Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 2, 2006

Alan Sokal and science

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:11 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 2, 2006

Dear Richard and Brett,

I was glad to see your commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Stephen Jay Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man” in the current Monthly Review, especially as it resonates with Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science”, a book that I am about 1/3 the way through now. Cliff’s book can be described as a marriage of Stephen Jay Gould and Howard Zinn and it doesn’t get much better than that.

I do want to raise an issue that is close to my heart, namely your linking of Alan Sokal to the project of rescuing science from postmodernist obfuscation. As an old friend of Alan’s, as president of the board of the nonprofit that placed him in Nicaragua and as a long-time opponent of postmodernism, I was initially excited–as most socialists were–by his hoodwinking of Social Text.

Now with the clarity afforded to me by hindsight, I have a somewhat different take on the whole affair.

To start with, it is important to acknowledge that the Social Text issue, that was devoted to the “science wars” and which published Alan’s spoof, was itself a response to a conference held at NYU on the topic. Norman Levitt, who Alan describes as a social democrat, was the chief organizer but funding came from the ultraright Olin Foundation.

In your footnote on Sokal, you quite rightfully place some distance between him on one hand and Norman Levitt and Paul Gross on the other. I am much more familiar with Levitt’s reputation but assume that Paul Gross has pretty much the same ax to grind. You put it this way:

“Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, published in 1994, in part inspired Sokal to perform his hoax. Gross and Levitt deserve credit for rightly criticizing some anti-science scholars, but, unfortunately, present only a partial truth, in that they fail to seriously acknowledge the strong anti-science tendencies of the right and the long tradition on the left of commitment to reason.”

I think it is important to understand that Norman Levitt is actually part of the right, although not the Christian/Republican right. Surely the Olin Foundation has a way of discerning who is promoting their agenda. If Levitt would not be caught dead being associated with “intelligent design”, he has had a long and sordid record supporting corporate domination in the name of science. For this sector of the right, DDT, nuclear energy, GM crops, etc. are the salvation of humanity.

Levitt can be placed ideologically on the libertarian right that includes Virginia Postrel’s “Reason” magazine and spiked-online, a publication associated with the same crew that used to put out LM magazine. Levitt, Postrel and the spiked-online people mounted a conference at the New School about 5 years ago that warned about fear of risk. In their eyes, worrying about Frankenfood is the same thing as worrying about Friday the 13th.

In a recent article in spiked-online, Levitt lashed out at the academic left in terms found on David Horowitz’s Frontpage. He warns that some professor might be fired for “Suggesting that affirmative action might conflict with other standards of justice and equity, or that opponents of affirmative action are not ipso facto Klansmen waiting for their white sheets to come back from the laundry.” As far-fetched as this seems, he really believes it. He also believes that your own university, the University of Oregon, is a spawning ground for such threats to academic freedom, especially under the auspices of ‘cultural competence’, a program designed to ensure that the school respect diverse cultures. This program has infuriated Horowitz, the Murdoch press and all the other usual suspects.

It should not be assumed that it is easy to distinguish between the libertarian right’s enmity toward postmodernism and our own agenda as socialists. Back in 1997, MR published something called “Science and the Retreat from Reason” by John Gillot and Manjit Kumar that was sent along to them from Pluto Press with the assurance that it was in the same vein as Sokal’s efforts. Alan was originally intended to review it.

But when I got wind of this, I felt compelled to warn MR that their reputation would be damaged since Kumar and Gillot were long-time adherents to the LM sect. Upon reading it, John Bellamy Foster was alarmed to discover a vitriolic attack on Rachel Carsons as well as a paean to DDT, which in those circles has the same weight as the Transitional Program has in the Trotskyist movement. Foster went on to review the book in MR magazine and was forced to disassociate himself from the more noxious aspects of the book, which seemed largely beside the point. Kumar and Gillot’s problem was not in what they said about Rachel Carsons, but in their estimation of the role of science as a discipline beyond a class analysis and existing in a pure, almost Platonic, sphere.

Returning once again to the aforementioned Cliff Conner, this is an outlook that is challenged on virtually every page of his ground-breaking work. Unlike Gross, Levitt and even Sokal, he believes that science is indebted to the very peoples whose “local knowledge” they disparage. Indeed, without the American Indian’s discovery of the anti-malarial effects of quinine bark or the pain-killing powers of the willow tree (ie., aspirin), the world would be a lot worse off.

In solidarity,

Louis Proyect


Dear Louis,

Thank you for this highly informative and thoughtful message, which has added quite a bit to my understanding of this complex issue. I will look into Conner’s work right away.

Thanks again and best wishes, Richard York

Dear Louis Proyect,

Thanks for the insightful and informative message. Our intent in the footnote was to indicate a difference, but obviously it would have been useful to be more explicit in our statement. Incidentally, last week I actually picked up a copy of Clifford Conner’s book and started reading it. It is a wonderful book.

Yours, Brett Clark

1 Comment »

  1. There’s something to post-modernism and all that–there was something, after all, to Euphuism; and Chaucer’s parody “departynge of the fart upon twelve” was childishly unfair to the gossamer subtleties of medieval theology–but that something amounts to very little compared with the anti-scientific pretensions and insane egotism of the post-modernists themselves, at least of their American tenured epigones.

    Like the Frankfurt School doctrines it displaced, but to a far greater extent, the postmodernist movement was counter-revolutionary in design and intent, placing the interpreting intellect at the center of history, historical events at the periphery, and science in the category of infantile delusions, easily dispelled by the mere presence of the critical intellect, however incapable that intellect might prove of definitively interpreting anything.

    To the post-modernist, indeed, the impossibility of finally interpreting anything somehow paradoxically lent the critic a degree of authority and prestige beyond anything imagined by Hegel, let alone some inchworm drudge of a scientist.

    In its fundamental contempt for definitive interpretations, and its preposterous characterization of science as a social construct, postmodernism bred shamans like the reputedly incomparable Stanley Fish, to whom it never occurred to submit a purportedly scholarly article written by a physicist to review by other physicists. Why should he do such a thing, when he had so triumphantly gone beyond all that nonsense?

    Sokal, I think, knew exactly what Fish and his sycophants were up to and got them to fall for a transparent fake that would never have passed even moderately competent informed intellectual scrutiny, let alone actual peer review. His essay is a hilarious piece of satire.

    If Fish is still lionized by the literati, it is only because their petty-bourgeois individualism, in combination with the drug of tenure, has long ago pushed most of them into a realm of irrationality where even the Tea Party would fear to tread. I was once informed in a tone of pitying condescension by a tenured relative that Fish was all right, because at a meeting that he (my relative) had Personally Attended, Fish said that nobody takes postmodernism seriously any more. All his “colleagues” (thrilling word) agreed that this was just splendid!

    This is exactly like Bernie Madoff being feted, after the fall, on Wall Street, and observing that nobody took his Ponzi scheme seriously any more, to huzzas. Even the banksters wouldn’t go so far.

    The fact that Tea Partiers have decided to attack post-modernism means absolutely nothing. They are always crying out against this or that (Cloward and Piven, anyone?). There is no intelligence behind any of their attacks, to the point where it isn’t even an honor to be loused up by them. So why bother to react at all to the things they say, except to counter the effects of their propaganda? Any resemblance between Tea Party doctrine and actual thinking is coincidental–in fact, their deep confusion may be their greatest asset in the eyes of their capitalist masters.

    Comment by Roderick Random — July 28, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

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