Mr. Rebates

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Irrationality of Feminism: Remembering the Sokal Affair

Some time ago I was talking with a feminist of long acquaintance about our different reasons for going to school. I wanted to learn something useful and dig myself out of poverty. She, quite to the contrary, had no interest in learning anything useful, only to learn how “to talk like academics” having overheard their discussions around town in cafes and the like. They had impressed her, using a language with unfamiliar words whose meaning she could only guess at, discussing such "impressive" and esoteric subjects as the construction of femininity in literature. Although she's never read Simone du Buvoir I'm certain that she would agree with her thesis that our understanding of the female mind as a consciousness quite different and distinct from the male mind has no origin in biology whatsoever. As I understand the theory, the female mind is completely an artificial construct forced on women by culture.

Which is nonsense. Women are not made; they are born. It should be inconceivable that the sex endowed with the biologic machinery to gestate, breastfeed, and nurture infants would not by necessity also be endowed with the mental machinery to use their sex-specific organs of procreation for maximal genetic and evolutionary advantage and it should not be a surprise that this template informs their entire psyche. Yet, this is exactly the message we get from the academy: there is no such thing as human nature.

The study of the biological provenance of human nature was at one time called sociobiology, but feminist and leftist propaganda has so demonized the word that it can no longer be used safely. Instead, euphemisms like “evolutionary psychology” were invented, but they too are used only with difficulty and with great resistance from most leftist academics. I remember reading how the progenitor of sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson, a venerable old Southerner who is perhaps the world's preeminent biologist and a writer of Pulitzer Prize-winning caliber was assaulted by members of the leftist International Committee Against Racism who dumped a pitcher of water over his head during a conference, chanting that he was “all wet.” Good thing they had never heard him say, “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.”
So much for the sanctity of reasoned academic discourse. But to my mind, there is no event that better illustrates the intellectual poverty of leftists and feminists and in particular the language they use in our institutions of higher learning than the Sokal affair.

In 1996 Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, became dismayed by the lack of intellectual rigor in the humanities and by the pervasive notion that science was socially constructedan unprivileged method of acquiring knowledge. Determined to do something, he submitted a paper to an interdisciplinary postmodern journal, Social Text. The paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was a hoax. It was purposely crammed with obscure leftist and feminist jargon, appealed constantly to academic authority through the prodigious use of quotations, made outrageous scientific claims that anyone with some knowledge of physics would recognize as suspicious, and although grammatically correct was completely impenetrable. It made no sense at all. The paper was accepted uncritically and published without peer review. Here's a taste:

One characteristic of the emerging postmodern science is its stress on nonlinearity and discontinuity: this is evident, for example, in chaos theory and the theory of phase transitions as well as in quantum gravity. At the same time, feminist thinkers have pointed out the need for an adequate analysis of fluidity, in particular turbulent fluidity. These two themes are not as contradictory as it might at first appear: turbulence connects with strong nonlinearity, and smoothness/fluidity is sometimes associated with discontinuity (e.g. in catastrophe theory); so a synthesis is by no means out of the question.

Every statement makes an unsubstantiated claim, except, apparently, in Sokal's use of quotations which seem to be always taken out of context in a cut-and-paste approach to mimic the evidence-follows-claim convention of academic writing. Yet the evidence is false and nonsensical, in no way explaining his postulates. For example, what does he mean by "nonlinearity" in the context of an "emerging postmodern science" and how is it evident in chaos theory, phase transition theory, and quantum gravity? Phase transition is the transformation of the physical state of matter from solid to liquid, liquid to gas, etc. It is not a theory; it is a fact that anyone can observe by watching ice melt. In the sense that effect immediately follows cause (as when you apply heat to ice it turns to liquid water) it is also perfectly linear. As to quantum gravity, I've read that there's no evidence as of yet to show that it actually exists. It's still only a gleam in some scientist's eye. Being non-extant there is only one thing that quantum gravity can say concerning the philosophy of science or even of society: nothing.

On publication of his paper Sokal exposed his hoax in the journal Lingua Franca. The editors of Social Text immediately cried foul and added a misplaced criticism of Sokal's writing style. They missed the point, entirely. Sokal's intent was to write badly (and think badly) yet have his poor scholarship overlooked due to its superficial accordance with leftist ideology. It is very simple: most people will accept anything uncritically provided that it sounds like something they already believe.

The Sokal affair is described as famous but I have never heard anyone in the academy, student or instructor, discuss it or even to have heard about it without my introduction. I suppose this is because leftists find the Sokal affair so deeply embarrassing. They should. It exposes the deep poverty of intellectual discourse in our universities, a pry bar laying waste to rusting scrap, the impressive language so admired by my feminist acquaintance hot air.

I should point out that Sokal is not an anti-feminist. In fact, he is a leftist who wanted to point out that his compatriots were shooting themselves in the foot by accepting uncritically the kind of claptrap he parodies in "Transgressing the Boundaries." No matter. A writer takes what he needs where he finds it. I suppose I should also disclose that at one time I uncritically accepted the label of "leftist," though no longer. I am neither left nor right, only a man who out of life desires nothing more than for his mind to be completely free of false convention and ideology. And although such perfect freedom may be, as it is with the possession of perfect truth, unattainable it is nonetheless a very worthy goal on which to base a silly little life. There are indeed some people who will die for the fact that 2 plus 2 equals 4.

The entire text of Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" is available in pdf form here.


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