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

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…