Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Words that create a mental fog - II

In 1996, Social Text journal published an article by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." It was written in the typical style of academic articles, slightly overbearing and verbose, and it had a huge number of footnotes (more footnotes than actual text). In his article, Sokal argued that the traditional concept of gravity was just a capitalist fiction that would be made irrelevant by the socialist/feminist/relativist theory of 'quantum gravity.' Sokal assumed that this argument should have been self-evidently absurd. An excerpt from the article follows:
Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step further, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. 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. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.
But on the day that the Spring issue of Social Text appeared in print, Sokal published a letter in the academic trade publication Lingua Franca revealing his article was actually intended as a parody, a fact which the editorial board of Social Text had failed to recognize. The article was a hoax submitted, according to Sokal, to see "would a leading journal of cultural studies publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?"

It did get published much to the chagrin of the editors when they discovered later that it was a hoax. Sokal says that if the editors had been careful and intellectually competent, they would have recognized from the first paragraph of his essay that it was a parody. Above all, however, the Sokal hoax demonstrates how willing we are to be deceived about matters we believe strongly in. We are likely to be more critical of articles which attack our position than we are of those which we think supports it. This tendency to confirmation bias affects physicists or professors in the social sciences or a lay person.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo have identified a certain kind of humbug they call pseudo-profound bullshit – the kind that sounds deep and meaningful at first glance, but upon closer inspection means nothing at all. In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives such an example from Hegel:
It is hard to resist discussion of artificial history without comment on the father of all pseudothinkers, Hegel. Hegel writes jargon that is meaningless outside of a chic Left Bank Parisian cafe or the humanities department of some university extremely well insulated from the real world. I suggest this passage from the German 'philosopher' (this passage detected, translated, and reviled by Karl Popper):
Sound is the change in the specific condition of segregation of the material parts, and in the negation of this condition; merely an abstract or an ideal ideality, as it were, of that specification. But this change, accordingly, is itself immediately the negation of the material specific subsistence; which is, therefore, real ideality of specific gravity and cohesion, i.e.--heat. The heating up of the sounding bodies, just as of beaten and or rubbed ones, is the appearance of heat, originating conceptually together with sound.
I won't detain you further. I am sure you want to rush to a good bookstore near you and grab copies of Hegel's books before they go out of stock.

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