Review: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont)
Fashionable Nonsense, Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science - Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont ebook download pdf free
The book contains the best single chapter on filosofy of science that iv com across. very much recommended, especially for those that dont like filosofers' accounts of things. alot of the rest of the book is devoted to long quotes full of nonsens, and som explanations of why it is nonsens (if possible), or just som explanatory remarks about the fields invoked (say, relativity).
as such, this book is a must read for ppl who ar interested in the study of seudoscience, and those interested in meaningless language use. basically, it is a collection of case studies of that.
[footnote] Bertrand Russell (1948, p. 196) tells the following amusing story: “I once received a
letter from an eminent logician, Mrs Christine Ladd Franklin, saying that she was a
solipsist, and was surprised that there were not others". We learned this reference
from Devitt (1997, p. 64).
The answer, of course, is that we have no proof; it is simply
a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. The most natural way to ex
plain the persistence of our sensations (in particular, the un
pleasant ones) is to suppose that they are caused by agents
outside our consciousness. We can almost always change at will
the sensations that are pure products of our imagination, but we
cannot stop a war, stave off a lion, or start a broken-down car
by pure thought alone. Nevertheless— and it is important to em
phasize this—this argument does not refute solipsism. If anyone
insists that he is a “harpsichord playing solo” (Diderot), there is
no way to convince him of his error. However, we have never
met a sincere solipsist and we doubt that any exist.52 This illus
trates an important principle that we shall use several times in
this chapter: the mere fact that an idea is irrefutable does not
imply that there is any reason to believe it is true.
i wonder how that epistemological point (that arguments from ignorance ar no good) works with intuitionism in math/logic?
The universality of Humean skepticism is also its weakness.
Of course, it is irrefutable. But since no one is systematically
skeptical (when he or she is sincere) with respect to ordinary
knowledge, one ought to ask why skepticism is rejected in that
domain and why it would nevertheless be valid when applied
elsewhere, for instance, to scientific knowledge. Now, the rea
son why we reject systematic skepticism in everyday life is
more or less obvious and is similar to the reason we reject solip
sism. The best way to account for the coherence of our experi
ence is to suppose that the outside world corresponds, at least
approximately, to the image of it provided by our senses.54
54 4This hypothesis receives a deeper explanation with the subsequent development of
science, in particular of the biological theory of evolution. Clearly, the possession of
sensory organs that reflect more or less faithfully the outside world (or, at least,
some important aspects of it) confers an evolutionary advantage. Let us stress that
this argument does not refute radical skepticism, but it does increase the coherence
of the anti-skeptical worldview.
the authors ar surprisingly sofisticated filosofically, and i agree very much with their reasoning.
For my part, I have no doubt that, although progressive changes
are to be expected in physics, the present doctrines are likely to be
nearer to the truth than any rival doctrines now before the world.
Science is at no moment quite right, but it is seldom quite wrong,
and has, as a rule, a better chance of being right than the theories
of the unscientific. It is, therefore, rational to accept it
—Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development
(1995 , p. 13)
yes, the analogy is that: science is LIKE a limit function that goes towards 1 [approximates closer to truth] over time. at any given x, it is not quite at y=1 yet, but it gets closer. it might not be completely monotonic either (and i dont know if that completely breaks the limit function, probably doesnt).
for a quick grafical illustration, try the function f(x)=1-(-1/x) on the interval [1;∞]. The truth line is f(x)=1 on the interval [0;∞]. in reality, the graf wud be mor unsteady and not completely monotonic corresponding to the varius theories as they com and go in science. it is not only a matter of evidence (which is not an infallible indicator of truth either), but it is primarily a function of that.
Once the general problems of solipsism and radical skepti
cism have been set aside, we can get down to work. Let us sup
pose that we are able to obtain some more-or-less reliable
knowledge of the world, at least in everyday life. We can then
ask: To what extent are our senses reliable or not? To answer
this question, we can compare sense impressions among them
selves and vary certain parameters of our everyday experience.
We can map out in this way, step by step, a practiced rationality.
When this is done systematically and with sufficient precision,
science can begin.
For us, the scientific method is not radically different from
the rational attitude in everyday life or in other domains of hu
man knowledge. Historians, detectives, and plumbers—indeed,
all human beings—use the same basic methods of induction,
deduction, and assessment of evidence as do physicists or bio
chemists. Modem science tries to carry out these operations in
a more careful and systematic way, by using controls and sta
tistical tests, insisting on replication, and so forth. Moreover,
scientific measurements are often much more precise than
everyday observations; they allow us to discover hitherto un
known phenomena; and they often conflict with “common
sense”. But the conflict is at the level of conclusions, not the
basic approach.55 56
55For example: Water appears to us as a continuous fluid, but chemical and physical
experiments teach us that it is made of atoms.
56Throughout this chapter, we stress the methodological continuity between scientific
knowledge and everyday knowledge. This is, in our view, the proper way to respond
to various skeptical challenges and to dispel the confusions generated by radical
interpretations of correct philosophical ideas such as the underdetermination of
theories by data. But it would be naive to push this connection too far. Science—
particularly fundamental physics— introduces concepts that are hard to grasp
intuitively or to connect directly to common-sense notions. (For example: forces
acting instantaneously throughout the universe in Newtonian mechanics,
electromagnetic fields "vibrating” in vacuum in Maxwell’s theory, curved space-time
in Einstein’s general relativity.) And it is in discussions about the meaning o f these
theoretical concepts that various brands of realists and anti-realists (e.g.,
intrumentalists, pragmatists) tend to part company. Relativists sometimes tend to fall
back on instrumentalist positions when challenged, but there is a profound difference
between the two attitudes. Instrumentalists may want to claim either that we have no
way of knowing whether “unobservable” theoretical entities really exist, or that their
meaning is defined solely through measurable quantities; but this does not imply that
they regard such entities as “subjective” in the sense that their meaning would be
significantly influenced by extra-scientific factors (such as the personality of the
individual scientist or the social characteristics o f the group to which she belongs).
Indeed, instrumentalists may regard our scientific theories as, quite simply, the most
satisfactory way that the human mind, with its inherent biological limitations, is
capable of understanding the world.
right they ar
Having reached this point in the discussion, the radical skep
tic or relativist will ask what distinguishes science from other
types of discourse about reality—religions or myths, for exam
ple, or pseudo-sciences such as astrology—and, above all, what
criteria are used to make such a distinction. Our answer is nu-
anced. First of all, there are some general (but basically nega
tive) epistemological principles, which go back at least to the
seventeenth century: to be skeptical of a priori arguments, rev
elation, sacred texts, and arguments from authority. Moreover,
the experience accumulated during three centuries of scientific
practice has given us a series of more-or-less general method
ological principles—for example, to replicate experiments, to
use controls, to test medicines in double-blind protocols—that
can be justified by rational arguments. However, we do not
claim that these principles can be codified in a definitive way,
nor that the list is exhaustive. In other words, there does not
exist (at least at present) a complete codification of scientific ra
tionality, and we seriously doubt that one could ever exist. After
all, the future is inherently unpredictable; rationality is always
an adaptation to a new situation. Nevertheless—and this is the
main difference between us and the radical skeptics—we think
that well-developed scientific theories are in general supported
by good arguments, but the rationality of those arguments must
be analyzed case-by-case.60
60 It is also by proceeding on a case-by-case basis that one can appreciate the
immensity of the gulf separating the sciences from the pseudo-sciences.
Sokal and Bricmont might soon becom my new favorit filosofers of science.
Obviously, every induction is an inference from the observed to
the unobserved, and no such inference can be justified using
solely deductive logic. But, as we have seen, if this argument
were to be taken seriously—if rationality were to consist only
of deductive logic— it would imply also that there is no good
reason to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow, and yet no one
really expects the Sun not to rise.
id like to add, like i hav don many times befor, that ther is no reason to think that induction shud be proveable with deduction. why require that? but now coms the interesting part. if one takes induction as the basis instead of deduction, one can inductivly prove deduction. <prove> in the ordinary, non-mathetical/logical sens. the method is enumerativ induction, which i hav discussed befor.
But one may go further. It is natural to introduce a hierarchy
in the degree of credence accorded to different theories, de
pending on the quantity and quality of the evidence supporting
them.95 Every scientist—indeed, every human being—proceeds
in this way and grants a higher subjective probability to the
best-established theories (for instance, the evolution of species
or the existence of atoms) and a lower subjective probability to
more speculative theories (such as detailed theories of quantum
gravity). The same reasoning applies when comparing theories
in natural science with those in history or sociology. For exam
ple, the evidence of the Earth’s rotation is vastly stronger than
anything Kuhn could put forward in support of his historical
theories. This does not mean, of course, that physicists are more
clever than historians or that they use better methods, but sim
ply that they deal with less complex problems, involving a
smaller number of variables which, moreover, are easier to mea
sure and to control. It is impossible to avoid introducing such a
hierarchy in our beliefs, and this hierarchy implies that there is
no conceivable argument based on the Kuhnian view of history
that could give succor to those sociologists or philosophers who
wish to challenge, in a blanket way, the reliability of scientific
Sokal and Bricmont even get the epistemological point about the different fields right. color me very positivly surprised.
Bruno Latour and His Rules of Method
The strong programme in the sociology of science has found
an echo in France, particularly around Bruno Latour. His works
contain a great number of propositions formulated so ambigu
ously that they can hardly be taken literally. And when one re
moves the ambiguity— as we shall do here in a few
examples— one reaches the conclusion that the assertion is ei
ther true but banal, or else surprising but manifestly false.
sound familiar? its the good old two-faced sentences again, those that Swartz and Bradley called Janus-sentences. they yield two different interpretations, one trivial and true, one nontrivial and false. their apparent plausibility is becus of this fact.
quoting from Possible Worlds:
The method of possible-worlds testing is not only an invaluable aid towards resolving ambiguity; it is also an effective weapon against a particular form of-linguistic sophistry.
Thinkers often deceive themselves and others into supposing that they have discovered a profound
truth about the universe when all they have done is utter what we shall call a "Janus-faced
sentence". Janus, according to Roman mythology, was a god with two faces who was therefore able
to 'face' in two directions at once. Thus, by a "Janus-faced sentence" we mean a sentence which, like "In the evolutionary struggle for existence just the fittest species survive", faces in two directions. It is ambiguous insofar as it may be used to express a noncontingent proposition, e.g., that in the struggle for existence just the surviving species survive, and may also be used to express a contingent proposition, e.g., the generalization that just the physically strongest species survive.
If a token of such a sentence-type is used to express a noncontingently true proposition then, of
course, the truth of that proposition is indisputable; but since, in that case, it is true in all possible
worlds, it does not tell us anything distinctive about the actual world. If, on the other hand, a token
of such a sentence-type is used to express a contingent proposition, then of course that proposition
does tell us something quite distinctive about the actual world; but in that case its truth is far from
indisputable. The sophistry lies in supposing that the indisputable credentials of the one proposition
can be transferred to the other just by virtue of the fact that one sentence-token might be used to
express one of these propositions and a different sentence-token of one and the same sentence-type
might be used to express the other of these propositions. For by virtue of the necessary truth of one
of these propositions, the truth of the other — the contingent one — can be made to seem
indisputable, can be made to seem, that is, as if it "stands to reason" that it should be true.
We could be accused here of focusing our attention on an
ambiguity of formulation and of not trying to understand what
Latour really means. In order to counter this objection, let us go
back to the section “Appealing (to) Nature” (pp. 94-100) where
the Third Rule is introduced and developed. Latour begins by
ridiculing the appeal to Nature as a way of resolving scientific
controversies, such as the one concerning solar neutrinos:
A fierce controversy divides the astrophysicists who calcu
late the number o f neutrinos coming out o f the sun and Davis,
the experimentalist who obtains a much smaller figure. It is
easy to distinguish them and put the controversy to rest. Just
let us see for ourselves in which camp the sun is really to be
found. Somewhere the natural sun with its true number o f
neutrinos will close the mouths o f dissenters and force them
to accept the facts no matter how well written these papers
were. (Latour 1987, p. 95)
Why does Latour choose to be ironic? The problem is to know
how many neutrinos are emitted by the Sun, and this question
is indeed difficult. We can hope that it will be resolved some day,
not because “the natural sun will close the mouths of dis
senters”, but because sufficiently powerful empirical data will
become available. Indeed, in order to fill in the gaps in the cur
rently available data and to discriminate between the currently
existing theories, several groups of physicists have recently
built detectors of different types, and they are now performing
the (difficult) measurements.122 It is thus reasonable to expect
that the controversy will be settled sometime in the next few
years, thanks to an accumulation of evidence that, taken to
gether, will indicate clearly the correct solution. However, other
scenarios are in principle possible: the controversy could die
out because people stop being interested in the issue, or be
cause the problem turns out to be too difficult to solve; and, at
this level, sociological factors undoubtedly play a role (if only
because of the budgetary constraints on research). Obviously,
scientists think, or at least hope, that if the controversy is re
solved it will be because of observations and not because of
the literary qualities of the scientific papers. Otherwise, they
will simply have ceased to do science.
the footnode 121 is:
The nuclear reactions that power the Sun are expected to emit copious quantities
of the subatomic particle called the neutrino. By combining current theories of solar
structure, nuclear physics, and elementary-particle physics, it is possible to obtain
quantitative predictions for the flux and energy distribution of the solar neutrinos.
Since the late 1960s, experimental physicists, beginning with the pioneering work of
Raymond Davis, have been attempting to detect the solar neutrinos and measure their
flux. The solar neutrinos have in fact been detected; but their flux appears to be less
than one-third o f the theoretical prediction. Astrophysicists and elementary-particle
physicists are actively trying to determine whether the discrepancy arises from
experimental error or theoretical error, and if the latter, whether the failure is in the
solar models or in the elementary-particle models. For an introductory overview, see
this problem sounded familiar to me.
The solar neutrino problem was a major discrepancy between measurements of the numbers of neutrinos flowing through the Earth and theoretical models of the solar interior, lasting from the mid-1960s to about 2002. The discrepancy has since been resolved by new understanding of neutrino physics, requiring a modification of the Standard Model of particle physics – specifically, neutrino oscillation. Essentially, as neutrinos have mass, they can change from the type that had been expected to be produced in the Sun's interior into two types that would not be caught by the detectors in use at the time.
science seems to be working. Sokal and Bricmont predicted that it wud be resolved ”in the next few years”. this was written in 1997, about 5 years befor the data Wikipedia givs for the resolution. i advice one to read the Wiki article, as it is quite good.
In this quote and the previous one, Latour is playing con
stantly on the confusion between facts and our knowledge of
them.123 The correct answer to any scientific question, solved or
not, depends on the state of Nature (for example, on the num
ber of neutrinos that the Sun really emits). Now, it happens that,
for the unsolved problems, nobody knows the right answer,
while for the solved ones, we do know it (at least if the accepted
solution is correct, which can always be challenged). But there
is no reason to adopt a “relativist” attitude in one case and a “re
alist” one in the other. The difference between these attitudes is
a philosophical matter, and is independent of whether the prob
lem is solved or not. For the relativist, there is simply no unique
correct answer, independent of all social and cultural circum
stances; this holds for the closed questions as well as for the
open ones. On the other hand, the scientists who seek the cor
rect solution are not relativist, almost by definition. Of course
they do “use Nature as the external referee”: that is, they seek to
know what is really happening in Nature, and they design ex
periments for that purpose.
the footnote 123 is:
An even more extreme example o f this confusion appears in a recent article by
Latour in La Recherche, a French monthly magazine devoted to the popularization of
science (Latour 1998). Here Latour discusses what he interprets as the discovery in
1976, by French scientists working on the mummy of the pharaoh Ramses II, that his
death (circa 1213 B.C.) was due to tuberculosis. Latour asks: “How could he pass
away due to a bacillus discovered by Robert Koch in 1882?” Latour notes, correctly,
that it would be an anachronism to assert that Rainses II was killed by machine-gun
fire or died from the stress provoked by a stock-market crash. But then, Latour
wonders, why isn’t death from tuberculosis likewise an anachronism? He goes so far
as to assert that “Before Koch, the bacillus has no real existence.” He dismisses the
common-sense notion that Koch discovered a pre-existing bacillus as “having only the
appearance o f common sense”. Of course, in the rest o f the article, Latour gives no
argument to justify these radical claims and provides no genuine alternative to the
common-sense answer. He simply stresses the obvious fact that, in order to discover
the cause of Ramses’ death, a sophisticated analysis in Parisian laboratories was
needed. But unless Latour is putting forward the truly radical claim that nothing we
discover ever existed prior to its “discovery”— in particular, that no murderer is a
murderer, in the sense that he committed a crime before the police “discovered" him
to be a murderer— he needs to explain what is special about bacilli, and this he has
utterly failed to do. The result is that Latour is saying nothing clear, and the article
oscillates between extreme banalities and blatant falsehoods.
a quote from one of the crazy ppl:
The privileging o f solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the
inability o f science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she at
tributes to the association o f fluidity with femininity. Whereas
men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women
have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids.
Although men, too, flow on occasion— when semen is emit
ted, for example— this aspect o f their sexuality is not empha
sized. It is the rigidity o f the male organ that counts, not its
complicity in fluid flow. These idealizations are reinscribed in
mathematics, which conceives o f fluids as laminated planes
and other modified solid forms. In the same way that women
are erased within masculinist theories and language, existing
only as not-men, so fluids have been erased from science, ex
isting only as not-solids. From this perspective it is no wonder
that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model
for turbulence. The problem o f turbulent f low cannot be
solved because the conceptions o f fluids (and o f women)
have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated
remainders. (Hayles 1992, p. 17)
u cant make this shit up
Over the past three decades, remarkable progress has been
made in the mathematical theory of chaos, but the idea that
some physical systems may exhibit a sensitivity to initial con
ditions is not new. Here is what James Clerk Maxwell said in
1877, after stating the principle of determinism ( “the same
causes will always produce the same effects”):
but thats not what determinism is. their quote seems to be from Hume's Treatise.
it is mentioned in his discussion of causality, which is related to but not the same as, determinism.
Wikipedia givs a fine definition of <determinism>: ”Determinism is a philosophy stating that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given those conditions, nothing else could happen.”
also SEP: ”Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.”
[T]he first difference between science and philosophy is their
respective attitudes toward chaos. Chaos is defined not so
much by its disorder as by the infinite speed with which every
form taking shape in it vanishes. It is a void that is not a noth
ingness but a virtual, containing all possible particles and
drawing out all possible forms, which spring up only to dis
appear immediately, without consistency or reference, with
out consequence. Chaos is an infinite speed o f birth and dis
appearance. (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, pp. 117-118, italics
in the original)
For what it’s worth, electrons, unlike photons, have a non-zero
mass and thus cannot move at the speed of light, precisely
because of the theory of relativity of which Virilio seems so
i think the authors did not mean what they wrote here. surely, relativity theory is not the reason why electrons cannot move at the speed of light. relativity theory is an explanation of how nature works, in this case, how objects with mass and velocity/speed works.
We met in Paris a student who, after having brilliantly fin
ished his undergraduate studies in physics, began reading phi
losophy and in particular Deleuze. He was trying to tackle
Difference and Repetition. Having read the mathematical ex
cerpts examined here (pp. 161-164), he admitted he couldn’t
see what Deleuze was driving at. Nevertheless, Deleuze’s repu
tation for profundity was so strong that he hesitated to draw the
natural conclusion: that if someone like himself, who had stud
ied calculus for several years, was unable to understand these
texts, allegedly about calculus, it was probably because they
didn’t make much sense. It seems to us that this example should
have encouraged the student to analyze more critically the rest
of Deleuze’s writings.
i think the epistemological conditions of this kind of inference ar very interesting. under which conditions shud one conclude that a text is meaningless?
7. Ambiguity as subterfuge. We have seen in this book nu
merous ambiguous texts that can be interpreted in two differ
ent ways: as an assertion that is true but relatively banal, or as
one that is radical but manifestly false. And we cannot help
thinking that, in many cases, these ambiguities are deliberate.
Indeed, they offer a great advantage in intellectual battles: the
radical interpretation can serve to attract relatively inexperi
enced listeners or readers; and if the absurdity of this version is
exposed, the author can always defend himself by claiming to
have been misunderstood, and retreat to the innocuous inter
mor on Janus-sentences.