Tag Archives: Alan Sokal

The Emperor’s language has no clothes

I’ve been known to pontificate catch phrases in jest like: “Never use a polysyllabic word when a diminutive synonym will suffice.” I admit freely that I can be a wordy speaker – I can BS with the best when its just us and the chickens, but when it is game time, I know how to distill a thought into the essentials. I appreciate brevity, and simplification is a skill to be admired. Some folks need to take that to heart with their entire language set…social scientists in particular.

I just read Robert Jungk’s nice history  of the atomic scientists who created the first bomb, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns. Excellent story, though if you plan on reading it, I’m sure you won’t be surprised at the editorializing. Anyway, one passage he related struck a chord:

A highlight of every week of the term was the “Seminar on Matter” conducted in Room 204 of the Institute by [Max] Born, [James] Franck and [David] Hilbert, gratis et privaissime. It became almost a tradition for Hilbert to open the  proceedings with a pretense of innocence: “Well, now, gentlemen, I’d just like you to tell me, what exactly is an atom?” Each time a different student tried to enlighten the professor. The problem was tackled afresh every time, and every time they searched for a different solution. But whenever any of the young geniuses sought refuge on the esoteric heights of complicated mathematical explanations, Hilbert would interrupt him in broadest East Prussian: “I just can’t understand you, young man. Now tell me over again, will you?” Everyone was forced to express himself as clearly as possible, and to build solid bridges across the gaps of knowledge instead of trying to jump them with overhasty strides of thought.

Exactly! The soul of good science is true open source before they called it open source…put the stuff out there for peer review and hope you didn’t make a mistake.

Now, Richard Dawkins has something to say about the fuzzier sciences in his collection, A Devil’s Chaplain. He was referencing Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Impostures Intellectuelles (the English translation was called Fashionable Nonsense.) I read the English version (obvious, I know) and got a good laugh, AND I was impressed with the diligence of Sokal and Bricmont in dismantling the “post-modern” BS of the French (pseudo)intelligentsia. Here:

[Sokal, etal] These texts contain a handful of intelligible sentences – sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous – and we have commented on some of them in the footnotes. For the rest, we leave it to the reader to judge.

But it’s tough on the reader. No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes? In particular, how shall we know whether the modish French ‘philosophy’, whose disciples and exponents have all but taken over large sections of American academic life, is genuinely profound or the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans?


Dawkins’ Law of the Conservation of Difficulty states that obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity. Physics is a genuinely difficult and profound subject, so physicists need to – and do – work hard to make their language as simple as possible (‘but no simpler,’ rightly insisted Einstein). Other academics – some would point the finger at continental schools of literary criticism and social science – suffer from what Peter Medawar (I think) called Physics Envy. They want to be thought profound, but their subject is actually rather easy and shallow, so they have to language it up to redress the balance.

I’ll plug Sokal for a moment… he submitted an article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to a journal expecting them to publish it without review and they did. Then he revealed it was utter bunk…a hoax. Big words baffle and impress folks…even folks considered scientific professionals.

It takes a lot of work…a LOT of work…to debunk nonsense. Dawkins is right: it IS hard on the reader. I’ve done an admittedly less than academic critique of Robert Anton Wilson and The Petition Project and it was exhausting. The experience helps me appreciate when folks like Sokal take one for the team.

Dawkins, in a cute nod to himself coined that “Dawkins’ Law of the Conservation of Difficulty”, but it is spot on, and worth repeating:

obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity

I’ve read a lot of fuzzy stuff in the past three years in my quest to learn more and grow – stuff like emotional intelligence and other psychological concepts. Polysyllabic mumbo-jumbo … obscurantism … pings back on the intellectual radar. If you can’t state something simply, that tells me either you don’t understand the subject matter enough…or you’re hiding that there’s nothing there. If anyone, anyone, devolves their argument to “you wouldn’t understand” … well, they fail. Intelligent people can convey the concepts without the complicated math. Psychobabble-prone folks think they can put one over on the unsuspecting…and they often can. Witness some of the best sellers.

Now, as to distilling those essentials…. I have a long history of learning to get to the point when it really matters…as with presentation slides, or personnel evaluations, or … taking a 23 page congressional request for additional funds that was developed by engineers and handed to me by my commanding officer with the direction, “These guys are nuts. This will never fly, Jim. Get it to one page.” Um…aye, aye, sir??!

Short story from long, I got it to one and a half pages (with 18 pages of included but unnecessary to make a decision back up material), though it took two weeks of back-and-forth. But we got Congressional approval, thank you.

I was concerned about having enough subject matter for my Critical Thinking for Teens class, but I’m discovering I really don’t have enough time (undecided if I want to continue to dig deeper) to share all this. I will be pointing out that I think anyone who reads the “news” headlines (or watches “news” shows), “self help” books, or anything by Deepak Chopra ought to use a little critical thinking to drill through the language gobbledygook and see if the emperor really does have any clothes.

Wikimedia Commons: Vilhelm Pedersen (1820 - 1859)

Wikimedia Commons: Vilhelm Pedersen (1820 – 1859)

My 2013 Reading List – Second Half

I started the year with another ambitious goal of 100 books (using the Goodreads site to log and track), as last year I read 119.

As in my recap of the first half of 2013, I’m grouping the books as I did in last year’s recap by the month in which I finished them (and fiction/nonfiction subgroups.)

Some quick full year stats for the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): overwhelmingly heavy on the nonfiction this year, but then a lot of the fiction was quite long (Ms. Rowling…please stand up):

  • 55 nonfiction
  • 45 fiction
  • 14 of the fiction were Arthur C. Clarke novels, who rounded out the last of the Big Three
  • I’ve rated 19 on Goodreads as five-star. Not all are must-reads, but these are ones I thought were excellent…and maybe read-agains.
  • I gave a two books a one-star not-only-no-but-really-no UNrecommendation

Anyway, now to the books (five-star ratings are marked with asterisks)…

Continue reading

Positivity ratio all wrong

The one (academic) thing I remember most from my undergraduate days is my Thermodynamics professor Dr, Will Sutton’s mantra: “Check your sources. Check your sources. Check your sources.” Makes perfect sense and I took that as a universal given but after reading a few PhD dissertations recently, I was wondering if it applies to the soft sciences. Then last week I happened across a Discover magazine blog post by someone with the byline Neuroskeptic: “Positivity Ratio” Criticized in New Sokal Affair.

The article discusses a paper by Nicholas Brown, Alan Sokal and Harris Friedman that supposedly demolishes a highly-touted tenet of the field of positive psychology. I thought it interesting that Sokal is not the lead author yet was called out in the blog headline for something he did 17 years ago.

For those not familiar with Alan Sokal, he submitted a paper to the Duke University academic journal Social Text in 1996 titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” When Social Text published it, Sokal revealed that paper was a hoax intended to expose editorial laziness and the lack of peer review, specifically with respect to humanities commenting on physical sciences. As you might imagine, the academia were not amused and the subsequent firestorm is often referred to as the Sokal Affair.

Neuroskeptic says in (his?) post that the Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada paper, “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing”, has been cited nearly 1,000 times in Google Scholar. I don’t know anything about “positive psychology”, but I’ve read some of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and didn’t come away impressed. It seems that Brown, Sokal, and Friedman were also not impressed with a fundamental concept in the field. The abstract of their paper reads:

We examine critically the claims made by Fredrickson and Losada (2005) concerning the construct known as the “positivity ratio.” We find no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors. The lack of relevance of these equations and their incorrect application lead us to conclude that Fredrickson and Losada’s claim to have demonstrated the existence of a critical minimum positivity ratio of 2.9013 is entirely unfounded. More generally, we urge future researchers to exercise caution in the use of advanced mathematical tools, such as nonlinear dynamics, and in particular to verify that the elementary conditions for their valid application have been met. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved)

Well…that sure gums up the works.

Now, what I can’t figure out is how Fredrickson’s research, collecting assessments of feelings on a scale from 0 to 4 can ever have been considered rigorous enough to generate more than a “that’s interesting” observation. I don’t want to guesswhy Losada used fluid dynamics equations from Edward Lorenz to come up with 2.9013, but I ask:

How can anyone not question the extreme precision (five significant digits!) from such subjective data as a break point of whether someone or some group will flourish?

Because Losada used fancy math? And created such apparent dazzling brilliance from baffling BS that no one saw the emperor’s nakedness? If anyone in the “harder” science tried that, there’d be a host of folks ripping through the paper to check for errors…or at least confirm the number for themselves. Fortunately, Alan Sokal is still out there debunking those who misappropriate good science for fuzzy purposes.

Given that that the authors of at least 964 papers failed to check this source, I guess Dr. Sutton’s lesson had a limited reach.