The war of the sciences

The war of the sciences

Author: Carlos Pérez García
Published in: Revista Quark, n. 10
Publication date: January-March 1998

"The Sokal Joke", certain columns in the magazine Physics Today and the book Higher superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science, by Paul Lewitt and Paul Gross, have served the author to relate, with singular irony, one of the most particular and enriching contests that has taken place in recent years between the academic community and a group of so-called Edinburgh thinkers. It was precisely the declarations of two of the leading exponents of this group, Pinch and Collins, in their book The Golem: What Everyone Should Know about Science, that served as the trigger for the fierce "war" that would be unleashed shortly afterwards.

Wars don't usually start out of the blue, but are preceded by skirmishes, quarrels and disputes, by an escalation of tension. The reader should not be alarmed, because the conflict I am about to talk about is no more than a battle of meringues or exchange of pie plates as in silent films. Some media have been talking about the "war of the sciences" to refer to a lively discussion between members of the so-called two cultures, the starting point of which lies in the suspicion that scientific knowledge raises among humanists.

After a century of spectacular advances, science is today presented as one of the most solid and undisputed forms of knowledge, on which people of very different cultures, races, religions, etc. can basically agree agreement . Hence the prestige it enjoys, which so-called human and social "sciences" such as sociology and Economics have tried to emulate with mixed success.

From these fields, aided by the Philosophy of science, experts try to unravel the assumptions and methods of scientific theories, seeking something similar for the human "sciences". This is why a number of institutions dedicated to programs of study on science have emerged in recent years, almost always under the umbrella of sociology.

First skirmishes

It is in this context that the conflict arises. One particular school of sociologists, the so-called Edinburgh group , undertook the task of demystifying science by asserting that science is just another subject social "construction" (a term much in vogue among postmodern thinkers) on which a community has reached a consensus B. One of the most significant examples is the book by sociologists Pinch and Collins, The Golem: what everyone should know about science, *(1) which gives a peculiar vision of how the great scientific theories are carried out. The golem is a character from Hebrew mythology, "a big fool who is neither aware of his strength nor of his clumsiness and ignorance; he is not an evil creature, but simply a crackpot". This is the image proposed for science from the book's degree scroll . Simplifying a lot, the authors argue that science is nothing more than the result of the admirable acquiescence achieved by a collective or community like any other, so that its results are not the fruit of a deeper understanding of "natural reality", but simply intersubjective mental constructions. In their book, Pinch and Collins show numerous examples of assent that cannot be considered - they say - the fruit of empirical verification. A sociological construct, however, in a community with strict rules, an airtight language and huge amounts of money. There is no doubt that this vision has a hint of reason, but in trying to shove the complex reality of scientific creation down the tube of "postmodern" schemes, they turn a succulent sirloin steak into a vulgar hamburger. Written in a lighthearted, rhetorical style, peppered with anecdotes, the book is easy to read, but at times the authors include totally superficial categorical statements. I don't remember if it is from the book, but on article I read that the authors themselves state:

"Many scientists are obviously scientific fundamentalists. They think that science is the royal road to everything knowledge. They think they can provide the subject of certainty that used to be given by priests. They think of it as a total worldview, a quasi-religion."

With this little pearl (of the kind that makes you cringe or give you hives) we have enough for now. Any moderately cultivated reader will soon discover the stupidity of statements such as this one, lacking a minimum of intellectual rigour, although they are, of course, spoken in the usual vernacular. Evidently there are scientists who maintain that their modest calculations will eventually explain everything that happens in the universe; evidently there are hallucinating people who believe in the scientistic myth. But from that to claiming that science is made by fundamentalists is an irrational leap, the result of prejudice rather than serious analysis.

Pinch and Collins insist again and again that the objective truth about the natural world that we scientists preach is nothing more than the powerful conviction of acquiescence. In other words, you scientists are myth-makers who want to pass it off as objective evidence. Your realities, the facts you want to prove, are neither more nor less objective than what any card-cutter, any astrologer claims: they reach "their truth", their myth, as respectable as yours. As you can deduce, admitting this relativism, anything goes.

Round two

Scientists were quick to throw the next piece of cake, in the form of Paul Lewitt of Rutgers University and Paul Gross, formerly of Woods Hole's marine biology department, when they released their book "Higher superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science"(2). director of laboratory of marine biology at high school Woods Hole, when they released their bookHigher superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science,*(2) in which they accuse the Edinburgh group of having orchestrated a frontal attack on science and reason at all levels:

"In the name of democracy they make a truculent defence of New Age, traditional sophistry and charlatanism".

Of course, these authors radically disagree with the socio-scientists of that time group. These scientists denounce that this "widespread, powerful and corrosive hostility towards science", with its anti-rationalist and relativist stances, makes the fat lot of charlatans, quacks and, not for the first time, tyrannies.

The loudest cries of protest, the most virulent counter-attacks came from the ranks of physicists, with David Mermin, from the columns of the journal Physics Today of the American Physical Society, standing out for his stature and influence, along with others by Kurt Goddfried and Kenneth Wilson (award Nobel Prize in Physics), all three from Cornell University. They defend a less sceptical view of science, according to which conclusions are reached on the basis of partial hypotheses, intuitions corroborated by experiments, attempts, analogical inferences, discussions that reveal logical and also aesthetic coherence, through a process that has the complexity of any truly human business .

The predictive power of scientific theory is put to test through further experimentation until it is fully established. And, like result, unlike the card dealer or the astrologer, science predicts an eclipse, for example, well in advance, independent of opinions, orthodoxies or ideologies.

Particularly illuminating in this scuffle were the replies and counter-replies between Collins and Pinch, on the one hand, and Mermin, on the other, which also provoked an enriching flow of letters from readers in Physics Today. Many of the comments, reflections on the task of the scientist, on the creative process in science, are of a high order, except for the following comment by the authors of The Golem on Mermin's counter-punches:

"We do not understand why the claims [in our book] arouse these religious inquisitions, processes of McCarthyism among scientific fundamentalists."

Another little pearl that sample a superficiality and stupidity worthy of the best business and that predispose the most painted against these emancipators of scientific shackles. But let's leave the golem, that little character from Hebrew mythology, and his minions to review another chapter of the brawl, of greater substance.

The Sokal missile

In recent conflicts we have had the misfortune to appreciate the destructive power of missiles (Exocet, Scud). The most famous missile in the current conflict is the "Sokal Joke". Alan Sokal, a theoretical physicist from the University of New York, annoyed by so much pamema, decides to give a test of the lightness with which the works of "post-modern" intellectuals are judged. He soaks up the texts of the main epigones of this movement, gets hold of their jargon and prepares a text on a scientific subject, full of delirious affirmations, mixed with a profusion of quotes from these thinkers, seasoned with some viscerally left-wing phrases, with the pepper of sentimental feminism, the salt of environmentalist sentimentalism and the filling of abundant blah, blah, blah. The degree scroll reads: "Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity". The author manages to place it in a special issue on "The War Between the Sciences" in the journal Social Texts, regarded as the most important mouthpiece of the left-wing intelligentsia in the United States. In the foreword to the special issue the editors - for the sake of completeness - added a comment that leaves them in the buff and exempts them from any further explanation: "A serious attempt by a professional scientist to seek from the postmodern Philosophy useful affirmations for the developments of his specialization program".

A few weeks later, Sokal revealed the parodic nature of the "joke" in the magazine Lingua Franca, explaining the barbarities contained in his article . The news spreads like wildfire through the newsrooms (it is front-page news in The New York Times and The Times and is commented on in Newsweek and in the main European newspapers), throwing into relief a conflict that until then had been kept in a strictly academic sphere. The editors ofSocial Texts regret the infamy, but the truth is that the penance comes to them where the sin is most abundant: the missile they were preparing against science explodes in their hands. They were unable or unwilling to realise that words as serious as "quantum gravity" are not left to promiscuous opinions, tarot cards or zodiacs, but to the judgement of experts. It would have been prudent to have the paper reviewed by a specialist who would have immediately revealed the deception, the insanity of many of the "scientific" assertions it contains. Already in the first paragraph Sokal ridicules:

"... the dogma imposed by the long post-Luminist hegemony on the intellectual outlook in the West: that there is an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual and thus of humanity as a whole; that those properties are encoded in 'eternal' physical laws; and that human beings can access a reliable, if imperfect and tentative, knowledge of those laws through the objective and epistemologically demanding procedures prescribed by the scientific method."

The statement that follows these two points is one to which any honest scientist would wholeheartedly subscribe. A little further on, Sokal adds, without any kind of test or argumentation:

"Physical 'reality' is, at bottom, a linguistic and social construct."

Not only our theories, but the very reality that physics tries to elucidate. In a joking tone, Sokal invites the supporters of this doctrine, those who think that the laws of physics are purely social conventions, to:

" try to transgress those conventions from the windows of my flat. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)"

Other statements that would not have escaped a scientist are, for example:

"The concept of the morphogenetic field is the touchstone of the quantum theory of gravitation".

"Lacan's psychoanalytic speculations have recently been confirmed by quantum field theory."

"The axiom of set equality (two sets are identical if they have the same elements) reflects the nineteenth-century liberal origins of mathematical set theory".

At the end of article Sokal goes on a rampage suggesting that the "liberation" of science requires subordination to political strategies, that science must revise the canon of mathematics, that there are signs of a new emancipatory mathematics in the non-linear logic of fuzzy systems, but that this new perspective is weighed down in its origin by the crisis of late-capitalist relations of production, and so on and so forth.

More than just a fifth columnist's joke, it is an empirical test of the superficiality that reigns in certain intellectual forums. subject Of course, Sokal received all sorts of accusations (dishonest, shallow, ignorant, pretentious, snobbish, exploitative), but what is certain is that he got away with it by unmasking the frivolity of approaches that, under the guise of postmodernism, want to imbue us with a new modality of alchemy or astrology. It is far-fetched to think that any of these sociologists of science would manage to publish in a scientific journal (Nature, Science, The Lancet or Physical Review Letters, for example) a reply equivalent to the "Sokal joke". And do you know why? Well, because these journals have proven censors of the different topics (at least two for each article) who subject it to the strictest critical judgement. And even if these magazines do slip through the cracks, they are not like the traps hidden behind the bombastic verbiage of Sokal's article .

From the ranks of socio-scientists, these angry reactions of scientists were seen as hysterical sample in the face of the cuts that basic science is suffering all over the world. Therefore, they should now draw society's attention to the fact that they should not lose the privileges acquired over the last half century. There could be something of this, although it would be something marginal that hardly affects the core of the question: objectivity or relativism in science? The fact that there are those who take advantage of the dispute to make themselves advertising does not go against any ethics; everyone does marketing as they can and as they are allowed to.

Intellectual impostures

Not content with the joke in Social Texts, Sokal, with the help of his Belgian colleague Jean Bricmont, has just published a book in French graduate Impostures intellectuelles in the publishing house Odile Jacob specialising in scientific books knowledge dissemination . Sokal takes advantage of the postmodern readings made to perpetrate his joke, used as a patina of authority for his article, to review the main representatives of this philosophical-literary movement, most of whom are French and publish in French, and who have had such an influence on North American intellectual circles. The book appeared at the beginning of October and is the subject of widespread controversy in France, serving to amplify the "culture war". *(3)

With this book, the two physicists set out, in their own words, "to make a limited but original contribution to the critique of the postmodern nebula. We do not intend to analyse it in general, but rather to draw attention to aspects that are little known, but which reach, at least, the level of imposture, namely the repeated abuse of concepts and terms from the physical-mathematical sciences. More specifically, we will analyse certain mental confusions, very widespread in post-modern writings, which concern both the content of the scientific speech and its Philosophy".

subjectConcretely, the abuses are of the following kind: 1) profusion of scientific terminology of which the general public will have, at most, a very vague idea; 2) transfer of concepts from the exact sciences to the human sciences without the slightest empirical justification; 3) superficial erudition based on using wise words out of context, and 4) manipulation of meaningless phrases and the meaning of scientific words. Obviously, Sokal and Bricmont do not wish (and even if they wanted to, they could not) to disavow either the human sciences in general or Philosophy as a whole, but rather to "deconstruct" a reputation, a prestige of a way of doing things in these branches of knowledge, which is not conducive to the rigour that is the hallmark of intellectual honesty. They aim to "say that the emperor is naked" like the boy in the story, to encourage a critical attitude among those who approach post-modern writings. They review the writings of authors such as Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Bruno Latour, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Serres...

It could be argued that Sokal and Bricmont rely on marginal paragraphs of those works to witch-hunt their enemies. But they insist that they are not simply picking up inaccuracies, but errors, writing that "we will try to explain, for each of the authors, what are the abuses committed on subject of exact sciences and why these are symptomatic of a lack of rigour and rationality in their whole speech".

To get an idea of the texts that are criticised, here are some samples (I am not going to name the authors, so as not to undermine the curiosity of the book's potential readers):

"Einstein's constant is not a constant, it is not a centre. It is the authentic concept of play, of variability... it is, finally, the concept of play. In other words, it is not the concept of something... of a centre from which an observer can handle the field... but the concept of play."

"The equation E =mc2 , is it sexed? Perhaps it is. Let us suppose that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over others that are less necessary to us".

"Human life could be defined as a calculus in which zero would be irrational.... When I say irrational I mean what is known as issue imaginary."

"Wars take place in non-Euclidean spaces".

So much for a brief overview of the arguments developed in Impostures intellectuelles.... In the book's introduction, Sokal and Bricmont address the possible criticisms ("these scientists do not understand deep philosophical realities; they do not understand the meaning of 'metaphors' and 'analogies'; they do not distinguish the poetic use of terms; they take marginal texts too seriously"), arguing against each of them more or less convincingly.

In a article following the publication of the book, which appeared in the daily Liberation on 18-19 October 1997, we read:

"We do not in any way say that this [the abusive and somewhat arbitrary use of scientific terms] invalidates the rest of his work, on the validity of which we declare ourselves agnostic."

They qualified the statement made earlier in which they cast serious doubts on the "rationality of their speech" and spoke of "mental confusions". As Sokal and Bricmont themselves pointed out in the article published by La Vanguardia on 17 October 1997 (p. 51):

"Contrast this with Newton's work: 90% of his writings would be the fruit of mysticism or alchemy. So? The rest is based on solid empirical and rational considerations. And that is what survives. If the same can be said of the authors quoted in our book, our criticisms are of marginal importance. If, on the other hand, their international star status is due to various sociological reasons and partly to the fact that they are masters of language, able to impress their audiences by means of a wise terminology , in that case, what we have discovered may be useful."

Sokal and Bricmont's parallel between Newton's work and that of the postmodernists is quite inadequate. A good part of Newton's writings are, in fact, on alchemy, writings that today are not even quoted by scholars, and which seem to us anachronistic. Can one call Newton a falsifier? Can one call him an impostor? Not at all, for those writings, outstanding in their time, manifest the seriousness and greatness of one of the greatest minds of all time. The scientific method was in its infancy and Chemistry would take another century to launch its instructions, but he did not use metaphors of dubious efficacy or poetic language to perform alchemy, but mixed and reacted substances, that is, he made use of the most rigorous methods of the time. Although Newton's work in this field is not as reliable as his work in mechanics and optics, it did not show gross errors in the eyes of his contemporaries. Can the same be said today of the work of the philosophers cited in the book? Will it ever be possible to draw a parallel between Newton's work in alchemy and that of Baudrillard, Deleuze and others? Is the authority of these post-modern authors to be found at Philosophy? Is it more of a literary nature? In sociology?


Let me now explain my own view of the whole affair. The reader will have noticed my leaning towards the scientific side, not surprisingly, being a physicist. I am a convicted (and self-confessed) realist who does not shy away from stating that science provides a way, not the only and perhaps not the best way, to knowledge goal of a reality that transcends us. I had a great time with the brawl in Physics Today and reading Sokal's madhouse article . What I have read of Impostures intellectuelles has also amused me and seems to me to do its bit in clarifying the postmodern smoke. But this book has, in my opinion, an error of perspective, as the questioning of the globality of these authors is not very credible: it is not possible that everyone and everything can be condemned. It is all well and good to stir up the discussion, to arouse criticism, to denounce papanatisms or abuses and to unmask frauds, but never from arrogance or on the basis of unappealable condemnations, but from mutual respect and modesty, listening also to adverse criticism.

Finally, what lessons can be drawn from this "war of the sciences"? The most important, in my opinion, is that scientists should reflect more often on the internal processes of science, because no one who is not actively involved in this research will be able to shed as much light on them as those who are carrying it out. At the same time, we should facilitate dialogue with humanists with an attitude of attentive and respectful listening that enriches the reflections in the respective fields, admitting, where they exist, criticisms and disparities of viewpoints. Dialogue with scientists is also necessary for humanists, because with their research and sophisticated observation methods they provide new data and interpretations of reality that also require philosophical elaboration. Think, for example, of Karl Popper's conversations with the best physicists of his time (Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger) or the influence that the writings of Ilia Prigogine are having on today's Philosophy . With dialogue, the "war of the sciences" will be transformed into a "discussion of cultures" that will shed light on all fields of knowledge, because the truth will win out, which is what counts in the end.



  1. Pinch and Collins: The Golem: what everyone should know about science, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  2. Paul Lewitt and Paul Gross: Higher superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.
  3. In this respect, see the report prepared by La Vanguardia in its edition of 17 October 1997 and the commentary by José A. Marina in ABC Cultural of 24 October 1997.