[ The Sokal Affair | Searching | Background Material | Guestbook | Recent Additions ]

[ Top : Articles : "In Defense of Nonsense" : Other Articles ]

In Defense of Nonsense

Lawrence Krauss

New York Times Editorial. 30 July 1996
LEVELAND, Ohio -- Four months ago, when his Presidential
campaign still seemed viable, Patrick Buchanan appeared
on a national television program and argued  in favor
of creationism. This, by itself, is not so remarkable,
given some of  Mr. Buchanan's other views.

What seemed more significant, however, was that the same
national media that questioned  other Buchanan campaign planks
like trade protectionism and limits on immigration did not
produce a  major article or editorial proclaiming the
candidate's views on evolution to be simple nonsense.

Why is this the case? Could it be that the fallacies inherent
in a strict creationist viewpoint are so self-evident that they
were deemed not to deserve comment? I think not. Indeed, when a
serious candidate for the highest office of the most powerful
nation on earth holds such views you would think that this
commentary would automatically become "newsworthy."

Rather, what seems to have taken hold is a growing hesitancy
among both journalists and scholars to state openly that some
viewpoints are not subject to debate: they are simply wrong.
They might point out flaws, but journalists also feel great
pressure to report on both sides of a "debate."

Part of the reason is that few journalists naturally feel
comfortable enough on scientific matters to make pronouncements.
But there is another good reason for such hesitancy.  In a truly
democratic society, one might argue, everything is open to debate.

Who has the authority to deem certain ideas incorrect or flawed?
Indeed, appeal to authority is as much an anathema to scientists
as it is to many on the academic left who worry about the authority
of the "scientific establishment."

What is so wonderful about scientific truth, however, is that the
authority which determines whether there can be debate or not does
not reside in some fraternity of scientists;  nor is it divine.
The authority rests with experiment.

It is perhaps the most immutable but most widely misunderstood
property of modern science: a proposition can never be proved to be
absolutely true. There can always be some experiment lurking around
the corner to require alteration of any model of reality.

What is unequivocal, however, is falseness. A theory whose predictions
fail the test of experiment is always wrong, period, end of story.
The earth isn't flat, because you can travel around it, period, end
of story.

This misunderstanding is at the heart of much scholarly debate in
recent months, including the  amusing hoax that a New York University
physicist, Alan Sokal, played at the expense of the editors of the
journal Social Text. The postmodernist journal published a bogus
article that Professor Sokal had written as a satire of some social
science criticism of the nature of scientific knowledge.

It was aimed at those in the humanities who study the social context
of science, but whom he argued could not discern empirically
falsifiable models from meaningless nonsense.

The editors, on the other hand, argued that publication was based in
part on their notion that the community of scholars depends on the
goodwill of the participants -- namely they had assumed Professor
had something to say. They too have a point.

The great paranormal debunker and magician, the Amazing Randi, has
shown time and again that earnest researchers can be duped by those
who would have been willing to answer "yes"  to the question
"are you
lying?"  but who were never asked.

We must always be skeptical.  Being skeptical, however does not get
in the way of the search for objective truths.  It merely assists in
the uncovering of falsehoods.

Another popular misunderstanding of the nature of truth and falsehood
in modern science involves the speculative ideas which often appear at
the frontiers of research. For example, the science writer John Horgan
has argued that such speculations are unrelated to the real world
around us. But notions such as "superstrings" and "baby
universes" are
not akin to arguments about the number of angels on the head of a pin,
much as they may bear a superficial resemblance.

They are merely the most recent straw men in a longstanding effort to
get at the truth. They would not be taken seriously by anyone were it
not for the belief that these notions, when properly understood, might
in principle one day lead to either direct or indirect predictions
which may be falsified by future experiments or else which may or may
not explain existing data. The debate among physicists about the
viability of these ideas is simply a debate among those who think the
notions will be testable and those who suspect they won't.

No physicist I know has ever suggested that unprovable speculation
will shine on its own merits, whether or not it can be taken literally,
or that it is progress to come up with a theory which cannot be proved

Mr. Horgan is absolutely correct to suggest that this approach is
impotent. But his error  is to confuse this process with what
physicists actually do, and thereby demean the notion of scientific

This whole issue might make for simply an amusing academic debate
were it not for the potentially grave consequences for society at

If  we are unwilling, unilaterally,  to brand scientific nonsense as
just that, regardless of whose sensibilities might be offended --
religious or otherwise -- then the whole notion of truth itself becomes

The need to present both sides of an issue is only necessary when
there are two sides. When empirically verifiable falsehoods become
instead subjects for debate, then nonsense associated with
international conspiracy theories, holocaust denials and popular
demagogues like Louis Farrakhan or Pat Robertson cannot effectively
be rooted out.

When nonsense which can be empirically falsified is presented under
a creationist guise as critical thinking, a controversy is created in
our schools where none should exist. When the empirically falsifiable
supposition  that someone was not present at a murder when his DNA is
found mixed with the blood of victims at the crime scene is not
recognized as  nonsense, murderers can go home free.  Nonsense
masquerading as truth has been with us as long as records can date.

But the increasingly  blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with
impunity in public discourse is chilling.  Our democratic society is
imperiled as much by this as any other single threat,  regardless of
whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple
ignorance or personal gain.

Perhaps the greatest single legacy our scientific heritage can bestow
on us is a well-defined procedure for exposing nonsense.

We would all be wise to heed the advice passed on by Arthur Hays
Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times from 1935 to 1961:
"I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall

Lawrence Krauss,
Chairman of the physics department,
Case Western Reserve University,
the author of "The Physics of Star Trek.

Also of Interest for "In Defense of Nonsense" by Lawrence Krauss:
[ The Sokal Affair | Searching | Background Material | Guestbook | The Top of this Article ]
Last Modified: 24 November, 1997