Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Reverse Sokal Hoax

"A bunch of computer-generated gibberish masquerading as an academic paper has been accepted at a scientific conference in a victory for pranksters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. . . ."

In an inverted echo of the infamous Alan Sokal hoax of the '90s, in which humanities scholars accepted a bogus scientific-sounding paper for journal publication, now scientists accepted a scientific-sounding conference paper. The former incident made Sokal famous and was then seized upon by innumerable reactionaries who show hysterical misunderstandings of postmodernist theory. Sokal later wrote two books continuing this attack which further shows that he and his fans hold oddly simplistic misunderstandings of scientific epistemology too. It has been yet another symptom of a general drift into slacking off intellectually into superficial polemics based on dubious reading skills.

Consider this excerpt from the new hoax:
"the model for our heuristic consists of four independent components: simulated annealing, active networks, flexible modalities, and the study of reinforcement learning" and "We implemented our scatter/gather I/O server in Simula-67, augmented with opportunistically pipelined extensions."

On first reading, a scientist will have the impression that it obeys the discursive rules of some new sub-specialized field. It sounds vaguely like a lot of scientific papers, but only vaguely. We assume that somebody else out there would probably understand the jargon.

Both hoax incidents show that acceptance for publication is based on trust because the jargon used in science is sub-specialized to the point where only a few individuals could actually judge it at first reading. This process of specialization has been increasing since Henry Adams talked about it back around 1910. Adams pointed out 100 years ago the advent of confusion among scientists themselves, when very few scientists -- don't even mention people in general -- were then able to assess the main idea of the cutting edge publications in science by Madame Curie or Willard Gibbs or others. Today this problem is even more intense and has led to confusing and improbable attempts to translate across discourses. It is the problem of incommensurable knowledges expressed in very specific lexicons.

In order to cover up this awkward problem, most people who maintain that they are educated now resort to dismissing strawman simplifications of what they haven't learned. Ironically, a key exception to this general trend of reactionary dismissal is for science itself. The prestige of science, its apparent objectivity and practical results, lend it a holy aura of authority. While most science (both its methods and its results) is indeed highly valuable and of great interest, what this exceptionalist faith in scientific authority misses is that some science is and has always been plain old wrong. There is such a thing as bad science, and it is more common than we tend to admit. The badness resides at different levels among aims, methods, results, and misleading rhetoric.

But again, fortunately there is also a lot of good science going around too. Judging the difference is not easy. And judging the difference between good theory and bad theory is even harder.


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