March 22, 2009
Physicist Tests Journal of Cultural Studies - Finds Relativism Gone Mad!Alan D. Sokal, a physicist at NYU, submitted a wordy article to a leading journal of cultural studies packed full of outrageous and totally unsupported claims suggesting that physical reality is a social construct and even that science should be led by a political agenda. And it got published. Without any corrections.
As Sokal puts it:
"What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore -- questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.
In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There IS a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence DO matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths -- the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language."
One can't help wondering if many of our leading professional publications would be just as easily bamboozled by relativist nonsense. I have read articles that, at the time, I thought must surely be spoofs.
Software development abounds with outrageous and totally unsupported claims and the "epistemic relativism" Sokal accuses Social Text of championing. Most specifically, the pernicious and ultimately disastrous notion that your way is as good as my way is as good as their ways (so everybody gets to be right - hoorah for everybody!) and that, in software projects, there is no objective reality and all that matters is perspective and discourse. In less fancy language, we get to sit around yapping all day and everybody's opinion is equally valid - and evidence doesn't matter.
Indeed, as critics of metrics are fond of pointing out, reliance on evidence leads to oppression. I would argue that misinterpretation and/or misapplication of - often poor quality - evidence can and does lead to bad things in all kinds of organisational life. But I don't infer from this that seeking evidence is therefore always wrong (far from it), or that the reality of software and software development itself is somehow beyond empiricial understanding in certain key respects.
This is currently a very unfashionable view, and one for which I'm often chided by my peers. But I increasingly believe it to be important, and see a dark future for our profession if we continue down the slippery slope of woolly thinking that we're on.
Posted 10 years, 6 months ago on March 22, 2009