Wednesday, May 21, 2008

In Defense of the Scientific Method

Comprehending the decline of rational thought within the academic community into "cultural and scientific relativism" is essential to an understanding of the intellectual dishonesty which led to the politicization of science, as exemplified by, for example, the totalitarian mindset of "consensus science".

The following is a book review of Beyond The Hoax by Alan Sokal (a scientist).

Michael Shermer gives us the historical setting for understanding how within the various disciplines, the scientific community has rejected the scientific rigor maintained by dispassionate exploration, in favor of the advancement of Leftist political ideas and agendas. Partly by dishonest misapplication of statistical models, research once guided by the scientific method has largely been displaced by agendas set by political goals.

Fight for the Life Of the Mind

Review of: Beyond the Hoax by Alan Sokal


May 21, 2008

The beauty and power of a well-executed hoax is that it demonstrates deeper truths not only about both the victims of the hoax and the hoaxers themselves, but about human nature and the foibles of our belief systems.

Decades of careful and extensive research into cognition and the psychology of how beliefs are formed show that none of us simply gather facts and draw conclusions from them in an inductive process. Most of us, most of the time, arrive at our beliefs for a host of psychological and social reasons that have little or nothing to do with logic, reason, empiricism, or data. Most of our beliefs are shaped by our parents, our siblings, our peer groups, our teachers, our mentors, our professional colleagues, and by the culture at large. We form and hold those beliefs because they provide emotional comfort, because they fit well with our lifestyles or career choices, or because they work within the larger context of our family dynamics or social network. Then we build back into those beliefs reasons for why we hold them. This process is driven by two well-known cognitive biases: the hindsight bias, where once an event has happened or a belief is formed it is easy to look back and reconstruct not only how it happened or was formed, but also why it had to be that way and not some other way; and the confirmation bias, in which we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence.

By the 1980s, American academics had become infatuated with an approach to intellectual inquiry — reflected in the schools of thought known as postmodernism, deconstructionism, and cognitive relativism — as skeptical of our ability to know the world as cognitive psychology suggests we should be of our ability to know ourselves. Going far beyond psychology, and leaning heavily on Marxist notions of cultural and class determinism, those in this academic movement came to believe that there is no privileged truth, no objective reality to be discovered, not even any belief, idea, hypothesis, or theory that is closer to the truth than any other. In time, the movement spilled out of lit-crit English departments into the history and philosophy of science, as professional philosophers and historians, swept up in a paroxysm of postmodern deconstruction, proffered a view of science as a relativistic game played by European white males in a reductionistic frenzy of hermeneutical hegemony, hell-bent on suppressing the masses beneath the thumb of dialectical scientism and technocracy. Yes, some of them actually talk like that, and one really did call Newton's "Principia" a "rape manual."

In 1996, the New York University physicist and mathematician Alan Sokal put an end to this intellectual masturbation by performing one of the greatest hoaxes in academic history. Mr. Sokal penned a nonsensical article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," chockablock full of postmodern phrases and deconstructionist tropes interspersed with scientific jargon, and submitted it to the journal Social Text, one of two leading publications frequented by fashionably obtuse academics. One sentence from the article, plucked randomly from the text, reads as follows: 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.

Mr. Sokal's article was accepted for publication (as "real," whatever that means in postmodernism) and, upon release, Mr. Sokal announced it was all a hoax — and did so, deliciously, in the chief competitor of Social Text, the journal Dissent. Mr. Sokal called it a nonsense parody, but because most of what passes for postmodernism is nonsense and indistinguishable from parody, the editors of Social Text could not tell the difference. Q.E.D.

Now Mr. Sokal has produced a comprehensive explanation, Beyond the Hoax (Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $39.95), that provides readers with an annotated edition of the original article (explaining how he came up with each and every meaningless phrase), the subsequent article in Dissent in which he explained himself to the disgruntled readers of Social Text, and a number of subsequent articles and essays he wrote in the decade since the hoax, in which he elaborated on the problems inherent in postmodern philosophy of science. The golden nugget within this longish book — worth the price of admission by itself — is the annotated parody. For example, explaining the above passage, Sokal writes:

This assertion is a commonplace (dare I say a cliché) in radical-social-constructivist writing about science. Like most clichés, it contains a grain of truth but greatly exaggerates the case. Above all, it fails to make the crucial distinction between actual knowledge (i.e. rationally justified true belief) and purported knowledge.

"Beyond the Hoax" is an essential text for anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science, or for that matter science itself. Thankfully, such intellectual trends and social movements have a tendency to cause their own extinction by going too far, and in this case, Mr. Sokal helped along the process with his meteor explosion of a hoax.

Why did academics fall for it? The hindsight bias and the confirmation bias. Once you believe that science holds no privileged position in the search for truth, and that it is just another way of knowing, it is easy to pull out of an article like Mr. Sokal's additional evidence that supports your belief.

It is a very human process, and since science is conducted by very real humans, shouldn't it be subject to these same cognitive biases? Yes, except for one thing: the built-in defense known as the scientific method.

There is progress in science, and some views really are superior to others, regardless of the color, gender, or country of origin of the scientist holding that view. Despite the fact that scientific data are "theory laden," science is truly different than art, music, religion, and other forms of human expression because it has a self-correcting mechanism built into it. If you don't catch the flaws in your theory, the slant in your bias, or the distortion in your preferences, someone else will, usually with great glee and in a public forum — for example, a competing journal! Scientists may be biased, but science itself, for all its flaws, is still the best system ever devised for understanding how the world works.

Mr. Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the author of "Why People Believe Weird Things," "The Science of Good and Evil," and "Why Darwin Matters." His latest book is "The Mind of the Market."