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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2010
DOI: 10.5062/F4KK98PX

Book Reviews

Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy, and Culture

Rachel Bridgewater
Electronic Resources Librarian
Reed College Library
Portland, Oregon

Copyright 2010, Rachel Bridgewater. Used with permission.


Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy, and Culture. Alan Sokal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-19-956183-4. $24.95.

Many readers will recall -- some with relish, some with dismay -- the "Sokal hoax" over a decade ago. In 1996, the cultural studies journal Social Text published a rather grand sounding article by New York University physicist entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Fittingly, it was published in a special issue about the so-called "science wars." This referred to the clash in the academy between scientists and the then-quite-fashionable postmodernists who questioned the very possibility of objective scientific reality and espoused sometimes quite extreme social constructivism. Unfortunately for the editors of Social Text, the article was written as pure parody and submitted in hopes of exposing the lack of rigor in postmodern scholarship.

Over a decade later, Sokal presents, in Beyond the Hoax, a collection of ten essays (seven of them previously published) that deal with the hoax and its aftermath. The book is organized into three parts each approaching the issues raised by the "Social Text affair" from a different perspective.

The first part of the book addresses the "Social Text affair" in depth, starting with a thoroughly annotated version of the original article. The annotations definitely help the reader understand the many, many jokes and sly references embedded in the parody -- especially a reader less familiar with the language of postmodern cultural criticism. That said, the reader is eventually a bit dispirited by the whole affair as Sokal's annotations have a whiff of the joke-teller explaining the punch line; it might help you understand the joke but it sure diminishes your pleasure in hearing it. Essays written and talks given in the aftermath of the parody round out the rest of the first part of the book. By and large, these essays are thoughtful and illuminating. Sokal is eloquent, passionate, erudite, and remarkably convincing. One does suspect Sokal, at times, of selecting the very silliest passages from the scholars he critiques. That's fair but not altogether sporting.

Part two examines the dangers of pseudoscience and in two dense but engrossing chapters examines the dangers of relativism not just within the academy but also to society more broadly. Readers interested in the philosophy of science will want to pay particularly close attention to these two chapters. The book concludes by taking on religion of all kinds, which he describes as "mass delusion".

As might be evident from this review, the first section of the book is the strongest though perhaps less timely than the concluding essays. Sokal's arguments aren't always perfect but they are always passionately and engrossingly made. Each essay is heavily footnoted and includes an extensive bibliography. There is a good index and a thoughtful preface. So, although the book is certainly appropriate for a general readership, it is also sure to be useful to researchers interested in the rocky relationship between postmodern relativism and scientific realism both within the academy and in the society at large.

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