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 Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…