Three cheers for Alan Sokal

Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax has been out a few weeks, but I’ve at last got a copy. It reprints his wonderful “Transgressing the boundaries” parody with a running commentary of annotations on the opposite pages (or at least, the commentary would have been on opposite pages if he’d got the LaTeXing right!). And it has a selection of other papers, all written with his characteristic verve, directness and good sense. There is better philosophy of science here than is purveyed by some philosophers of science.

And incidentally, I was amused by Sokal’s cheerful abuse of the intellectual pretensions of religion — witness e.g. his description of the Pope as “the leader of a major pseudoscientific cult”. Agree or disagree, you are at least very clear where Sokal stands (which is more that can be said for some writers on religion …).

4 thoughts on “Three cheers for Alan Sokal”

  1. I find Sokal tedious and smug, and it’s depressing to see that he’s still milking his moment of notoriety.

    Sokal’s already reprinted “Transgressing the boundaries” in at least one book, and I’m dismayed to find that, counting the annotated “Transgressing”, the first 170 or so pages of this new book are about the Social Text affair. *sigh*

    Like many other people with a science background, though not purely science in my case, I thought what Sokal had done was interesting (and fun!) at first, and so I bought one of his other books, only to find that he didn’t actually have anything very interesting to say.

    From what I’d seen of Beyond the Hoax, it looked no better.

    Still, to test that, I have just tried reading his discussion of Feyerabend that starts on page 197. Unfortunately, it is indeed extraordinarily dull, shows little insight into PKF’s thinking, and says nothing of significance that I haven’t seen more than once before. (And I don’t mean in his other books!) Looking at other pages, more or less at random, confirms this view.

    One reason I read your blog is because of the books you mention, and you have led me to some good ones; but I am going to give this one a miss.

  2. Tedious and smug? Smug?? A very odd reading of Sokal’s tone.

    I think I prefer Chomsky’s assessment “Sokal’s analysis is sober and incisive, deeply informed over an impressive range, lucid and careful”.

  3. I do think Sokal’s smug, though it’s not always evident in his writing, but “smug” was only one word in my post, and nothing else I wrote turns on it.

    Chomsky has a disagreement similar to Sokal’s with postmodernist and the like, and sees the problem with such views in similar political terms:

    It strikes me as remarkable that their left counterparts today should seek to deprive oppressed people not only of the joys of understanding and insight, but also of tools of emancipation, informing us that the “project of the Enlightenment” is dead, that we must abandon the “illusions” of science and rationality–a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.

    His praise for Sokal’s analysis is such as would naturally accompany agreement, as would your “good sense” and amused reaction to his description of the Pope.

    But Chomsky uses words such as “sober”, “informed” and “careful”, there’s nothing about verve … or originality.

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