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Fashionable Nonsense

(Intellectual Impostures)

Alan Sokal
Jean Bricmont

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To purchase Fashionable Nonsense

Title: Fashionable Nonsense
Authors: Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
Genre: Literary Criticism
Written: 1997
Length: 295 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Fashionable Nonsense - US
Intellectual Impostures - UK
Fashionable Nonsense - Canada
Impostures intellectuelles - Canada
Impostures intellectuelles - France
Eleganter Unsinn - Deutschland
  • originally published in French, as: Impostures intellectuelles
  • US title: Fashionable Nonsense
  • UK title: Intellectual Impostures
  • US subtitle: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science
  • Based on Sokal's notorious hoax, the essay Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity submitted (and published by) the so-called academic journal Social Text. The essay is included in the book, and can also be found online.

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Our Assessment:

B- : frustrating tilting at absurd windmills, in many respects almost unreadable.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent B- 18/7/1998 Christopher Norris
London Review of Books C- 16/7/1998 John Sturrock
Michigan Quarterly Rev. B- Spring/1999 Myles Weber
National Review A- 8/3/1999 Paul R. Gross
Nature A 9/7/1998 Richard Dawkins
The New Republic A 12/10/1998 Thomas Nagel
The NY Times Book Rev. B- 15/11/1998 Jim Holt
Der Spiegel . 11/10/1999 Rainer Traub
TLS A 1/5/1998 Kevin Mulligan
Village Voice C 12/1998 Eric Lott
Wall St. Journal A+ 12/11/1998 Heather MacDonald
Die Zeit . (50/1999) Ulf von Rauchhaupt

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Most (often grudgingly) admit that Sokal and Bricmont do debunk the examples they cite, but half think this is brilliant and half think it is irrelevant. No meeting of minds here. The positive reviews are often too gung ho, while the negative ones by and large argue completely beside the point. But it is fun reading, all of it.

  Note that many additional reviews, comments, and debates can be found at Alan Sokal's excellent information page

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is this kind of all-purpose scepticism that has found its way from literary theory into fashionable anti-scientism. Sokal and Bricmont do a decent job of exposing its worst excesses, but they tend to adopt a scatter-shot technique which, ironically, rebounds against their own best arguments." - Christopher Norris, The Independent

  • "(...) I find all this weirdly heavy-handed and alarmist. Sokal and Bricmont have gone about damming the tidal flow of irrationality into intellectual life in an all-or-nothing manner sure to go down well with those theory-haters who long to hear bad things about such as Lacan or Kristeva, but it will be counter-productive among the broader-minded, who believe that the more styles of intellectual discourse cultures find the room and time for the healthier. There is an instructive symmetry between Sokal and Bricmont's way of proceeding and the one they so much object to: where the impostors like to inlay bits and pieces from the discourse of science in writings that no one would think of calling 'scientific' in the strict sense in which Sokal and Bricmont are using the word, the latter apply criteria of rigour and univocity fundamental to their own practice which are beside the point once transferred to this alien context." - John Sturrock, London Review of Books

  • "The exposition here is marred only by (Sokal and Bricmont's) anxiety to remain men of the Left, which leads to such banalities as "the harshest form of `free market' capitalism seems to have become the implacable reality for the foreseeable future." Otherwise the authors' goal is limited and achieved. They are scientists who know philosophy, and are well read in cultural studies. Their sampling of science-palaver is comprehensive. Fashionable Nonsense is a rewarding and appalling read." - Paul Gross, National Review

  • "As physicists, Sokal and Bricmont have done reason a modest service by exposing a species of intellectual quackery. As philosophers, they have not pursued reason far enough -- all the way to its sometimes unreasonable-sounding conclusions." - Jim Holt, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Fashionable Nonsense carries a heavy aura of tendentious ignorance, its overblown dismissals seeming to grow in proportion to its fatuity. As hapless as it is breathless, the book answers "Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science" with abuses of rhetoric, logic, and argumentation that have the odd effect of making Lacan sound as sensible as Edmund Wilson." - Eric Lott, VLS

  • "This book may have little effect on its actual subjects, who long ago parted ways with rational debate. But it should be read by every college president and trustee, to better understand how deeply the postmodernist rot has affected their institutions, undermining the very purpose of a university: the search for truth." - Heather MacDonald, Wall Street Journal

  • "Die eindimensionale Epistemologie, der Sokal und Bricmont da offenbar anhängen, entwertet keineswegs ihre Kritik am Wortgeklingel der Pariser Denkerfürsten. Aber was soll man letztlich daraus folgern ? Doch nur, dass es sich bei diesen Texten nicht um etwas handelt, was Physiker -- und auch die große Mehrheit der Philosophen, Soziologen und Kulturtheoretiker -- Wissenschaft nennen würden. Als Feldzug gegen den "epistemischen Relativismus" und seine bösen Folgen, sind die Sokalschen Textanalysen eine Attacke auf Windmühlen." - Ulf von Rauchhaupt, Die Zeit

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:

       The notorious parody written by Alan Sokal and published by a gullible gang of academics at Social Text is one of the sadder chapters in modern American academia. For those who do not recall it: Sokal submitted a paper titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity which he describes as "a parody article crammed with nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotations about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals." (The paper is included as an appendix in this book and can also be found online.) Instead of having a good laugh and sending the essay back to Sokal the good folks at Social Text took it seriously and published it. Revealing the hoax, Sokal set off quite an uproar, only in part about the question he was addressing -- the use of science and scientific concepts and terminology in a non-scientific setting.
       This book is in many respects a gloss on the article. Many of the major French and American postmodern gurus -- Lacan, Kristeva, Baudrillard, Deleuze, etc. -- are taken to task by Sokal and Bricmont for their (ab)use of science in their writings. Passages are cited and ridiculed, and Sokal and Bricmont then also make some larger and more general points.
       It is a bizarre debate that has evolved around this, and in fact the critical response is almost as interesting as the book itself. The passages Sokal and Bricmont present are indeed examples of bad science (to put it mildly). No one can really deny that. Some critics do, however, have the gall to suggest that this is immaterial, that the ideas these great thinkers propound and propose are so significant that the use of false, misleading, and irrelevant evidence to support them is perfectly valid. (We don't really get that argument, but it is a fun idea.)
       More plausible is the argument that Sokal and Bricmont only show a few selective examples, that these may or may not be representative, and that they often only figure in a small part of the cited authors' works (i.e. are peripheral to the whole). While there is something to this, and it should be kept in mind, there is no escaping that the selections offered are frightening and horrendous enough to warrant casting anything uttered by these "thinkers" into doubt.
       (Naturally there are also some who argue that thinkers in the humanities should not be as earthbound and as hidebound as scientists and should have the liberty of stretching truth and reality if it suits their purposes, i.e. that it's okay to wonder whether E=mc² isn't a highly sexed equation because it "privileges the speed of light" (Luce Irigaray expressing her concern for all the poor other underprivileged speeds, presumably). Our two cents re. this: Certainly all ways of looking at something should be considered, but equally certainly most (like sexed relativity) can be quickly dismissed. Except for on a funky Star Trek episode we can't see much use for considering the speed of light privileged.)
       The selections are numbingly horrific, an outrage so maddening that we actually found it physically difficult to read the book. Wanting to be open-minded we would like to consider the possibility that all these writers only mean all these stupid things they are saying as metaphor, but my oh my what a slippery slope that puts us on. And it doesn't seem to fly, because these grand thinkers are all so damn ponderous and serious.
       Sokal and Bricmont go to great lengths to maintain that they are only attacking the weak science of these works, but the inescapable conclusion is that thinkers who are willing to spew such claptrap without a thought for its meaning, and whose only goal is to cow and intimidate their audience through the use of incontestable terminology and concepts are, in fact, charlatans, and that while there might be some value in their charlatanry it is not really something we should look upon kindly. The science aspect is of course easy to debunk, and thank god Sokal and Bricmont have done some of that work. The rest, built on the pyramid of empty jargon of literary theory, sociology, psychology, etc., is, of course, almost unassailable. If nothing else though Sokal and Bricmont show that clarity is necessary, desirable, and really not all that hard to achieve -- would that modern culture theory at least pick up that much.
       Much of the debate is about relativism -- the absolute truth of science versus modern theory's insistence on relativism. The question is not completely black and white -- of course relativism operates in many significant areas of human intercourse, including science -- the question is in the how and where (and of course the why). The blanket relativism that Sokal offers in his parody is an absurdity, and easily recognizable as such.
       It seems fairly clear that the thinkers quoted use scientific terminology not for actual support (though we are thinking that topology is a fun thing to apply to psychology), but because the abstract notion "science" lends their arguments credibility. As Sokal and Bricmont point out, even if the science the so-called thinkers cite were accurate most of the time it still has absolutely nothing to do with what they are actually trying (pretending ?) to say. It is an unusual way of undermining science (since the thinkers are toppled along with their false foundations), but this, surely, is the most dangerous aspect of the whole affair -- that science is pulled down to their level, when its great value is in being above such petty and mindless debate, when its strength is in the intellectual rigor it demands. Sokal and Bricmont address the two-cultures debate, and the fact that science is so foreign to so many (allowing it to be abused all the easier). It is a problem society should wrestle with.
       Whereof one cannot speak, a truly wise man once suggested, thereof one should remain silent. The idea never caught on. Considering foreign concepts is, of course, important, and the interplay between science, society, and social theories should be explored -- but exploration means considering, hypothesizing, using the available tools. It does not mean stating unequivocally, especially if the statements are so inane and absurd that they must (or at least should be) dismissed as simply meaningless.
       The shoddily edited Social Text -- its editors perhaps so pleased to find themselves extensively cited that they did not actually read the submission very carefully -- betrayed all sense of academic rigor and standards (Astonishingly no one seems to have lost their jobs or positions as a result of this case -- academia, ain't it great !) Radical thought must be embraced -- but what the Social Text folk do is neither radical nor is it thought. That group and the thinkers they have embraced have twisted all debate into the unintellectual, returning it to the level of theological debate where anything can be proposed and propounded as long as the proper terminology (and, in the case of theological debate, the reigning deities) are invoked. Proper reasoning is no longer called for -- when in fact it is the first thing that should be called for. Long live logic, indeed.

       Fashionable Nonsense is a perverse and maddening book. It is like a book about child abuse, describing in graphic detail the sins of the fathers -- there should be no need for such a thing. And yet there is. An important book, it is nevertheless almost unreadable -- mainly because of the absurd passages cited (extensively) by Sokal and Bricmont. It is worse than books debunking psychic phenomena and the like because whereas psychics address the common man, the thinkers attacked here write in prose (?) that deliberately obscures any thought that might be behind it.
       Hail Sokal and Bricmont for wasting so much of their lives on such a ridiculous (but apparently necessary) task. A pox on those who condemn them. (Okay, we have a few differences with them too, especially stylistically (Tom Wolfe tried using up all the exclamation marks available to American authors in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, but Sokal and Bricmont apparently found a load of them somewhere, which they diligently littered through their text). Their sense of humor -- admittedly born out of frustration -- is also ill-suited to their enterprise and their snide asides do it no service either.)
       The original parody, included here, is a fairly fun read (it can also be found online). On the whole, however, the book is a tough slog. Worth leafing through, but hard to recommend actually reading it.

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Fashionable Nonsense: 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.

       Jean Bricmont is a physicist at the Université de Louvain in Belgium.

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© 1999-2011 the complete review

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