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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / science

Beyond the Hoax

Alan Sokal

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To purchase Beyond the Hoax

Title: Beyond the Hoax
Author: Alan Sokal
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2008)
Length: 458 pages
Availability: Beyond the Hoax - US
Beyond the Hoax - UK
Beyond the Hoax - Canada
  • Science, Philosophy and Culture
  • Several o fthese essays were co-authored by Jean Bricmont

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Our Assessment:

A- : solid arguments, all very well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist . 1-2/2009 Michael Bérubé
The Guardian . 27/2/2010 Nicholas Lezard
The NY Sun . 21/5/2008 Michael Shermer
Times Higher Ed. . 13/3/2008 Robert Matthews

  From the Reviews:
  • "So I hope that despite its format -- you need two hands, or a flat surface, to read this book -- this book sells by the lorryload. It's scrupulous, engaging and, at times, surprisingly generous to the people he has fooled." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "The golden nugget within this longish book -- worth the price of admission by itself -- is the annotated parody. (...) Beyond the Hoax is an essential text for anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science, or for that matter science itself." - Michael Shermer, The New York Sun

  • "Most of these essays first appeared in the late 1990s, but all have been updated, expanded or published for the first time, making them a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate over subjectivism in all its manifestations. (...) Perhaps the biggest problem with this collection is that it fails to reflect the fact that Sokal's concerns are now widely shared -- and that progress is being made in addressing them, the emergence of evidence-based social policy being an obvious example. His critique would also gain more credibility from encompassing his own community: the failure of scientific institutions to address the abuse of statistical methods or promote systematic reviews is no less of a threat to progress than the ramblings of postmodernists or fundamentalists." - Robert Matthews, Times Higher Education

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Beyond the Hoax Alan Sokal again returns to the notorious parody that started it all, Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity, first published in Social Text (Spring/Summer, 1996). In Fashionable Nonsense (UK title: Intellectual Impostures) he, along with Jean Bricmont, had already dissected the piece (and the unfortunately very convincing nonsense it contained) and the sad state of affairs that made its publication possible, while the collection about The Sokal Hoax gave a very useful overview of the ensuing controversy and discussions. What need then for another volume ?
       For one, Transgressing the boundaries is not merely once again printed in all its shudder-inducing glory, but comes fully annotated, Sokal explaining and commenting on the text and where he came up with his examples (and why they are nonsense). Here, then, is the now definitive version of that piece.
       The rest of the book is a collection of essays, grouped into three parts, devoted to: 'The Social Text Affair', 'Science and Philosophy', and 'Science and Culture'. Several of the other pieces have been available elsewhere, but they (often updated), along with the previously unpublished essays, make for a relatively coherent collection.
       What Sokal offers is a defense of good old-fashioned science and arguments against much relativism (specifically cognitive relativism). There are scientific truths for him, and tolerating alternative explanations that aren't provable is something he thinks serves no purpose -- indeed is harmful. He's also particularly annoyed by the sort of 'sloppy thinking' that is widely tolerated -- and which his parody is full of.
       One of the things that concerns Sokal is:

that relativism and radical social constructivism have become hegemonic in vast areas of the humanities, anthropology and sociology of science (among other fields). In many intellectual circles nowadays, it is simply taken for granted that all facts are "socially constructed", scientific theories are mere "myths" or "narrations", scientific debates are resolved by "rhetoric" and "enlisting allies", and truth is a synonym for intersubjective agreement.
       It's hard not to think that Sokal is exaggerating here, and that the situation hasn't improved since the 'science wars' debate started, but some of the examples he gives suggest his warnings must still be heeded and the message is one well worth still pounding home. The chapter on 'Pseudoscience and postmodernism' is particularly disturbing, as he describes the medical/nursing theory of 'Therapeutic Touch' ("practiced in at least 80 hospitals across North America") as well as the fascinating and deeply troubling Hindu nationalist take on science in India (Sokal basing his discussion on Meera Nanda's Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India).
       One essay, 'Religion, politics and survival', is a book review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith (and Michael Lerner's Spirit Matters) -- originally commissioned by Science & Society, it got a bit out of hand (at "seven times their maximum allowed length !") -- and this is the most important piece in the book, turning Sokal's arguments against another obvious target: religion. There's no way around it, after all: religions -- especially the major ones of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism -- are largely based on what is patently non-sense. Sokal allows that some of these beliefs are politically not that significant -- "When I run into Fundamentalists, I don't spend my time lecturing them on the Big Bang and evolution. I just nod and politely switch the subject" (though if it comes to debating teaching creationism in school he'd be more vociferous) -- but when they have the potential to affect our lives (and he's thinking of Islamic fundamentalism here in particular) then it gets more problematic. Aware of the social and political difficulties in dealing with such vast numbers of deluded folk, he nevertheless thinks straight talk -- rather than the usual indulgent relativism (mistakenly considered tolerance) -- is called for.
       The postmodernists seem to have been debunked, and the relativism he warns of doesn't seem quite as prevalent in the academy any longer (though there's a lot more that still needs to be beaten down), but the most fruitful and important area this fight should now focus on is, indeed, religion, and Sokal's piece on 'Religion, politics and survival' is a welcome addition to a discussion that too often is also sloppy in its presentation (and, occasionally, its thinking) -- witness The Case against Religion as poorly put by Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great.
       With the annotated version of his parody, essays dealing with various aspects of the Social Text-affair, and the important piece on 'Religion, politics and survival', Beyond the Hoax is both a useful and interesting collection. It must also be noted that Sokal has a very nice writing touch: yes, this book at times seems overwhelmed by footnotes, but it really is approachable, each annotation worth reading (and often chuckling over), his explanations and arguments clear and well presented, his thinking lucid. Much of this material is familiar (or seems to have been chewed over elsewhere quite a few times), but it's still all worth wading through again.
       An important book, and well worthwhile.

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Beyond the Hoax: Reviews: Other books by Alan Sokal under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Authors:

       Alan Sokal was born in 1955 and is a professor of physics at NYU.

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© 2008-2011 the complete review

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