Postmodernism and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

Since I am, by nature, a compassionate individual, I had been thinking of how we might Sokal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). It is for their own good.

Alan Sokal: remember him? He’s the physicist who submitted the scam article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the oh-so-prestigious postmodern journal Social Text.

Postmodernists are intellectuals who are so jealous of the success of real scientists, that they pretend that scientists’ accomplishments are nothing special. They are the sort of people who authoritatively state, “There is no truth,” or “‘Truth’ is a social construction.” You may find postmodernists in any university English or Sociology department, the New York Times editorial desk, and in the current administration.

Anyway, Sokal typed up an article of complete gibberish larded with science words, such as:

As Althusser rightly commented, “Lacan finally gives Freud’s thinking the scientific concepts that it requires”. More recently, Lacan’s topologie du sujet has been applied fruitfully to cinema criticism and to the psychoanalysis of AIDS. In mathematical terms, Lacan is here pointing out that the first homology group of the sphere is trivial, while those of the other surfaces are profound; and this homology is linked with the connectedness or disconnectedness of the surface after one or more cuts.

Painful, right? Stuff no serious person would ever read, and only the insane would take seriously. That Sokal was able to slip this rot though Social Text‘s five-hole demonstrated unequivocally that postmodernists are Aesopian foxes, people whose college physics classes left sour tastes in their mouths.

Humanities scholars here in the States started down their slippery slope and became postmodernists only after they opened the doors to a rabble of French and German philosophers. Men such as Heidegger and De Man; all of whom were mighty big fans of 1940’s-style National Socialism.

As long as postmodernists kept to themselves, churning out “literary theory” by the bucketful, they were thought to be harmless.

But some warned us that postmodernism can spread like a disease; that the chance of catching it increases as a function of the proximity of the uninfected to the carrier. And since most postmodernists reside inside universities, their hives exposed to scientists, it was only a matter of time before the infection spread.

And that is what happened. For example (thanks to reader John Moore), at the 11th Statistical Climatology Meeting, Demetris Koutsoyannis asked another scientist whether, as a rule, “original data should be available to the interested scientists or not?” That is, should raw data be shared so that people could independently verify extraordinary claims?

The answer—the only answer to this prior to the postmodernist infection—must be “Yes.” But the infected person answered, “No”, the data should not be available “because some could misuse them….[to] demonstrate a specific behaviour that they want to advocate.”

See what I mean? People cannot be trusted to come to their own judgments because those judgments might fall afoul of the party line, a line which, by definition, is socially constructed. Those in power decide “truth.” The disease rampages.

It’s always sad to witness the progression of morbidity, and worse when it happens to someone you love. Take PNAS, a journal which, prior the postmodernist pandemic, was lovely and pure. But the infection is now so strong that it has published an Enemies of Science list!

Anderegg et al., “Expert credibility in climate change.” Not one word in this article attempts to refute the theories its enemies; instead, it is one long, suppurating logical fallacy. I weep.

And then this: “Irrelevant events affect voters’ evaluations of government performance“, a piece by Healy et al. which would have been excised mercilessly by blarney-detecting white blood cells before the disease struck.

The American voter, says Healy, is irrational. Little things, like his favorite football team winning, will influence his vote. Via a goofy statistical model, they claim “that voting decisions are influenced by irrelevant events that have nothing to do with the competence or effectiveness of the incumbent government.”

This isn’t just bad statistics—a symptom common to many diseases, not just postmodernism—but bad reasoning. They emphasize their findings “have implications for understanding elite incentives and strategies to manipulate voters’ perceptions of their own well-being.” If the voter cannot decide rationally, perhaps he should not be allowed to decide at all. Keep the raw data from him!

Postmodern infections are best killed by inoculation using a dead virus, i.e. a Sokal-like spoof masquerading as genuine. I therefore say that we, dear readers, compose a scam article that, when exposed, will restore the critical senses of the editors of PNAS.

Suggestions for a topic?

21 Comments

  1. No, what you want to do is wreck their site because you don’t like it. I would assume you are a “Christian,” too, right. LOL!

  2. My Dear Kitten,

    I do not want to “wreck” their site, I want to restore it.

    And you know what they say about assuming, right?

    All,

    The fine folks at Free Republic have already sent in suggestions. This video, and this “science” paper generator.

    These are hilarious. But I think our hoax has to be more on target. It must at least appear to agree with the political prejudices of the editors.

  3. I would be interested in hearing more on why you don’t like the Healy model. What about it didn’t you like/how would you have attempted to measure the effect? I haven’t seen a rebuttal of that paper anywhere so I’m curious to hear one.

  4. I have a minor in Cognitive Psychology. A rather potentially interesting study that theoretically delves in the hows (vs. the whys or content) of thinking. Unfortunately though, the field of CP is more a mutual back-patting society than a serious endeavor as Who/When vastly outweighs the What/Why. I suspect that gobbledygook papers would pass unoticed in its annals. But then, it does have “psychology” in its name and psychology was never a science — why should it become one now?

    The truth is: there is no truth. How can that not make sense?

    Does being anti-anti-X bigotry imply for X bigotry? Maybe not. One puts steak sauce on steak but rarely puts tomato sauce on tomatoes and, while brass horns are made of brass, fog horns are not made of fog. Ain’t English fun? There’s never a Carlin when you need one to straighten these out. (*sigh*)

  5. “Men such as Heidegger, Hegel, and De Man; all of whom were mighty big fans of 1940′s-style National Socialism”

    Hardly Hegel – 1770 to 1831.

    Heidegger: “The German people must choose its future, and this future is bound to the Führer.” Though he seems to imply in 1945 that this was a pollution of his thinking brought about by an onset of worldliness:

    “It will in no way be denied that at the time I believed in such possibilities and for that reason renounced the actual vocation of thinking in favour of being effective in an official capacity. In no way will what was caused by my own inadequacy in office be played down. But these points of view do not capture what is essential and what moved me to accept the rectorate” (Heidegger was elected rector of the University of Freiburg on April 21, 1933. A few weeks later he joined the Nazi Party).

    I have a copy of Heidegger’s Being & Time on the bookshelf. If I could understand it I suspect it might prove to be quite good!

  6. Healy: “To precisely test for the effects of irrelevant information, we explore the electoral impact of local college football games ..”

    Wouldn’t a definition of “irrelevant” be the first step.? If said “irrelevant” effect matters one can hardly claim it “irrelevant”, don’t you think? The very definition of the term contradicts the claim (just as “The truth is, there is no truth” is obvious fallacy). In any case, you gotta wonder why college football games were examined while ignoring the obvious effects of the amount of salt sold in Taiwan or equally ignoring the effects of preacher’s salaries in Tasmania.

  7. Pascal said “it is not certain that nothing is certain” which is obviously true, practically a tautology. The Po-Mo say “it is certain that nothing is certain” which is of course logically self contradictory, and they don’t see the contradiction.

    It is just the old argument between the Greek philosophers and the sophists. The philosophers argued that all was ruled by the logos, a property of an independent external reality, but the sophists argued that man is the measure of all things and reality is just a matter of perception.

    Of course, when the sophists in Athens decided that Phillip of Macedon wasn’t really a bad guy and if they treated him nice he would be nice, Phillip took that as weakness and invaded. That didn’t turn out very well for the sophists.

  8. Ray,

    If you allow that perceptions can change, the sophists were right both before and after and logos didn’t help one — umm — iota 😉

  9. I don’t yet have any content to suggest yet, but I think I’ve come up with a rockin’ title: “The Quatenary Phased Topology of Oligarchic Archetypes.” Whadaya think?

    Also have a gestalt of the piece forming in my head cribbed, of course, from other sources. Way back in the day the National Lampoon use to contain a letters to the editor column consisting of submissions written by editors posing as readers. I remember one that started slowly and then abruptly ended as the “reader”/editor asked himself why so transparent a device was allowed to continue issue after issue. So, one element would involve the narrator’s dawning comprehension that the maker and the made are one in the same filling an existential void for reasons poorly constructed at the bequest of outside forces. Make that “deconstructed” as that term better suits this purpose.

    Then there was “The Journal of Irreproducible Results” piece where the first sentence was footnoted to the point the footnotes crowed out the piece. That sort of merciless digression is clearly in order here.

    The final element is inspired by Bruce Lee’s concluding scene in “Enter the Dragon” where the protagonist battles the antagonist in a hall of mirrors. Indeed, imagine said hall where putatively learned yet opaque verbiage is bounced off itself as the author wrings hands over his role in the matter as he relentlessly examines how his a priori constructs influence the stream of his narrative. I mean, the damn thing almost writes itself!

  10. Hegel died before fascism. It was some of his followers (the “Young Hegelian”, particularly Marx) who took his thinking in radical directions. Hegel himself was a constitutional monarchist, though with a lot of metaphysical babble tacked on. The actual Nazis did not care for Hegel at all.

    Have you read Bryan Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter”?

  11. Apparently Michael Mann of Hockey Stick fame is already quite good at writing these kinds of nonsense articles! Unfortunately somebody caught him out in his most recent endeavors where apparently he misapplied a transformation that landed the Atlantic in the Pacific. (http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~jsmerdon/papers/2010b_jclim_smerdonetal.pdf)

    The last paragraph of the response by Mann et al is a classic:
    “In summary, the issues raised by Smerdon et al. (2010), while factual, have no
    material impact on any of the key conclusions of Mann et al. (2007a). Additionally, they
    have no impact whatsoever on subsequent studies by us (Mann et al., 2009; Rutherford et
    al., 2010) where the technical errors they note did not occur, and which reach identical
    conclusions. In light of these considerations, we are puzzled as to why, given the minor
    impact the issues raised actually have, the matter wasn’t dealt with in the format of a
    comment/reply. Alternatively, had Smerdon et al. taken the more collegial route of
    bringing the issue directly to our attention, we would have acknowledged their
    contribution in a prompt corrigendum. We feel it unfortunate that neither of these two
    alternative courses of action were taken.”

    http://holocene.meteo.psu.edu/shared/articles/RMWAcomment_2010_jclim_smerdonetal.pdf

  12. Postmodern infections are best killed by inoculation using a dead virus, i.e. a Sokal-like spoof masquerading as genuine. I therefore say that we, dear readers, compose a scam article that, when exposed, will restore the critical senses of the editors of PNAS.

    If it were only that easy! The problem is that 99% of PNAS papers are ALREADY pomo gibberish. Science has become babble. The Black List paper was as trashy as possible, a transparent joke, yet it fit the PNAS editorial vision to a tee.

    The generators are great, but we could do better at creating Sokal papers ourselves, no doubt. However, the exercise would have only transitory amusement value.

    Another approach would be to create our own “for real” journal. Put together a volunteer editorial staff, a website, and solicit science papers. Those that pass muster get published online. The rest get rejected. So sorry, doctor, etc. We could create a rejection letter generator to make it quick and easy.

    I have a finely honed BS detector. So do you. So do a number of people. Let’s do something constructive. What we need is a journal title: For Real Science, or something like that.

  13. Reminds me an old Climate Skeptic post:

    http://www.climate-skeptic.com/2008/07/climate-the-f-1.html

    Climate: The First Post-Modernist Science?

    (…)

    Reading this, I start to come to the conclusion that climate scientists are attempting to make Climate the first post-modernist physical science. It certainly would explain why climate is so far short of being a “big-boy science” like physics, where replicating results is more important than casual review of publications by a cherry-picked group of peers.

  14. The Po-Mo say “it is certain that nothing is certain” which is of course logically self contradictory, and they don’t see the contradiction.

    Yes, for the faint of hearted, I understand the uneasiness. But this is not a PoMo finding. It’s as old as Socrates. “I Know that I know nothing”. There is no “Absolute” Truth, and that’s what these minds are telling you. But you are just looking for a fight, so I don’t trust you’ll get this simple and basic fact of life.

  15. RE: “suggestions for a topic”

    PART ANSWER: What you need to select is a topic of particular interest to you to address a problem or issue of relevance to you. If you follow Sokal’s approach that topic/target will undoubtedly be some issue towards the Right/Conservative arena (given that Sokal wrote his paper to address a distinct trend, from his peers on the Left, that he saw adversely affecting him). Which highlights a key underlying factor for his success: he was effective & got the spoof paper published where he did because he already to a large extent was one of the ilk he was attacking. He was adept at speaking & sounding like them, & addressing various themese in a manner they found familiar because, to a large extent, he already held those views. He just didn’t agree with a particular subset of those views, which he spoofed.

    Here’s an interview that highlights some of the above & eludes to the rest:

    http://www.philosophers.co.uk/noframes/articles/sokalnf.htm

    CAUTION: If you go after some Left-leaning theme & journal from a solid Right/Conservative perspective it is very likely you won’t pull it off, or even come close. They’ll see right thru it. But if you succeed–BRAVO!

  16. “There is no “Absolute” Truth, and that’s what these minds are telling you.” If they left it there it would be OK but they want to go on to: “There is no Truth” and still be taken seriously.

    As for Socrates, the version “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance” is less problematical because “ignorance” is less absolute than “know nothing”.

    How about “Neoplastic pleonasms: Language in Crisis”?

  17. Thanks very much Mr Briggs. I just wrote a very lovely scientific paper with the assistance of the scieince paper generator you linked to. Unfortunately it had a Computer Science feel to it so might not be worth the RAM it was written on.

  18. Mike D,
    I entered my name into your complaint letter generator. I was shocked at just how rotten and nasty I am! I just hope nobody else finds out.

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