Transgressing the Boundaries

While reading an article on fraud in Physic found at Books INQ., I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite "physics" articles--a true masterpiece Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." What Sokal offers us is a bracing race through the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the extremes of modern critical theory through application to one major physics question.  What results is the finest skewering of certain bents of critical theory ever enunciated with a straight face.  It does, and does better, what James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale does more directly.  I love Hynes's book, but you have to respect any physicist who was able to come up with:

from: "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Tranformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"
Alan Sokal

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility2; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the fa├žade of ``objectivity''.3 It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics4; in Ross' discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science5; in Irigaray's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics6; and in Harding's comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.7

One must really admire (or at least this one must) the sheer chutzpah behind such statements as:  "Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook. . . "  and " It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it. . . "

The fact that anyone ever could have taken this seriously and that it took a long, embroiled conversation to finally unfold that Sokal was, in fact, critiquing such notions makes the whole thing even more delightful and delicious.

If you have never encountered this delightful riposte to the bombastic, overblown, self-important, and ultimately sneering and snobbish language of some modern critical theorists, you owe it to yourself to savor this article.  If you've already encountered it, you do yourself a favor to review it and once again savor the delightful absurdity of:

Source: As Above
Over the past two decades there has been extensive discussion among critical theorists with regard to the characteristics of modernist versus postmodernist culture; and in recent years these dialogues have begun to devote detailed attention to the specific problems posed by the natural sciences.75 In particular, Madsen and Madsen have recently given a very clear summary of the characteristics of modernist versus postmodernist science. They posit two criteria for a postmodern science:
A simple criterion for science to qualify as postmodern is that it be free from any dependence on the concept of objective truth. By this criterion, for example, the complementarity interpretation of quantum physics due to Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen school is seen as postmodernist.76

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