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Previously in Crosscurrents:

"Faith and Cyberspace," by Harvey Blume (October 18, 2000)
The Talmud and the Internet, a memoir by Jonathan Rosen, and Blue, an experimental novel by Benjamin Zucker, offer strikingly different perspectives on religion and new media, piety and public life.

"Master of Reveries," by Sven Birkerts (September 7, 2000)
Why Proust? And why now? Sven Birkerts puzzles out the current vogue and the counterintuitive appeal of In Search of Lost Time.

"The Rest Is Silence," by Wen Stephenson (August 16, 2000)
Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, Frank Kermode's Shakespeare, and the Prince of Denmark in the age of digital reproduction.

"Geek Studies," by Harvey Blume (July 13, 2000)
Hackers, freaks, outsiders, Homo Superior? Call them what you will, geeks are everywhere, and their stories help explain how science is shaping us.

"Soul of the New Economy," by Scott Stossel (June 8, 2000)
A new genre, call it "The Businessman as Revolutionary," has corporate culture co-opting counterculture in the Internet economy. Yet, as Jeremy Rifkin argues in The Age of Access, it's capitalism itself that may be transformed -- and not necessarily for the better.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte's conference on science.

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"Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"
Read the complete text of Alan D. Sokal's article, originally published in Social Text,(spring/summer 1996).

Missing Links

From C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures" to Alan Sokal's hoax, taking stock of the fault lines between the arts and sciences

by Harvey Blume

December 21, 2000

Discussed in this essay:

The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy
by the editors of Lingua Franca
Lingua Franca Books
288 pages, $20.00 paper

The Best American Science Writing 2000
James Gleick (editor), Jesse Cohen (series editor)
Ecco Press
258 pages, $27.50

Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet
by Stephen Jay Gould, photographs by Rosamond Wolff Purcell
Three Rivers Press
160 pages, $27.50 paper

I entered the 1960s as an adolescent with vague ambitions—remnants of a Sputnik-era grade school education—of becoming a physicist. I left that decade reviling science. In the interim I became caught up in what I think of as my generation's revolt against the cortex.

What sent so many of my generation to the barricades against science? We, many of us, wanted something more primal and immediate than theories about nature; we wanted, as much as possible, to close the gap between ourselves and the natural world. This, in itself, is not unusual; what with carrying around that big brain, it stands to reason that Homo sapiens will periodically yearn to get out from under it. What gave the sixties' countercultural revolt against the cortex its weight was opposition to the war in Vietnam. If the best and brightest espoused saturation bombing, napalm, and bogus body counts, then it was smarter to be dumb. Science was too deeply implicated in the war, and beyond that, in the seemingly aberrant logic of Western history that caused it. Science was another name for the gap between humanity and nature. Science, in short, was weaponry.

I reacquainted myself with at least some of the abandoned powers of my cortex some years later, during a study of software engineering and a stint as a programmer. But for others of my generation, sixties' anti-scientism fed into various New Age creeds, where its basic assumptions became articles of faith. Other, more studious types, took their anti-scientism to graduate school, gave it a new vocabulary, and turned it into anti-scientism of the postmodern sort. It is this latter strain that The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy, compiled by the editors of Lingua Franca, addresses. The book shows that though Alan Sokal may have started out with more limited goals, his hoax nonetheless stirs up the kinds of fundamental questions about science and art, reason and imagination, that C. P. Snow framed in his 1959 essay "The Two Cultures." Along with two other recent publications—the debut edition of an annual anthology of science journalism and an artful collaboration between the noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the photographer Rosamond Wolff Purcell—Lingua Franca's re-airing of the Sokal controversy offers an occasion to reflect on how we continue both to assimilate and resist scientific knowledge.

Alan Sokal, it may be remembered, is an N.Y.U. physicist who, in 1996, submitted a paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" to Social Text, a journal of cultural criticism based in New York City. As the issue containing his paper was going to press, Lingua Franca published Sokal's disclosure that he'd conceived the article as a hoax. A full-blown turf war soon ensued, with commentators from all sides of the academic and political spectrum using the episode to score points. In addition to reprinting the original paper, The Sokal Hoax assembles a full range of those responses to it, from the defensive posture taken by the editors of Social Text; to right-wing chortling over the left's embarrassment; to internal left polemics; to replies by some of the theorists Sokal had strung up by their own petard.

The Sokal HoaxThe title of Sokal's paper alone should have aroused suspicions among Social Text editors, but Sokal mixed up science, pseudo-science, leftish pieties and pure gibberish into a brew they apparently could not resist. Here, to set the tone of the piece, is a typical Sokalism: "The victory of cybernetics over quantum physics in the 1940s and 1950s can be explained in large part by the centrality of cybernetics to the ongoing capitalist drive for automation of industrial production, compared with the marginal industrial relevance of quantum mechanics." The choice between quantum mechanics and cybernetics is pseudo-history; that it made it into print is real egg on the face of the Social Text editors. And it fits right in with Sokal's agenda, which was to spoof anti-science attitudes by pretending to lay the groundwork for a postmodern quantum theory. Sokal agitates for a "liberatory" science—one that has shed the Enlightenment "dogma" that there "exists an external world" to be grasped by "the (so-called) scientific method," and has opened itself to "the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist, and ecological critiques."

Sokal liberally sprinkles the spoof with undoctored quotes from the leading lights of postmodernism, many of them French. Here, for example, is Derrida doodling on about the "Einsteinian constant," which he takes to be "not a constant" at all and "not a center," and hardly even "the concept of something" but, instead, "the very concept of the game." And here is Jacques Lacan seizing on notions of "differential topology," a supposedly promising approach to some problems in physics, in order to elucidate the "structure of mental disease"—because, after all, if "one can show that a cut on a torus corresponds to the neurotic subject," then why wouldn't another "cross-cut surface" correspond "to another sort of mental disease"? Other pomo heavy hitters, including Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Jean-Francois Lyotard are allowed to speak verbatim as well. Under the guise of agreeing with them, Sokal exposes them to their fair share of (ultimately self-) abuse.

One perennial lesson the book appears to reinforce is the immiscibility, as in oil and water, of Anglo-Saxon thought and French rhetoric. French thinkers reserve the right to dip their tropes in tincture of the absurd to give them extra firepower, a right we reserve for poets, late-night comedians, and animated cartoons. Even allowing for this cultural difference, it's not always easy to know how to take Gallic pronouncements. For example, the French sociologist Bruno Latour, one of those lampooned by Sokal, responds by proclaiming, "A very small number of theoretical physicists, deprived of their hefty Cold War Budgets, are seeking a new menace, against which they will heroically offer the rampart of their intellect.... France, in their eyes, has become another Colombia, a country of dealers who produce hard drugs—Derridium and Lacanium —which American academics cannot resist any more than crack." Is Latour just cracking wise, or does he seriously think Sokal is part of a crew that has graduated from better-dead-than-Red to better-dead-than-Derrida? Sokal's reply, in any case, admits of no funny business. He is typically sober, earnest, and upstanding when he says the goal was "to defend the American academic left against irrationalist tendencies which, though fashionable, are nevertheless suicidal."

Chief among these irrationalist tendencies has been the delusion, born of a marriage between postmodernism and multiculturalism, that the universe, as Sokal put it, is nothing more than "discourse and 'text,'" and that physics, therefore, is "just another branch of cultural studies." In his piece "The Science Wars in India," Meera Nanda spells out the social consequences of such confusion. As Nanda tells it, multiculturalism run amok has aided and abetted the cause of Hindu nationalism. "Themselves leading the charge for 'decolonizing knowledge,'" Nanda writes, "what principled argument could ... left-leaning ... critics of modern science have offered when the Hindu fundamentalist parties began to replace modern mathematics with so-called 'Vedic mathematics' in public schools?" Nanda's point—that to demote scientific reason cannot but promote religious fundamentalism—resonates well beyond the particular conditions of India. Writing at mid-century, C. P. Snow thought the great cultural divide was between the humanities and science. Today, as Nanda notes, religion has moved into the foreground as the alternative to science.

Sokal, of course, counts himself as a defender of "what one might call a scientific worldview," and of "reasoned argument over wishful thinking, superstition and demagoguery." But there's a glaring weakness to his stance; it makes no provision for the general dissemination of the scientific worldview. Sokal cuts through all the difficulties involved in making specialized subject matter comprehensible to a wide audience by the simple expedient of ignoring the problem. Implicitly, he reserves science for scientists—only they can be trusted to get it right—whereas in the muddled minds of the rest of us, science is sure to decay into pseudoscience.

Sokal leaves the lay imagination little purchase on the scientific intellect. His view discounts what any quick survey of today's art and literature (whether or not science fiction is included) must recognize and come to terms with: the imagination will gorge on science. It will feast on genetics, neuroscience, and cybernetics, to name but three of today's favorite morsels. And if somehow kept from doing so, it will buzz around alternative foods for fancy, including spoon-bending and alien abduction. As E. O. Wilson observes in his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, "The human mind is evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology." Would Sokal prefer full-fledged angelogy to, say, half-baked chaos theory?

From The Atlantic:

"Back from Chaos" (March 1998) and "The Biological Basis of Morality" (April 1998), by E. O. Wilson
A two-part article adapted from Wilson's book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"All for One, One for All" (March 16, 1998)
A conversation with E. O. Wilson, discussing Consilience and his call for a "truce" between the sciences and the humanities.

Misreadings of science are not inherently mischievous; they are how the brain warms to disciplines it has not evolved to accept. And Lacan, Derrida, and company are not as foreign as they might seem in their often hapless attempts to squeeze a dram of relevance out of the hard nuts of physics and mathematics. In their mining of tropes from science, they are much like the English artist Damien Hirst, whose recent much-publicized New York City show, a meditation on biomedicine, greeted viewers with a twenty-foot statue of a man with most of his organs exposed. This would be no less an homage to anatomy if Hirst, say, misread the position of the liver.

The process of assimilating science is shown in its most positive light in The Best American Science Writing 2000, a new anthology edited by James Gleick. As Gleick (author of Chaos: Making a New Science and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything) puts it in his introduction, "Science has woven itself into the fabric of our lives. Our best artists— novelists, poets, screenwriters, and songwriters— have noticed this and embraced it." As has the press, he adds, which now hires reporters who cover their science beats "as aggressively as their colleagues in the police shack and the campaign bus." There's no escape from science— even in escapism, as Gleick discovers when he emerges from an airport bookstore with a novel that opens by describing "self-replicating organisms" that make their way by "spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves." Didn't novels used to start with scenery, furniture, or faces? Today they are as likely to start with DNA.

Best American Science WritingThe essays in The Best American Science Writing 2000, drawn from a variety of general-interest publications including The New York Times, Science, and The New York Review of Books, demonstrate that it's not for lack of excellent, energetic science writing that pseudo-science continues to flourish in our culture. In addition, the pieces bear out Gleick's point about science weaving itself into the fabric of our lives. Whether they deal with the mind of an ant colony or the mind of Einstein, space travel or brain scans, a controversy over genomics or an error on the operating table, they touch on material that has already laid some claim to popular attention. Taken together, they attest to a scientific worldview that does not fail to entertain and engage the imagination.

Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is the most explicit in his defense of that worldview. In his essay "A Designer Universe?" Weinberg writes that he is all in favor of "a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment."

Other essays are less confrontational. As the great English neurologist Oliver Sacks tells us in "Brilliant Light," he was initially attracted to science by a series of misreadings, each of which might have earned him a Sokal scolding. As a child Sacks took comfort in the existence of prime numbers, which were "indivisible, could not be broken down, were inalienably themselves," in contrast to his own experience of "being divided, alienated, broken down more and more every week." (From Sacks's love of primes to Lacan's attempt to personalize the findings of topology is no great leap.) Sacks's early interest in chemistry was piqued by "orpiment" and "realgar," two names of compounds that "went euphoniously together," and put him in mind of "Tristan and Isolde." And it stirred the young Sacks no end to know that the periodic table, the fruit of nineteenth-century Russian chemist Dmitriy Mendeleev's "passionate search for order among the elements," was said to have come to that scientist in a dream.

The vision scientist Denis G. Pelli, too, homes in on the relationship between imagination and intellect in his "Close Encounters: An Artist Shows That Size Affects Shape," a study of the contribution to optics made by portrait painter Chuck Close. Close's portraits are typically laid out on a grid, every square of which might be distinctively rendered, with the whole resolving into the image of a face at a certain distance, while collapsing back into a matrix of flat marks when seen up close. The fact that you can transfer between views disproves the long held assumption of vision science that the perception of shapes is independent of the size of the image. Pelli credits Close "with discovering this size-dependent breakdown of our ability to extract shape from shading" and compliments him on being "more thorough than his scientific colleagues" in working out some details of the process.

Crossing OverIn her provocative piece "Furs for Evening, but Cloth Was the Stone Age Standby," the New York Times science writer Natalie Angier shows it is sometimes failures of imagination that shape science. She is thinking, in particular, of male archaeologists and their long-standing inability to see in Stone Age "Venus" figurines— "hand-size statuettes of female bodies"— anything but a further testament to the skill of man the hunter and toolmaker. In fact, as several women researchers have helped establish, the figurines typically boast careful renderings of clothing and headgear that place them just as much in the tradition of woman the weaver. According to the archaeologist Dr. Olga Soffer, women had mastered the art of turning plant fibers into "fine fabrics that very likely resembled linen." They fashioned not only rope, nets, and baskets, but also the stylish apparel indicated by the figurines. But until recently archaeologists managed to exclude such goods from their visions of the prehistoric lifestyle.

The intersection of reason and imagination is the central theme of Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet, a book-length collaboration between Stephen Jay Gould and the photographer Rosamond Wolff Purcell, who have worked together on several volumes previously. Text and image are allotted equal status in Crossing Over, as the book is dedicated to challenging what Gould sees as a small-minded view of "Science and Art as adversarial." He writes that, "the unifying modes and themes of human creativity surely transcends the admitted differences of subject matter in these two realms of greatest interest ... We see nothing anomalous, or even the slightest bit strange, about this double integration of science with art, and text with image."

From The Atlantic:

"An Eye for Anomaly" (April 1998), by Marshall Jon Fisher
A profile of photographer Rosamond Wolff Purcell.

Gould's short essays on ostrich eggs, face recognition, and elephant teeth, to name but a few of his topics, have a ruminative elegance of their own. And Purcell's photographs, whether of a fossilized fish, a primate skeleton, or a book that has become a mouse nest, serve a double function: they can be seen either as works of art deriving entirely from a bold personal aesthetic or as encounters with the aesthetic in fact arrived at by evolution. Science and art reinforce each other in these images that often allow you to go, nearly holographically, from one kind of view to the other. For example, one shot of swirls, curls, and spirals looks like Jackson Pollock meets Paul Klee. In fact, it is entitled "Polished Side of a Slab of Ammonites." You might think of Klee again in the long lariat-like form roping its way downward against a blue background. But it turns out you're looking at a wax model of a human tapeworm. There is a kind of art known these days as biomorphic. That is also the kind of art that nature makes.

In his Unweaving the Rainbow : Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (1998), the English biologist Richard Dawkins advises artists to ally their imaginations with the wonders of science. He invites us to think of the music Mozart might have written if he were able to contemplate "the dinosaurs' fate when, 65 million years ago, a mountain-sized rock screamed out of deep space at 10,000 miles per hour straight at the Yucatan peninsula and the world went dark." He pities old Yeats for having "sought a theme and sought for it in vain" in exhausted Irish fairy dust when he might, instead, have spent fruitful hours looking through Ireland's strapping new telescope, in its day the largest of its kind. The problem with Dawkins's appeal is not that he fails to convey the poetry of science— he often succeeds brilliantly— but that he seems unable to recognize poetry in anything else. E. O. Wilson, in Consilience,shows a far deeper understanding of the need to establish links with nature that cut through the complexities of scientific reason. Although Consilience is a forceful argument for the overarching power of science, Wilson acknowledges that science cannot entirely satisfy the human hunger for direct and immediate "communion with the larger whole that otherwise surpasses understanding."

It may be unfair to extract an entire philosophy out of Sokal's hoax, the worthy goal of which, after all, was simply to purge the left of some sloppy thinking and some badly clotted prose. But in the political furor over the hoax, no one seems to have noticed that Sokal's hostility to misreadings in effect bars the imagination from the process of absorbing science. Sokal stands opposite of Dawkins, who would have the arts look only to science. The equally unsatisfying implication of Sokal's hoax is that, for fear of misreadings, nonscientists should not look to the sciences at all.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte's conference on science.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and The Boston Book Review.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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