous one in the soft sciences. In 1995, physicist Alan Sokal had a paper published in the well-established journal Social Text called ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.’ It was a parody. The idea was to demonstrate how writers in the humanities and social sciences were taking concepts from physics and using tons of woffle to totally distort the science and to pretend they in some way they demonstrated that there were no objective truths of nature, but merely subjective interpretations, based on the culture of the scientists.
This kind of approach is easy enough to mock (‘If you don’t believe in the objectivity of physics, please do walk out of my 22nd floor office window and try to be subjective about gravity!’), but the genius of Sokal’s parody is that he demonstrated that calculated rubbish would be accepted by this community because they hadn’t the faintest idea what they are talking about. As Sokal points out later in this book, this isn’t just a case of putting down a few ivory tower academics spouting nonsense (thought that is quite appealing). It’s also about defending science when it’s under attack using cultural arguments, whether nationalistic, gender-based or on religious grounds.
The book starts with Sokal’s original paper, in an annotated form so you can appreciate the full genius of the parody. This is quite hard to read – the annotation sometimes runs longer than the original, and as there are also quite a lot of footnotes in the original you often end up reading an annotation to a footnote to a comment. But it’s worth struggling through to understand where it all comes from.
We then get a series of chapters that were mostly articles on different aspects of the hoax and what it brought out, whether it was the immediate reaction of those attacked by the hoax or the dangers underlying this idiocy. There is a lot of powerful material here, not only in getting a picture of how detached from reality some academics have become, but also in understanding just what science is, what it does and what it’s for. Because of this I would highly recommend this book is read by anyone writing about science, the history of science or the philosophy of science. The insights are very useful, from a picture of how to treat the likes of Popper and Kuhn to a feel for the fundamental nature of the scientific method. In this sense, it is genuinely one of the most important books on science I have read.
But I do need to balance this view with the negatives. It is decidedly hard to read – certainly not conventional popular science. In part this is because you have to plough through quite a lot of the garbage pumped out by some of these arty academics, which bears a startling resemblance to the pseudoscience used by quacks to support their ‘holistic energy therapy’ or whatever. Interestingly, Sokal makes the comparison, but is a little disappointed to find that the postmodernist academics don’t support pseudoscience as much as he expected. But it is also hard to read because of the way the book is structured.
At the start, Sokal says ‘I have a visceral distaste for books that have been confected by pasting together a collection of loosely connected, previously published essays.’ He argues this book isn’t such a tome. But it is, it really is. The contents have only been very loosely edited – there is a lot of word-for-word repetition between chapters and the whole doesn’t flow particularly well. Making matters worse, all the chapters are heavy with footnotes. I don’t mind the references, but a lot is text that in a proper book would be part of the main flow of the text, so you have to keep flipping about while reading it. Very frustrating, and frankly lazy to leave it like this.
The other evidence in favour of the ‘loose pasting together’ argument is that the book ends with a couple of chapters that are hardly connected to the rest at all, but rather a sub-Dawkinsesque attack on religion. These chapters lack the intellectual rigour of the rest, being full of attempts to apply science to areas where science really doesn’t work very well. Some of the statements here are self-contradictory and the chapters feel like a chance for Sokal to let off some steam, rather than apply scientific thought appropriately.
Definitely a curate’s egg, but the tasty parts are very tasty indeed.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…