Oct 1, 2017

Pseudo-Profound fashionable nonsense

In 1996 physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article to the academic journal Social Text. The article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, turned out to be a hoax by Sokal who was trying to prove a point about the misuse of scientific terminology in some intellectual circles. Subsequently, Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote a book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectual's abuse of science (1998), addressing the dangers of epistemic relativism and the abuse of scientific concepts. They state,

We show that famous intellectuals... have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology: either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest justification—note that we are not against extrapolating concepts from one field to another, but only against extrapolations made without argument—or throwing around scientific jargon in front of their non-scientist readers without any regard for its relevance or even its meaning.


A second target of our book is epistemic relativism, namely the idea... that modem science is nothing more than a “myth”, a “narration” or a “social construction” among many others.

They add,

Science is not a “text." The natural sciences are not a mere reservoir of metaphors ready to be used in the human sciences. Non-scientists may be tempted to isolate from a scientific theory some general “themes” that can be summarized in few words such as “uncertainty”, "discontinuity”, “chaos”, or “non-linearity” and then analyzed in a purely verbal manner. But scientific theories are not like novels; in a scientific context these words have specific meanings, which differ in subtle but crucial ways from their everyday meanings, and which can only be understood within a complex web of theory and experiment. If one uses them only as metaphors, one is easily led to nonsensical conclusions.250

What concerns most to Alan Sokal, along with others such as Susan Jacoby, is the disregard for objectivity, evidence, truth, and reason in our society, especially in our educational system. His goal is not to discredit fields of study, but to bring into attention the undermining of the scientific approach to understanding how the world works. He claims these practices are based on "uncritical celebrity-worship", "wishful thinking, superstition, and demagoguery" (Sokal, 1996) as opposed to science which is based on constructive criticism and reasoned argument. Furthermore, Sokal and Bricmont are concerned about effects this may have on students, they state "What is worse, in our opinion, is the adverse effect that abandoning clear thinking and clear writing has on teaching and culture. Students learn to repeat and to embellish discourses that they only barely understand. They can even, if they are lucky, make an academic career out of it by becoming expert in the manipulation of an erudite jargon.275" If we are not trained to have respect for the truth and its critical process we may end up making uninformed decisions.

Harry Frankfurt is a philosopher who has also been concerned with the disregard for truth. He developed the concept of bullshit from a communication and philosophical perspective. According to Frankfurt the main goal of bullshit is to persuade others while at the same time having a disregard for truth and reality.

If you have the truth you, you know what reality is like, if you don't you're ignorant of reality. I don't know whether it's important to explain why reality is important. We live in the real world, we depend upon it, we need it, we need to know about it. We need to be able to find our way around it and if we don't have the truth then we can't do those things. We don't need bullshit, in fact bullshit I find it very offensive. It's insulting, it is offered to me as though it were an attempt to convey the truth but it's not, it's a substitute for the truth and I don't want substitutes. I want the real thing cause I think all of us should. That's why we should be on our guard against it and resist it, reject it wherever we find it. I think a world without bullshit would be more interesting, it would be a world in which we would lack the creative flair of the bullshitter, but in which we would have the fascination and the wonderment of reality. And in that way I think the world would be much better off.

A similar concept coined by Stephen Colbert is truthiness, defined on Wikipedia as,

Truthiness is the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.[1][2] Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.[3][4]

Science has a history, language, procedures, and a community which according to Sokal "scientists are constantly subjecting their colleague's theories to severe conceptual and empirical scrutiny" (Sokal, 2013). Science is our best method to learn how the world works. It is our best aid when we are trying to infer the unobservable from the observable based on evidence. Science is concerned about the truth and how it is acquired. If we are to make decisions that affect our lives and that of others it is extremely important to discern science from fashionable nonsense.

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan