Yesterday was a very interesting day. Tai Chi, of course, and we got to
start beating each other up, and I got to go to a nice reception with the
fanciest hors-d'oeurves I ever did see.
But that was not the focal point of my evening. Warning: tirade ahead.
So last night there was a panel about the "Sokal-Social Text" affair. See
http:///www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/physics/faculty/sokal/ if you want to read
the text of what this is about. Simply put, Alan Sokal wrote a hoax
article about the cultural relativism of physics in a journal usually
given to discussing cultural implications of various fields of thought;
later, he admitted to the hoax and discussed the kind of atmosphere that
allowed his article to be taken seriously. The whole stink made it to the
front page of the New York Times during the summer (and the Raleigh N&O as
well, since one of the editors of Social Text is at Duke). The event last
night was intended to be a discussion of the whole mess among academics.
Jay Rosen, a hilarious guy and the most comprehensible of the entire
group, moderated over the panel of Andrew Ross, editor of Social Text,
Ellen Willis, a writer for the Village Voice, Alan Sokal, NYU physics prof
who started this stuff, and Stanley Arnowitz, some kind of leftist
commentator. I must say that my vocabulary comprehension was pushed to
the limit last night, and I probably heard the creation of a few new 4
In spite of all the verbal smoke blown, I felt better after leaving the
talk. I felt that part of the problem between the two major groups
involved was one of language. I think one of the points that the _Social
Text_ group was making was that one cannot divorce scientists from the
culture in which they work, or that the science they produce has
consequences that they should aware of. Our culture does indeed dictate
where money will be spent, what results will be sensationalized, which
results will be totally ignored, and who will be excluded from
participating in science. However, this does not entitle one to conclude
that scientific results are culturally relative. There are even worse
conclusions that some draw.
For example, I have seen papers purporting physics, math, and/or science
in general being anti-women -- they're not talking about the science
community being anti-feminist or culture's opinion of women in these
fields. Some actually claim that any endeavor based on rigorous
analytical, quantitative work goes against "the way women think." I find
this terribly insulting; it makes me think that the female authors of
these papers generalize from their own state of being. They unreason that
if they can't think clearly, then no woman can. I never heard of a man
making this kind of generalization about men. I've met plenty of men who
had no analytical skills whatsoever and they didn't blame it on their
In any case, at times the questions and responses went through opaqueness
to the other side of rigmarole. As Catherine Morland said in
_Northanger_Abbey_, "I don't speak well enough to be unintelligible."
I had better stop now. My only warning to all is, never get me started.
Who knows if I'll be nice enough to stop.