The Lumber Room

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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

5 Responses

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  1. [Adding comments since it’s easier than editing the post.]

    Jean Bricmont, the coauthor of Sokal on the book, has a webpage which is like a short book: Postmodernism and its problems with science. His final section, Conclusion: Why Bother? has some important observations, especially Political Issues which shows up troubling instances of how this confusion undermines all the progress of the Enlightenment and democracy.


    I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them. (If science were merely a negotiation of social conventions about what is agreed to be “true”, why would I bother devoting a large fraction of my all-too-short life to it? I don’t aspire to be the Emily Post of quantum field theory.)


    So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.”


    If you really feel, Look, it’s too hard to deal with real problems, there are a lot of ways to avoid doing so. One of them is to go off on wild goose chases that don’t matter. Another is to get involved in academic cults that are very divorced from any reality and that provide a defense against dealing with the world as it actually is. There’s plenty of that going on, including in the left. […] For example, when I would give talks about current realities, even in research institutes dealing with strategic issues, participants wanted it to be translated into post-modern gibberish. For example, rather than have me talk about the details of what is going on in the U.S. policy or the Middle East, where they live, which is too grubby and uninteresting, they would like to know how does modern linguistics provide a new paradigm for discourse about international affairs that will supplant the post-structuralist text. That would really fascinate them. But not what do Israeli cabinet records show about internal planning. That’s really depressing.


    Sun, 2010-06-20 at 02:17:23

  2. From review by Tallis.

    Derrida — who always ignores criticism (as has been repeatedly pointed out) — responded to S&B [Sokal and Bricmont] with a characteristic haughty sneer: `Le pauvre Sokal‘. This was echoed by John Sturrock in a laid-back review (`Poor Sokal’) that made clear that intellectual integrity was not something to get over-excited about and worrying about factual truth is the kind of pedantry one should despise. Sturrock concedes that `the imposters [Kristeva, Lacan et al] are abusing concepts that they don’t know enough about to call acceptably in evidence’ but then, astonishingly, argues (in defence of Irigaray!) that while her `invocations of the sciences concerned may be worse than dodgy’, nevertheless, `in that libertarian province of the intellectual world in which she functions, far better wild and contentious theses of this sort than the stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont’. In other words, better uncheckable opaque bullshit that excites the ignorant with the illusion of near-understanding than the rigorous sciences that S&B profess.


    Sun, 2010-06-20 at 02:19:55

  3. Words from the post-modernists themselves. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Luce Irigaray says:

    d. Opaque Writing Style

    […] Irigaray’s opacity can be viewed as fruitful when understood in conjunction with one mode of writing that she assumes—that of an analyst. In this style of writing, Irigaray not only will not assume the position of a master-knower who imparts knowledge in a linear manner, she also considers her readers’ reactions to her work to be an integral part of that work. Her alleged failure to be clear, or to give a concrete, linear feminist theory, are invitations for readers to imagine their own vision for the future. Like the psychoanalytic session, her texts are a collaboration between writer (analyst) and reader (analysand). Irigaray believes that, through writing in this style, she can take culture as a whole as her analysand.



    Sun, 2010-06-20 at 02:25:03

  4. Excellent collection of generators! I didn’t know of snarXiv – fantastic!! Many moons ago, I wanted to create an “International Journal of Bludgeoned Buzzwordry”, inspired by such pieces of sublime brilliance as this:
    (17 nanos in one abstract – count them. SEVENTEEN)

    I wonder if the suggested uses for post-docs will become true soon, though. Surely, how long will it be before no single person knows what is known and what is not even within the niche in which one can reasonably be called an expert?

    Pomo bashing – refreshing as ever :-)


    Sun, 2010-06-20 at 13:31:53

    • The snarXiv is new, I just heard of it… I wanted only to post a link to the snarXiv when I started this post, but got carried away by other examples. :-)

      That abstract (nanopaper?) is nanobrilliant! Sometimes it nanoseems they’re nanonusing nanoprefixes even when not nanonecessary, using nanonanowords where nanowords would do. :-)

      On information explosion… I’ll get carried away if I start now, so some other time. :-) BTW see if you can find this great book called Tyranny of the Moment, which makes points that are all the more scary for being written in 2001, a decade ago.


      Sun, 2010-06-20 at 14:34:49

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