...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

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"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, September 11, 2016

20th-Year Anniversary (Alan Sokal's Hoax)


[…another post only tangentially-related to math.]


In a recent post at Math-Frolic I alluded to how language interplays with math and science to misguide people’s thought processes.  It is a frequent interest of mine… and mulled it over again a bit this weekend.

Beyond the Hoax” (2008) by mathematician/physicist Dr. Alan Sokal, is one of my favorite volumes of all time; in fact I think it ought be required reading by all students before they leave college. The book crosses boundaries between science, philosophy, culture, linguistics, education, and cognitive psychology. Some may find the 400-page opus (chockfull of great notes) overly pedantic, though I think any pedantry is overwhelmed by the richness and depth of ideas under discussion, while skewering postmodernism. "A Sokal hoax," by the way, is now a pretty generic term to label academic publishing hoaxes that occur almost every year.

I suddenly realized that this year marks the 20-year anniversary since the publication of the original nonsense “hoax” article ("Transgressing Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," 1996) which Sokal managed to hilariously/ridiculously/embarrassingly get published in the postmodern cultural journal, “Social Text,” and on which the above book is based. 
Early in the creation of Math-Frolic I placed a permanent link to the hoax piece in the right-hand column, because I consider it one of the most important, defining events of my lifetime interest in science. If by any chance you don’t know what it’s all about, by all means read the original (below), which Alan himself described as, "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense... structured around the silliest [postmodern] quotations he could find about mathematics and physics”:

Anyway, this all comes up now because this weekend at a used book sale I stumbled across Sokal’s earlier book, “Fashionable Nonsense” (American title) — it too is good, and I never realized that it was actually published in 1998, a full 10 years before “Beyond the Hoax," and just a couple of years after the renowned hoax was sprung.

A great deal more can be found about Sokal’s writings at this page he has devoted to such (there was a lot of press and commentary followup to the so-called 'Sokal affair'):
http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/#impostures

One of the great services that Sokal performed was to make journal editors aware of how easily they could be duped. Of course a journal like "Social Text" was especially vulnerable, but these days even more 'empirical' journals fall prey to fraudsters (who can be difficult to detect) as reported on regularly by Ivan Oransky's "Retraction Watch."

In part, this post is also a continuation of a recent Math-Frolic post I did mentioning some folks I find particularly worth reading, for the richness and variety of their thoughts, each in their own way (James Propp, Brian Hayes, Scott Aaronson, Lior Pachter). Add Alan Sokal to that list, although unlike the others he has no blogging presence, and I know of no new writings from him on the way unfortunately.

For those who want to hear more about math, here are the words that conclude Alan’s original piece:
“…a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis. Finally, chaos theory -- which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity -- will be central to all future mathematics. And yet, these images of the future mathematics must remain but the haziest glimmer: for, alongside these three young branches in the tree of science, there will arise new trunks and branches -- entire new theoretical frameworks -- of which we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive.”
 Hope that satisfies you ;-)

Again (as I hinted at the end of my 9/9/16 Math-Frolic post), I find the general discussion of how language can misguide and misdirect people about science or just rational thinking, of especial note today because of what we are witnessing in American (if not worldwide) politics. Oy vey!....

Our beloved Martin Gardner, as many know, was quite the prankster himself, and pulled off some doozies in his time. But none as searing as Dr. Sokal's. So, Happy 20th Anniversary to Alan and his monumental fakery (and insight).  I'm surprised I haven't seen other celebratory acknowledgments of the anniversary. We shouldn't risk younger generations forgetting it.
The journal “Social Text,” by the way, remains in publication and states online that, since its founding in 1979, it has “forged creative connections between critical theory and political practice.” I find “forged” an interesting term. ;-)



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