Thursday 25 November 2004

Are you a scientist?

Some of us are, some of us aren't, but a lot of us occupy that big grey area: we don't work in labs, maybe we didn't study much science at school, but we know the difference between proof and evidence, we understand the scientific method, and we can spot bullshit statistics a mile off. Where is the dividing line? At what point can we say that these people are scientists, while these others are not?

Well, I have a simple test. Read this:

It has ... become increasingly apparent that physical "reality", no less than social "reality", is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.


But all this is only a first step: the fundamental goal of any emancipatory movement must be to demystify and democratize the production of scientific knowledge, to break down the artificial barriers that separate "scientists" from "the public". Realistically, this task must start with the younger generation, through a profound reform of the educational system. The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist and ecological critiques.


Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, "neither logic nor mathematics escapes the 'contamination' of the social." And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: "mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other." Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis.

If you laughed, you're a scientist.

This dates back to 1996, apparently, though this is the first I've heard of it (hey, I can't know everything). The above quotes are from a paper written by the physicist Alan Sokal in order to demonstrate that postmodern humanities academics, when they talk about science, talk utter bollocks. He submitted the piece for publication by Social Text, the editors failed to spot an extremely obvious piss-take, and published it, proving his point. Ha!

Anyway, in a roundabout sort of a way, this brings us back to my earlier post about how to pass the Turing Test:

It has always been assumed that the way to pass the Turing Test was to develop an astoundingly clever computer. Turns out that it can be done far more quickly and easily by raising an entire generation of astoundingly stupid humans with no grasp of grammar or coherence.

I now realise that there's yet another way of doing it: encourage a clique of self-congratulating academics who are highly intelligent and have a perfectly good grasp of grammar and coherence, who cynically use their intelligence specifically to eradicate coherence from their own writings. Here's the random Postmodernism Generator:

"Society is part of the failure of truth," says Lacan; however, according to Hanfkopf , it is not so much society that is part of the failure of truth, but rather the defining characteristic, and subsequent paradigm, of society. Thus, many theories concerning neocapitalist feminism may be revealed. Marx promotes the use of expressionism to deconstruct capitalism.


It could be said that the premise of Marxist capitalism suggests that consensus comes from the collective unconscious. The subject is interpolated into a neocultural dematerialism that includes culture as a reality.


If one examines expressionism, one is faced with a choice: either reject neocapitalist feminism or conclude that reality, surprisingly, has objective value. However, if expressionism holds, we have to choose between Derridaist reading and dialectic subtextual theory. The subject is contextualised into a expressionism that includes art as a whole.

Can you tell the difference between that and the real thing?

(But, then, what is "real"? And is it right for us to impose our concept of "difference", thus privileging some ideas over other, equally valid, concepts? Surely, elevating one set of essays as having an objective reality denies other essays their own internal realities, thus denoting them as the Other and oppressing their inherent challenge to the cultural hegemony of those who monopolise the discourse of "reality". OK; I'll stop now.)

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