Alan Sokol & Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense

Fashionable NonsenseIn 1996, Alan Sokol published a paper in the prestigious academic journal Social Text arguing that quantum gravity is a “social and linguistic construct,” less a fact about the universe than an opinion or perspective, and one requiring “feminist and poststructuralist deconstruction” to free it from the innate biases of its predominantly white male theorists. The paper itself is utter nonsense, liberally sprinkled with references to revered postmodernists like Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard, Sandra Harding and Jacques Lacan and misusing scientific concepts so basic that anyone with an elementary understanding of physics would split their sides laughing. Sokol’s paper was a hoax, a scientific experiment of sorts: would a humanities journal publish a nonsensical paper if “a) it sounded good and b) it flattered their ideological preconceptions?” Sokol already knew it would, because such journals have a storied history of giving voice to intellectual impostors and academic frauds so shameless that Deepak Chopra benefits from comparison. Written with fellow theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont, Alan Sokol’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse Of Science is an excoriating critique of a small handful of theorists and academics who have garnered praise and influence far beyond their contributions to human progress. We are approaching two decades since Sokol played his hoax and lifted the veil, and I regret to report that little has changed. The academic left, stubbornly refusing to incorporate the findings of science, operates within a vacuum, cloistering themselves from the outside world with all the maturity of a child who stops his ears and stamps his feet.

The book is broken down into several chapters each dealing with specific theorists whose names will be familiar to students of the humanities: Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, to name just a few. Though their works do not always overlap, they share in common a belief that our perspective, or “standpoint” as they call it, irrevocably influences our understanding of the world, going so far as to undermine, even ridicule, the pursuit of objective knowledge, which they necessarily view as folly. To prove their point, they arrogate highly technical terminology from, in particular, theoretical physics, whose advancements in the past century have far surpassed what could be intuited by common sense. In the opening paragraph of his satirical hoax, entitled, incidentally, “Transgressing The Boundaries: Toward A Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Sokal summarizes their position:

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human being can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

I remain astounded that any thinking person could read this paragraph and not immediately grasp its satirical tone. It is, apparently, a “dogma” that there exists an external world with “properties independent of any individual human being” or that the universe is governed by physical laws. The legacy of the Enlightenment is an imposition? The scientific method fit for ridicule? To descend to such idiocy is to disavow the Internet, space travel, medical advancements, agriculture — indeed, the entirety of human civilization — all of which are products of the aforementioned “dogma.” What good can come from this denial, what profit to the human race?

The truth is that, important though this book is, it is a difficult read. One can only tolerate so much stupidity before overwhelming cynicism sets in, and this before you realize that the “theorists” whose hypocrisies and inanities Sokal is exposing are tenured faculty members at prestigious universities and widely celebrated academics whose excrescences have managed to seep into public policy. Consider, for example, Luce Irigaray’s contribution to mathematics. Here she is denouncing Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation:

Is E=mc² a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest…

Does this even require Sokol’s commentary? To my mind, it does a good enough job appearing ridiculous on its own. Irigaray continues this train of thought in “masculine physics,” which has struggled to understand fluid mechanics not because of inherent difficulties in the problem of fluid motion but because fluidity is associated with femininity and solidity with masculinity. Here is Irigaray’s position summed up by an American proponent:

The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability to deal with turbulent flow at all, she [Irigaray] attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids. Although men, too, flow on occasion – when semen is emitted, for example – this aspect of their sexuality is not emphasized. It is the rigidity of the male organ that counts, not its complicity in fluid flow. These idealizations are reinscribed in mathematics, which conceives of fluids as laminated planes and other modified solid forms. In the same way that women are erased within masculinist theories and language, existing only as not-men, so fluids have been erased from science, existing only as not-solids. From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.

You would be forgiven for conceiving of Irigaray as a prankster herself, constantly pushing the limits of credulity to see just how far into absurdity she can go before someone, somewhere, has the courage to denounce her casuistry. And perhaps she is. But then you would have to contend with her peers, all of whom Sokal and Bricmont demonstrate to be similarly intellectually bankrupt, and you arrive at the truly frightening question: how did such nonsense come to predominate in universities?


It will perhaps be difficult to explain the provenance of these impostors or how they came to colonize an academia supposedly devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and Sokol wisely – but perhaps cowardly – sidesteps the problem entirely, preferring to focus on exposing their errors rather than attacking the root cause. In his own words, his focus is limited to “certain intellectual aspects of postmodernism that have had an impact on the humanities and the social sciences: a fascination with obscure discourses; an epistemic relativism linked to a generalized skepticism toward modern science; an excessive interest in subjective beliefs independent of their truth or falsity; and an emphasis on discourse and language as opposed to the facts to which those discourses refer (or, worse, the rejection of the very idea that facts exist and that we may refer to them).” But whence came this focus on relativism, this dread of science and objectivity? I fear that no amount of criticism or ridicule will suffice to stymy these anti-intellectual currents until that question is answered, but until that time Sokol and Bricmont do an admirable job and Fashionable Nonsense is a welcome palliative.