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Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

The Philosopher Princess
Hi all! For people who are interested in epistemology (studying knowledge and how people acquire it, or don’t) -- especially if you have a bent towards science -- I have a book recommendation for you: Fashionable Nonsense -- Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. I read a fair amount, including books of many subjects and categories, but I think this is still my very favorite book.

For fun, I thought I would include, below, a letter-to-the-editor that I wrote to a political philosophy magazine, which they did not publish. I have edited out the particulars of the piece to which I was responding, but there is plenty that discusses the book I am recommending to you. I would be happy to read some thoughts I might stir up in y’all!

Promote Spunk without Bunk

I always enjoy [...]’s distinctive writings, including [...]. As [...] insists, one would expect "a book of cultural criticism... [to] have a substantial biographical note..." However, I can't help but be reminded of a wide-spread real problem, much bigger than writers' authorities not being properly established; that is the tendencies of readers (and listeners) to depend on the authority of writers (and speakers) significantly more than they depend on their own critical thinking. As good as [...]’s Booknote is, I shudder to think of a smart person's exacerbating this sad state of affairs.

I see evidence everywhere that authority matters more than one's own thought process. In the wake of the nation's recent elections, how can we miss the strong correlation between the candidates and initiatives that win, and their long lists of political endorsements? Endorsements influence the (already-biased) media, which is, itself, an authority that easily influences voters; reasoned understandings of the ramifications of votes are rarely formed.

People believe all kinds of garbage when it's packaged in proper authority. How often do we hear, "Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend...", "Knowledgeable scientists agree...", "This product is FDA-approved...", "In God We Trust...", "Investigators declared...", "Officials advise...", "Police authorities...", "Housing authorities...", "Municipal authorities...", "Leading authorities...", "Local authorities...", "Federal authorities...", and "... backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government"?

I practically unhinge every time I think of the hoax Alan Sokal put over modern day "intellectuals" (discussed in his book written with Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, and elsewhere). Without Sokal's own extensive academic credentials, his amplitudinous footnotes, and his over 200 authoritative-sounding, yet undoubtedly authentic, "Works Cited," do you think the scholarly concoction would have been published? Of course not! But without hardly one sensical statement -- no problem!

Extremely long, perfectly grammatical sentences of "Greek-to-me-speak" are of course a necessity for both real and fake scholarly works, but I contend that non-expert thinkers can still distinguish the spunk from the bunk if they apply themselves. Take me at my word: just because an authority says something doesn't make it true. (Snicker. Of course you're not going to take my word for it.)

Treat the words of "authorities" exactly the same as you treat those of others: with healthy skepticism needing independent corroboration. Have the courage to stay neutral until you have real proof. And please, for liberty's sake, don't encourage more authority-worshipping myrmidons.

I might pick up the book.
Texas Al
Are Sokal and Brickmont those physicists who published a completely fake article in some literary theory journal? If so, awesome!

So you're basically saying that all these literary theory and cultural studies people are abusing the same authority they're claiming to deconstruct by pulling unsubstantiated opinions out of their butts and relying on their credentials and impressive looking citations to bully the reader into believing them?
The Philosopher Princess
Texas Al wrote:
Are Sokal and Brickmont those physicists who published a completely fake article in some literary theory journal? If so, awesome!
Yep! I had read about the hoax, as you, but I hadn’t had a chance to read the actual hoax until I got the book. (It might be available somewhere in cyberspace, but I don’t know.)

Texas Al wrote:
So you're basically saying that all these literary theory and cultural studies people are abusing the same authority they're claiming to deconstruct by pulling unsubstantiated opinions out of their butts and relying on their credentials and impressive looking citations to bully the reader into believing them?
Something like that, yes, but “all” is a strong word Smile. All the ones in the book fit that, certainly, and they fit more than that too. These “intellectuals” use smart-sounding terms and concepts, sometimes from fields other than their own, to make assertions in their own fields. And yet, they have no clue as to what those terms and concepts really mean. They often get away with their gobbledygoop because people in their own field don’t understand that other field either. “If it sounds smart, it must be smart.” Duh! Laughing
I have a special treat for you. I am next going to post a relatively short chapter from the book, which I scanned in. For fun, you might first read the blue text, which is actual fashionable nonsense (by Jean Baudrillard). See for yourself how, it’s not that it's wrong; it's instead completely nonsensical (neither right nor wrong, but makes no sense). Then you would want to read the whole excerpt to see what Sokal and Bricmont say about it.
This is just one non-thinking author they take to task. I picked it mostly randomly; there are even better (and funnier) examples. But here's an amazing coincidence for you: someone over on the Not Voting... thread ( discusses Baudrillard in reference to my thinking. I would never know of the guy except for the examples of his nonsense given in this book. And I picked this chapter before I realized it was the same person mentioned over there. (Oh well, to me that's amazing.)
I hope Frihost readers will buy this book or check it out of the library. I think it helps people think about their own thinking. That's what we're trying to do here -- not just think, but to think about thinking -- and to catch other people not doing it, especially when they are a supposed authority.
The Philosopher Princess
Fashionable Nonsense -- Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science -- Copyright 1998 by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont -- Chapter 8, pp 147-153. This is a scanned-in, OCRed, proofed version, with the book’s italics preserved, no italics added, and footnotes inserted right after their point of reference. For easier decipherability, the footnotes are made green, and the quotes of the quotes are made blue. (The green footnotes are by Sokal and Bricmont. Except for the first one, the blue quoted quotes are by Baudrillard.) Italics and discussion of italics are in the original book. There is no bold in the book; bold herein is to help readability.

Fashionable Nonsense, Chapter 8 wrote:
8. Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard's sociological work challenges and provokes all current theories. With derision, but also with extreme precision, he unknots the constituted social descriptions with quiet confidence and a sense of humor.
---Le Monde (1984b, p. 95, italics added)

The sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard is well-known for his reflections on the problems of reality, appearance, and illusion. In this chapter we want to draw attention to a less-noted aspect of Baudrillard's work, namely his frequent use of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology.

In some cases, Baudrillard's invocation of scientific concepts is clearly metaphorical. For example, he wrote about the Gulf War as follows:

Baudrillard wrote:
What is most extraordinary is that the two hypotheses, the apocalypse of real time and pure war along with the triumph of the virtual over the real, are realised at the same time, in the same space-time, each in implacable pursuit of the other. It is a sign that the space of the event has become a hyperspace with multiple refractivity, and that the space of war has become definitively non-Euclidean. (Baudrillard 1995, p. 50, italics in the original)

There seems to be a tradition of using technical mathematical notions out of context. With Lacan, it was tori and imaginary numbers; with Kristeva, infinite sets; and here we have non-Euclidean spaces.[[189]] But what could this metaphor mean? Indeed, what would a Euclidean space of war look like? Let us note in passing that the concept of "hyperspace with multiple refractivity" hyperespace à réfraction multiple does not exist in either mathematics or physics; it is a Baudrillardian invention.

Footnote189 wrote:
What is a non-Euclidean space? In Euclidean plane geometry -- the geometry studied in high school -- for each straight line L and each point p not on L, there exists one and only one straight line parallel to L (i.e., not intersecting L) that passes through p. By contrast, in non-Euclidean geometries, there can be either an infinite number of parallel lines or else none at all. These geometries go back to the works of Bolyai, Lobachevskii, and Riemann in the nineteenth century, and they were applied by Einstein in his general theory of relativity (1915). For a good introduction to non-Euclidean geometries (but without their military applications), see Greenberg (1980) or Davis (1993).

Baudrillard's writings are full of similar metaphors drawn from mathematics and physics, for example:

Baudrillard wrote:
In the Euclidean space of history, the shortest path between two points is the straight line, the line of Progress and Democracy. But this is only true of the linear space of the Enlightenment.[[190]] In our non-Euclidean fin de siécle space, a baleful curvature unfailingly deflects all trajectories. This is doubtless linked to the sphericity of time (visible on the horizon of the end of the century, just as the earth's sphericity is visible on the horizon at the end of the day) or the subtle distortion of the gravitational field....

By this retroversion of history to infinity, this hyperbolic curvature, the century itself is escaping its end. (Baudrillard 1994, pp. 10-11)

It is to this perhaps that we owe this 'fun physics' effect: the impression that events, collective or individual, have been bundled into a memory hole. This blackout is due, no doubt, to this movement of reversal, this parabolic curvature of historical space. (Baudrillard 1994, p. 20)

Footnote 190 wrote:
See our discussion (p. 143-45 above) concerning abuses of the word "linear".

But not all of Baudrillard's physics is metaphorical. In his more philosophical texts, Baudrillard apparently takes physics -- or his version of it -- literally, as in his essay "The fatal, or, reversible imminence", devoted to the theme of chance:

Baudrillard wrote:
This reversibility of causal order -- the reversion of cause on effect, the precession and triumph of effect over cause -- is fundamental....

This is what science catches a glimpse of when, not happy with calling into question the determinist principle of causality (the first revolution), it intuits -- beyond even the uncertainty principle, which still functions like hyper-rationality -- that chance is the floating of all laws. This is already quite extraordinary. But what science senses now, at the physical and biological limits of its exercise, is that there is not only this floating, this uncertainty, but a possible
reversibility of physical laws. That would be the absolute enigma, not some ultra-formula or meta-equation of the universe (which the theory of relativity was), but the idea that any law can be reversed (not only particles into anti-particles, matter into anti-matter, but the laws themselves). The hypothesis of this reversibility has always been affirmed by the great metaphysical systems. It is the fundamental rule of the game of appearance, of the metamorphosis of appearances, against the irreversible order of time, of law and meaning. But it's fascinating to see science arrive at the same hypotheses, contrary to its own logic and evolution. (Baudrillard 1990, pp. 162-163, italics in the original)

It is difficult to know what Baudrillard means by "reversing" a law of physics. In physics one can speak of the laws' reversibility, as a shorthand for their "invariance with respect to time inversion".[[191]] But this property is already well-known in Newtonian mechanics, which is as causal and deterministic as a theory can be; it has nothing to do with uncertainty and is in no way at the "physical and biological limits" of science. (Quite the opposite: it is the non-reversibility of the laws of the "weak interactions", discovered in 1964, that is new and at present imperfectly understood.) In any case, the reversibility of the laws has nothing to do with an alleged "reversibility of causal order". Finally, Baudrillard's scientific confusions (or fantasies) have led him to make unwarranted philosophical claims: he puts forward no argument whatsoever to support his idea that science arrives at hypotheses "contrary to its own logic".

Footnote 191 wrote:
To illustrate this concept, consider a collection of billiard balls moving on a table according to Newton's laws (without friction and with elastic collisions), and make a film of this motion. Now run this film backwards: the reversed motion will also obey the laws of Newtonian mechanics. This fact is summarized by saying that the laws of Newtonian mechanics are invariant with respect to time inversion. In fact, all the known laws of physics, except those of the "weak interactions" between subatomic particles, satisfy this property of invariance.

This train of thought is taken up once again in his essay entitled "Exponential instability, exponential stability":

Baudrillard wrote:
The whole problem of speaking about the end (particularly the end of history) is that you have to speak of what lies beyond the end and also, at the same time, of the impossibility of ending. This paradox is produced by the fact that in a non-linear, non-Euclidean space of history the end cannot be located. The end is, in fact, only conceivable in a logical order of causality and continuity. Now, it is events themselves which, by their artificial production, their programmed occurrence or the anticipation of their effects -- not to mention their transfiguration in the media -- are suppressing the cause-effect relation and hence all historical continuity.

This distortion of causes and effects, this mysterious autonomy of effects, this cause-effect reversibility, engendering a disorder or chaotic order (precisely our current situation: a reversibility of reality [
le réel] and information, which gives rise to disorder in the realm of events and an extravagance of media effects), puts one in mind, to some extent, of Chaos Theory and the disproportion between the beating of a butterfly's wings and the hurricane this unleashes on the other side of the world. It also calls to mind Jacques Benveniste's paradoxical hypothesis of the memory of water....

Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes. (Baudrillard 1994, pp. 110-111)

First of all, chaos theory in no way reverses the relationship between cause and effect. (Even in human affairs, we seriously doubt that an action in the present could affect an event in the past!) Moreover, chaos theory has nothing to do with Benveniste's hypothesis on the memory of water.[[192]] And finally, the last sentence, though constructed from scientific terminology, is meaningless from a scientific point of view.

Footnote 192 wrote:
The experiments of Benveniste's group on the biological effects of highly diluted solutions, which seemed to provide a scientific basis for homeopathy, were rapidly discredited after being hastily published in the scientific journal Nature (Davenas et al. 1988). See Maddox et al. (1988); and, for a more detailed discussion, see Broch (1992). More recently, Baudrillard has opined that the memory of water is "the ultimate stage of the transfiguration of the world into pure information" and that "this virtualization of effects is wholly in line with the most recent science." (Baudrillard 1997, p.94)

The text continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense:

Baudrillard wrote:
We shall not reach the destination, even if that destination is the Last Judgment, since we are henceforth separated from it by a variable refraction hyperspace. The retroversion of history could very well be interpreted as a turbulence of this kind, due to the hastening of events which reverses and swallows up their course. This is one of the versions of Chaos Theory -- that of exponential instability and its uncontrollable effects. It accounts very well for the 'end' of history, interrupted in its linear or dialectical movement by that catastrophic singularity...

But the exponential instability version is not the only one. The other is that of
exponential stability. This latter defines a state in which, no matter where you start out, you always end up at the same point. The initial conditions, the original singularities do not matter: everything tends towards the Zero point -- itself also a strange attractor.[[193]]...

Though incompatible, the two hypotheses -- exponential instability and stability -- are in fact simultaneously valid. Moreover, our system, in its
normal -- normally catastrophic -- course combines them very well. It combines in effect an inflation, a galloping acceleration, a dizzying whirl of mobility, an eccentricity of events and an excess of meaning and information with an exponential tendency towards total entropy. Our systems are thus doubly chaotic: they operate both by exponential stability and instability.

It would seem then that there will be no end because we are already in an excess of ends: the transfinite....

Our complex, metastatic, viral systems, condemned to the exponential dimension alone (be it that of exponential stability or instability), to eccentricity and indefinite fractal scissiparity, can no longer come to an end. Condemned to an intense metabolism, to an intense internal metastasis, they become exhausted within themselves and no longer have any destination, any end, any otherness, any fatality. They are condemned, precisely, to the epidemic, to the endless excrescences of the fractal and not to the reversibility and perfect resolution of the fateful [
fatal]. We know only the signs of catastrophe now; we no longer know the signs of destiny. (And besides, has any concern been shown in Chaos Theory for the equally extraordinary, contrary phenomenon of hyposensitivity to initial conditions, of the inverse exponentiality of effects in relation to causes -- the potential hurricanes which end in the beating of a butterfly's wings?) (Baudrillard 1994, pp. 111-114, italics in the original)

Footnote 193 wrote:
Not at all! When zero is an attractor, it is what one calls a "fixed point"; these attractors (as well as others known as "limit-cycles") have been known since the nineteenth century, and the expression "strange attractor" was introduced specifically to refer to attractors of a different sort. See, for example, Ruelle (1991).

The last paragraph is Baudrillardian par excellence. One would be hard pressed not to notice the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology[[194]] -- inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning.

Footnote 194 wrote:
Examples of the latter are variable refraction hyperspace and fractal scissiparity.

These texts are, however, atypical of Baudrillard's oeuvre, because they allude (albeit in a confused fashion) to more-or- less well-defined scientific ideas. More often one comes across sentences like these:

Baudrillard wrote:
There is no better model of the way in which the computer screen and the mental screen of our brain are interwoven than Moebius's topology, with its peculiar contiguity of near and far, inside and outside, object and subject within the same spiral. It is in accordance with this same model that information and communication are constantly turning round upon themselves in an incestuous circumvolution, a superficial conflation of subject and object, within and without, question and answer, event and image, and so on. The form is inevitably that of a twisted ring reminiscent of the mathematical symbol for infinity. (Baudrillard 1993, p. 56)

As Gross and Levitt remark, "this is as pompous as it is meaningless."[[195]]

Footnote 195 wrote:
Gross and Levitt (1994, p. 80).

In summary, one finds in Baudrillard's works a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant.[[196]] Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see what role they could play, except to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations about sociology or history. Moreover, the scientific terminology is mixed up with a non-scientific vocabulary that is employed with equal sloppiness. When all is said and done, one wonders what would be left of Baudrillard's thought if the verbal veneer covering it were stripped away.[[197]]

Footnote 196 wrote:
For other examples, see the references to chaos theory (Baudrillard 1990, pp. 154-155), to the Big Bang (Baudrillard 1994, pp. 115-116), and to quantum mechanics (Baudrillard 1996, pp. 14, 53-55). This last book is permeated with scientific and pseudo-scientific allusions.

Footnote 197 wrote:
For a more detailed critique of Baudrillard's ideas, see Norris (1992).

Isn't that fun? Laughing As Le Monde published, Baudrillard writes with "extreme precision"! (Yeah, right! And I will sell you the world for the extremely precise amount of only x billion dollars.) But the sad thing is that people actually believe such nonsense. Rolling Eyes
Texas Al
I know! How about a DDOS attack?

I think I've seen a PHP script someplace that can churn this stuff out. Let's ALL start submitting random crap to their journals. You, me, the Time-Cube guy, and the Slashdot trolls. It'll be a party where everyone, no matter how insane, is invited!


They'll be forced to develop some real standards.


They'll fruitlessly retaliate by trying to spam refereed scientific journals (and get cheerfully rejected because we actually have objective standards despite our Western Capitalist phallocentricism and all that).


They'll get more and more paranoid and thus even more entertaining.
Texas Al
Here's one more for your collection. Although you probably read it already.
The Philosopher Princess
Texas Al wrote:
Here's one more for your collection. Although you probably read it already.
No, I hadn't, but it is excellent! Thanks!

For our dear readers, here's an ergatively ergodic excerpt where the assuasively adroit author of that perspicuous, prelecting piece dexterously dirks some sharditic slacking shreds of the commensurately nonsensical, terminologically tenuous, unadhesive, unified embodiments used by the characteristically catalyzed conference attendees. Laughing

How To Deconstruct Almost Anything -- My Postmodern Adventure by Chip Morningstar wrote:
The essential paradigm of cyberspace is creating partially situated identities out of actual or potential social reality in terms of canonical forms of human contact, thus renormalizing the phenomenology of narrative space and requiring the naturalization of the intersubjective cognitive strategy, and thereby resolving the dialectics of metaphorical thoughts, each problematic to the other, collectively redefining and reifying the paradigm of the parable of the model of the metaphor.
If engineer friends in the back, and the author himself, hadn't have startled giggling, it might have not been caught as a joke.

(My funny statement above, believe it or not, is not nonsense, though I use it to make fun of nonsense. Each of my words, and the combinations, are actually saying something valid, though purposefully in a convoluted way.) Are we having fun yet!? Very Happy
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