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Sokal's Hoax

Another target of Sokal's hoax is cultural and epistemic relativism. For large segments of the American intelligentsia, science has become a ``narrative" among many others that does not provide us with a more objective knowledge of the world than traditional belief systemsgif. Sokal started his article by stating an extreme version of this sort of ideas, in order to see whether the editors would have any objections (they didn't):

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. 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. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal" physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysicsgif; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibilitygif; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ``objectivity''.gif It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. [Sokal (1996a)]

These statements would be rather long to discuss in detail. Let me simply say that we both reject entirely the idea that ``physical `reality', no less than social `reality', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct". Reality existed long before us and will still exist long after us. As the ``true" Sokal says elsewhere, this way of talking, as well as the rest of the text above, confuses quite distinct issues:

1) Ontology. What objects exist in the world? What statements about these objects are true?

2) Epistemology. How can human beings obtain knowledge of truths about the world? How can they assess the reliability of that knowledge?

3) Sociology of 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.

4) Individual ethics. What types of research ought a scientist (or technologist) to undertake (or refuse to undertake)?

5) Social ethics. 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.g. if there are no objective truths about the world, then there isn't much point in asking how one can know those (nonexistent) truths - but they are conceptually distinct.

For example, Hardinggif (citing Forman 1987) points out that American research in the 1940s 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.g. the transistor), which made possible nearly all of modern technology (e.g. the computer). And the computer has had applications that are beneficial to society (e.g. in allowing the postmodern cultural critic to produce her articles more efficiently) as well as applications that are harmful (e.g. in allowing the U.S. military to kill human beings more efficiently). 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.g. the global climate - a result of public-policy choices favoring militarism? 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? These are all serious questions, which deserve careful investigation adhering to the highest standards of scientific and historical evidence. 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. (E.g. if the worldwide community of solid-state physicists, following what they believe to be the conventional standards of scientific evidence, were to hastily accept an erroneous theory of semiconductor behavior because of their enthusiasm for the breakthrough in military technology that this theory would make possible.) [Sokal (1996c)]

Anyway, I shall not pursue further the discussion of these philosophical issues. They require a careful examination. Unfortunately, a lot of sloppy thinking is also done around these problems. Let me give some examples.

next up previous
Next: Latour Up: Epistemic Relativism Previous: Epistemic Relativism

Kuroki Gen
Mon Aug 30 11:49:39 JST 1999