Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poe's Law and postmodernism

Warning: If you do not enjoy face palming, I suggest not reading this article. 

Over the last five decades, the most infamous school of philosophy has been postmodernism. This movement argues that science is a "power structure" and does not report any actual truth (many postmodernists also have a problem with the concept of truth, too). Instead of being motivated by a desire to know the world, scientists are imperialistic, white chauvinists who desire to suppress other belief systems. To back up their claims postmodernists attempt to apply literary criticism to scientific theories. For example, feminist Luce Irigaray attacked the general theory of relativity by saying: 

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 possible sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest.
If you think that Irigaray is alone, here is feminist Sandra Harding's thoughts on science's epistemology: 

One phenomenon feminist historians have focused on is the rape and torture metaphors in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon and others (e.g. Machiavelli) enthusiastic about the new scientific method. …But when it comes to regarding nature as a machine, they have quite a different analysis: here, we are told, the metaphor provides the interpretations of Newton’s mathematical laws: it directs inquirers to fruitful ways to apply his theory and suggests the appropriate methods of inquiry and the kind of metaphysics the new theory supports. But if we are to believe that mechanistic metaphors were a fundamental component of the explanations the new science provided, why should we believe that the gender metaphors were not? A consistent analysis would lead to the conclusion that understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was equally fundamental to the interpretations of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as “Newton’s rape manual” as it is to call them “Newton’s mechanics”? 
And science theorist Bruno Latour denying that Ramses II died of tuberculosis because he lived thousands of years before the disease was discovered:  

 Let us accept the diagnosis of “our brave scientists” at face value and take it as proved that that Ramses died of tuberculosis. How could he have died of a bacillus discovered in 1882 and of a disease whose etiology, in its modern form dates only from 1819 in Laennec’s ward?  Is it not anachronistic? The attribution of tuberculosis and Koch’s bacillus to Ramses II should strike us as an anachronism of the same caliber as if we had diagnosed his death as having been caused by a Marxist upheaval, or a machine gun, or a Wall Street crash.  Is it not an extreme cause of “whiggish” history, transplanting into the past the hidden or potential existence of the future? 
One of the attributes that seemingly all postmodernist literature shares is using nonsensical language in a virtually incoherent way.  This pattern greatly resembles the way that quantum spiritualists like Deepak Chopra use words like energy, non-locality, and quantum to mean things that no scientists would ever mean by them. 

A physicist named Alan Sokal saw the way that postmodernists used babel to attack science and decided the play a trick. In 1998, he submitted a fake postmodernist paper to the journal Social Text to see if he could get it published. His article, which was titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, argued that quantum gravity was a social construct (you can read the paper for yourself here). One of my favorite quotes from the article criticizes set theory as being chauvinistic and hegemonic : 
Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and ``pro-choice'', so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice. But this framework is grossly insufficient for a liberatory mathematics, as was proven long ago by Cohen (1966).
The most hilarious thing about Sokal's submission, however, is that it was published. That's right. The editors of Social Text published an article in it that argued gravity is a social construct, set theory is sexist, and contains more that six meaningless sentences.

One of my theories on this incident is that Poe's Law came into effect. If you are unfamiliar with Poe's law, it is when parody cannot be distinguished from a sincere article because the belief structure has no grounding in reality. For creationists. it is difficult to tell a person imitating a Young Earth Creationist from the real deal because sincere creationists sound like a bad parody. Since postmodernism, like creationism, entails a certain kind of jargon, it is hard to tell when someone is serious or they are just trolling. 

For example, take this piece of artwork which implies that the big bang theory was created by Satan. Before reading on, try to tell if if was done by a troll or a serious creationist. You probably can't.

This inability to distinguish sincere belief from parody is what made it possible for Alan Sokal to commit his hoax against postmodernists If you do not believe me, try to find someone who is a postmodernist and has not read Sokal's hoax. Copy and paste the quote I mentioned about abortion and set theory and tell them that it is one of the featured postmodernists. I guarantee them that they will take the bait and won't be able to distinguish the two. 

On a side note, I also recommend that you check out the Postmodern Generator. It randomly generates a new, postmodernist-sounding essay every time you click on it. It does this task by combining words that postmodern scholars like to use with references from art and political science. Like Sokal's hoax, you literally cannot tell the difference between these articles and the work of people like Derrida and Foucault. If you are in a class where postmodernism is being taught, see if you can trick your friends into thinking you wrote the essay (don't turn it in though, that's plagiary). 

1 comment:

  1. Where is your your citation for the quote allegedly by Luce Irigaray?

    I can no find no direct source of this quote. I only have the word of Sorkal and his cohort that she indeed said this.