Science-envy Sokal, science and the police

Bruce robbins

When Social Text entitled its Spring 1996 issue ʻScience Warsʼ, it fulfilled its own prophecy. Thanks to Alan Sokalʼs now famous parody article, which was published there undetected, a discursive war immediately erupted. (See ʻFriendly Fire: The Hoaxing of Social Textʼ, RP 81, pp. 54–6.) As in conventional wars, there was more exchange of anger than ideas. Social Textʼs aim had been to stimulate thought about the social and environmental effects and contexts of science – about Bhopal and Chernobyl, global warming, misplaced Darwinism, the Human Genome Project and the increasing use of genetics to reinvent Original Sin. That effort got us nowhere. Sokalʼs sympathizers did not talk about scienceʼs claims to have discovered a genetic basis for everything from racial differentials in intelligence testing to homosexuality and even neuroticism. (The supposed neuroticism gene was found, by the way, in two-thirds of the subjects tested.) Incited by Sokal, who had pretended to draw extreme relativistic conclusions from research in quantum gravity, the Sokalites talked instead about a whole range of relativisms and subjectivisms that seem to have corrupted the contemporary academy. The other articles in the Social Text special issue, which could hardly be so described, went largely unread. Meanwhile, defenders of Social Text had their hands full countering so much caricature. They rarely found the right moment to offer their own more nuanced critiques of constructivist or cultural studies assumptions.

Round two of the Sokal affair began with the publication in October of Impostures intellectuelles (Éditions Odile Jacob, Paris, 1997), an expanded commentary coauthored by Sokal and the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont. It threatens to be still less illuminating than the first. The first time, respectable French opinion leapt at the chance to ridicule the American academy and repeated as gospel every flagrant falsehood it could collect from the American media. But this time the thinkers targeted directly are French. And now Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur are singing a different tune.

Sokal has been abruptly transformed from noble champion of (French) Enlightenment to resentful mouthpiece of (American) nationalism and ʻscientific correctnessʼ. It is almost enough to induce sympathy for the poor devil – except that the mediaʼs wilful inaccuracies define the arena he himself chose for this contest.

The authors confess to two motives for producing this book. One is their revulsion against a spirit of postmodern relativism; its pervasive disrespect for facts and logic and so on. The second, which makes the book more newsworthy than the spate of often ill-informed attacks on postmodernism and relativism already on the market, is a desire to disclose and punish the crimes against science supposedly committed by certain influential French thinkers: Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Latour, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, and Virilio. Chapter by chapter, the authors offer expert testimony that these thinkers did not adequately understand the science and mathematics they insisted nonetheless on mentioning, if only tangentially. Unfortunately, these mentions are indeed tangential. With the possible exception of Latour, the accused emerge looking guilty as charged. But how serious are the charges?

They are so trivial as to make one wonder whether the apparatus of scholarly surveillance could not have been better employed elsewhere. The authors complain about obscurity and about inadequate explanation of scientific borrowings. These are indeed imperfections. But do they justify so grand a reprimand? Postmodern writers are also accused of not recognizing that many examples of chaos theory emerge from, rather than constituting a revolt against, Newtonian mechanics, and of thinking that there is some necessary connection between quantum mechanics and non-linear equations.

These minor infractions shed very little light on the arguments concerned, yet Sokal and Bricmont exhaust all their critical energy on them. They discuss in detail only writings that include scientific references, and these are few. Focusing their authority where it will do the most damage, they try to make the part stand for, and condemn, the whole.

This synecdochic rhetoric may work in the mass media, but it will not stand up to more rigorous scrutiny. Careful readers, perhaps willing enough to consider the authorsʼ larger claims about relativism, will demand some sign that they have digested other works by or about the thinkers under consideration, some assurance that they understand what their subjects were trying to do. Didnʼt Irigaray accomplish something for feminism by her fatefully flawed appeal to fluid mechanics? Rebuking Kristeva for her overextended mathematical allusions, the authors ponder neither what she was innocently seeking – a poetic alternative to scientific logic in Bakhtinʼs concept of dialogism – nor what less objectionable motives Kristeva and the others may have had for reaching out toward the sciences in the first place.

Relativism has a history

This line of questioning might have led Sokal and Bricmont to explore what should properly be seen as their antagonistsʼ science-envy – not simply as a misguided mimetic desire, noted in passing, but as a complex and integral part of the real intellectual history of ʻrelativismʼ. Science-envy, a phrase that is more exact than the charge of science-bashing and less comfortable for all concerned, is hardly an accusation. On the contrary, it marks a genuine historical link between structuralismʼs chill, decentring, anti-humanist perspective and that of twentieth-century science, from which the French might be seen as trying to draw philosophical consequences. Beginning at this less sensational point would have brought all kinds of intellectual benefits. It would have forced Sokal and Bricmont to consider their own refusal to draw any philosophical conclusions from twentieth-century science, as expressed for example in their selfcontradictory commitment to everyday experience as criterion of truth. (One of the bookʼs best moments is its eye-opening confession of how much of the discussion of general relativity and quantum gravity in the original hoax article was, to quote the authors, ʻessentially correctʼ.) Beginning with this common ground would also have exposed the peculiar history by which structuralism, particularly as appropriated by the Anglo-American disciplines of the humanities, was resisted by some as a sell-out to science, even while others turned it in a crudely anti-scientistic direction. This might have provoked some useful discussion of the sillier forms the critique of science can take when disciplinary special pleading is confused with political radicalism, on the one hand, and of how and when the critique of science does make common cause with democratic interests and constituencies, on the other.

Alas, Sokal and Bricmont are not up to such tasks. Evidence that they are up to no good – that they are more interested in media attention than in changing the opinion of intellectual historians, philosophers of science, the academic Left, or any other scholarly community – is easy enough to come by. If they were really concerned about cultural studies, how could they leave out Foucault, who is its most obvious intellectual centre? If they were really interested in the philosophy of science, how could they dismiss Popper in a few pages – the falsifiability criterion, they announce, gives away the epistemological store – ignore sophisticated work in the realist tradition, and equate most of the philosophy of science with, of all things, postmodernism? (As Linda Alcoff has pointed out, what they decry as postmodernism includes most philosophy since Kant.) If they wanted to get a hearing from the philosophers, would they sum up the bookʼs philosophical message in the banality that ʻreality existsʼ? Since no one believes otherwise, and since Sokal and Bricmont donʼt admit to even occasional problems in moving from belief in the existence of the world to particular conclusions about it, they cannot have expected much respect from philosophical circles. On the contrary, all signs point to an argument that, while claiming to stand for Enlightenment, was conceived and executed exclusively so as to flatter the prejudices of the media.

Authority and ambiguity

Consider, among its other ambiguities, the bookʼs ambiguous relation to authority. (It must be said that, displaying so much conspicuous ambiguity, Impostures intellectuelles is not a good showcase for the unambiguous clarity in which it purports to believe.) Sokal and Bricmont repeatedly charge that the postmodern relativists are (1) slavish worshippers of authority, and (2) wilfully and evasively ambiguous. In both respects the scientific epistemology they sponsor is judged the better choice. But is it?

Scientists, they tell us, question authority. Each is a Galileo confronting the medieval church, a pure sceptic standing outside and against social constraints. The metaphor that carries this message through the book, and that has also appeared whenever Sokalʼs supporters wanted to sum things up, comes from the folk tale of the emperorʼs new clothes. The scientist is the innocent child who simply speaks the truth that he sees, and what he sees is the nakedness of the postmodern emperor. But does science actually resemble a juvenile commoner, utterly lacking in hostile intentions toward the mighty sovereign, and all the more effective in exposing said sovereign because it is so childishly weak and innocent in its intentions? Does this image of realist epistemology realistically represent the power relations between science and the humanities, in society as we know it?

If the reader has any doubts, they will be confirmed by another of the bookʼs rogue analogies. Scientific methodology, Sokal and Bricmont assert vehemently and repeatedly, is like a police investigation. Much as the two crusading physicists might want to travel light, those pesky analogies and metaphors of theirs are always dragging along extra baggage. And here, inconveniently, the implication is just the reverse of the innocent child contemplating the imperial imposter. Here science is no longer a child looking up at an emperor, but on the contrary the apparatus of the state looking down at the life of the street. One passes with strange ease from the authorsʼ self-representation as an imperious, even obnoxious child to their entirely unconscious identification with the police – the police as represented by, say, former Los Angeles Detective Mark Fuhrman, to whose racism and lies we owe the first verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, or the police who (as I heard on the radio recently) people in Brooklyn find no more trustworthy, but less polite, than local drug dealers. Since the issue is rationality, let us remind ourselves that ordinary citizens have entirely good reasons not to accept the authority of either science or the police at its word.

Conflict of the disciplines

The authorsʼ identification with the police also expresses itself in a further ambiguity.

Sometimes the book merely defends science against attacks from without, arguing that every discipline should stay on its own territory. Sometimes it suggests something much more ambitious: that scientific method can and should do the work of the humanities, that science should be the leader, guide and authority for all the disciplines.

Neither position is well argued. In an example of the first, Sokal and Bricmont suggest that sociologists of science see what they see only ʻbecauseʼ they are ignorant of what scientists know and have no way of reaching genuine scientific judgement. Accordingly, they recommend that ʻsociologists abstain from studying controversies that they are incapable of evaluating themselvesʼ. Explaining why sociologists of science must be kept at bay, the authors give a stunning sample of what counts for them as ʻlogicʼ, the logic they are so anxious to promote: ʻas studying the internal rationality of the exact sciences is difficult for sociologists, they declare that it is “scientific” to ignore [that rationality]ʼ. Does this logically explain the sociology of science? Surely there are other, better reasons why a sociologist might withhold from scienceʼs internal rationality the deference that scientists themselves grant it? Surely it is possible for more than one rational approach to illuminate the same object?

Like structuralist science-envy, the coexistence (peaceful or not) of alternative disciplinary rationalities is a genuinely interesting question that would be worth lifting out of the immediate controversy over science and its not-so-gradual invasion of other domains. For of course the movements of thought loosely identified as structuralism, cultural theory and postmodernism have been equally imperialistic. Like the sociology of science, they too have staked claims to other peopleʼs territory. Since the decline of philosophyʼs claim that it could act as a master discipline, legislating for other disciplines, how are we to adjudicate these questions of jurisdiction? It is certainly not enough to treat any and all fields with exaggerated respect as if they were off limits, to intruders or ends rather than means. No solution in which each discipline or method is asked to retreat into its own distinctive domain is going to work, since domains are not and cannot be absolutely distinct.

The oscillation between defensive withdrawal and imperial aggression in Sokal and Bricmont seems hard to think beyond. Perhaps the only difference between their imperialism and ʻoursʼ is that our version is ready to concede that there is no simple way to adjudicate between the competing imperial claims. Perhaps this insistence on the impossibility of logically decisive adjudication among competing disciplines, each with its own rationality as well as its own claims to universality, can serve as one less fanciful example of that ʻrelativismʼ about which Sokal and Bricmont so stridently complain.