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Archive for June 19th, 2010

Randomness and reality

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We know the arXiv (pronounced “archive”) — it has scientific papers. The snarXiv is a hilarious parody, which randomly generates titles and abstracts that look like papers in high-energy physics. The generator is surprisingly sophisticated; you can play arXiv vs. snarXiv to see if you can distinguish fake titles from the real thing. I started off well but could manage only ≈70% accuracy after 30 guesses. (Although I don’t know anything about high-energy physics, I vaguely know a little mathematical terminology, and tried guessing based on heuristics like “this is too weird to be generated by the grammar” — and failed.) You can read his About page for details. (“Sug­gested Uses for the snarXiv: [..] If you’re a grad­u­ate stu­dent, gloomily read through the abstracts, think­ing to your­self that you don’t under­stand papers on the real arXiv any better. If you’re a post-doc, reload until you find some­thing to work on.”)


He also has a random theorem generator that generates “theorems” that look very real. (With typical proofs, too.) You may also remember SCIGEN, which generates random computer-science papers, including one that was accepted by a bogus conference. There’s also a brilliant Postmodernism generator (reload to get a new essay as good as “real”), and one for teenage poetry.

All this must remind some people of the Sokal affair, a brilliant hoax perpetrated by physics professor Alan Sokal who submitted a meaningless essay on science to the leading postmodern journal Social Text — it was accepted, demonstrating that they would “publish an article consisting of utter nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”. There is a crucial difference — while the earlier examples quoted here (except possibly the postmodernism and poetry generators) show that non-experts cannot distinguish the real from the randomly generated, Sokal showed that the so-called “experts” in postmodernism aren’t very discriminating either.
His paper included such wonderful gems, hilarious nonsense to any mathematician and clearly far-fetched to even a non-mathematical reader, as:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and ‘pro-choice’, so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

He also pleased the editors by claiming that Lacan’s gibberish was proved by quantum theory, and Derrida’s nonsense by general relativity. In fact the entire paper is essentially an exercise in “glueing together, without any logic, quotes from several famous French and American intellectuals who make quite ignorant statements about physics or mathematics, with, however, great self-confidence”.

You can read the Wikipedia article, or Martin Gardner’s essay Alan Sokal’s Hilarious Hoax, to see the kind of bullshit that passes for “scholarship” in post-modernism today. It does get hard to believe. Not only did Lacan (a leading name in postmodernism) famously and meaninglessly say, in the same essay:

Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the square root of –1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (–1).

and also that “a torus … is exactly the structure of the neurotic”, but, when asked about it and given a way out with the suggestion that perhaps it was an analogy, he insisted:

This torus really exists and it is exactly the structure of the neurotic. It is not an analogon; it is not even an abstraction, because an abstraction is some sort of diminution of reality

and so on. (Even after all this was torn apart by Sokal and his coauthor in their later book Intellectual Impostures/Fashionable Nonsense, some postmodernists insist… Why, even after Sokal’s paper was revealed to be a hoax, the journal’s editors insisted that it didn’t matter at all; the paper was still “valuable” as a “symptomatic document”.)

Why does this all matter? If these people get off by pushing senseless words around, why not ignore them and let them have their fun? Well, that’s what we do in practice, but there are serious consequences beyond the fact that they are paid to spew garbage: “the problem is not only that a few individuals go out of their way when they talk about science, but that their cultural environment (commentators and journalists) tolerates and even encourages this sloppy way of thinking”, and one of their goals is to undermine science (not merely to highlight the social and cultural context), and deny that anything such as objective truth exists. [Sokal points out: “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor).”] The feminist “philosopher” Luce Irigaray believes, for example, that E=mc2 is sexist (her phrase: “sexed equation”). Why? Because the equation

privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather its having privileged what goes the fastest…

… Let her try replacing it with her preferred speeds? She also claims that the reason we have not been able to develop fluid mechanics as much as solid mechanics is because science is masculinist. You can read more such delightful (or infuriating) babble along with the authors’ observations in their book, or this review, or this review, or this review, etc.

So much for postmodern theories of science. There is, of course, no reason to believe that postmodernist theories elsewhere stand on any better foundation, beyond the fact that “postmodern” is mostly a meaningless word thrown around to let one get away with empty “discourses”. Although some of the reviews are written optimistically, with titles like “Farewell to a Fad”, it’s not clear that idiocy is going away. For a great post on “post-modern” literature, see Postmodernism and its discontents – a heretic speaks up!.

More examples in the comments below. [Note: If you got some garbled draft in your feed reader, sorry, it’s because of WordPress #@$#! access keys that steal Ctrl-P to mean “Publish”. To disable it I use a modification of this script, but it needs Greasemonkey.]


Written by S

Sat, 2010-06-19 at 23:59:58

Posted in funny