Comment on the Syracuse University Forum titled "Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences: An Interdiscipinary Discussion, with guest Alan Sokal."

From: (Robert Vienneau)
Date:         1996/11/12
Message-Id:   <>
References:   <53jp21$> <> <3291d4 <> <560biq$> <>
Organization: Dreamscape Online
Newsgroups:   alt.postmodern,,sci.skeptic,rec.arts.books

From 1:30 to 5:00 on 8 November, I attended an interdisciplinary discussion at Syracuse University entitled "Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences: An Interdiscipinary Discussion, with guest Alan Sokal." This is an account of my impression of this event. Before giving my report, perhaps I ought to introduce my background. I have some training in mathematics and software engineering. I read philosophy as a hobby. I have not read French literary critics at all, other than a limited amount of Foucault which I do not understand. I do like some trends, however, in Anglo American philosophy towards irrealism and anti-foundationalism which I think follows from the later Wittgenstein. Stewart Thau, (Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences), the moderator introduced the planned procedure. I think the deviations from the planned procedure are quite interesting. What was planned was that Sokal and the other panels would give five minute introductions of their views on Post Modernism, Post Structurualism, science studies - whaever - and Sokalıs hoax. Then the panel would have a discussion among themselves. After a break, the panel would field questions from the floor. The panel consisted of Linda Alcoff (Philosophy), Beverly Allen (Languages, Literatures & Linguistics), John Crowley (English), Larry Hardin (Philosophy), Richard Ratcliff (Sociology), Peter Saulson (Physics), and Charles Winquist (Religion). Closing remarks were offered by James Comas (Writing Program). What actually happened was that each panelist went over the limit and there was hardly any panel discussion with the panelists reacting to one anothers' comments. Questions asked from the floor were directed to Sokal, and we never got to hear responses from the other panelists, with the occassional exception of Linda Alcoff and Beverly Allen, both of whom were well worth hearing. It soon became clear that Sokal is not competent to speak on the effects of his hoax. Since Sokal did most of the talking, I think this forum was a failure as an interdisciplinary session. Sokalıs actions and his words conflicted. He agreed with Andrew Rossı characterization of himself as "ill-read and half educated." He is under no illusion that he has offered a critique of Post Modernism or a treatise on epistemology. (He does think Chomskyıs comments, available on the 'Net, offer a biting critique of Post Modernism.) He agrees that philosophical questions cannot be assumed to be answered by robust "common sense," without further ado. Yet, as noted, the question and answer period was occupied almost exclusively with his unargued reactions to quite advanced questions. And these reactions stifled discussion, contrary to his stated purpose in conducting his hoax. Let me give some examples. A row of English graduate students got up and were shot down with questions like these (not exact quotes): Grad Student: So what should literary critics do? Alan Sokal: Who am I to tell literary critics what to do? G.S.: But you are critiquing their tools. A.S.: No Iım not. Iım criticizing their use of math and comments on science, the one field Iım competent to comment on. G.S.: I know you must have a theory of language. The language of science serves one purpose when used among specialists. But what role do you think this language plays when itıs used among a wider audience? A.S.: I don't have a theory of meaning. [Earlier he had told us that use of jargon was valid when the jargon terms basically served as abbreviations.] Well, I suppose words get their meanings by pointing to the objects for which they stand. I suspect Sokal has no idea about Wittgenstein's comments on Augustine, or how ideas about the use of language might have led to those anti-realist ideas he reacts so negatively to. And I suggest I was not the only person in the room that thought Sokal extremely naive, to put it kindly. Furthermore, this was only a half an hour since Sokal had demonstrated his belief that Social Text might reject his parody with the following story. He had individually bet a couple of his friends a dinner in NYC over whether Social Text would accept his article. He let each of them chose which side of the bet they wanted, thereby showing that Sokal believed the odds were 50-50 that his article would be accepted. This is all well and good, but Sokal described this conclusion as following from a "Bayesian" perspective. This is obvious to the statistician, but what use does this jargon term serve when a physicist is addressing a room full of humanists? Another aspect is what role this hoax serves in the wider community. Sokal is clearly enjoying the attention, but he denies his hoax has any real influence outside academia. He doesn't like the anti-intellectualism that many have exhibited when discussing his hoax - apparently a NY Times reporter thought the point of the parody was to mock academics for using long words like "epistemology" or "ontology." But Sokal claims he was only news for a day in the outside world. The anti-intellectualism was already there, and he didnıt have any influence on it one way or another. Meanwhile the hoax generated such unproductive discussions in academia as this forum; otherwise the claims of the Post Modernists would have gone unexamined. -- Robert Vienneau Try my Mac econ simulation game, Bukharin, at Whether strength of body or of mind, or wisdom, or virtue, are always proportion to the power or wealth of a man [is] a question fit perhaps to be discussed by slaves in the hearing of their masters, but highly unbecoming to reasonable and free men in search of the truth. -- Rousseau