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Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (1997)

by Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont

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9381317,475 (3.89)6
Jean-Francois Abgrall was a senior detective in the French police. He developed an extraordinary reputation for his psychological insights into criminal behaviour. He is now a private detective.

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Although this is an important book, it is not a very enjoyable one to read, for the simple fact that the authors felt compelled to quote at length from some of the most disfigured and meaningless jumbles of words that I have ever seen sewn together in the guise of sentences.

A major portion of the book is given over to reproductions of original 'postmodernist' sources that ramble for pages on end, with trifling comments by the authors on how the different scientific concepts have been misinterpreted or misused. However, the long barrage of academic verbiage is such manifest nonsense to begin with that there is little left for the sagacity of Sokal and Bricmont to say.

If a reader is not convinced of the absurdity of the postmodern examples within the first two sentences of a quotation, they probably so completely lack of the discriminating facility that another twenty pages will not do them any more good.

There are only so many ways to call a fraud a fraud, so many ways to point to a syntactic confusion of adjectives and say, 'this is gibberish.'

Much more instructive were the sections between the criticisms of the individual postmodern authors, that dealt more broadly with the roles of science and reason in the humanities and politics. Despite what other reviewers have said, there is nothing in these parts which does not seem to me to be thoroughly reasonable and correct.

Most incomprehensible is how anyone could have ever taken these postmodernist authors seriously in the first place - how entire segments of the academic world could have so completely taken leave of their senses as to give even one of these imposters an academic post - let alone legions of them spanning several generations.

By sheer chance, I recently ran into this comment by Jonathan Swift which seems to have some bearing on the situation:

"There are certain common Privileges of a Writer,
the Benefit whereof, I hope, there will be no Reason to doubt;
Particularly, that where I am not understood, it shall be concluded,
that something very useful and profound is coucht underneath." (1704) ( )
  the_lemur | Nov 9, 2017 |
Battle vs. Nonsense Makes Strange Bedfellows

My political and social views are very, very different from Sokal's and Bricmont's (and I really don't care how much postmodernism damages the Left), but I have to appreciate their attempt to call on the carpet those who have misappropriated the terminology, ideas, and results of math and physics in their work.

The lengthy quotes from French intellectuals that Sokal and Bricmont present in their book remind me of a weird combination of Mad Libs, the nonsense-talking inmate Damon Wayans played on "In Living Color", and a Babelfish translation attempt gone awry. (But, of course, translators can't be blamed for the nutty things these French(wo)men say, because their words apparently don't make any more sense in the original. _Fashionable Nonsense_ itself was originally published in France as _Impostures Intellectuelles_.) If my math students wrote like this, I'd probably not only fail them but also arrange for them to receive psychiatric treatment.

Why only 4 stars? While the book starts out fun, after a couple hundred pages it gets a little bit tiresome. You only have to read so many page-long excerpts of gibberish followed by commentary on the order of "Well, that didn't make any sense" to get the point. Sokal and Bricmont's attempt to be patient, fair, and scholarly is understandable and laudable, but I have to say I that I found myself longing for the poison-pen approach that Norman Levitt took in _Prometheus Bedeviled_. ( )
  cpg | Oct 17, 2017 |
I can really appreciate what Sokal and Bricmont did here because I tore down Robert Anton Wilson's Quantum Psychology and that was a burdensome task. Authors of pseudoscientific nonsense seem to say whatever they want with no responsibility and the sheep fans and unsuspecting other readers don't know any different. And real scientists don't have the time to debunk every paper/book in which someone conscripts physical sciences for fuzzy, obfuscating purposes...nor should they have to. ( )
  Razinha | May 23, 2017 |
In 1996 Alan Sokal (a physicist) published "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in the journal Social Text. The article took the rather novel position that reality (i.e. the external world) was a construct of society. The article (which is reproduced in this book) was intended as a parody of contemporary social and humanitarian scholarship - particularly the attempts by some theorists to claim that modern science (physics, in particular) proved social and cultural theories. Sokal's article is replete with citations from postmodernists and social constructionists tying science to humanities.

Fashionable Nonsense is the English adaptation of an earlier book by Sokal and Bricmont (same title, written in French) that was produced after a conference in France that was extremely critical of Sokal (it doesn't help that most of the writers skewered by Sokal were French). The book presents extended discussions of the writers Sokal "abuses," expanding on the ideas these writers developed that actually showed that (a) they didn't really understand the scientific theories they were attempting to use; (b) they misapplied - either intentionally or unintentionally - scientific theories to social concepts; (c) they were trying to obfuscate the fact that they had nothing to offer behind a smoke screen of intellectual/scientific verbiage; and/or (d) they were simply leaching some legitimization for their own ideas from established science.

None of it very honorable stuff.

That Sokal was able to get his original article published in a major journal is itself proof that a serious problem exists in the humanities and social science. That people continued to challenge him even after he had explained his case and proved it shows the extent to which some in the humanities are desperate to find some kind of footing on terra firma - no matter how tenuous or ill-conceived the effort may be.

A must read for any academic. ( )
  jpporter | Feb 23, 2014 |
Not to far after telling someone what it was I studied, they will ultimately bring up 'that guy who debunked post-modern philosophy by publishing a hoax article...'.
It gets a bit silly very quickly. Mostly because these people have very little idea; of the claims of post-modern philosophy; of who specifically is debunked in this book and why; that publishing a hoax article does little more than prove the journals lack of credibility (a point Sokal himself emphasizes in this book); or for that matter the possibility of debunking an entire branch of anything. The people who cite this book (lauding or detracting) have likely never read it, something that can be proven with a quick glance at the Amazon reviews. This is something of a shame, as this book should certainly be required reading, particularly in the humanities departments that do their best to keep their heads in the sand about it.
The quick points are this; the book is very accessible and the arguments are clear and well-reasoned.
But there are very many finer points to go over as well. The most important of which is that this book does very little to dismantle, or for that matter even attack, post-modern philosophy. BY analogy, were there a person who used a scientifically accurate (or inaccurate, as it were) narrative to argue for eugenics, would you take a rebuttal towards that as an attack biology as a discipline? Lacan, Kristeva, and Deleuze are not the culmination of philosophy, nor are they very representative of it. So much as Sokal applies a razor to their poor use of science, there is little lost and much gained.
And we should note that no one in this text is suggesting to let the baby slip down the drain, but merely pointing out that some of this bathwater has gotten rather murky.
Again, I liked this book. I think it should be required reading in the humanities. I have read enough of the author mentioned in it to know that they often do put forth some nonsense. But I recognize that no one can get everything right. Hell, even Sokal and Bricmont get somethings wrong - in this very text. ( )
2 vote M.Campanella | Oct 19, 2013 |
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Bricmont, Jeanmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Jean-Francois Abgrall was a senior detective in the French police. He developed an extraordinary reputation for his psychological insights into criminal behaviour. He is now a private detective.

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