Short Take: Sokal’s Reality

You remember Alan Sokal, right? Well, he’s back and he’s no less concerned about subjugation of objective fact to cries of “social construct.”

Imagine that the election really had been stolen. Four-hour lines and broken voting machines in Black neighborhoods of Milwaukee and Atlanta. Thousands of absentee ballots thrown out for minor technical flaws in Michigan and Arizona. Massive postal delays leading to late delivery of mail-in ballots all around the country. Finally, by a 5-4 decision—with Amy Coney Barrett as the key vote—the Supreme Court rules that, under Pennsylvania law, ballots postmarked prior to election day but arriving after election day cannot be counted. This throws Pennsylvania, and the election, to Trump.

In such a scenario—which was by no means inconceivable—wouldn’t millions of us pour out into the streets to defend democracy by protesting a stolen election?

Now suppose that a small minority of activists—maybe Antifa—had decided to go farther and occupy the Supreme Court building or the Capitol, clashing with police. Wouldn’t many of us understand and sympathize with their actions, even if we didn’t fully approve?

See where he’s going? Some of you believe that the election was stolen, that the insurrection was a defense of democracy and, well, you’re on the side of truth and justice. Sokal’s point is that while there is no objective fact to support your belief, you believe it nonetheless, with all your heart. And if the tables were turned, so too would the perception of what happened and why. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

But just because Sokal (and I) say there are no objective facts to support your belief doesn’t make it so, you reply. And that’s what Sokal is really getting at here. At its most shallow level, people you trusted lied to you, manipulated some factual claims and twisted benign video into nefarious possibilities. I’m not saying this to persuade you otherwise; this is “your truth” and you’re sticking with it.

But perhaps the key problem lies even deeper: not just the breakdown of consensus on basic facts, but the breakdown of consensus on how to determine basic facts. Or maybe about whether there even is such a thing as objective fact, something beyond mere opinion.

Is there such a thing as objective fact? Try running through a brick wall at full speed and you’ll find out. Yet, elite academics of the sociological persuasion argue otherwise.

But, starting about 40 years ago, a small coterie of social-constructivist sociologists of science began to break this consensus, with radical claims

  • The validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence.
  • The natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge.
  • For the relativist (such as ourselves) there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such.

These ideas were in turn picked up by postmodernist scholars—mostly in departments of  literature, it must be said, not philosophy—and from there percolated into the rest of society. There, they became part of the mother’s milk—the unexamined conventional wisdom—of some sectors of the “woke” left. “There is no objective, neutral reality,” writes Robin DiAngelo, author of the best-selling White Fragility.

You know those people who believe in wacky and wild things, like the earth is flat or chemtrails or the moon landing was staged or justice? They have their arguments, their “truth,” their beliefs, and they’re just as sincere as you. Why are you right and they’re wrong?

When all is said and done, postmodernist academics and their activist followers are not to blame for any of the evils of today’s right wing. What postmodernist relativism has wrought is, rather, something more insidious: by devaluing the concept of objective truth, it has undermined our own ability to combat objective untruths—to develop herd immunity to a pandemic of viral disinformation, as one writer eloquently put it.

Each of us is responsible for the facts we choose to believe and what we do about them. But if there is no such thing as objective truth, then it’s going to be really hard on your head when you hit that brick wall.

12 thoughts on “Short Take: Sokal’s Reality

  1. John Regan

    I’ve dealt with this subject – epistemology – a lot. Seems both of your posts this morning deal with it.

    I’m tempted to say that on the practical level, Kant more or less had this solved. There is “pure reason” and “practical reason”. In the former, epistemological questions are largely impenetrable and bottomless without, in effect, taking a religious position. In the latter, however, epistemological questions are straightforward and provide ready answers and we really needn’t spend much time or effort on them.

    In our day to day lives, including our professional lives, we are governed by practical reason.

    The problem with postmodernists, then, is that they don’t recognize Kant’s distinction and go down a bottomless rabbit hole.

    But then so do you, my dear host, when you say that “justice” is a meaningless concept. It is certainly a difficult concept on the level of pure reason, but on the level of practical reason it’s clear enough in most cases.

  2. rxc

    “Is there such a thing as objective fact?”

    One of the hottest areas of STEM research these days involves quantum mechanics. It has been discussed for about 100 years, since experiments with light and sub-atomic particles produced results that did not seem to be rational. The theories predict that there is a minimum level of uncertainty in the measurement of many different physical phenomena, and therefore one can never make absolute statements about those phenomena. E.g., we can never measure both the speed and the position of a particle with absolute precision – the more accurately you measure the speed of an object, the less accurately you can measure its position. It is called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

    Quantum physics used to be just something for theoretical physicists to worry about, especially if they owned a cat. Einstein never really came to grips with the “spooky” results it predicts. They generally average out at scales larger than a few atoms, and can usually be ignored. But now, we are finding ways to use quantum physics to do some important calculations that used to be considered impossibly hard, such as breaking codes and syphers. I understand the fundamentals, but have no idea how the quantum computers work.

    My point is that the concept of uncertainty has been discussed in STEM for 100 years. Quantum effects used to be (mostly) examples of the problems of “pure reason”, but they are now intruding on the realm of “practical reason”. General and special relativity had the same effect on physics during the first half of the 20th century, and almost all of us now we use them every day in technology that has become ubiquitous – the GPS system. So randomness is a part of nature. There is a semi-related field called chaos theory that deals with the the uncertainty of things like the weather. These ideas are making people less accepting of pronouncements of “TRUTH”. Which I think is generally a good thing.

    Lots of professional fields have truths or standards or important tricky words and phrases that are pretty well understood and accepted by the professional practitioners. You lawyers have “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”, we engineers have “reasonable assurance of no undue harm to the public heath and safety”, and the doctors “do no harm”. They all involve making tradeoffs and balancing different aspects of the field and their impact on society. The activists who nip at our heels love to hurl them at us and complain that we are not following our own rules and standards. Even professional practitioners have differences of opinion about what they mean, in theory and in practice.

    Maybe this is what makes us human. Nature, in itself, does not care about such things. Nature does not (generally) have any feelings of empathy or fairness. Quantum mechanics is not going to save your head when you run into the wall, even though quantum particles have the ability to “tunnel” thru very thin bits of matter, (My cats, however, DO understand the concept of fairness , when one of them is allowed outside into the yard, while the others are kept inside)

    Maybe we just need to calm down and accept, for now, some of the uncertainties and the inequity of results. We just can’t eliminate all of them, and should not worry ourselves into puddles of despair over them. Let the philosophers and the theoretical “scientists” think about them, and don’t let them talk to the politicians, or impressionable children.

    1. SHG Post author

      My son was a physics major working a UROP with the MIT team that won the Nobel Prize for the Higgs Boson, after which he changed his major from Course 8 to Course 2 because it was terminally boring. That was a very long comment. Very, very long.

      1. losingtrader

        Aha! You’ve solved the problem of running into the wall head first: “Terminally boring” is the new unifying theory.

        An ig for you.

    1. SHG Post author

      Does this contribute anything thoughtful, or was this just an excuse to take a gratuitous swipe at feminist engineering?

  3. Drew Conlin

    I hope I’m not missing the point but if we as a society can’t agree that there is objective truth based on our senses…. we’re screwed

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