Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Postmodernism, redux

The smarmy genius behind the Sokal affair has written a great piece in the LA Times about Washington's general aversion to science that conflicts with prescribed policy positions.

It's amusing to me (for so long as I can keep from vomiting), the way opponents of such concepts as evolution and global warming seek to use politics to prevent observable scientific phenomena from seeing the light of day. Not too long ago, it was postmodernists--usually painted into the same rhetorical corner as "liberals," "secularists," "abortionists," and presumably vampires and werewolves--who made the most impassioned arguments about the inherent unreliability of science. It would appear the wheel is still spinning.

Postmodernism essentially said, inter alia, that scientific observations cannot be trusted because everything is influenced by cultural dialogue, or something like that. I have never been a student of postmodernism, so I may be misstating its premises somewhat. Nevertheless, it is not clear to me how cultural perceptions can affect gravity.

The Sokal affair was an amusing effort to address the general lack of scientific rigor in postmodern thought. From the Wikipedia entry:

The Sokal Affair was a hoax by physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated on the editorial staff and readership of a leading postmodern cultural studies journal called Social Text (published by Duke University). In 1996, Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted a pseudoscientific paper for publication in Social Text, as an experiment to see if a journal in that field would, in Sokal's words: "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions".

The paper, titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," was published in the Spring/Summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue of Social Text, which had no peer review process, and so did not submit it for outside review. On the day of its publication, Sokal announced in another publication, Lingua Franca, that the article was a hoax, calling his paper "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense", which was "structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics" made by humanities academics.

In short, this event exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of much (if not all) postmodern thought.

Now if only someone would do something similar for attacks from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

The motivations of critics of global warming seem clear to me. There are many financial interests at stake, and who wants to give up their big cars, frequent flyer miles, and giant houses if they do not absolutely have to?

The motives of intelligent design proponents, on the other hand, are less clear to me, at least insofar as financial interests are less readily apparent. It seems like we have a dispute over the philosophical implications of either (a) accepting the reality of widespread observable phenomena, regardless of any metaphyiscal implications; or (b) clinging to the dictates of an ancient, repeatedly translated, poorly-edited book of which no original drafts remain (Am I talking about the Bible or the original scrolls describing Yggdrasil? You decide. I don't even know if Vikings used scrolls.)

What we really have here is a dispute over the nature of reality--is our purpose in this life to be gleaned from what we can observe about our physical reality, or can our purpose be determined based on what we really, really, really, really, really want to be true?

I'm going to go with the first choice, that any purpose in this life, to the extent there is one, is determined from what we can see and prove about the world. A cell phone is not powered by faith (sorry, creationists). Neither is it powered by cultural memes (sorry, postmodernists).

Here are the points I am trying to make in this post:

  1. Postmodernism is an unverifiable load of crap.
  2. Intelligent design is an unverifiable load of crap, as well as a breathtakingly dull cop-out. To say that life is so complex that it just must have been created by something, end of story, has about as much intellectual heft as the arguments I painstakingly crafted in high school to get out of doing homework--at the end of the day, many questions were left unanswered.
  3. Therefore, both "liberals" and "conservatives" have, at varying times, put forth worldviews that are at staggering odds with observable reality.
  4. No postmodernist has ever been elected president, held a leadership osition in Congress, attempted to subvert school boards or state boards of education, or generally ventured off campus.
  5. Intelligent design proponents and global warming critics have done all the things listed in #4. That's what makes me want to vomit.

1 comment:

tODD said...

As to your assertion that "no postmodernist has ever been elected president," I suggest you read "The Post-Modern President" by Joshua Micah Marshall (of fame). The degree to which you might believe Bush is intentionally postmodernist is the degree to which you believe he's being intentionally deceptive. Hard to say.