beyond the hoax – alan sokal

Much of the material is the same as in Sokal and Bricmont’s earlier book. But there is some new material as well. I especially found the stuff on hindu nationalism and pseudoscience interesting, and the stuff on pseudoscience in nursing. Never heard of that before, but it wasnt totally unexpected. All health related fields hav large amounts of pseudoscience. It is unfortunate that the most important fields are those most full of pseudoscience!


Part III goes on to treat weightier social and political topics using the

same lens. Chapter 8 analyzes the paradoxical relation between pseudo­

science and postmodernism, and investigates how extreme skepticism can

abet extreme credulity, using a series of detailed case studies: pseudosci­

entific therapies in nursing and “alternative medicine”; Hindu nationalist

pseudoscience in India21; and radical environmentalism. This investigation

is motivated by my suspicion that credulity in minor matters prepares the

mind for credulity in matters of greater import — and, conversely, that the

kind of critical thinking useful for distinguishing science from pseudoscience

might also be of some use in distinguishing truths in affairs of state from

lies. Chapter 9 takes on the largest and most powerful pseudoscience of all:

organized religion. This chapter focusses on the central philosophical and

political issues raised by religion in the contemporary world: it deplores the

damage that is done by our culture’s deference toward “faith”, and it asks

how nonbelievers and believers can find political common ground based

on shared moral ideas. Finally, Chapter 10 draws some of these concerns

together, and discusses the relationship between epistemology and ethics as

they interact in the public sphere.


surely this is true.




#115 The idea that theories should refer only to observable quantities is called operationalism.-, far

from being postmodernist, it was popular among physicists and philosophers of physics in the first

half of the twentieth century. But it has severe flaws: see Chapter 7 below (pp. 240-245) as well as

Weinberg (1992, pp. 174-184).


i thought this was a part of logiclal positivism, and it seems that it was. i knew about operational definitions.




When all is said and done, the fundamental flaw in Merchant and Hard­

ing’s metaphor-hermeneutics is not exegetical but logical. Let us grant for the

sake of argument that some of the founders of modem science consciously

used sexist metaphors to promote their epistemological and methodological

views (this much is probably true, even if Merchant and Harding have exag­

gerated the case). But what would that entail for the philosophy (as opposed

to the history) of science? Apparently the critics wish to claim that sexism

could have passed from metaphor into the substantive content of scientific

methods and/or theories. But if modem science does in fact contain sexist

assumptions, then surely the feminist theorists ought to be able to locate and

criticize those biased assumptions, independently of any argument from his­

tory. Indeed, to do otherwise is to commit the “genetic fallacy”: evaluating an

idea on the basis of its origin rather than its content.


Putting aside the florid accusations of rape and torture, the argument of

Merchant and Harding boils down to the assertion that the scientific rev­

olution of the seventeenth century displaced a female-centered (spiritual,

hermetic, organic, geocentric) universe in favor of a male-centered (ratio­

nalist, scientific, mechanical, heliocentric) one.21 How should we evaluate

this argument?


To begin with, one might wonder whether the gender associations claimed

for these two cosmologies are really as univocal as the feminist critics

claim.22 (After all, the main defender of the geocentric worldview — the

Catholic Church — was not exactly a female-centered enterprise, its adora­

tion of the Virgin Mary notwithstanding.) But let us put aside this objection

and grant these gender associations for the sake of argument; for the princi­

pal flaw in the Merchant-Harding thesis is, once again, not historical but log­

ical. Margarita Levin puts it bluntly: Do Merchant and Harding really “think

we have a choice about which theory is correct? Masculine or feminine, the

solar system is the way it is.”23


The same point applies not only to astronomy but to scientific theories

quite generally; and the bottom line is that there is ample evidence, indepen­

dent of any allegedly sexist imagery, for the epistemic value of modem sci­

ence. Therefore, as Koertge remarks, “if it really could be shown that patri­

archal thinking not only played a crucial role in the Scientific Revolution but

is also necessary for carrying out scientific inquiry as we know it, that would

constitute the strongest argument for patriarchy that I can think of!”24


true story :D




Of course, the feminist science-critics are not only archaeologists of

300-year-old science; some of their critique is resolutely modem, even post­

modern. Here, for instance, is what Donna Haraway, professor of the history

of consciousness (!) at the University of Califomia-Santa Cruz and one of

the most acclaimed feminist theorists of science, says about her research:


For the complex or boundary objects in which I am interested, the

mythic, textual, technical, political, organic, and economic dimensions

implode. That is, they collapse into each other in a knot of extraordinary

density that constitutes the objects themselves. In my sense, story telling

is in no way an ‘art practice’ — it is, rather, a fraught practice for narrat­

ing complexity in such a field of knots or black holes. In no way is story

telling opposed to materiality. But materiality itself is tropic; it makes us

swerve, it trips us; it is a knot of the textual, technical, mythic/oneiric,

organic, political, and economic.2


As right-wing critic Roger Kimball acidly comments: “Remember that this

woman is not some crank but a professor at a prestigious university and

one of the leading lights of contemporary ‘women’s studies.’ ”26 The saddest

thing, for us pinkos and feminists, is that Kimball is dead on target.


women’s studies is nearly completely trash. reminds me of the article about black studies in the US:




This theory is startling, to say the least: Does the author really believe

that menstruation makes it more difficult for young women to understand

elementary notions of geometry? Evidently we are not far from the Victorian

gentlemen who held that women, with their delicate reproductive organs,

are unsuited to rational thought and to science. With friends like this, the

feminist cause has no need of enemies.


the worst enemy of women: women.




[after quoting Lacan]

Mathematicians and physicists are used to receiving this sort of stuff in

typewritten envelopes from unknown correspondents. Lacan’s grammar and

spelling are better than in most of these treatises, but his logic isn’t. To put it

bluntly, Lacan is a crank — an unusually erudite one, to be sure, but a crank



interesting. i will ask Sokal to expand on that theme.




So, if we look critically at realism, we may be tempted to turn toward

instrumentalism. But if we look critically at instrumentalism, we feel forced

to return to a modest form of realism. What, then, should one do? Before

coming to a possible solution, let us first consider radical alternatives.


surprisingly true.




[after quoting Plantinga]

Let us stress that we disagree with 90% of Plantinga’s philosophy; but if he is so eloquently on

target on this particular point, why not give him credit for it?


i was surprised they quoted him, but then, they make that comment. perfect play!




Let me stress in advance that I will not be concerned here with explaining

in detail why astrology, homeopathy and the rest are in fact pseudoscience;

that would take me too far afield. Nor will I address, except in passing, the

important but difficult problems of understanding the psychological attrac­

tions of pseudoscience and the social factors affecting its spread.28 Rather,

my principal aim is to investigate the logical and sociological nexus between

pseudoscience and postmodernism.


footnote 28:

For a shrewd meditation on the former question, see Levitt (1999, especially pp. 12-22

and chapter 4). The latter question is indirectly addressed by Burnham (1987), in the context

of a fascinating history of the popularization of science in the United States in the nineteenth

and twentieth centuries.


For my own part, I have been struck by the fact that nearly all the pseudoscientific systems

to be examined in this essay are based philosophically on vitalism: that is, the idea that living

beings, and especially human beings, are endowed with some special quality ( “life energy”,

elan vital, prana, q i ) that transcends the ordinary laws of physics. Mainstream science has

rejected vitalism since at least the 1930s, for a plethora of good reasons that have only become

stronger with time (see e.g. Mayr 1982). But these good reasons are understood by only a tiny

fraction of the populace, even in the industrialized countries where science is supposedly held

in high esteem. Moreover — and perhaps much more importantly — the anti-vitalism charac­

teristic of modem science is deeply unsettling emotionally to most (perhaps all) people, even

to those who are not conventionally religious. See again Levitt (1999). Of course, none of these

speculations pretend to any scientific rigor; careful empirical investigation by psychologists

and sociologists is required.


vitalism -.-




Sokal mentions the experiment.


the proponents must really feel bad… even a child can disprove their beliefs. how study are they??? hopefully, it was only a fringe idea, right, right?


When I first heard about Emily’s experiment, I admired her ingenuity but

wondered whether anyone really took Therapeutic Touch seriously. How

wrong I was! Therapeutic Touch is taught in more than 80 college and uni­

versity schools of nursing in at least 70 countries, is practiced in at least

80 hospitals across North America, and is promoted by leading American

nursing associations.32 Its inventor claims to have trained more than 47,000

practitioners over a 26-year period, who have gone on to train many more.33

At least 245 books or dissertations have been published that include “Thera­

peutic Touch” in the title, subject headings or table of contents.34 All in all,

Therapeutic Touch appears to have become one of the most widely practiced

“holistic” nursing techniques.






cited from pseudoscience source:

[0]ur intuitive faculty is nothing other than a source of sound premises about the

nature of reality…. [T]here exists within us a source of direct information about

reality that can teach us all we need to know.


top #1 reason not to teach Plato’s nonsense.




But of course, those who believe in Genesis or transubstantiation do not

consider these ideas to be crazy; quite the contrary, they think that they have

good reasons to hold their beliefs. Indeed, Harris argues convincingly that

whenever any person P believes any proposition X — at least in the ordi­

nary sense of the English word “believe” — this requires, first of all, that P

must believe X to be true, i.e. to be a factually accurate representation of

the world; and secondly, that P must think he has good reasons to believe

X, in the sense that he envisions his belief as caused, at least in part, by

the fact that X is true. As Harris puts it (p. 63), “there must be some causal

connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question and my

acceptance of it.”


this kind of causal reliabilism will not work. cf.