Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science is a book that grew of of the Sokal text affair. In 1996, the fashionable sociology journal Social Text published a paper by Alan Sokal entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. This paper was complete and utter nonsense.

The paper contained such gems as "It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical 'reality', no less than social 'reality', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct," and "the pi of Euclid, and the G of Newton, once thought to be universal constants are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity". Ariels has a good review of the paper itelf in the node Tansgressing the Boundaries.

Unfortunately, while most of the text was the invention of Sokal, the quotes and many of the ideas found in the text and footnotes are real. In one sense, the paper summarized what a section of the intellectual elite believed. The controversy that ensued from the revelation that the paper was a hoax prompted Alan Sokal and Jean Brichmont to write a book. The book set out to critique two disturbing trends in sociology: the first is the abuse of scientific terminology, and the second is epistemic relativism or the notion that there are no absolute truths, or facts.

The book, originally in French, gives a scathing criticism of various "postmodern" thinkers in their use of scientific jargon: Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, and some others. Sokal and Brichmont quote these people's works extensively, and then points out what it wrong with the science and mathematic jargon that litter their papers.

From reading the book, I get the sense that the people being critiqued love the language of science and mathematics, their symbols and jargon, and so incorporated the language into their works without learning what the science and math behind the language truly meant.

The majority of the book are critiques of these postmodern authors. Most of those critiqued are French, so the authors had to resort to translations of the papers they quote, or attempt a translation themselves. The authors "assure the reader that if the passage seems incomprehensible in English, it is because the original French is likewise."

The rest of the book talks about many different things that people have used to abuse science: chaos theory, quantum mechanics, relativity, and the philosophy of science itself. Particularly disturbing is their exposition on the growing trend of epistemic relativity. That is, as a sociologist friend of mine said "truth is value laden, your truth is different from my truth." Apparently, my friends find it diffcult to distinguish between truth and certainty.

(As an aside, a philosophy teacher of mine used to love to say: "You can be certain something is true, but you can be certainly wrong.")

Finally, the book also contains the full text of Transgressing the Boundaries, and a large bibliography.

The way the book is written is not quite as clear as I would like. Possibly this is from the fact that the book is not written originally in English. And perhaps the quotes are too extensive. The quoted passages quite often approach gibberish, and what use is there to quote more of it? However, this book is still an excellent read, even if it is disturbing to find out that many of our respected thinkers 1) do not know much about science and math while writing about them and 2) do not believe in an objective reality.


Alan Sokal, Jean Brichmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, Picador, New York, 1998.

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