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Date: Thu, 11 Sep 1997 22:20:18 +0200
From: Jon Adams <>
Subject: The Sokal Affair - Article Submission

Hi Gen,

I would like you to publish a paper I gave at the annual conference
of the German Society for American Studies.

The paper is called "Ad Scientiam: The Appeal to Science." It is
mainly about the rhetorical strategies of scientists in the Science
Wars, in particular, C.P. Snow, Alan Sokal, Jerry King, Paul Gross
and Norman Levitt, and Steven Weinberg.

I am sending the paper as an attachment in text format (I also have
the file in Word 7 format).

All the best,

Jon-K Adams
Freiburg University

Ad Scientiam: The Appeal to Science

Jon-K Adams
Freiburg University

I want to emphasize that this affair
is in my view not about science
- Alan Sokal

What Alan Sokal calls "this affair," and what everyone else calls Sokal's hoax, has put cultural critics on the defensive. It is not difficult to see why. Sokal's article in Social Text "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" is, as Sokal later revealed, a parody of what he calls "a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking."1 One of the underlying issues that Sokal's parody illustrates is that scientists as well as critics can write: Sokal even suggests that they can write better than critics. This suggestion is the result of the scientist's pursuit of the two-cultures debate, a debate in which scientists have insisted that they can be critics, but critics can't be scientists. I want to focus on the nature of this argument, and in particular, on the consequences that the scientist draws from it. In a number of well-known texts, the scientist insists that he is superior to the critic, and thus has - in terms of the two-cultures debate - a privileged position. However, this privileged position is based on an invalid argument, an argument that I have labeled ad scientiam, or the appeal to science. The use of the ad scientiam argument is a two-part procedure: first the scientist insists on the authority of science, and then he appeals to that authority, often inplicitly. As a consequence of this procedure, the ad scientiam argument is a non sequitur. The scientist appeals to the authority of science but, in the two-cultures debate, the authority of science is irrelevant because science and its laws do not govern in the cultural domain.

1. At the beginning of his essay "The Two Cultures," C.P. Snow says: "By training I was a scientist: by vocation I was a writer."2 On the one hand, Snow suggests that he is able to bridge the two cultures in order to give a neutral and impartial account of their relationship. But this is not the case, mainly because Snow cannot stop being a scientist: a scientist isdefined by his training and he simply can't put aside his training. Although Snow refers to himself as a writer, he identifies himself with scientists and not with critics. For example, in describing the critic's failure to grasp what he calls "the great edifice of modern physics," he says that "the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into [modern physics] as their neolithic ancestors" (21). It is clear that Snow does not place himself on the same level as his neolithic ancestors, nor does he associate himself with the critic whose ack of scientific insight makes him not only a non-scientist but also a pre-scientist: someone whose neolithic nature prevents him from keeping pace with scientific progress.

In Snow's description of the two cultures, the scientist and the critic do not make up equal parts, mainly because Snow is intent on establishing the superiority of the scientist. The major argument for this superiority is that scientists are trained, but critics aren't. Science may also be a vocation, but it still takes training to be a scientist, at least in the 20th century. But critics don't require any training. And as Snow himself illustrates, anyone who can write, including scientists, can participate in the two-cultures debate and thus be a cultural critic.

The critic's lack of scientific training allows Snow to refer to him as a "non-scientist" (12), but the reverse seems somehow anomalous: we wouldn't want to call the scientist a non-critic. Since the critic is defined by a lack of training, he is, according to the scientist's view, incomplete. This lack of training also establishes a number of oppositions: on the one hand, science is active, difficult, real and formed by standards, while on the other hand, writing is passive, easy, imitative, and lacks standards. As Snow says, science is "intensive, rigourous, and constantly in action" (18). Science is, "in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man" (20). Critics do not have access to this "beautiful and wonderful collective work" because of "the absence of training" (20).

We also see Snow suggesting the superiority of the scientist in his comparison between Rutherford and T.S. Eliot. Snow quotes them both and then adds a comment. Snow quotes Rutherford as saying "This is the heroic age of science! This is the Elizabethan age!" (12). Rutherford, according to Snow - and I quote - "was absolutely right" (12). Snow is clearly praising Rutherford, but the basis of the praise is odd. In calling the first half of the 20th century both a "heroic age" and an "Elizabethan age," Rutherford appeals to cultural history, in particular, to literary history. But historically, the heroic age and the Elizabethan age were two different ages. To conflate the two, as Rutherford does, is at best na=8Bve. Later in his essay, Snow ridicules critics for being unable to "describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics" (20). This suggests that the critic should know science, but the scientist doesn't have to bother with literary or culture history.

Snow quotes the last two lines of Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men": "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper" (12). Snow's antagonism toward critics in general, and Eliot in particular, appears in his comment on the conclusion of Eliot's poem, which Snow calls "one of the least likely scientific prophecies ever made" (12). In criticizing the science in a poem, Snow attempts to apply the standards of science to cultural writing. This is the initial step in the development of the ad scientiam argument. Although it is irrelevant to criticize Eliot's poem for its lack of scientific accuracy, Snow insists on a scientific interpretation of culture. And this insistence is the result of his belief in the authority of science, and in the belief that it extends into the cultural domain.

2. Jerry King, in his The Art of Mathematics, has an entire chapter devoted to the two-cultures debate, in which he builds on and extends Snow's position. First, he distinguishes between Snow's scientist and critic more precisely by dividing people into type M and type N, which corresponds to those who have a knowledge of mathematics and those who don't. Type M, the mathematicians, correspond to Snow's scientists, and the acquisition of mathematics corresponds to Snow's scientific training. Type N, which King defines as "not M," corresponds to what Snow refers to as non-scientists. King then reinforces Snow's point that a scientist can be a critic but a critic cannot be a scientist:

the impoverishments of the two groups are of different orders of magnitude. Had they the inclination or the motivation, the scientists could come - however haltingly - to the humanistic or the literary world. Shakespeare is not out of a physicist's reach. Whether a physicist does, or does not, frequently and seriously turn to the Bard's sonnets depends only on his personal choice. However, on the other side, the situation is immensely different. Nonscientists have no conception of the "edifice" of science. And - as Snow put it - "even if they want to have it they can't."3

What King adds to Snow's argument is that when scientists and critics argue, scientists always win because they know mathematics and critics don't.2E This is a remarkable claim. But let me provide the context: First King tells an anecdote about an argument between a sociologist and a physicist. The argument has to do with the effects of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, and the physicist, according to King, wins the argument by telling the sociologist she doesn't know what she is talking about and then by writing out a mathematical formula. In the use of this anecdote, King seems to be unaware of alternative interpretations of its events. But one point is clear: the sociologist doesn't know mathematics. Whether she knows what she is talking about, or whether the physicist wins the argument is not quite so clear, for she simply gets up and walks out of the room; that is, the argument is broken off. King assumes that thesociologist loses the argument because she doesn't know mathematics. But this is an invalid appeal to ignorance. If the sociologist doesn't know mathematics, then the physicist's display of mathematics cannot convince her that she is wrong: she may be offended by the display of mathematics (and walk out), but she cannot understand it and thus cannot recognize its relevance to the argument. In using this anecdote, King seems to believe that the simple display of mathematics has some irrational, even superstitious hold over the non-mathematician.

King provides his interpretation of the anecdote in a dialogue with his wife. His main point is that "People of type N cannot argue science or technology with people of type M" (259). Although this seems to be a major assumption of the scientist, King gives no reasons for it, except the anecdote. However, an anecdote, like all forms of narrative, can only illustrate an argument; it cannot validate it. The only other evidence King offers is another anecdote. This form of anecdotal argumentation points to a certain anxiety on the part of the scientist, an anxiety that comes out when King later overstates his position. In describing the work of non-scientists, Kings says

Their papers may be important. But they will not be mathematical in the slightest. And, while this absence of facility with mathematics will cause them no concern so long as they talk only to each other or to others of type N, it will cause problems when they try to converse with people in the other culture exactly as it caused the sociologist at my lunch table. When an argument arises, the type M person, sooner or later, turns to mathematics. The type N person, then feeling illiterate, invariably withdraws. (262)

The scientist's anxiety appears in King's desire to extend the use of mathematics to all domains of discourse. There is, for example, an equivocation in King's argument, as he moves from the critic talking to another critic to the critic talking to a scientist. In both cases, the context is the critic talking about her work. And this is still the rhetorical context when, as King claims, the scientist turns to mathematics. Since by definition the critic's work is non-mathematical, it is not likely that the scientist can refute it by turning to mathematics. In this case, King's claim that the scientist always wins the argument because he knows mathematics is a form of ad scientiam. King implicitly extends the use of mathematics into the domain of cultural discourse, and in doing so, he makes aninvalid appeal to the authority of science.

Mathematics, however useful in making the distinction between scientists and critics, however useful in specifying the two cultures, is irrelevantin the debate itself. First, because the debate is not about mathematics, nor - and more importantly - is it conducted in mathematics. And if it were conducted in mathematics, then there won't be a debate, for by definition the critic - King's type N - can't conduct a debate in mathematics. And second, in terms of the two-cultures debate, both the scientist and the critic belong to the same group, namely, those who write about the two-cultures, and thus, those who are cultural critics. Whatever either the scientist or the critic says about the two cultures, it has to be said in writing, and writing belongs to the realm of culture and not to the realm of science.

3. In "Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword" Alan Sokal begins by saying that he wants "to make a small contribution" to the two-cultures debate. This contribution is the point of his parody, which is full of - among other things - "non sequiturs," that is, logical fallacies. This is the sort of writing and misuse of logic that Sokal thinks should be avoided. Yet in a following paragraph he uses an ad hominen argument in which he calls critics "the barbarian hordes of lit crit."4 What this combination implies is that scientists need not play by their own rules because critics - those barbarian hordes that exist in a pre-scientific state - are incapable of reasoned or logical discourse.

In his paper "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies," Sokal begins by stating his concern for the "decline in the standards of intellectual rigor." He then goes on to illustrate this decline with an analysis of his parody, where he points out that he asserts, jumps, and suggests without providing any argument." He ends by ridiculing Social Text for feeling "no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion." This ridicule implies that a scientist, or at least Sokal, would not write in this way. But if we apply Sokal's criteria of evidence and reasoned argument to his own paper, we discover that his writing consists of the same "sloppy thinking" that he complains of elsewhere. For example, in a following paragraph he states that "There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise?" The point here is not whether we believe this claim; the point is what evidence, what reasoned argument does Sokal offer to support his claim that there is a real world and that its properties are not social constructions? His reasoned argument amounts to a rhetorical question: "What sane person would contend otherwise?" This an ad populum argument, for it means that it is just plain common sense that there is a real world, and an appeal to common sense is an appeal to the people. It is difficult to believe that this argument represents Sokal's version of "intellectual rigor."

Invalid arguments have more than one way of being invalid: Sokal illustrates this rhetorical proverb in his ad populum argument, for it rests on abroad appeal to the authority of science. Sokal's rhetorical question "What sane person would contend otherwise?" means what scientist would contend otherwise, or once we reformulate the rhetorical question, no scientist would contend otherwise. In this analysis, the appeal to common sense is more an appeal to the authority of science than an appeal to the people. A less obvious, but more crucial example of the appeal to the authority of science appears in Sokal's discussion of Andrew Ross's book, Strange Weather. Sokal quotes Ross talking about the critic's "skepticism" when confronting science. Sokal's response to this skepticism needs to be quoted in full:

Fair enough: scientists are in fact the first to advise skepticism in the face of other people's (and one's own) truth claims. But a sophomoric skepticism, a bland (or blind) agnosticism, won't get you anywhere. 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.

Although Sokal talks about evidence and logic, he offers no explicit evidence or logic to support his judgment that Ross's skepticism is "sophomoric." This is because Sokal's judgment rests on an appeal to the authority of science, and that appeal should be taken as self-evident. According to this argument, Ross's skepticism is "sophomoric" because it is not "informed," where "informed" is another term for Snow's training and King's mathematics. In other words, Ross is incapable of being informed because he is not a scientist. In contrast, Sokal is informed because he is a scientist, which enables him to appeal to the authority of science, and thus call Ross's skepticism "sophomoric." This is perhaps the most vicious form of ad scientiam.

4. Alan Sokal was inspired to perpetuate his hoax after reading Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's book, Higher Superstition. Gross and Levitt claim that the contemporary conflict between the scientist and the critic, and in particular, the antagonism of the critic toward the scientist, is the consequence of what they call "no-nonsense" logical positivism.5 The main thesis of logical positivism is that a genuine proposition must be empirically verifiable. Gross and Levitt claim that this thesis "imposes severe tests of meaningfulness on all sorts of propositions." The result of this serve test is that propositions of science, by and large, escape humiliation, while those of the humanities, including such venerable philosophic areas as ethics and aesthetics, emphatically do not. Thus, while statements about the emission spectra of planetary nebulae are perfectly meaningful for the positivist, the assertion that Racine is superior to Corneille ... collapses into meaninglessness. (87)

Gross and Levitt assume that this argument is "devastatingly hurtful" to the critic's position, but this is far from the case. In the sense used here, logical positivism is simply an attempt to specify the kind of propositions that scientists concern themselves with, namely, with those propositions that can be validated by empirical observation. The so-called meaninglessness of the critic's propositions, then, simply refers to the fact that they have no meaning within science, or no meaning that science can determine. But this is self-evident, for by definition the critic's propositions are not scientific propositions. What this means is that logical positivism points to is a major source of the ad scientiam argument, namely, the scientist's belief that anything outside of the scientific domain is meaningless, humiliating, and devastatingly hurtful.

The difference between the propositions of scientists and those of critics is similar to the difference between scientists and critics themselves. In the conclusion to their book, Gross and Levitt present a rather dramatic version of this difference, including the typical claim that scientists are superior to critics:

If, taking a fanciful hypothesis, the humanities department of MIT ... were to walk out in a huff, the scientific faculty could, at need and with enough released time, patch together a humanities curriculum, to be taught by the scientists themselves. It would have obvious gaps and rough spots, to be sure, and it might with some regularity prove inane; but on the whole it would be, we image, no worse than operative. What the opposite situation - a walkout by the scientists - would produce, as the humanities department tried to cope with the demand for science education, we leave to the reader's imagination. (243)

There is no reason to assume that the scientists couldn't "patch together a humanities curriculum," since all critics do, according to Gross and Levitt, is produce meaningless propositions, such as "Racine is superior to Corneille." But there is another issue here. The scientist, by his own admission, holds so-called meaningless propositions. If the proposition "Racine is superior to Corneille" is meaningless, then the proposition "Scientists are superior to critics" is equally meaningless. What this shows - and hopefully this is the last time I'll have to show it - is that the scientist is forced to use the critic's language, which means that the scientist's superiority, his training, his mathematics, his logical positivism is, in the two-cultures debate, simply of no use, or in his own terms, meaningless.

5. In the two-cultures debate the scientist has two main anxieties. The first is the anxiety that, although he believes in the superiority of science, he is unable to apply that superiority directly to the debate, mainly because the debate occurs in the domain of cultural criticism, in writing, and not in mathematics or scientific laws. The other anxiety is that, although the scientist believes in the truth of the scientific world-view, he is unable to use his science or mathematics to validate that belief. Like the first anxiety, this also leads the scientist to appeal to the authority of science. Steven Weinberg, in his article "Sokal's Hoax," provides an example of this second anxiety when he says that "our statements about the laws of physics are in a one-to-one correspondence with aspects of objective reality."6 This is a straightforward expression of the correspondence theory of language. The problem with the correspondence theory of language is, somewhat ironically, its lack of coherence. Since Weinberg limits the correspondence theory of language to science, or the laws of physics, the question becomes what is the status of Weinberg's statements when he is talking about the correspondence theory. The claim that "our statements about the laws of physics are in a one-to-one correspondence with aspects of objective reality" is not a law of physics or a fact of science. In terms of logical positivism, it cannot be either validated or falsified by empirical observation. And this is the point: statements about the relation between science and reality, that in turn ground science, are, in the literal sense of the term, metaphysical statements. They are beyond physics, and thus, they fall into the domain of culture where appeals to science are irrelevant.


1. Alan Sokal, "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies." Online. Available: 30 Mar. 1997.

2. C.P. Snow, "The Two Cultures," The Two Cultures: And a Second Look (New York: Cambridge UP, 1963), p. 9. Subsequent quotations are from this edition.

3. Jerry P. King, The Art of Mathematics (New York: Plenum, 1992), p. 254. Subsequent quotations are from this edition.

4. Alan Sokal, "Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword." Online. Available: 30 Mar. 1997.

5. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994), p. 86. Subsequent quotations are from this edition.

6. Steven Weinberg, "Sokal's Hoax," The New York Review of Books 43.13 (8 Aug. 1996): 14.