Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the 1996 hoax perpetrated against the journal Social Text. The physicist Alan Sokal, in an attempt to expose the low standards of intellectual rigour in contemporary post-modernist scientific debate, wrote a parody of an article of scientific theory, and got it accepted.
The article begins by asserting that many scientists continue to “cling to the dogma […] that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being […].” It continues by weaving a strange cloth of disparate concepts from physics and philosophy, without any real justification, increasing in preposterousness to a magnificent climax, where Sokal claims that Lacan (the notorious psychoanalyst) has derived a mathematical justification for the phychoanalysis of AIDS from differential topology theory. It ends by saying that mathematics must be revised to be able to participate in the struggle against capitalism, patriarchy, and militarism.
Afterwards, he published another article, revealing that the first one was a hoax. This caused considerable debate, most of which is found on Sokal’s website. Richard Dawkins has summarized the arguments from the side of the stringent scientists with his usual humour and brilliant ire in a review of Sokal’s subsequent book.
In his speech yesterday at the Royal Academy of Sciences, Sokal set out in more general terms to discuss the importance of the scientific world view.
In essence, his main argument was that the scientific method is simply an effort to find out facts with rational methods, and furthermore, that most of us are completely able to do so in most aspects of our lives. Yet we often keep double standards and cease to question some aspects of our world view. For example, religious people are perfectly able to examine the factual basis of any religion besides their own – i.e. when were the sacred texts written, by whom, on what basis, and why should we believe them. But when it comes to their own religion they revert to the circular logic that the doctrine of the faith is true because the doctrine says it is.
In his talk, Sokal pointed out four main enemies of scientific reasoning:
- Potsmodernist theorists and extreme social constructivists. Sokal noted with pleasure that this group appears to have retreated somewhat over the past ten years.
- Advocates of pseudoscience. Here, Sokal went to some length to explain the impossibility of homeopathy, mainly by showing that it is entirely inconsistent with our current knowledge of chemistry.
- Advocates of religion.
- Lobbyists and spin doctors. And here, Sokal went into a rather long critique of the Iraq war and the loose factual premises on which the war was founded.
After the talk, I and a few others brought up a discussion on whether we should really be so hostile to useful placebos, even when they have absolutely no scientific merit (e.g. homeopathy and acupuncture). After all, these methods are very useful for patients with certain conditions such as chronic pain, where real medicine often has little to offer.
He responded that there is a need for an ethical debate on what sort of deception you can subject a patient to, and that the complementary therapists have to face up to that discussion. An excellent argument.
All in all, an enjoyable evening! My favourite quote was: “I am a scientist, not a politician. I have the luxury of saying what I think is true:”