For the (London) Times Higher Education Supplement
This book (hereafter, S&B) claims to be primarily an exposé of postmodern nonsense, but is of wider interest as data for understanding current conflicts between science and the humanities. While its large menagerie of dubious quotations might justify intellectual jibes analogous to the US Congressional restaurant's renaming "French fries" to "freedom fries," neither this, nor publication of Sokal's hoax paper in the journal Social Text, suffice to explain the fiery rhetoric of the ensuing debate. A Marxist might point to the ongoing decline in funding, prestige, and student enrollments in physics, while a Freudian might prefer the authors' allegedly mediocre physics careers. But Roland Barthes, a major inspiration for recent French thought, argued against analyses based on authorial motivation; instead, one should examine how texts are read, or, in the jargon that S&B attacks, how readers construct texts.
Jonathan Ree's THES review of S&B's first edition (from which the second differs mainly in its new preface) showed how easily the editors of Social Text could read Sokal's hoax as authentic, since what S&B calls its "glaring absurdities" are far from obvious to non-physicists. But this observation only deepens the mystery: If not the gullibility and/or generosity of postmodern editors, nor the lapses of postmodern writers, let alone their French connections or S&B's authorial motivation, then what does fuel this bonfire? What deeper values are at stake, and for whom?
Two clues are the delight of conservative popular media in using S&B to ridicule leftist intellectuals (noting that Sokal considers himself a leftist), and the shocked response from the left. This polarization demonstrates that many constructed the debate in political terms. Another clue is that the quotes in S&B are not random rubbish, but are systematically constructed as "abused scientific concepts and terminology" supporting "epistemic relativism," defined as relativism about assertions of fact (however, a better definition of that term is relativism about what can be known).
We should therefore ask, what is at stake with relativism, and what is its political significance? In a society concerned with moral decline, it is natural for conservatives to promote as absolute, values that support social stability, and to see any form of relativism as threatening. Although S&B distinguishes epistemic from moral relativism, in my view it is precisely their link that gets readers so agitated. S&B's awareness of this suggests that it (the text, not the authors!) exploits this link to gain exposure for its own (somewhat veiled) political agenda.
Sociologists do not promote moral or epistemic relativism, but professionally they must practice methodological relativism, which requires understanding why scientists do what they do, without assuming truths that the scientists themselves do not know. For example, the existence of gravity waves is currently disputed. How can sociologists know who is right when the scientists don't? But S&B confuses methodological relativism with epistemic relativism, as illustrated by the following (from Sokal's Lingua Franca paper revealing his hoax):
Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment.As well as the two relativisms, this also confuses the laws of physics, which are written in mathematics and interpreted by humans, with the lawful behaviors of bodies, which are not.
S&B's criticism of Bruno Latour's discussion of Einstein's special relativity misconstrues Latour's clear explanation of methodological relativism, perhaps due to French literary style, but also makes serious technical errors that are less easily forgiven. Latour's "third observer" is not a third frame of reference as claimed by S&B, but instead invokes the need for (Lorentz) transformations between frames of reference, and more significantly, for the translated values to agree. By confusing observers with frames, S&B deletes the scientist, whereas Latour reminds us that the equalities in physical theories are subject to empirical verification. This is just one example of how S&B's pervasive identification of mathematical description with empirical regularity invalidates many of its criticisms.
While postmodernism is indeed much abused, and is also too broad for easy definition, many lumped under its banner share a concern for diversity and coexistence, and for peaceful survival in the face of conflicting values. This is arguably the most important problem of our times. Sociologists of science like Latour are in the vanguard of such concerns, and therefore merit encouragement - which is not to say that their excesses are beyond criticism. My own view, like that of the Dalai Lama, is that compassion is the most important prerequisite for human survival. It is also what effective sociologists must have for their subjects, and what is notably lacking in S&B.