Is there any relationship between postmodernism and pseudoscience? In order to do justice to the matter I should define both terms:
Postmodernism is an intellectual current that, to a greater or lesser degree, has the following characteristics: rejection of the Enlightenment rationalist tradition, contempt for any kind of empirical testing of its theoretical postulates, and a cognitive and cultural relativism that views science as “narrative” or a social construction, among many other things. Last but not least, and unsurprising in view of the above, since style and content make a happy marriage, is a marked proclivity for outlandish abstract noun inventions that are devoid of any useful content.
A fitting definition for pseudoscience might be: clusters of thought, statements or relationships concerning realities or imaginary constructs that are wholly unacceptable to science. The pseudoscience practitioner tends to support such thinking with rationalisations or reports that fall well short of satisfying scientific requirements.
This said, I shall now specify what is understood by science: an increasingly successful attempt (“increasingly successful” because, to quote one of the world’s leading experts in speciation, Jerry A. Coyne, “hard problems often yield before science”) to attain objective, if always incomplete and approximate, understanding of the world.
If, along a horizontal line, one attempted to portray the continuum that goes from left to right, from proven science to the “purest” pseudoscience, basing it on the strength of empirical data in favour of the different theories one might present, one would find in the far left, for example, atomic theory or evolutionary theory. Indeed, many people agree that evolution is a fact. One of them, Richard Dawkins, expresses it forcefully in his most recent book Evolution. The Greatest Show on Earth: “Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.” However, rather than straying off the straight and narrow of the continuum, we shall go directly to the far right, where we find a glut of examples: astrology, creationism, Judaism, Christianity, tarot and so on. Also close to the far right would be homeopathy, for example.
The relationship between postmodernism and the pseudosciences is one area of inquiry that, along with many others, Alan Sokal proposes in his new book, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture.
As the reader will recall, Alan Sokal was behind a most amusing and very illustrative episode in 1996. That year, the academically renowned review Social Text published in its Number 46/47 edition an article of lengthy and deliberately incomprehensible title (“Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”), written by this American physicist.
Not long after it appeared, Alan Sokal sent an article to the same review in which he confessed that everything he had written in the previous piece was the most arrant gobbledygook. Social Text declined to publish Sokal’s new hoax-revealing article. However Dissent did so that same year.
Among other revelations about his Social Text article, Sokal states in its successor, “[…] my article is a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever”. And he adds, “I confess that I’m unabashed old leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m [a] stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.”
The ensuing ruckus came to be known as “the Sokal affair”. Naturally, there was wide coverage of the scandal in the mainstream press, both in France and the United States.
Shortly afterwards and when the hubbub had not yet died down, none other than Alan Sokal co-authored, with the Belgian theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont, a book called Fashionable Nonsense which, once the original French edition appeared, was translated into many languages after 1997.
Here, Sokal and Bricmont, taking texts of Jacques Lacan - who, in the words of the veteran Argentine philosopher, Mario Bunge, engendered the deplorable genre of “charlacanism” - Julia Kristeva, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, inter alia, demonstrated the penchant of these postmodern authors for abusing scientific terms without the slightest notion of what they are saying or writing about.
They also expressed their concern over the fact that the postmodern fad entails an enervation of the political left that has come under its sway. Sokal and Bricmont, who have always held Noam Chomsky in the highest scientific and political esteem, cite the octogenarian American thinker in support of their argument. In the past, says Chomsky:
Left intellectuals took an active part in the lively working class culture. Some sought to compensate for the class character of the cultural institutions through programs of workers’ education, or by writing best-selling books on mathematics, science, and other topics for the general public. Remarkably, their left counterparts today often seek to deprive working people of these tools of emancipation, informing us that the “project of the Enlightenment” is dead, that we must abandon the “illusions” of science and rationality - a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.
Almost 13 years have gone by since the publication of Fashionable Nonsense. Now, with the appearance of Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, Sokal (with Jean Bricmont as co-author of some parts of the book) deals with wider-ranging and more ambitious matters than he did in the earlier work.
Apart from pseudosciences and postmodernism, the new book, which is much longer (nearly 500 pages in the OUP edition), delves into domains such as religion and ethics. The result is very good as a whole, although somewhat uneven. I believe, for example, that it wasn’t necessary to include the Social Text article, even though it has now been edited and updated with new comments. On the other hand, I think that the long chapter called “Religion, Politics and Survival” is especially brilliant. A drubbing, no less. It includes a pithy discussion on the Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” according to which science deals with facts while the sphere of religion is ethics and meaning. Sokal very convincingly argues that this position is unsustainable.
One can be sure that, for all its merits, this is a book that won’t be gracing the bookshelves of postmodernists and fans of pseudoscience.