Posts Tagged ‘Science for the People’

Sokal and Bricmont on the Harm Done to Developing Countries by Postmodernism

July 10, 2021

I’ve put up a number of articles recently attacking various forms of postmodernism, such as Critical Race Theory, for their radical rejection of Enlightenment values of rational debate and liberalism. In the case of Critical Race Theory, this has produced an ideology with definite Fascistic characteristics in its appeal to irrationalism, feelings and racial feeling against Western rationalism, which is held to be a form of enslavement when taken up by or foisted on Blacks. This is exactly like the Nazi denunciation of democracy as a Jewish plot to enslave Aryan Germans. Postmodernism is modern philosophy that explicitly preaches radical scepticism. It states that there is no such thing as objective fact and questions scientific objectivity with the claim that scientific theories are merely the product of particular historical events. It was developed by radical sociologists of science, such as the French scholar Bruno Latour, from the work of Willard Quine and Paul Feyerabend. Latour’s anti-scientific scepticism went so far as to question the death of one of the pharaohs from tuberculosis, as suggested by medical researchers in the ’70s. He did so, not because of any medical evidence suggesting another cause, but because tuberculosis was only identified as a specific disease in the 19th century. He stated that the disease only began when it was discovered by Koch, and so couldn’t have existed back in ancient Egypt to kill the pharaoh.

One of the first major attacks on Postmodernism was by the American mathematicians and physicist Alan Sokal and the Belgian philosopher Jean Bricmont. Sokal had kept a dossier of postmodernist papers which cited scientific and mathematical concepts and terminology, but were in fact utterly nonsensical. The two published a book based on these, Intellectual Impostures, which showed how these philosophers abused science and maths. Sometimes they had a vague notion what they were talking about, but the concepts cited were used loosely with no explanation why they were supposed to be relevant to what was supposed to be the subject of their papers, like psychoanalysis. In short, they were attempts by the postmodernists to make their arguments sound more impressive than they really were by couching them in incomprehensible prose and arbitrarily selected bits and pieces of science and maths.

They write that postmodernism is harmful in the Developed World, but the real damage is being done in the Developing World through the postmodernist demand for respect for indigenous traditions, even when they are exploitative, citing a left-wing Indian activist and scientist, Meera Nanda. They write

Unfortunately, postmodern ideas are not confined to European philosophy departments or American literature departments. It seems to us that they do the most harm in the Third World, where the majority of the world’s population live and where the supposedly ‘passe’ work of the Enlightenment is far from complete.

Meera Nanda, an Indian biochemist who used to work in the ‘Science for the People’ movements in India and who is now studying sociology of science in the United States, tells the following story about the traditional Vedic superstitions governing the construction of sacred buildings, which aim at maximizing ‘positive energy’. An Indian politician, who found himself in hot water, was advised that

‘his troubles would vanish if he entered his office from an east-facing gate. But on the east side of his office there was a slum through which his car could not pass. [So he] organized the slum to be demolished.’

Nanda observes, quite rightly, that

‘If the Indian left were as active in the people’s science movement as it used to be, it would have led an agitation not only against the demolition of people’s homes, but also against the superstition that was used to justify it… A left movement that was not so busy establishing ‘respect’ for non-Western knowledge would never have allowed the power-wielders to hid behind indigenous ‘experts’.

I tried out this case on my social constructionist friends here in the United States … [They told me] that seeing the two culturally bound descriptions of space at par with each other is progressive in itself, for then neither can claim to know the absolute truth, and thus tradition will lose its hold on people’s minds.

From Sokal and Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures (London: Profile Books 1998) 94-5.

Now, 23 years after that was written, the philosophical and moral relativists who demanded a completely uncritical respect for indigenous tradition are demanding that it should be incorporated into western science and culture in order to decolonise them. Thus we had the squalid spectacle of a video that appeared a little while ago of a debate in a South African university in which a Black student angrily claimed that western science was racist because it did not accept that African shamans could cause it to rain. The reason why science does not do so is because the supernatural is, by its nature, beyond and outside science’s purview.

But such radical postmodernism and attacks on science and rationality threaten the very foundations of civilisation and spread ignorance and prejudice, leading to the further impoverishment and exploitation of the very people the postmodernists claim to want to help.