10.0533 Sokal's hoax & human beings

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 18 Dec 1996 18:59:51 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 533.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (26)
Subject: Sokal's hoax

[2] From: Francois Lachance <lachance@chass.utoronto.ca> (8)
Subject: possible def'n of hum.being

Date: Tue, 17 Dec 1996 17:27:50 +0000 ()
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: Sokal's hoax

Northrop Frye used to say, noting its lack in literary studies, that
an academic field could properly be called a discipline if a
coherent theory could be constructed for it. I have argued that if
humanities computing has such a theory, it must be based on the idea
of modeling, which is to say, the question of how we know
what we know as this may be illuminated by computational methods of
investigating humanities data. The difference between evidence and
what we know when we think about that evidence cannot wholly or even
principally be attributed to an insufficient amount of data, or to
insufficiently sophisticated algorithms, as can be shown when one
looks closely at a properly delimited study. There is always a gap, I
would argue, between mechanical precision, no matter how fine, and
the imaginative precision of language (to take just one of the
natural media we have). At base this is not a particularly new
argument, though its application to humanities data may be.

If, then, we are defined by the discrepancy between evidence and
knowledge, the ontological status of evidence is an important matter.
It seems to me that as computing humanists we need to posit that
objectively true conclusions about the artefacts we study are possible
while at the same time realising that a computational model of them will
by nature always be defective.

If I am not mistaken, the postmodern argument works fundamentally against
the idea that such objectively true conclusions are possible. Humanists
may, therefore, be particularly interested in a piece by Paul
Boghossian (Philosophy, New York Univ), "What the Sokal hoax ought
to teach us", in the latest Times Literary Supplement, No. 4889 (13
December 1996), pp. 14-15. Boghossian's article is in reference to a
deliberate hoax staged by Alan Sokal, a theoretical physicist at New York
University. Sokal simultaneously published a bogus article about the
postmodern implications of 20th-century physical theories in the premier
journal <cite>Social Text</cite> and in <cite> Lingua Franca</cite> an
expose of this article, a "farrago of deliberate solecisms, howlers, and
non-sequiturs, sitched together so as to look good and to flatter the
ideological preconceptions of the editors" of ST. Boghossian argues that
at the heart of the issue raised by Sokal's hoax is "not the mere
existence of incompetence within the academy, but rather that specific
form of it that arises from allowing ideological criteria to displace
standards of scholarship so completely that not even considerations of
intelligibility are seen as relevant to an argument's acceptability." What
Boghossian sees as "simple-minded relativistic views about truth and
evidence that are commonly identified as 'postmodernist'" lead, he argues,
to a state of mind, exemplified by the editors of ST, for which scholarly
standards become irrelevant, and thus deliberate nonsense acceptable.

The basic texts are on the Web. See
1. "Sokal and Social Text",
2. "The Sokal Affair",
3. The online publication, Upstream, at
"a home for the intellectually heterodox, the politically incorrect and
other independent thinkers"; use the Search mechanism to find the items on



Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer
Centre for Computing in the Humanities
King's College London / Strand / London WC2R 2LS U.K.
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 / fax: +44 (0)171 873 5081

Date: Mon, 16 Dec 1996 14:09:19 -0500 (EST)
From: Francois Lachance <lachance@chass.utoronto.ca>
Subject: possible def'n of hum.being


As usual, your editorial asides often provoke some reflection.

To be human & humane is to listen to the tale of extenuating
circumstances. But a machine can select from a stock of tales...

Austin somewhere has a paper on excuses where there is distinction
between "accident" and "mistake". Would be interesting to apply to
computer-human interaction...