Transgressing disciplinary boundaries Among the most fortified boundaries have been those between the natural sciences and the humanities. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science -- among them, existence itself -- become problematized and relativized.
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It was published in Dissent 43 4 , pp. I did not write this work merely with the aim of setting the exegetical record straight. My larger target is those contemporaries who -- in repeated acts of wish-fulfillment -- have appropriated conclusions from the philosophy of science and put them to work in aid of a variety of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted.
The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is -- second only to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time. In view of the important intellectual and political issues raised by this episode, they have generously agreed to publish this non-parodic Afterword, in which I explain my motives and my true views.
I also employed some other strategies that are well-established albeit sometimes inadvertently in the genre: appeals to authority in lieu of logic; speculative theories passed off as established science; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words.
All works cited in my article are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. But why did I do it? The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess.
In short, that there is no clear difference between fact and fiction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental. And finally Stanislav Andreski: So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society.
Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order.
Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.
That is because she conflates five quite distinct issues: 1 Ontology. What objects exist in the world? What statements about these objects are true? How can human beings obtain knowledge of truths about the world? How can they assess the reliability of that knowledge? To what extent are the truths known or knowable by humans in any given society influenced or determined by social, economic, political, cultural and ideological factors?
Same question for the false statements erroneously believed to be true. What types of research ought a scientist or technologist to undertake or refuse to undertake? What types of research ought society to encourage, subsidize or publicly fund or alternatively to discourage, tax or forbid? These questions are obviously related -- e. For example, Harding citing Forman points out that American research in the s and 50s on quantum electronics was motivated in large part by potential military applications.
True enough. Now, quantum mechanics made possible solid-state physics, which in turn made possible quantum electronics e. This raises a host of social and individual ethical questions: Ought society to forbid or discourage certain applications of computers? Forbid or discourage research on computers per se? Forbid or discourage research on quantum electronics? On solid-state physics? On quantum mechanics? And likewise for individual scientists and technologists.
Clearly, an affirmative answer to these questions becomes harder to justify as one goes down the list; but I do not want to declare any of these questions a priori illegitimate. Likewise, sociological questions arise, for example: To what extent is our true knowledge of computer science, quantum electronics, solid-state physics and quantum mechanics -- and our lack of knowledge about other scientific subjects, e.
To what extent have the erroneous theories if any in computer science, quantum electronics, solid-state physics and quantum mechanics been the result in whole or in part of social, economic, political, cultural and ideological factors, in particular the culture of militarism? But they have no effect whatsoever on the underlying scientific questions: whether atoms and silicon crystals, transistors and computers really do behave according to the laws of quantum mechanics and solid-state physics, quantum electronics and computer science.
The militaristic orientation of American science has quite simply no bearing whatsoever on the ontological question, and only under a wildly implausible scenario could it have any bearing on the epistemological question.
Andrew Ross has drawn an analogy between the hierarchical taste cultures high, middlebrow and popular familiar to cultural critics, and the demarcation between science and pseudoscience.
Ross seems to recognize this, because he immediately says: I do not want to insist on a literal interpretation of this analogy A more exhaustive treatment would take account of the local, qualifying differences between the realm of cultural taste and that of science [!
Hobsbawm is right: facts do matter, and some facts like the first two cited here matter a great deal. It has also served to increase the mean life expectancy in the United States from 47 years to 76 years in less than a century. Cultural critics, like historians or scientists, need an informed skepticism: one that can evaluate evidence and logic, and come to reasoned albeit tentative judgments based on that evidence and logic. At this point Ross may object that I am rigging the power game in my own favor: how is he, a professor of American Studies, to compete with me, a physicist, in a discussion of quantum mechanics?
But it is equally true that I would be unlikely to win a debate with a professional historian on the causes of World War I. Nevertheless, as an intelligent lay person with a modest knowledge of history, I am capable of evaluating the evidence and logic offered by competing historians, and of coming to some sort of reasoned albeit tentative judgment.
Without that ability, how could any thoughtful person justify being politically active? The trouble is that few non-scientists in our society feel this self-confidence when dealing with scientific matters. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question -- such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?
So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had. Ask an average undergraduate: Is matter composed of atoms? Why do you think so? The reader can fill in the response. No Left can be effective unless it takes seriously questions of scientific fact and of ethical values and of economic interests.
The issues at stake are too important to be left to the capitalists or to the scientists -- or to the postmodernists. A quarter-century ago, at the height of the U. Nowadays the erotic text tends to be written in broken French rather than Chinese, but the real-life consequences remain the same.
Which, in a country that has George Bush as President and Danforth Quayle lined up for , is not very funny. Albert, David Z. Quantum Mechanics and Experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Andreski, Stanislav. Social Sciences as Sorcery. Chomsky, Noam. The politicization of the university. In Radical Priorities, 2nd ed, pp. Montreal: Black Rose Books. Forman, Paul. Behind quantum electronics: National security as basis for physical research in the United States, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences Gallup, George H.
The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion Wilmington, Del. Gallup, George Jr. Gross, Paul R. The natural sciences: Trouble ahead? Academic Questions 7 2 : Harding, Sandra. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Hastings, Elizabeth Hann and Philip K. Hastings, eds. Index to International Public Opinion, New York: Greenwood Press. Hobsbawm, Eric. The new threat to history. New York Review of Books 16 December : Holland, Walter W. Oxford Textbook of Public Health, 3 vols.
Oxford: Oxford University Press. Laudan, Larry. Science and Relativism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Ross, Andrew.
Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword
It was published in Dissent 43 4 , pp. I did not write this work merely with the aim of setting the exegetical record straight. My larger target is those contemporaries who -- in repeated acts of wish-fulfillment -- have appropriated conclusions from the philosophy of science and put them to work in aid of a variety of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted. The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is -- second only to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time. In view of the important intellectual and political issues raised by this episode, they have generously agreed to publish this non-parodic Afterword, in which I explain my motives and my true views. I also employed some other strategies that are well-established albeit sometimes inadvertently in the genre: appeals to authority in lieu of logic; speculative theories passed off as established science; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words. All works cited in my article are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented.
Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity
Share via Email You must remember this: in the journal Social Text published an essay by Alan Sokal called "Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity". Massively annotated, and citing the work of dozens of eminent postmodern thinkers, its purpose was ostensibly to show how "postmodern science provides a powerful refutation of the authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science", and to expose the theories of traditional mathematics as capitalist, patriarchal, militaristic, and so on. But its actual purpose was to show you could write a load of rubbish and fool the editors of Social Text into accepting it, if it was plausibly presented and used the modish vocabulary of social theorists. Fourteen years on, and the hoax and its implications have not gone away. So, far from being the corpse of a horse with whip-streaks all over it, Beyond the Hoax, a collection of — massively annotated — essays dealing with the aftershock of the hoax, it is still relevant today. But it is an important joke, and its implications go well beyond what you might expect of a spat between scientists and social theorists, neither of whom, as far as the common reader is concerned, produce anything comprehensible.
Beyond the Hoax by Alan Sokal