Alan Sokal Replies [to Stanley Aronowitz]

by Alan Sokal

[Published in Dissent, Winter 1997, pp. 110-111.]

I'm pleased to have Professor Aronowitz's confirmation that the editors of Social Text believe in the existence of an external world. But I never thought otherwise. When I asserted in the second paragraph of my parody article that "physical `reality' ... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct", I wasn't trying to summarize the editors' views, but merely to test whether the bald assertion (without evidence or argument) of such an extreme thesis would raise any eyebrows among them. If it did, the editors never bothered to communicate their misgivings to me, despite my repeated requests for comments, criticisms and suggestions.

But let me not beat a dead horse: Social Text is not my enemy, nor is it my main intellectual target. More interesting are the substantive philosophical and political issues raised in Professor Aronowitz's critique of my Afterword. Unfortunately, Aronowitz seems to have had difficulty in reading my plain words.

According to Aronowitz, "Sokal cites Andrew Ross and Sandra Harding as representative deconstructionists." In fact, the word "deconstruction" appears only once in my article, in the wry (wasn't that clear?) confession that "I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class." Later in the essay I criticize some of Ross's and Harding's writings, but as examples of sloppy thinking loosely associated with "social constructivism", not deconstruction.

Aronowitz wants to know how political, economic and cultural factors can affect which scientific questions are (or are not) studied and which truths are (or are not) discovered. So do I -- I raised these questions explicitly in the Afterword.

According to Aronowitz, I think that knowledge of reality is "transparent" and I "never interrogate the nature of evidence or facts." On what basis does he make such claims? And if I were such a simpleton, why would I have explicitly raised epistemological questions in my Afterword?

But the trouble isn't just that Aronowitz distorts my own positions; it is that much of his essay is based on setting up and demolishing straw opponents. Who nowadays claims that culture has nothing to do with economic injustice, or that funding sources have no effect on scientific work? Who denies the value of sociological and political study of science and technology, or of the philosophical analysis of epistemological problems? My point is a modest one: that such investigations need to be conducted with due intellectual rigor. The works cited in my parody article provide a plethora of examples of how not to proceed. And so, unfortunately, does Aronowitz's essay:

-- "It takes more than the conventional procedure of repeatable experiments or calculations to `prove' that molecular biology is not a techno-science [what exactly does that mean?] when most of its practitioners have eagerly sought alliances with drug companies and other commercial interests." Here Aronowitz illustrates precisely the type of sloppy thinking that I criticized in the Afterword: conflating the issues of ontology, epistemology, sociology of knowledge, ethics, and politics.

-- "The ideal of domination [of what or whom?] informs all scientific inquiry." Oh, really? Superstring theory and Cambrian paleontology? Quantum chemistry and lepidopterology? Even in areas of science more closely linked to technological applications -- say, solid-state physics -- to collapse all of science's social effects into the single category of "domination" is simplistic, to say the least.

-- "In fact, in much of micro-physics what is called observation is often the effects of machine technologies, a reading of effects. But the reading is theory-laden. Which means pure description based on observation is not possible. Scientists require other tools such as machines, mathematics, and infer what they see from what they believe." This is a vulgarized (and somewhat confused) exposition of physicist-philosopher Pierre Duhem's 1894 remark concerning the theory-dependence of observation. Yes, inference from telescopic observations to astronomical conclusions requires assumptions about optics; so, by the way, does inference from my seeing Professor Aronowitz in front of me to the conclusion that he is in front of me. But these optical theories are not arbitrary; they can be tested by independent experiments. We do need to make the "metaphysical" assumption that the world isn't perverse -- that the laws of optics don't suddenly change when I cast my gaze on Professor Aronowitz -- but this is so in everyday life just as it is in science. Our observations are not merely encodings of our prior beliefs.

Aronowitz concludes his essay by observing that "what the scientific communities believe to be the case today may be revised, even refuted tomorrow." Yes, and what else is new? Every scientist knows that even our best-confirmed theories are in general only approximate truths. Newtonian mechanics describes the motions of the planets (and many other things) to an extraordinary precision -- and this is an objective fact about the world -- but Newtonian mechanics is nevertheless wrong. Quantum mechanics and general relativity are closer approximations to the truth -- and this too is an objective fact -- but these theories too, being mutually incompatible, will have to be superseded by an as-yet-nonexistent theory of quantum gravity. Successive well-confirmed scientific theories are usually closer approximations to the truth, but the exact sense in which they are closer approximations is a subtle one: they may get the ontology all wrong. Epistemology at this rarefied level may not have many political implications, but it is a fascinating and important part of the human struggle to know the truth about the universe in which we live.

Alan Sokal is Professor of Physics at New York University.