Blinded with science

The world of theoretical physics is troubled today with the publication of a number of extremely technical and complicated papers that appear to be hoaxes Or are they? The authors deny that their efforts are phony, but most participants in the ongoing discussion on sci.physics.research don't buy it.

There are, of course, numerous comparison's to physicist Alan Sokal's 1996 hoaxing of Social Text, in which he argues that gravity is a social construction. The broad implication in many "hard science" communities is that "soft" science is so lacking in method and objectivity that a hoax obvious to an undergrad math major can be perpetrated easily. Sokal decries the intellectual laziness and academic arrogance that allow incomprehensibility to become a virtue in theoretical realms of "epistemic relativism."

Although Sokal denies his intention to impugn social science generally, he makes those points after, and less forcefully than, his initial commentary. What's interesting to observe now are the comments from numerous posters to sci.physics.research on the state of their art: Some argue that this is a fairly localized failure of the peer review process -- the reviewers and editors screwed up. The strong version of the argument, made by a few posters, is that certain tiny niches of physics and theoretical algebra are so incomprehensible to scientists in nearby niches that nobody can fairly evaluate the work of their peers. This would seem to drive home the point that co-called "epistemic relativism" is equally at home in the more "objective" sciences. Sokal argues that certain fields of "theory" are intellectually bankrupt and divorced from empirical reality; those fields can never produce collective goods, such as a cure for AIDS, and good scientists must therefore call their bluff, Sokal intones. But when precisely zero people can evaluate some bit of work done in theoretical topological algebra (just for instance), what are we to understand of the real-world value of that work? I suggest that incomprehensible physical science is no more useful to the causes of social reform* than is incomprehensible postmodern literary criticism.

Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries" essay argues against what I think are a lot of straw men who stand for various forms of empirical relativism, but he makes a good argument for the importance of understanding science. As a recent NSF survey on attitudes toward science suggests, many, many people are generally uncomfortable with or ignorant of science. But come on: That's not really because of literary deconstructionism's pervasive dumbing-down of high school classrooms. Whether this latest round of science wars is a hoax is less significant than the discussion the issue provokes, and the implication (even made by many thoughtful "hard scientists" on s.p.r) that gaining and disseminating scientific knowledge are in no small part processes of social construction.

* advocated here by Sokal, an "unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class."