Winning the battle against post modernism by losing the war for the soul of science


Over 20 years ago Paul Gross and Norman Leavitt wrote Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. To me the book was revelatory and a shock; my own experience with “anti-science” was mostly with Creationists. This was only a few years before the Sokal affair.

In the wake of that it seems that the excesses of the “post modern” Left receded. When you review the “science wars” it is also notable that it is an elite affair, with a strong French inflection (Sokal’s book Fashionable Nonsense was actually originally published in French!).

With the rise of “big science” like the Human Genome Project the fuss about social constructionism in science seemed a bit silly. Onward and upward!

But change is in the air. There is a “new Sokal affair,” A new academic hoax: a bogus paper on “the conceptual penis” gets published in a “high quality peer-reviewed” social science journal. The abstract goes like so:

Anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity. Through detailed poststructuralist discursive criticism and the example of climate change, this paper will challenge the prevailing and damaging social trope that penises are best understood as the male sexual organ and reassign it a more fitting role as a type of masculine performance.

The whole paper is pretty amusing.

First, I have to admit that this is not equivalent to the Sokal Affair, because the journal is far less reputable than Social Text. Part of the story are lower standards in academic publishing, and the fact that “peer review” is a lot sloppier and error prone that many in the general public think. The authors made up citations, and the peers did not catch them.

Another element of this may be that these sorts of fields are so diffuse that it’s hard to get good peers who understand what you are saying. One reason specialist journals of reasonable prestige get good peer reviews is that the reviewers work in basically the same field. You can’t make up citations in that situation.

But ultimately the fact that people like Jerry Coyne are promoting this also highlights that twenty years after Alan Sokal’s hoax the science wars were not won. The problem with the tactics of the social constructionists in the 1990s is that they were too showy and swung for the fences. Over the past twenty years the way that this sort of constructionist narrative has succeeded is that first it has to colonize and dominate disciplines outside of science, and then leverage progressive causes which scientists on the whole are onboard with in any case. Instead of undercutting science, the new tactic is to be pro-science rhetorically, but to constraint and delimit. Accept the idea of scientific reality, but simply demand it conform to your one’s own preferences (this by the seems to be the stance of Creationists).

6 thoughts on “Winning the battle against post modernism by losing the war for the soul of science

  1. I’m not sure “we paid to get a fake article published in a pay-to-publish journal” really counts as getting anywhere near Sokal territory. Peer review is usually somewhat sloppy in any field, but I’m not sure there would have been any here at all; those journals aren’t in the game to advance the frontiers of knowledge, only to milk schmucks for money. Or as in this case, provide hacks with an “I got published” stamp.

  2. Sokal’s piece got published precisely because of respect for science, not disrespect for it – it was a special issue specifically inviting collaboration from scientists, and the authors figured their inability to parse his paper was because they simply couldn’t understand the science involved. It showed literally the opposite of what ideologues (like you) are determined to pretend it showed.

  3. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “losing the war for soul of science”? Are their particular outcomes or tactical choices made by the ‘defenders of science’ that you’re thinking of in particular?

    Is it just that the continued existence of wishy washy inquiry in the academy, while a perhaps greater proportion of folks have a rhetorical allegiance to “science”?

    I guess I just don’t know what the stakes are here.

  4. It’s true that the editors at Social Text (you didn’t mean “authors,” did you?) didn’t understand the science in Sokal’s paper, and they couldn’t have, because it was deliberately nonsensical. But they didn’t know they didn’t understand it; in the article it was presented in lengthy quotations from the leading lights in their intellectual galaxy (who didn’t understand science either, and didn’t know they were writing nonsense) and if you do not know any science, you think you understand what they write.

    Sokal has said that Gross and Levitt’s book started him thinking along the lines that led to the Social Text article.

    The other articles in that special issue are nearly as incoherent as Sokal’s, but not on purpose.

  5. Here’s a take on how stupid and not-like-Sokal the Boghossian thing is, by phsycist Blake Stacey. Worth a read, especially if you are prone to be impressed by this sort of “gotcha!” “critiques” of the academic left.

    https://www.sunclipse.org/?p=2389

  6. “Over the past twenty years the way that this sort of constructionist narrative has succeeded is that first it has to colonize and dominate disciplines outside of science, and then leverage progressive causes which scientists on the whole are onboard with in any case.”

    This is doubly distressing. Post-modernism is metastasizing beyond its 90’s fringes, and publicly visible scientists are apparently willing to chase the liberal arts brat vote that travels with it.

    A good companion piece to read along with “Higher Superstition” is Camille Paglia’s essay “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf” published just a few years before. As she says there: “Enough already of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault poured like ketchup over everything”

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