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Review - Beyond the Hoax - Alan Sokal

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I ought to say straight away that this is only a borderline popular science book as the heavy use of footnotes and massive bibliography for each chapter suggests. It's half way between a collection of light scientific papers and a book for the general reader. The other proviso up front is about those four stars. In practice this is an average score. It really is five star for some of the content, but three star for presentation and other parts of the content.

The 'hoax' in question is a famous one in physics and an infamous one in the soft sciences. In 1995, physicist Alan Sokal had a paper published in the well-established journal Social Text called 'Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.' It was a parody. The idea was to demonstrate how writers in the humanities and social sciences were taking concepts from physics and using tons of woffle to totally distort the science and to pretend they in some way they demonstrated that there were no objective truths of nature, but merely subjective interpretations, based on the culture of the scientists.

This kind of approach is easy enough to mock ('If you don't believe in the objectivity of physics, please do walk out of my 22nd floor office window and try to be subjective about gravity!'), but the genius of Sokal's parody is that he demonstrated that calculated rubbish would be accepted by this community because they hadn't the faintest idea what they are talking about. As Sokal points out later in this book, this isn't just a case of putting down a few ivory tower academics spouting nonsense (thought that is quite appealing). It's also about defending science when it's under attack using cultural arguments, whether nationalistic, gender-based or on religious grounds.

The book starts with Sokal's original paper, in an annotated form so you can appreciate the full genius of the parody. This is quite hard to read - the annotation sometimes runs longer than the original, and as there are also quite a lot of footnotes in the original you often end up reading an annotation to a footnote to a comment. But it's worth struggling through to understand where it all comes from.

We then get a series of chapters that were mostly articles on different aspects of the hoax and what it brought out, whether it was the immediate reaction of those attacked by the hoax or the dangers underlying this idiocy. There is a lot of powerful material here, not only in getting a picture of how detached from reality some academics have become, but also in understanding just what science is, what it does and what it's for. Because of this I would highly recommend this book is read by anyone writing about science, the history of science or the philosophy of science. The insights are very useful, from a picture of how to treat the likes of Popper and Kuhn to a feel for the fundamental nature of the scientific method. In this sense, it is genuinely one of the most important books on science I have read.

But I do need to balance this view with the negatives. It is decidedly hard to read - certainly not conventional popular science. In part this is because you have to plough through quite a lot of the garbage pumped out by some of these arty academics, which bears a startling resemblance to the pseudoscience used by quacks to support their 'holistic energy therapy' or whatever. Interestingly, Sokal makes the comparison, but is a little disappointed to find that the postmodernist academics don't support pseudoscience as much as he expected. But it is also hard to read because of the way the book is structured.

At the start, Sokal says 'I have a visceral distaste for books that have been confected by pasting together a collection of loosely connected, previously published essays.' He argues this book isn't such a tome. But it is, it really is. The contents have only been very loosely edited - there is a lot of word-for-word repetition between chapters and the whole doesn't flow particularly well. Making matters worse, all the chapters are heavy with footnotes. I don't mind the references, but a lot is text that in a proper book would be part of the main flow of the text, so you have to keep flipping about while reading it. Very frustrating, and frankly lazy to leave it like this.

The other evidence in favour of the 'loose pasting together' argument is that the book ends with a couple of chapters that are hardly connected to the rest at all, but rather a sub-Dawkinsesque attack on religion. These chapters lack the intellectual rigour of the rest, being full of attempts to apply science to areas where science really doesn't work very well. Some of the statements here are self-contradictory and the chapters feel like a chance for Sokal to let off some steam, rather than apply scientific thought appropriately.

Definitely a curate's egg, but the tasty parts are very tasty indeed.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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Last update 05 June 2007