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The return of the ‘Science Warrior’

Plugging his new book last night in Bristol — the UK city where Physics World is based — was physicist Alan Sokal. The New York University professor rose to fame in 1996 when he published his famous hoax paper Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeunetics of Quantum Gravity in the cultural-studies journal Social Text.

Sokal had written the paper, which was filled with scientific-sounding gibberish, to highlight what he saw as the sloppy thinking of some sociologists of science, particularly those who deem scientific knowledge to be socially constructed, rather than a matter of objective truth.

His paper sparked what became known as the Science Wars, which saw furious debate in scholarly journals and magazines, including Physics World, between physicists and sociologists. Now Sokal is back on the scene with his new book Beyond the Hoax, published by Oxford University Press.

Speaking at Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, Sokal outlined the main themes of Beyond the Hoax. Post-modernist views as espoused by some sociologists still get his goat, but now that some in that camp have, as he puts it, back-tracked from their earlier, more radical stance, Sokal has extended his criticisms to other groups who he thinks also don’t embrace the rational, empirical thinking that is the hallmark of all science.

That basically boils down to four main groups: religious people, pseudoscientists, proponents of homoepathic medicine, and spindoctors and others involved in PR. He saved particular anger for George Bush and Tony Blair for deciding to go to war with Iraq and then retrospectively justifying the decision based on what Sokal saw as weak evidence such as dodgy satellite photos.

Overall, it’s a bigger pool of victims for Sokal’s ire. But by broadening the range of targets, my concern is that his initial fury from 10 years ago has got somewhat diluted.

To his credit, Sokal responded well to the grilling given by his audience, although the majority were, I’d guess, generally supportive of his main themes. A fuller version of his lecture was previously given in London earlier this year. Meanwhile, Physics World has commissioned a review of Beyond the Hoax, to be published later this summer — so keep an eye out online and in print for an authoritative assessment of his new tome.

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