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Principle of Symmetry Day!

Hi folks!  I took note of the exasperated-with-Sokal comments in the previous thread, and decided to try to give the guy his due on this humble blog.  Thankfully, he’s not going on any more about nasty obscure postmodern literary theorists; he’s left us alone for quite some time now.  Ever since he pulled off the hoax and then did his excessive celebrating in the end zone, he’s turned his attention to science studies (and, in the most recent book, to religion), and that’s actually fairly interesting (and interestingly fair) stuff.  I should also note that in my two rounds of correspondence with him, in 1996 and 1999, he was an amiable and generous interlocutor.  In fact, in the course of the second round, following my review of Fashionable Nonsense, the 1998 book he co-authored with Jean Bricmont, Sokal convinced me that I’d missed the boat on their argument about a controversy concerning Zuni land claims.

Zuni land claims, you ask?  Well, yes. Now, Fashionable Nonsense is chock full of sneers at literary theorists and extended citations of various French intellectuals slinging the shit about science.  This accounts for much of the content of the book.  What Sokal and Bricmont unearthed, basically, was a weird moment in French intellectual life during which members of the poststructuralist wing of the Left Bank apparently dedicated themselves to writing a great deal of WTF prose about math and physics (but not, for some reason, about biology or chemistry).  For this as in much else, I blame Jacques Lacan.  But the rest of Fashionable Nonsense is all about science studies—particularly the “Edinburgh school” of Barry Barnes and David Bloor.  Sokal and Bricmont try to walk a “moderate” line on this: they agree that it’s OK to be a good Kuhnian historicist and to take account of myriad nonscientific factors in the history of science when one is dealing with the context of discovery, but not when one is dealing with the context of justification, when, say, the determination of the precession of Mercury’s perihelion (and this is a big thing for all you general-relativity fans out there) is at stake.  The distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification, in turn, is really really really important, as we saw in the infamous Scopes monkey Dover Intelligent Design trial, when sociologist of science Steve Fuller showed up to confuse the two, arguing weirdly (some would say disingenuously) that it makes sense to teach Intelligent Design in science classes because, after all, Isaac Newton believed in God.  (Those of you who remember this blog from back in the wild days of late 2005 will remember that I replied to this argument at some length here, and later in the month, took note of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision here, in the only post in which this sober blog has ever deployed a line of dancing badgers.)

Anyway, last year Penn State’s Disability Studies Program had its official institutional home moved from the Rock Ethics Institute to the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, with the odd result that my official title is now (deep breath) Paterno Family Professor in Literature and Science, Technology, and Society (!).  So I guess I’m supposed to know something about science, technology, and society now.  So today, while I’m writing that GRE essay and running a few errands and reading a bit from Harriet Jacobs at this event, I’ll leave you with a little snippet from the Ginormous Looming Ghostly Head Book in which I go back over Sokal and Bricmont’s arguments about Barnes/Bloor and the Zuni, and then say a few words about Paul Boghossian and Ian Hacking (whom I met very briefly at that Cognitive Disability and Philosophy conference last month, and got to say, “Professor Hacking!  Love your work on dolomite!”—which pleased him considerably).

Enjoy!  I’ll be back tomorrow with something fun.  And maybe arbitrary.


We begin our excerpt from Ginormous where Sokal and Bricmont are discussing

. . . an October 22, 1996 New York Times article about Native American land claims, in which British archeologist Roger Anyon was cited for the claim that the Zuni world view was “just as valid as the archeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about” (195).  Sokal and Bricmont maintain, reasonably enough, that the Zunis’ ancestors did not emerge, as the Zuni claim, “onto the surface of earth from a subterranean world of spirits” (195), and that most scientists place the Bering Strait migration about ten or twenty thousand years in the past (194).  The second account, I believe, is unquestionably more scientifically accurate than the first, and it is a stretch, at best, to consider the two accounts equally valid in an epistemological sense.  (Their incommensurability is not the same thing as their equivalence.) But since the issue at hand had to do with scientists asserting their “right” (or at least their “need") to dig up sacred Zuni burial grounds, why are Zuni beliefs being measured here for their probable “validity”?  The effect is to substitute an epistemological dilemma for an ethical one, and that’s a suspect move in itself—as if the group with the most plausible scientific account of human prehistory gets to do what it wants with the fossil record other people happen to be standing on.  Still, Sokal and Bricmont point out that it’s possible to defend native land claims without adopting the belief that Native Americans have always lived in North America, having been sprung from the ground at the dawn of time:

We can perfectly well remember the victims of a horrible genocide, and support their descendants’ valid political goals, without endorsing uncritically (or hypocritically) their societies’ traditional creation myths.  (After all, if you want to support Native American land claims, does it really matter whether Native Americans have been in North American “forever” or merely for 10,000 years?) (196)

In one sense, no, it doesn’t matter: it is entirely possible to dispute the Zuni account of creation while supporting (with whatever degree of enthusiasm or regret) the right of the Zuni to stymie archeological research into the settlement of the Americas by humans.  But Sokal and Bricmont breeze over this example, and in so doing, they decline to explain how it’s possible, or when it’s necessary, to decouple epistemic realism about fossils and DNA from moral relativism about other people’s creation myths.

This is not an academic quibble.  This is a profound intellectual and political impasse, and no matter where your sympathies lie, it is absolutely critical to have a good handle on what kinds of claims are at stake—and on how to think about the impasse as an impasse.  For when Native American “creationists” come into conflict with scientists studying the history of the earth, the claims of faith meet the claims of reason—just as they do every time an advocate of “Intelligent Design” challenges the teaching of evolution.  Indeed, in the New York Times article to which Sokal and Bricmont appeal, Dr. Steve Lekson of the University of Colorado Museum is quoted as saying, “Some people who are not sympathetic to Christian fundamentalist beliefs are extraordinarily sympathetic to Native American beliefs.  I’m not sure I see the difference” (C13).  Here, the claims of science and the claims of history operate on two different registers for two different parties.  In other words, with regard to their status as beliefs that oppose themselves to evolutionary theory, there is no difference between Christian and Native American creationism; but with regard to the historical record of how archeologists have dealt with Native Americans and their beliefs in the past, there is all the difference in the world—as at least one scientist told the Times:

Most archeologists agree with the tribes that historical remains, some taken in wars with the Government and shipped to museums, should be given to their relatives for reburial.  But in case after case, Indian creationism is being used to forbid the study of prehistoric skeletons so old that it would be impossible to establish a direct tribal affiliation.  Under the repatriation act, who gets the bones is often being determined not by scientific inquiry but by negotiation between local tribes and the Federal agencies that administer the land where the remains are found.

“I can understand the loss of a collection when it relates to the recent past,” said Dr. Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, which has been compelled to turn over hundreds of prehistoric skeletons for reburial.  “Certain collections should not have been acquired in the first place.  But we’re seeing irreplaceable museum collections that can tell us so much about the prehistoric past lost and lost forever.” (C13)

Let me make my own allegiances clear before I proceed any further: I’m with the scientists on this one.  As a fan of Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel and as someone fascinated with the recent prehistory of humans, I would love to learn more—or simply to allow others to learn more—about how our ancestors settled the planet’s last remaining inhabitable continents after the Bering Strait migration, and I mean “our ancestors” in a species-wide sense.  Furthermore, I understand and believe scientists’ claims that skeletons nine and ten thousand years old have no meaningful biological relation to the bodies of people now walking the earth.  But while I do not endorse Native American creationists’ beliefs about the origins of their ancestors, I am unsurprised that Native Americans today would respond to scientists and government officials with skepticism, even intransigence. Certain collections should not have been acquired in the first place.  Some taken in wars with the Government. There are centuries of genocidal violence lying behind these deadpan sentences, and anyone who doesn’t hear an ethical difference between the creationist claims of Native American tribes with regard to ancient remains and the creationist claims of Christian fundamentalists about alleged gaps in the theory of evolution has a tin ear when it comes to dealing with humans and human histories.

There is nothing relativist about this distinction; nor am I applying a double standard, tolerating one group of religious fundamentalists and dismissing another.  Rather, I am placing two different kinds of creationist claims in what I believe is their proper interpretive context.  In the “Intelligent Design” dispute, no one is demanding to unearth any fossil remains from purportedly sacred ground, and there is no sorry history of “Indian removal” and extirpation to account for.  Christian creationists bring no such ethical and historical questions to the table.  The history of Native Americans’ relations with European settlers, by contrast, now serves as a barrier to scientific research on the early history of Native American settlement, and though I find this deeply regrettable, I regard it as a social fact that checks our knowledge of some of the brute facts of our collective existence on the planet.  The claims of science, and the hope of expanding human knowledge through scientific research, should sometimes be trumped by other human considerations.  The Native American resistance to archeological exploration in the Americas is, alas, one of those times.  I would like Native American creationists to believe archeologists’ insistence that skeletons ten thousand years old cannot possibly be the remains of ancestors of a tribe of people who have lived in an area for only a thousand years [footnote:  see Johnson: “The 10,600-year-old skeleton of a woman found in a gravel quarry near the town of Buhl, in southern Idaho, was reburied in December 1991 after the Shoshone-Bannocks—believed by many scientists to have occupied the area for less than a thousand years—claimed the remains were those of a dead ancestor.  Although tribal officials had given permission for carbon dating to determine the skeleton’s age, they forbade archeologists to perform DNA tests and chemical analyses that would have given clues about the origin of the skeleton, its diet and other matters” (C13)], but I can understand why Native Americans would refuse on both counts, with regard to the age of the skeleton and with regard to the scientific account of their own arrival on the land.  Given the history of the Tuskegee experiment, I would expect African Americans to be skeptical, as well, if they were approached today by a team of scientists offering to conduct studies of venereal disease in black men.

Sokal and Bricmont are right, then, to say that one can take the side of the Zuni or other tribes without “endorsing uncritically (or hypocritically) their societies’ traditional creation myths.” But they do not say why one would choose that side, or how one should go about distinguishing the claims of the Zuni from the claims of Christian, Muslim, or Hindu fundamentalists.  I mention Hindu fundamentalists not merely in the interest of multicultural correctness but because Indian biochemist Meera Nanda has eloquently argued, in Prophets Facing Backward, that postmodern critiques of Enlightenment universalism have been mobilized, in India, on behalf of the reactionary Hindu right.  Nanda’s work is important and chilling, and should be read by anyone who remains interested in devising theories that will be of no use for fascism.  But even Nanda is unclear as to whether every kind of social constructionism necessarily winds up working for the right.  In one paragraph she writes, “despite their honorable political intentions, all varieties of social constructivism end up giving aid and comfort to Hindu chauvinists who display many symptoms of fascism”; in the very next paragraph she writes, “I believe that disclosing the social structuring of knowledge is a worthy enterprise, but it need not take a relativist turn” (582).  What, then, is the difference between “social constructivism,” which always gives aid and comfort to fascists, and “disclosing the social structuring of knowledge,” which is a worthy enterprise so long as it isn’t taken too far?

To answer this question, I need to turn back to Fashionable Nonsense, this time to the first “Intermezzo” (and, I think, the most important chapter in the book), “Epistemic Relativism in the Philosophy of Science.” For it is here that they take on the “Strong Programme” of the “Edinburgh school,” as developed by sociologists Barry Barnes and David Bloor.  What disturbs Sokal and Bricmont about the Strong Programme—and they are far from alone in this respect—is its insistence on “symmetrical” explanations for beliefs, where the principle of “symmetry” holds in abeyance questions of the truth or falsity of belief.  In other words, a “symmetrical” account of two different belief systems does not say, “group A believes X, group B believes Y, and group B believes Y because Y happens to be true”; rather, a symmetrical account tries to explain why it is that groups A and B have the beliefs they do.  The relevance of this methodology to Native American creationists and frustrated American archeologists, I imagine, needs no elaboration.

Sokal and Bricmont quote Barnes and Bloor at some length: “Our equivalence postulate,” write Barnes and Bloor,

is that all beliefs are on a par with one another with respect to the causes of their credibility.  It is not that all beliefs are equally true or equally false, but that regardless of truth or falsity the fact of their credibility is to be seen as equally problematic.  The position we shall defend is that the incidence of all beliefs without exception calls for empirical investigation and must be accounted for by finding the specific, local causes of this credibility.  This means that regardless of whether the sociologist evaluates a belief as true or rational, or as false and irrational, he must search for the causes of its credibility. . . .  All these questions can, and should, be answered without regard to the status of the belief as it is judged and evaluated by the sociologist’s own standards.  (Barnes and Bloor 23, qtd. by Sokal and Bricmont at 89)

Barnes and Bloor are sometimes infelicitous and ambiguous, I think, as when they insist that “for the relativist there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such” (27).  This sentence is bothersome on two counts—first, insofar as it suggests that all local knowledges are equal in the eyes of the relativist, and second, for its obfuscatory phrase, “there is no sense attached to the idea that,” which makes the relativist’s relation to the idea more syntactically complex (and conceptually vague) than it should be.  But in the longer passage cited above, Barnes and Bloor seem to me to be as clear as day; they are simply enunciating a principle any sociologist, anthropologist, or ethnographer should take for granted in the investigation of belief systems.  Treat all beliefs as if believers believe they have reasons to hold them—and try to discover what those reasons are, regardless of whether they accord with your idea of “reason.”

Sokal and Bricmont reply guardedly: 

[T]he ambiguity remains: what exactly do they mean by “without regard to the status of the belief as it is judged and evaluated by the sociologist’s own standards”?

If the claim were merely that we should use the same principles of sociology and psychology to explain the causation of all beliefs irrespective of whether we evaluate them as true or false, rational or irrational, then we would have no particular objection.  But if the claim is that only social causes can enter into such an explanation—that the way the world is (i.e., Nature) cannot enter—then we cannot disagree more strenuously. (89-90)

In other words, if “Nature” or “the way the world is” gets to be one of the grounds for belief, then Sokal and Bricmont have no quarrel with the Strong Programme; but if social factors determine entirely the content—and not just the form—of beliefs about the world, then Sokal and Bricmont see the Strong Programme as a defense of irrationality tout court.

A few years later, in 2001, philosopher Paul Boghossian took to the pages of the Times Literary Supplement to sort through the claims of science studies scholars, post-Sokal.  In an essay titled “What is Social Construction,” Boghossian attempted to walk the same moderate line laid out by Sokal and Bricmont, admitting that “social values” play a part in how scientific research is conducted while denying that such values inform the content of research findings.  And in the course of walking that line, Boghossian took issue with the view that, as he paraphrased it, “although social values do not justify our beliefs, we are not actually moved to belief by things that justify; we are only moved by our social interests”:

This view, which is practically orthodoxy among practitioners of what has come to be known as “science studies,” has the advantage of not saying something absurd about justification; but it is scarcely any more plausible.  On the most charitable reading, it stems from an innocent confusion about what is required by the enterprise of treating scientific knowledge sociologically.

The view in question derives from one of the founding texts of science studies, David Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery (1976).  Bloor’s reasoning went something like this: If we wish to explain why certain beliefs come to be accepted as knowledge at a given time, we must not bring to bear our views about which of those beliefs are true and which false.  If we are trying to explain why they came to hold that some belief is true, it cannot be relevant that we know it not to be true.  This is one of the so-called “Symmetry Principles” of the sociology of knowledge; treat true and false propositions symmetrically in explaining why they came to be believed.

It’s possible to debate the merits of this principle, but on the whole it seems to me sound.  As Ian Hacking rightly emphasizes, however, it is one thing to say that true and false beliefs should be treated symmetrically and quite another to say that justified and unjustified ones should be so treated.  While it may be plausible to ignore the truth or falsity of what I believe in explaining why I came to believe it, it is not plausible to ignore whether I had any evidence for believing it.  (568-69)

But Boghossian’s apparent acceptance of the Symmetry Principle is undermined by the very terms of the acceptance: we are to treat beliefs symmetrically unless one of them is unjustified. I hope I will not be accused of using Western logic as a tool of oppression if I point out that this formulation begs the question at issue, namely, whether a belief is justified.  Barnes and Bloor, recall, had argued that “the incidence of all beliefs without exception calls for empirical investigation and must be accounted for by finding the specific, local causes of this credibility” Boghossian renders this, whether deliberately or through simple misunderstanding, as the principle that the incidence of all beliefs calls for empirical investigation as to the specific, local causes of their credibility, with the exception of unjustified beliefs.

Worse still, Boghossian’s attempt to negotiate the claims of the natural and the social makes mishmash of Ian Hacking’s work on the subject, for Hacking did not, in fact, “emphasize” that justified and unjustified beliefs should be exempted from the Symmetry Principle; on the contrary, Hacking realizes that treating a belief as unjustified violates the principle at the outset.  In his 1999 book, The Social Construction of What?, Hacking was considerably more agnostic on the question of how to deploy the Symmetry Principle.  In the course of a sinuous discussion of the history of interpretations of dolomite (yes, dolomite), Hacking detours for a few pages in order to remark explicitly on the assumptions of the Edinburgh school:

Members of the Edinburgh school were often thought to imply that interests affected the actual content of a science. I am not sure about the extent to which this accusation is justified [my emphasis].  Interests have a lot to do with the questions that are asked, with the direction of research, and the resultant form, as opposed to the content, of the science. The enormous commercial importance of dolomite, as a container and cap for petroleum, has had an obvious effect on how questions about dolomite are answered, given that the questions are asked.

The Edinburgh school is also famous for its strong thesis of symmetry. . . .  The idea is that an explanation of why a group of investigators holds true beliefs should have a very similar structure to an explanation of why another group holds false beliefs.  The early days of dolomite serve us well to illustrate this doctrine.  There is what we now take to be the correct account, furnished by [Giovanni] Arduino, and the incorrect account furnished by [Nicolas-Theodor von] Saussure and accepted by [Déodat de] Dolomieu.  Arduino thought he had a magnesium compound, while Saussure thought it was an aluminum compound, and claimed to prove this by chemical analysis.  The two cases seem symmetric.  Arduino did not reach his belief because it was true (in Chapter 3 I inveighed, on logical and linguistic grounds, against saying anything of the sort).  The explanation of why Arduino reached his correct conclusions will be of very much the same sort as the explanation of why Saussure reached his mistaken conclusions.  (202-03)

Hacking then goes on to endorse Bruno Latour’s theory of scientific networking in order to explain why the Saussure-Dolomieu theory of dolomite initially attracted more adherents.  Arduino’s theory eventually won the day, as Hacking acknowledges, but in his narration of the story of dolomite since its discovery in the late eighteenth century, Hacking never resorts to the claim that dolomite itself decided the dispute simply by being the kind of thing that it is.

But who cares about rocks, you ask?  It’s one thing to invoke the principle of symmetry when two groups of scientists disagree about the chemical composition of dolomite.  It’s quite another when you’re dealing with legitimate scientists on one side and a bunch of befuddled creationists (of whatever religious conviction on the other), isn’t it?  Well, it depends on what the meaning of “dealing with” is.  If you’re arguing that Intelligent Design is not a science and should not be taught in science classrooms, nothing I’ve written here will challenge or obstruct you, and much of what I’ve written should help.  But if you want to account for why it is that people reject evolutionary theory in favor of religious or other nonscientific beliefs about the origins of life, then you’re duty-bound to adopt the principle of symmetry—if you want to understand why people think they have reason to believe the things they believe.


And then, of course, you can still say, “this is why they believe what they believe, and this is why I think they’re wrong.” If, in fact, you do think they’re wrong.

Works bloggily cited:

Barnes, Barry and David Bloor.  “Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge.” In Rationality and Relativism. Ed.  Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.  21-47.

Boghossian, Paul A.  “What is Social Construction?” In Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent.  Ed. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral.  New York: Columbia U P, 2005. 562-74.

Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1999.

Johnson, George.  “Indian Tribes’ Creationists Thwart Archeologists.” New York Times, October 22, 1996: A1, C13.

Nanda, Meera.  “Postcolonial Science Studies: Ending ‘Epistemic Violence.’” In Patai and Corral.  575-84.

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont.  Fashionable Nonsense:  Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. New York: Picador, 1988.

Posted by on 10/23 at 09:23 AM
  1. Relatively speaking:

    Who gets paid?

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  10:49 AM
  2. Good question.  In which case?

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  11:24 AM
  3. I remember wrestling with this myself as a grad student…

    I acknowledge that you can’t simply say “Geologists came to believe X to be true because it is true” tout court without begging the question, but surely experimental evidence has a lot to do with it? Presumably that’s one of the reasons that the dolomite question was settled the way it was - that Arduino was able to produce more and more evidence backing his belief, and Saussure wasn’t.

    Now, it’s interesting to look at what sort of evidence was accepted and why - what sort of publications carry most weight, what people were most influential in their support, whether supporters changed their views mid course or simply died off and were not replaced etc - but, at the end of the day, fitting with reality is kind of important. Isn’t it?

    The interesting point in creationism is that it’s not a battle within the scientific methodology; it’s not like the dolomite question or, say, continental drift or the nature of dark matter, in which both sides agree about the way of knowing but disagree on the specifics. It’s a battle between two different ways of knowing - because, to a large degree, one side is arguing “it says so in my magic book” rather than “this is what I believe based on the physical evidence”.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  11:28 AM
  4. Are you kidding me?  Sokal has retreated into warmed over logical empiricism?

    Is Sokal aware that the the discovery-justification distinction is so muddled that there has never been a consensus among philosophers or scientists about what it meant?  Is he aware that when Reichenbach introduced the distinction in in English in 1938 that he was attempting to make a distinction between what scientists did (discovery) and what philosophers did (justification)?  That Reichenback called it “fictive construction” that has nothing at all to do with actual scientific practice? 

    Is Sokal aware of the vast literature on the two-context distinction that attempted to sort out what was being distinguished and coming to no acceptable conclusion?  Is he aware that it has been about thirty years since philosophers have taken it seriously? 

    When he claims discovery justification distinction is “really really really important” we are supposed to take this seriously even though no one in the philosophy of science has attempted to use this distinction in thirty years?

    Have I exhausted my supply of rhetorical questions?  I think so.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  11:31 AM
  5. Some people’s total career output is shorter than this single blogpost.
    As a humble ecological physiologist, I never really know what the hell you guys are talking about. Looks kind of fun, though, in a bull-session kind of way. Does it help at all to be stoned?
    (captcha: monkey trial)

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  11:59 AM
  6. I sometimes think that John Guillory’s “The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism” ought to be required reading for those discussing these issues. He nicely unravels the tangled thicket of agendas that were involved in the various strands of the “science wars”.

    Not only was the cultural studies crowd largely distinct from science studies (Guillory characterizes the Science Wars issue of Social Text as, among other things, an attempt by cultural studies to recruit science studies to their cause), but modern science studies itself is distinct from philosophy of science. SSK turned to sociological approaches precisely to avoid the epistemological tangles of traditional philosophy of science.

    Once the science wars went public, though, everyone, including the SSKers, started throwing around a lot of hoary epistemological arguments in order to justify their claims.

    I forget who called the science wars a “game of sandlot philosophy with pickup teams”, but that’s not a bad description of much of what went on immediatly post-Sokal.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  12:16 PM
  7. I wonder if I have this right. The symmetry principle declares that one must use empirical investigation to determine the specific, local causes of belief, but the actual beliefs must not be evaluated by empirical investigation. That seems terribly asymmetric. Why should empirical investigation be a valid tool for investigating one but not the other?

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  12:55 PM
  8. I’m jealous that you have “Science” as part of your official job title.  Before I was only jealous about “Paterno.”

    And you get to use Western logic as a tool of oppression in your blog posts!  Triply jealous.  (Well, I get to do that too.)

    Posted by Sean Carroll  on  10/23  at  12:57 PM
  9. Ken @ 7—because, alas, some beliefs are not empirically based.  So you would wind up with your evaluative thumb on the empirical scales, so to speak—and this is what’s at stake in Boghossian’s question-begging attempt to rule out “unjustified” belief.  Again, though, you can still say “my inquiry determined that X believes Obama is a baby-murdering Muslim because Rudy Giuliani called him up to tell him so,” while contesting the actual content of the belief (as, in this case, a reasonable person should).

    fardels bear @ 4—this isn’t about Feyerabend, is it?  Just checking.

    The “really really really important” line is mine, not Sokal’s, but yes, it’s not a bad paraphrase of his “modest realist” position on the history of science.  And yeah, discovery / justification is fictive and messy.  So is, for that matter, the Searlean “brute fact / social fact” distinction I tend to rely on (I note in Ginormous that Searle doesn’t even bother to try to answer the question of whether color is a brute fact or a social fact).  But it’s still not a bad heuristic, in my book.  Because on the one hand, it’s important to know that Newton believed in things like alchemy and God, and saw these beliefs as intrinsic to his work on gravitation, if you’re trying to reconstruct his horizon of understanding in a responsible hermeneutical kinda way.  But when it comes to trying to figure out why Mercury isn’t precisely where it should be in a Newtonian universe, Newton’s beliefs about matters other than gravitation are irrelevant.  Confusing these two contexts of interpretation is bad shit, and Fuller’s attempt to do it in Dover (saying, in effect, that religious belief is a legitimate basis for scientific inquiry, therefore ID is legitimate science) was a bad day for the sociology of science.  IMHO. 

    Sokal and Bricmont use the example of Mercury’s perihelion advance to argue against Popper’s idea of “falsification,” as well; to wit, nobody threw Newtonian mechanics completely out the window the moment that little (but crucial!) anomaly was discovered.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/23  at  01:13 PM
  10. And hi, Sean!  And thanks for helping me out so generously with the Ginormous book, especially the bit about Dirac and antimatter and large numbers and such.  I have “science” in my title, OK, but I do have to ask real scientists about these things.

    Oh, and is it all right that I keep quoting to people your explanation of that eleventh dimension in string theory?  Iirc, when I said I could get my head around the first ten but was befuddled about where the eleventh comes from, you said something like “it’s there because Ed Whitten says it is.” Which was good enough for me.

    Captcha:  anti.  Oh, that’s good.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/23  at  01:18 PM
  11. Thank you, Michael, for the great post.  I apologize if my comment yesterday seemed unduly harsh towards Sokal--when I was reading the Amazon reviews of his book, the phrase “just the brute facts” popped into my mind and I felt obliged to find a way to work it into a comment.  I was present at Illinois in 96(?) when you debated Sokal after the hoax, and I too found him quite agreeable.  I have been annoyed too often by those who claim Sokal’s hoax single-handedly disproved all those pesky French thinkers in one fell swoop, and I get perhaps too cranky about it at times.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  01:34 PM
  12. Oddly enough the issue of creationist myth other than Christian has come up fairly often in my own non-scholarly work, and this is a really really really important and accessible discussion of same. Thanks, Michael.


    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  10/23  at  01:54 PM
  13. I’m pretty sure I would have said “Ed Witten,” not “Ed Whitten.” But I don’t always enunciate, admittedly.

    Off topic:  The reason why the 11th dimension is there is because 20th-century notions like “the number of dimensions of spacetime” are not fundamental in string theory; they are approximations relevant to different solutions of the theory.  There are precisely six such solutions at large numbers of dimensions:  five different ten-dimensional theories with propagating strings, and one eleven-dimensional theory with membranes.  They are related in various ways, e.g. if you start with a membrane in 11 dimensions and squeeze one of your infinitely big spatial dimensions down to a circle, that two-dimensional membrane becomes ... a string!  Transformations of this sort allow you to show that all six of those purportedly-distinct theories are actually just different solutions to one underlying theory, “M-Theory,” which we don’t yet understand.  Hopefully there is another solution that has four dimensions and electrons and quarks!

    The warrants for the credibility of these claims have, alas, occasionally been in dispute, in ways that stray far afield from the purely epistemic.

    Posted by Sean Carroll  on  10/23  at  02:05 PM
  14. I’m pretty sure I would have said “Ed Witten,” not “Ed Whitten.” But I don’t always enunciate, admittedly.

    Grrrrrrr.  As a matter of fact, Sean, you were wheezing pretty severely at the time.  But all right, I will acknowledge the typo.  Dang these dang typos.  (Hey!  Now it’s an h bar!) And I forgot to tell fardels bear @ 4 that he only asked nine rhetorical questions, and this Expression Engine blog allows a maximum of twelve per comment.  But thanks, Sean, for the very helpful followup.  Especially your last graf, which should serve as a reminder of why sociology / history / philosophy of science is worth doing.

    And nashe, you didn’t sound too harsh—I thought your comment yesterday was really funny.  And that debate at Illinois was really something, wasn’t it?  Alan and I had an SRO crowd—in an auditorium with a seating capacity of 900.  (Mainly because of him, of course.) I am fond of remarking (as this very sentence will attest) that the only other time I’ve appeared in front of so many people, my college-era band was opening for the Ramones.

    And Chris:  thanks in return!  I admit I was wondering what you’d make of all this.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  02:45 PM
  15. . . . Searle doesn’t even bother to try to answer the question of whether color is a brute fact or a social fact.

    And a good thing he doesn’t. ‘Cause it’s a mess (more or less independently of color names). While color is a function of wavelength it’s not related to wavelength in a direct way such that, if you know the wavelength entering the eye, you can look it up on a chart and see what color it corresponds to.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  02:50 PM
  16. ”...the only other time I’ve appeared in front of so many people, my college-era band was opening for the Ramones.”

    How cool is that!  What year? (Not that I remember what year I saw them...)

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  03:21 PM
  17. Bill @15: not least because what enters the eye isn’t a “wavelength” but a signal which can be (is) analyzed into components at many wavelengths.  Unless someone is shooting a laser at you in the dark.

    Posted by Vance Maverick  on  10/23  at  03:35 PM
  18. Maladies—the whole sordid story is revealed here.

    And Bill—yep, it’s a good thing.  Sorry if my tone wasn’t clear on the first take.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  03:40 PM
  19. Vance M: Yep.

    Michael @ 18: No problemo. Just filling in a little “backstory” as it were. I’m particularly interested in color because, as you know, I’ve been taking a lot of color photos in the last two or three years. And so I’m faced with the problem of figuring out just how to render the color of a given image. It is physically impossible to produce a photo that has the color range of the original scene. Such a simple thing, color (at least when compared to, say, The Wasteland) and yet so resistant to our efforts to understand it. Well, actually, we know quite a bit about color - though our understanding is hardly complete - but it’s difficult to give a simple summary account of that understanding.

    I supposed if you forced me to choose, I’d say color was a brute fact, but not a brute fact of physics, but of the biology, the sensory physiology and neuropsychology of the perceiving organism.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  04:09 PM
  20. And I thought Dolomite was just the name of my Warrior one-piece stick.

    Well, back to my land and water claims as a member of the Gila River Indian Community.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  04:30 PM
  21. I don’t want to know what the “Rock Ethics Institute” is all about. I just want to be able to let my imagination run wild on the topic.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  04:57 PM
  22. John Emerson: Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble?

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  05:16 PM
  23. Michael, you are almost always right and now that you’re a endowed Professor of Lit Sci Tech and Soc I fear you may have ascended to the blissful state of pure infallability.  Nonetheless, I hesitantly venture to express a point of disagreement.

    So far as I know there has been one litigated case over the right of an Indian tribe to demand the return of pre-historic remains.  In the Kennewick Man case, a unique and important skeleton was found in a cave on public land under the control of the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Based on its physical characteristics and its age, it was not an ancestor of any present-day Indian tribe.  Nonetheless, the Umatilla tribe, relying on its creation mythology, claimed the skeleton in order to bury it.  The Department of the Interior decided to “return” it to the tribe, on its interpretation of a federal statute that gives tribes the right to remains of individuals who are ancestors of the modern-day tribe.  This statute is indeed a recognition of the sorry history of genocide, but it does not give tribes rights to the remains of unrelated individuals. The Interior decision was plainly wrong.

    Several anthropologists sued to be permitted to study the skeleton, and the court ruled in their favor. It found that Kennewick Man had no connection to the Umatilla tribe and that therefore the statute did not apply.  Bonnichsen v. United States (9th Cir. 2004), available at http://www.friendsofpast.org/kennewick-man/court/opinions/040204opinion.html

    Nonetheless, US government agencies do return pre-historic remains to tribes.  Why?  Because tribes control large amounts of land and have extensive legal rights.  Anthropologists control no land and have few rights.  Skeletons are usually discovered on land controlled by government agencies, and land-owning agencies in Indian Country frequently would like the cooperation of Indian tribes, but rarely need the assistance of academic anthropologists. So the Zuni, to take your example, have no “right” to frustrate scientific inquiry, but they do have the power to do so.

    It’s worth noting that Kennewick Man was not found in a “sacred burial ground.” It would be highly coincidental to find a pre-historic skeleton in a historic burial ground.  The excavation of bodies from known burial grounds would be pointless and illegal.

    Controversy arises when, based on its creation mythology, a tribe demands the “return” of skeletons that, the science shows, are not related to modern-day tribespeople. But the Department of the Interior doesn’t care about the science or the mythology.  It see on the one hand the Zuni or the Umatilla tribe and on the other hand some pointy-headed anthropologist, and it knows what to do. 

    In my humble opinion, these decisions are not about historic injustice; they are about the modern-day power of Indian tribes in comparison to the power of the discipline of anthropology, which has the low status of any branch of learning that has no commercial or military application.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  05:57 PM
  24. Thanks so much, Bloix!  I am wrong about at least five or six things a day, and I don’t mind at all getting new info that sets me straight.  But I think I’m with you on the status of these tribes’ claims; the Shoshone-Bannock claim to that 10,600-year-old skeleton seems to me exceptionally . . . ah, tenuous would be the kindest term.  My point is simply that Native claims to these remains trump anthropologists’ claims not only because (as you note) anthropologists don’t have much pull with regard to state power, but also because the settlers of this great land f*cked things up royally (again, the kindest term) with regard to their treatment of Native peoples.  A historical contingency, sure, but the history of science is chock full of ‘em.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/23  at  06:12 PM
  25. "Nanda’s work is important and chilling, and should be read by anyone who remains interested in devising theories that will be of no use for fascism.”

    Even if we just pretend the Frankfurt School critiques were never made, this is just laughable.  Some of the most grim projects of social engineering continue to be made under the sign of ‘science and technology.’ Any worthwhile constructivist critic would first turn to the ‘Indian Science’ Nanda black-boxes as a way of understanding how they became powerful (and a source of resistance) in the first place.

    Posted by dk.au  on  10/23  at  06:34 PM
  26. Is it “the kindest term” on account of the asterisk? What do you have against the letter U?

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  06:40 PM
  27. dk.au, I’ll grant you that the allusion to Benjamin in my praise of Nanda’s work was a bit of a, how you say, rhetorical flourish.  But can you elaborate a bit more on your final two sentences?  Specifically, what do you mean by “under the sign of” and “‘Indian Science’ Nanda black-boxes”?  And what are “they” in the final sentence?  The “Vedic sciences” Nanda critiques?


    Posted by Michael  on  10/23  at  09:39 PM
  28. And Sven, what do I have against the letter u?  Only that it is utterly and shamelessly unaccented in my otherwise accent-festooned surname.  Feh.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/23  at  09:40 PM
  29. According to my calculations Professor in Literature and Science, Technology, and Society reduces to Dr Internet, at least for the last ten years or so. Check my math.

    Posted by black dog buzzkill  on  10/23  at  10:12 PM
  30. As is my wont, I’ll focus on a minor comment at Michael #14 and 18, ignoring the more elevated ideas in your otherwise massive missive.

    I enjoyed the link (#18--haven’t figured out how to embed those links in this form yet) to your Ramones opening story: I have a vivid image now of an aging Michael in a bathrobe sipping green tea and retelling the story in increasingly more vivid detail.

    After much research (i.e., texting college friends)it seems I did see the Ramones in 1982, though in upstate NY, so I did not, alas, get to hear the Normal Men’s opening act.

    Not that I’d remember. It seems that, according to my sources, the Ramones were unable to articulate most of the words to their songs they were so wasted.  I, however, have fond memories of a band whose signature song my 18 year old students seem to know well.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  10:30 PM
  31. The scientific argument for claiming the bones doesn’t fit all that well into the framework of symmetry, does it? You have the Zunis, who say “we ‘know’ what these bones mean, and the consequence of our epistemological claim is that you can’t take them.” The Most Important Scientists (TMIS) in turn say, “we know the bones don’t mean what you think they mean to you because they’re too old. But we don’t know what they mean to us, so we want to take them.”

    TMIS don’t actually make an epistemological claim that can be judged valid or not until after the fact. Rather, TMIS would use their own instruments to draw a line between the brute bones and the Zunis’ social construction of the bones. It’s a classic case of “we will pry your social constructs from those cold dead hands.”

    It looks to me like this impasse as impasse boils down to interests and what some groups can and can’t get away with. (We all know that if the archaeologists could get away with it, they would enslave the Zuni to dig up their own sacred bones, right?) It just so happens that when it comes to some dirty femurs in New Mexico, TMIS in this story don’t really have a choice but to play on Native American turf (so to speak). However, if and when TMIS tell me what I can expect to believe about those bones, and why I should care about believing anything at all, I’ll take them at their word and save everyone the trouble of actually digging them up.

    The ID people by contrast decided they wanted to play on scientific turf, and epistemological validity is the only thing that matters there. We all know what TMIS believe and why they believe it and the ID people have nothing comparable. (But of course we all know the real reason they believe what they believe is that they’re BITTER.)

    Hm. In the course of composing this I guess I realized that when it comes to belief-based impasses, I believe there’s a big overlap between “interests” and “beliefs.” I wonder what my interest is in believing that.

    I would like to read more about this, and I confess that I can. I have to admit, Michael, that I purchased a copy of Rhetorical Occasions. This is hard for me to admit because I purchased it at The Strand Annex, for four dollars, in a going-out-of-business sale. Now I’m afraid I’ve claimed your book without recognizing its proper claim on me--I’m afraid your royalties have suffered. But listen, Joe Paterno is going to be in town this weekend, and I’ll be happy to hand him a check for you. I mean, you’re doing him the honor of bearing his family name; the least he can do is deliver some dough, right?

    Posted by  on  10/24  at  05:08 AM
  32. Looking for fresh ways to press the tax issue, John McCain plans to roll out a new attack against Barack Obama on Friday, claiming the Democrat’s plan would increase the burden on families with special needs children.

    A top adviser to Sen. McCain said the attack was designed to show the “bizarre, unintended consequences” likely to result from Sen. Obama’s proposed tax increases. Raising taxes on top brackets, including trusts, could ensnare special needs families who set up “special needs” trusts to pay for medical and other expenses that come with a disability.

    Posted by  on  10/24  at  06:33 AM
  33. 32: Ah, so hitting “enter” becomes “submit”.

    Was meaning to ask where the principle of symmetry would take us on a statement like the above from McCain Inc. (And I suspect it is coordinated with, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will give her first major policy speech Friday, an address on special needs and calling for better funding of it. )

    Posted by  on  10/24  at  06:40 AM
  34. It seems like you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. It might not be your fault. There’s no need for any “principle of symmetry” or radical adjustments to scientific inquiry.

    Why some person believes some statement is a different question than whether some statement is true or false. Both are answerable scientifically, but since they are different questions, indeed very different kinds of questions (especially if the statement is a universal), then why should we be surprised—so surprised that we start doubting scientific epistemology—when the answers are very different?

    Likewise, why should it be such a bad thing to say that truth claims based on Zuni mythology are inept while still observing that their ownership position over the artifacts is justifiable on better truth claims? It is/was their land, and what’s on it is theirs. Why do we need more?

    Posted by The Barefoot Bum  on  10/24  at  09:05 AM
  35. what do I have against the letter u?  Only that it is utterly and shamelessly unaccented in my otherwise accent-festooned surname

    Fair enough. I’m a little sensitive on the subject--it’s my second-favorite vowel.
    But--sorry--back to the whole postsymmetric modernistical thing. (can we get arbitrary today?)

    Posted by  on  10/24  at  10:08 AM
  36. I don’t know if the addition of “Science” to your title makes up for the loss of “Paterno Family Professor of Dangeral Studies and Rock Ethics.” Tough call.

    Also, with Dolomite, I was hoping for less mineral science and more Rudy Ray Moore.  The latter would be more ABF this F morning.  (The Disco Godfather passed on earlier this week) Have I said yet how glad I am that this blog is back?
    captcha: love

    Posted by  on  10/24  at  10:52 AM
  37. ZOMG!  Rudy Ray Moore is no longer with us? Dang, I have to stop hitting “refresh” on fivethirtyeight and pay attention to the rest of the world.  Thanks for the dolemite news, though, Treb.

    This is hard for me to admit because I purchased it at The Strand Annex, for four dollars, in a going-out-of-business sale. Now I’m afraid I’ve claimed your book without recognizing its proper claim on me--I’m afraid your royalties have suffered.

    That’s OK, va, I’ll muddle through.  Thanks for buying the thing.  As for your comment, thanks for that too.  Two quick things:

    The Most Important Scientists (TMIS) in turn say, “we know the bones don’t mean what you think they mean to you because they’re too old. But we don’t know what they mean to us, so we want to take them.”

    I’m not so sure about this.  I think TMIS do know more or less why they want those bones:  they would be part of a coherent research program, a well-developed paradigm, of figuring out how quickly the peoples of the Bering Strait migration settled the Americas, what they ate, how they died, etc.  They might not know exactly what these particular bones or those particular bones might mean, but they have a pretty good array of questions all set to go.

    But I take your point about the not-exact symmetry here.  All I’m saying is that the Strong Programme asks us to think, “group A believes B because of C, and group X believes Y because of Z.”

    We all know that if the archaeologists could get away with it, they would enslave the Zuni to dig up their own sacred bones, right?

    Oh, come on.  This should be a happy occasion!  Let’s not bicker and argue about ‘oo enslaved ‘oo.

    It seems like you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing, O Barefoot One.  But seriously, yes there is a need for a principle of symmetry—if you’re working with the Barnes ‘n’ Bloor approach.  And nothing in this post (or anything else I’ve written in re Sokal) suggests that we need to doubt scientific epistemology.  The question is what to do when we run up against people working from different premises—even, or especially, premises that we regard as illegitimate.

    Likewise, why should it be such a bad thing to say that truth claims based on Zuni mythology are inept while still observing that their ownership position over the artifacts is justifiable on better truth claims? It is/was their land, and what’s on it is theirs. Why do we need more?

    Well, this was basically my response to Sokal and Bricmont ten years ago, and it’s where I missed the boat.  They weren’t taking issue with the Zuni (check that first blockquoted paragraph of theirs, near the top of this post); they were taking issue with Roger Anyon.

    Posted by  on  10/24  at  11:14 AM
  38. michael,

    just a note to let you know mb and i will read this post in the next few days.


    Posted by ebw  on  10/25  at  10:18 AM
  39. Sometimes I wish that Fleischmann and Pons had closed down Science magazine with their cold fusion hoax in 1989, yet another physics paper that was difficult to decipher. 

    That is the kind of story that belongs in Fashionable Nonsense.

    Posted by  on  10/25  at  11:47 AM





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