The Science Wars

Illustration by Mike Lee

Did you miss the "science wars"? While the "culture wars" provoked endless controversy, setting vocal champions of multiculturalism against loud defenders of the old order, the corresponding skirmishes in science garnered far less attention. For some of the warriors, mainly professors of literature, the issues were parallel; vanguard professors defended a pluralistic idea of science against old dogmas upheld by reactionaries. As one champion of postmodern science, NYU professor Andrew Ross, put it, the science wars were "the second front" in the culture wars; consequently, its leftist partisans were denounced by conservatives as the "usual suspects — pinkos, feminists and multiculturalists."

What were the issues? For many years, social historians and leftist philosophers have challenged the engaging picture of a pristine science advanced by selfless researchers dedicated to pure truth. In fact, they argued, modern science often bore the traces of its grubby context; it was as much a tool of power and ambition as an ethereal quest for knowledge. For instance, military imperatives inspired investigations into motion and matter from Galileo in the 17th century to Fermi, who built the first nuclear reactor, in the 20th. Political and social realities saturated the scientific project.

Contemporary literary critics and feminist philosophers then took these arguments further, charging that the scientific concepts themselves were irrevocably wed to an unjust social system: patriarchal, sexist and perhaps racist. Ironically, some of these same critics then turned around and used advanced scientific ideas to justify their own literary theories. Julia Kristeva, a highly regarded French cultural critic, drew upon mathematical logic to support her ideas of poetic language. In a typically dense sentence, she remarked that Gödel-Bernays’ set theory "stipulates the non-causal chaining of poetic language and the expansion of the letter in the book."

One problem with this postmodern turn against and then back to science was that most of these professors flunked science in school, which is why they went into the humanities. They may be righteous souls, but they know precious little physics and mathematics. It’s one thing to argue like good multiculturalists that American students should study poets and writers of many cultures, or that the history of the United States should include more than the white guys. It is another thing to argue, as the French critic Luce Irigaray has, that Einstein’s famous equation, e=mc2, is "a sexed equation" because it "privileges" what "goes the fastest"; or that fluid mechanics has been marginalized because it is feminine and soft, unlike masculine solid mechanics; or that astrology should be taught alongside astronomy.

Legions of American graduate students and professors are cited on these notions, which largely derive from French savants. Japan exports automobiles and cameras, Germany fine machinery, France cultural critics. To succeed in the American market, a French professor requires three qualities: the poise of hard political leftism, a claim of a vast theoretical originality, and incomprehensible jargon. In the last few decades, France produced this commodity in spades; Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and other critics became darlings of the campus theory crowd.

When Alan Sokal, the co-author of Fashionable Nonsense, came across their writings he was outraged. As a physicist (at NYU), he found the science preposterous; as an "unabashed" leftist, he found the politics murky and self-defeating. What was leftist, he asked, about intellectual confusion and ignorance? To demonstrate the absurdity, Sokal submitted to a leading cultural-studies journal, Social Text, an article that was patently inane in its statements about science, but completely conventional in its idiom and argument. Attacking the prevailing physics and mathematics as patriarchal and reactionary, he extravagantly praised the American and French honchos of postmodernism, including the editors of Social Text. He wrapped this practical joke up in a nonsensical title, "Transgressing the Boun dar ies: Toward a Trans formative Hermeneutics of Quan tum Gravity." As Sokal later explained, the article was easy to write because he ignored all logic; he simply pieced together off-the-wall statements by American and French professors.

Social Text, published by Duke University Press, ate it up, printing the piece in a special issue on science. Upon publication Sokal announced the hoax. So was born the Sokal Affair, which provoked a small mountain of articles and commentaries, including a front-page story in The New York Times. For Sokal and his allies, basically some scientists and level- headed leftists, the hoax revealed that the postmodern literary crowd was out to lunch even after lunch; they were clueless literature professors who could not understand the simplest scientific propositions. Yet Social Text and its many defenders hardly conceded. They regretted their mistake (accepting an article that was manifestly absurd) but charged that Sokal had failed to understand what they were really up to — undermining the reactionary ideas of science. Other true believers at UC Santa Cruz launched a conference lambasting what they called "left conservatives" like Sokal — leftists who espouse a criticism of radical science and literary theory.

For Fashionable Nonsense, Sokal teamed up with Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont to dissect more systematically the postmodern hocus-pocus about science. The book first appeared in France; the English edition is a slight revision, dropping one chapter and emending some discussions, but retaining its French orientation, flaying Continental thinkers such as Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Baudrillard and Deleuze. The position of Sokal and Bricmont is simple: In the name of a rigorous leftism, they defend a robust rationalism against literary mystifications. "Our book is not against political radicalism, it is against intellectual confusion. Our aim is not to criticize the left, but to help defend it from a trendy segment of itself."

For its sheer chutzpah and cleverness, Sokal’s original hoax article, printed here as an appendix, is Fashionable Nonsense’s high point. The rest of the book is a sobering catalog of idiocies by some of those acclaimed to be the best thinkers of our time.

Unfortunately, and as enjoyable as it might sound, puncturing French pom pos ities does not make for exciting reading. This book is best dipped into for select occasions. Or, to use the style of high school book reports: I recommend this book to all who are in graduate school in literature, film or cultural studies; or who have friends who are; or who know irritating people who regularly cite Kristeva or Baudrillard. If you fall into one of these categories and you want to find your bearings or a bon mot, check out Fashionable Nonsense.

Russell Jacoby is the author of Social Amnesia and The Last Intellectuals. His new book, The End of Utopia, will be published this spring by Basic Books.