to the Replies
Reply to Labinger
The only thing an editor can do to promote productive discussion
is to try to keep everyone engaged, talking to, rather than past,
one another (Labinger, 2004: 92).
It is precisely because I know that this is Jay Labinger's
view that I was surprised to find, in this conversation about
science studies of which he is an editor, what seemed to be easily
corrected misreadings of one participant by another. These misreadings
made those who committed them talk past, rather than to, those
whom they misread by causing them to respond to statements that
had not been made instead of to ones that had. Nevertheless,
contrary to what Labinger infers from a remark that he quotes
from my review, I do not believe that, in a case of this kind,
God wants the editor to suggest, much less request, that his
authors correct what he believes to be misreadings. My thought
was rather that if a response by one author to another seemed
as if it might rest on a misreading, then God might want
the editor to call this to the attention of the respondent.
In addition, as the following mea culpa should make
clear, I too take very seriously the possibility that what I
now believe is an author's misreading of a text may later be
seen as a figment of my misreading of the author. 1
No matter how careful I may try to be in proving a charge of
misreading, I may anyway have to eat my words. Therefore, I should
be prepared to do so if possible, with grace. As proof
that I do not see this as merely an abstract possibility, consider
my claim in the review that:
. . . when, in the second round, the sociologist, Harry
Collins, criticizes two physicists, Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal,
for posing a silly challenge in the first one, they point out
in the third round that they do not pose that challenge, leaving
Collins looking a bit foolish. (Stolzenberg, 2004: 78)
When I first read Collins' (2001: 187) criticism, its opening
remark about Bricmont and Sokal 'embarking on the perilous ocean
of counterfactuals'made me think that he had failed to recognize
that the use of counterfactual language is purely decorative
and, because of this, had misunderstood their challenge. I persisted
in this belief even when reading Collins' remark that Bricmont
and Sokal 'try to imagine how one would ever explain our society's
belief in the inverse-square law of planetary motion as opposed
to, say, an inverse-cube law, if no information about planetary
movements had been available'. However, although his use of 'had
been' still gives me pause, after rereading the whole of Collins'
criticism, I accept this remark as an accurate statement of the
explanatory challenge that I thought he had not understood. Thus,
what I represented in my review as Collins misunderstanding Bricmont
and Sokal, I now see instead as Stolzenberg misreading Collins.
2 Mea culpa.
But Labinger is concerned with editors, not readers who think
they have discovered errors in other people's readings. If I
understand him correctly, it is his view that the same consideration
that tells me to be prepared to eat my words should caution an
editor to remain silent on matters of right and wrong. 3 Although I am not sure how well
it works, Labinger chooses an extreme case, the 'dialogue of
the deaf' between realism and relativism, to show why this is
the right thing to do. 4
Thus he notes that the proponents of the realist argument that
relativism is 'selfrefuting' see no more merit in the 'counterargument'
5 than proponents of the latter
see in the former. Maybe because of this stand-off or because,
among the proponents of the realist argument, there are eminent
philosophers like Thomas Nagel, or maybe just because the stand-off
is several thousand years old and still going strong, Labinger
is, to put it mildly, skeptical that anyone could convince him
that the proponents of the 'selfrefuting' argument suffer, as
I say they do, from a kind of incompetence 6
that keeps them from 'getting it'.
I think he is mistaken about this. I don't see why it should
be harder to convince Labinger of it than it was to convince
myself. But perhaps his larger point is that, in a case of this
kind, where conversation is impossible because each side is morally
certain that the other side is terminally delusional, it would
be both foolish and futile for an editor to try to arbitrate
matters of right and wrong. It would indeed. Still, I can imagine
benefiting greatly from an editor's criticism of my criticism
of the 'selfrefuting' argument. Indeed, when I don my editor's
cap and rehearse my criticism, I see immediately that although
I insist that relativism is not a claim but a mindset, I say
nothing about how to acquire the ability to adopt it, if only
temporarily. Nor do I explain why the particular mindset that
I call 'relativism' is deserving of the name. Thus, here are
two glaring gaps in my account that were practically begging
for an editor to come along and call them to my attention. How
nice that one finally did.
Reply to Lynch
Although Michael Lynch (2004) does not discuss my reason for
calling Steven Weinberg's 'declaration of independence' an anti-intellectual
conceit, it is apparent that he is not persuaded by it. I wish
I knew why. Weinberg says,
As is shown by our common use of words like 'real' and
'true', we all adopt a working philosophy in our everyday lives
that can be called naive realism. As far as I know, no one has
shown why we should abandon naive realism when talking of the
history and sociology of science. Philosophers may be able to
help us to sharpen the way we understand words like 'real' and
'true' and 'cause', but they have no business telling us not
to use them. (Weinberg, 2001: 240)
But I believe that it has been shown why science warriors
should abandon naive realism when criticizing statements in the
history and sociology of science. They should do so firstly because
their naive use of loaded terms like 'real', 'true' and 'cause'
tricks them into projecting their realist metaphysics, together
with certain confusions about it, onto the authors of the statements
they criticize, who are then blamed for the conceptual mess that
results. These confusions, which arise from the same naive use
of such terms, also infect the rest of their talk about these
subjects, often rendering it nonsense. These claims are supported
by many examples (Stolzenberg, 2001), 7
three of which I discuss in the review. In one, Weinberg convinces
himself, on the basis of a novel mistake about the relationship
between knowledge and belief, that he knows a case in which Strong
Programme practitioners have to ignore a valuable clue to the
past. 8 In a second, Bricmont
and Sokal are deceived by their talk about 'the' explanation
of an event into thinking that they have refuted the symmetry
principle of the Strong Programme. In a third, the analytic philosopher,
Paul Boghossian, projects confused realist notions of relativism
onto a postmodernist-looking remark, which he then thinks he
As I understand it, Weinberg's declaration of independence
implies that nobody, not you or me or any of the targets of the
attacks, has any business telling science warriors that they
have no business behaving this way. It is not that he approves
of such behavior I am sure that he does not but rather
that he refuses to concede that the uncritical stance that he
champions may severely limit his ability to recognize it. Lynch
notes that Weinberg says that we can use words like 'real', 'true'
and 'cause' 'sensibly and competently in everyday life without
having to study philosophy'. However, the relevant question is
not whether people can use such words competently but
whether, in particular cases that matter, they do. Is Weinberg
qualified to decide this? I think not. His talk of using such
words 'sensibly and competently' seems to mean little more than
using them the way he does. If to call his declaration an anti-intellectual
conceit is philosophism, I say more power to it. But I don't
think it is. 9
Reply to Saulson
Peter Saulson and I agree that readers of Strong Programme
literature need to understand that the notion of 'social' that
the Strong Programme requires is not the ordinary one or, at
least, not the ordinary one as it usually is conceived. We also
agree that, whatever the cause, the failure of some readers to
understand this has contributed significantly to the misreading
of this literature. However, we seem to have very different ideas
of what the Strong Programme notion of 'social' is and why it
is misunderstood. 10 Saulson
says that it must include 'all that scientists would think of
as actual experimental evidence of the nature of the world, as
soon as that evidence has entered human minds' (2004: 99).
But much, if not all, of what scientists would think of this
way is physical. It cannot literally enter a mind. Thoughts can.
But a thought about evidence is not evidence. Also, the juxtaposition
of 'actual' and 'mind' makes me wonder whether he is trying
to explain at least part of the Strong Programme's notion of
'social' within a realist framework. In my view, such an attempt
is doomed from the start if only because, for a realist, the
evidence of which Saulson speaks is evidence of the truth of
a statement about reality 'independent of us', which is not a
Strong Programme notion.
Saulson and I agree that much of the criticism by scientists
of work in the sociology of science is marked by misreading
11 and sloppy reasoning. But
we appear to differ about the role of the sociologists who are
misread. Thus, in a statement that I continue to hope I misunderstand,
Saulson says, ' w ith the greatest respect for sociologists,
I'd like to suggest that sometimes they enjoy being misread'.
Although Saulson does not name names, 13
some statements made by Harry Collins strike me as possible manifestations
of such an attitude. But, however outrageous or disturbing I
find them, I try to bear in mind that, for all I know, it did
not occur to him that these statements might be read the way
I read them. 14 Moreover,
a remark by Collins (2004: 105) in his reply to my review provides
what I consider to be strong evidence of his good faith in this
The shock of what readers read into what you write must
have been experienced since the early days of writing. Certainly,
almost everything I write, and that includes the straightforward
pieces, seems open to astonishing misinterpretation by at least
a few people.
Of course, whether a statement is intentionally misleading
or its author failed to anticipate an 'astonishing misinterpretation',
the effect on the reader is the same. Still, a reader who finds
a statement strange or unintelligible has a choice. He can assume
that his reading of it is correct or he can withhold judgment,
perhaps indefinitely. In the science wars, there has been precious
little withholding of judgment.15
Instead, by a suspension of critical thinking, scientists have
deceived themselves into supposing that they understand statements
that they do not in fact, that they understand them well
enough to debunk them, often by pronouncing them nonsense. Saulson
says that I 'lament' the misreading and sloppy reasoning by scientists
in their 'rather simplistic defenses' of science. I do, but I
lament even more the lack of intellectual discipline that makes
Saulson seeks causes for these 'rather simplistic' defenses
of science. Although features of the scientific mindset cannot
suffice to explain why some scientists engage in this behavior
but others do not, in his reply he is concerned only with contributions
of this kind. He notes that, for most scientists, the shared
intuitive understanding of science's connection to Nature 'is
not something that it appears sensible to question' (2004: 000)
and also that the scientific community's commitment to reason
is itself based on faith, not reason. After arguing that these
and other non-rational aspects of the scientific mindset bear
'all of the hallmarks of a religious faith', Saulson (2004: 000)
suggests that the defenses of science by scientists are not truly
rational arguments but 'testimonies of faith and denunciations
of error'. 16 But even
if this is right, it does not reveal how particular quasireligious
aspects of the scientific mindset help cause particular defenses
of science to be simplistic. This seems worth exploring. Also,
why would a scientist who has written such a defense with the
intention of making it public not first subject it to scrutiny,
as he would of his own scientific work? If he did, would he not
see the lack of evidence and rational argument? Maybe Saulson's
(2003: 000) eloquent rendering of one such testimony of faith,
the scientist's oath of allegiance to rationality everywhere,
not just in science, can help answer this.
We are proud of our commitment to reason. . . . We are
brought up to believe that the scientific method . . . is the
embodiment of intellectual virtue. . . . If only more people
would apply its principles in their daily lives and in their
own fields of endeavor, the world would be a better place, or
so we hope at least.
If we take this at face value, then when a scientist fails
to subject a defense of science to critical scrutiny, it seems
that he is abandoning his commitment to rationality everywhere,
not just in science. But if Saulson is right about the quasi-religious
nature of the scientific mindset, then no matter how proud it
may make scientists to think otherwise, there is no such commitment
to abandon. Most of them are not committed to rationality even
for thinking about science's connection to Nature and Reason,
much less everywhere. The world would be a better place if they
were. But they aren't and it isn't.
Reply to Collins
When I posed my two skeptical questions about alternation
at the end of the review, it did not occur to me that they might
elicit anything like Harry Collins' clinically objective report
on the state of the art. I especially admire his forthright admission
that, for an alternating sociologist, the problem of communicating
with the folks back home is even more difficult than that of
being able to tell when she has succeeded in 'going native'
that is, has acquired a desired mindset which in many cases
is difficult enough. Of course, Collins could have said this
in order to try to impress us later on with the ability of sociologists
to succeed at something so difficult. But instead he says that
the sociologist who has acquired a new mindset can do no more
than 'make a stab' at conveying what this means to the folks
back home and that, even after she does, 'the paradox remains'.
To this I would add that, in some cases, communication of
this kind is flat out impossible. If the new mindset is incommensurable
with the old one, the folks back home may hear what seems to
be a clear statement by the alternator reporting from her new
mindset, but which is a radical distortion of what she is saying.
In some cases, the distortion makes reasonable statements seem
bizarre and even mad. In others, it leaves them sounding reasonable
but radically distorts their content. Here I wish to consider
only cases of the former kind. I also wish to assume that the
alternator is so respected for her integrity and good sense that,
when she thinks that she is onto something, however implausible,
the rational response of her colleagues back home is to repeat
the alternation and, from that perspective, assess her reasons
for thinking what she does.
Because the alternator acquires access to the new mindset
without losing access to the old one, she is fully aware of the
distortion. She can hear it herself. But because it is caused
by the incommensurability of the two mindsets, she may not be
able to eliminate it by saying things differently. She may be
able to explain, without distortion, that there is distortion
but the substance of her explanation would be intelligible only
to someone who was familiar with the phenomenon of alternation.
For others, it would merely confirm their suspicion that she
is delusional. But not Sherlock Holmes. At least, not my Sherlock
Holmes. He would be bemused by the spectacle of someone, who
is respected for her integrity and good sense, making statements
that seem bizarre and even mad without it arousing suspicion
that things may not be as they seem. My Sherlock's suspicion
would be aroused. He would want to discover what is going
on. And he would.
I'm no Sherlock Holmes but I once found myself in a similar
situation. The alternator was my colleague, Errett Bishop, a
plain-spoken, stubbornly independent thinker who, 50 years ago,
produced a wealth of breathtakingly original, seminal mathematics.
He was unassuming about his talent and generous in the intellectual
and emotional support he gave his colleagues. But when he was
36 years old, he abandoned it all in favor of a 'constructivist'
mathematics that, to the vast majority of mathematicians, including
me, seemed tedious, pointless, and even perverse. It seemed to
combine the worst features of pure and applied mathematics. Worse,
he seemed to be saying that intellectual honesty requires every
mathematician to do the same basically, by abandoning the
assumption that every mathematical statement is true or false
independent of our knowledge of which.
This principle of bivalence, which licenses such reasoning
as proof by contradiction, is the hallmark of ordinary or, as
it also is called, 'classical' mathematics. 17
Most mathematicians who paid any attention to Bishop's constructivist
assertions seemed to be content to assume that he had fallen
under the sway of a pernicious philosophical dogma, for the sake
of which he was willing to cripple mathematics. Others, who wished
to preserve his place as a star in the mathematical firmament,
chose to portray his constructivist work as a profound contribution
to mathematics but in a way that meant that it could be ignored.
I had no opinion about the matter, mostly because I was not
paying much attention. For no very good reason, I expected that,
after a while, it would be sorted out by the 'wise men' of the
mathematical community, one of whom was Bishop himself.
18 But when two years had
gone by and Bishop's behavior made no better sense to me than
when I first heard about it, I became very curious to find out
whether, appearances notwithstanding, the problem was not with
him but with how we were listening to him. The method that I
employed was unimaginative but effective. Whenever I came upon
a statement of his that seemed silly, I stopped to try to identify
the beliefs and attitudes that certified this assessment and
to reflect upon my reasons, if any, for holding them. As I did
this, my unfavorable reading of these statements, which I later
recognized to be an involuntary consequence of my mathematical
training, gradually became voluntary. When it did, my mind became
free to discern a different, far more interesting, reading of
these statements and, in fact, of any statement of or about mathematics.
In this way, I soon mastered the constructivist mindset well
enough to find, to my amazement, that there is a world of mathematical
concepts and intuitions that have no place within the classical
framework that I and my colleagues had been led to believe contains
everything. But, although I found it fascinating to explore this
new mathematical realm, for several years, I continued to take
for granted that classical mathematics gives the big picture.
19 However, when, for an article
about Bishop's work (Stolzenberg, 1970), I wished to balance
my extremely positive view of the constructivist program with
a 'reminder' of why classical mathematics gives the big
picture, I was forced to recognize that this universally held
view was based wholly on impressions and intuitions.
But I knew that, in the early part of the 20th century, there
had been a controversy over how mathematics should be done, classically
or constructively. So, because I, and everyone I knew, had been
taught to do it strictly classically, I reasoned that this must
have been the conclusion reached by the wise men of that time.
But neither I, nor any of my colleagues, knew how they arrived
at it. So, I decided to remedy our ignorance by reading the relevant
literature and reporting on it in my paper. But when I read the
wise men's rationale for their conclusion that mathematics should
be done classically, I was shocked. It was an egregious case
of what, I call 'wrong way' listening. Instead of comparing classical
mathematics as it is seen in the classical mindset with constructivist
mathematics as seen in the constructivist one which is
the relevant comparison to make they relied upon the utterly
irrelevant comparison of the two practices as they appear only
in the classical mindset.
Disillusioned with wise men, I undertook to construct my own
argument for why classical mathematics gives the big picture.
I began by looking closely at some of the examples that are thought
to illustrate it. 20
But when I did, not only did they fail to display the alleged
advantages of working classically, they did the opposite. So,
having previously discovered that classical mathematics is not
all the mathematics there is, I now witnessed the shattering
of the intuitions that had supported my belief that it nevertheless
provides the big picture. But this too was a very good thing.
It dramatically expanded my view of mathematics, revealing remarkable
phenomena to which I previously had been blind. Nevertheless,
the failure of the traditional rationales for why classical mathematics
constitutes the big picture does not prove that constructivist
mathematics does. It means only that the matter of which, if
either of them, is superior for mathematical practice is an open
question one to which my own research has been devoted
ever since I discovered, a long time ago, that it really is an
Although both my skeptical questions and Collins' excellent
response are about the general phenomenon of alternation, the
one I have chosen to discuss here is of a special kind that deserves
mention. It is a traditional Gestalt switch, like Jastrow's duck/rabbit
drawing only vastly more complex. Instead of a line drawing that
can be interpreted either as a duck or a rabbit, its material
ground consists of all sentences that can be interpreted either
classically or constructively as statements of or about mathematics.
21 This massive Gestalt switch,
which I have always found uncanny, seems to be unknown to sociologists
of science, even those like David Bloor, who have written about
'alternative' mathematics (1991: 10730). True, I have no
idea what sociologists of science could do with it maybe
nothing. Nevertheless, like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla,
it is with us and we do better to know that it is than not.
Reply to Bricmont and Sokal
Bricmont & Sokal (2004: 107) say that I misrepresent them,
and that I also misrepresent Paul Boghossian (1998), whereas
I say that it is their misreading of me that causes them to think
this. How, in any particular case, can a reader figure out who
is right? I have no answer to propose except to urge close, skeptical,
and unhurried consideration of what each of us says. Read and
reread. In cases of this kind, the obvious is the enemy of the
I am accused of using emotion-laden militaristic
language to talk about intellectual debate. But, in the one case
mentioned, which I discuss later, there is no militaristic language
only a tongue-in-cheek allusion to Bricmont and Sokal's
seemingly hostile attitude toward the Strong Programme 22 and to the fatal consequences
of accepting their criticism of it. When I do use militaristic
language, like 'science warrior' or 'hatchet job', it is precisely
to emphasize that what I am talking about is not intellectual
debate but - I don't know a better way to put it - a hatchet
job. But the focus here is on the Strong Programme, not French
postmodernists or the editors of Social Text or even Bruno
Latour, and I make it clear in my review that this conversation,
in which Bricmont and Sokal are active participants, contains
no hatchet jobs.
Boghossian's Ken Starr Imitation
Before rejecting my comparison of Paul Boghossian's
treatment of Roger Anyon to that of a reckless prosecutor, Bricmont
and Sokal might have asked themselves why I consider it apt.
The relevant distinction is between wanting to discover the truth,
wherever this may lead, and wanting to make a certain charge
stick, as Starr apparently wanted to do with Clinton. 23 Instead of carefully weighing
the evidence pro and con as one might expect an analytic
philosopher to do no matter how much he may desire a particular
outcome, Boghossian went after Anyon with reckless zeal, the
quality of his evidence and arguments be damned. 24
Reading Jane Gregory
Bricmont and Sokal consider the dispute about Jane
Gregory's remark a minor matter. I do not. Their criticism presumes,
without a shred of evidence, that Gregory, co-author of 'The
Public's Role in the Science Wars', was so ignorant about the
science wars that she did not even know that the Sokal of Sokal's
hoax is a card-carrying metaphysical realist and, therefore,
would never say that a scientific statement can 'become true'.
The implausibility of this presumption is one of my two reasons
for believing that Gregory did not attribute the offending metaphysical
view to them. The other is that she did not attribute any
metaphysical view to them. Perhaps the simplest way to see
this is to notice that, in the remark, the relevant part of which
reads, 'the end product is usually well on its way to becoming
what Bricmont and Sokal might call "reality" or "truth"'
(Gregory, 2001: 201), the expression, 'Bricmont and Sokal', makes
its appearance after 'becoming', not before. Therefore,
unless it is written in Hebrew or Arabic, it would require an
extremely clever reading on the part of Bricmont and Sokal for
the remark to imply that they hold some view, no matter which,
about anything becoming anything. But they don't have
any reading of Gregory's remark, much less a clever one.
25 They merely believe that
it implies that they are not metaphysical realists, an implication
they seem to find too obvious to require rational justification.
Here too, the obvious is the enemy of the true.
Death and the Strong Programme
Bricmont and Sokal complain that I do not give
any evidence that they wish to see the Strong Programme dead.
26 This is true. I did not
think it was necessary and I still do not. But I'm happy to oblige.
The remark has less to do with 'emotion-laden' matters
like whether or not the Strong Programme irritates them the way
they irritate me than with their repeated statements about
what would become of it were their criticism of it to be accepted.
For example, in The One Culture? (2001a: 46), they say
that 'science studies practitioners are not obliged to persist
in a misguided epistemology; they can give it up and go on to
the serious task of studying science'. 27
But, as they know, if the
practitioners give up its distinctive epistemology, they give
up the Strong Programme. 28
Therefore, if they would like to see their criticism of
the Strong Programme accepted, then they would like to see it
become what it is not. True, practitioners could then 'go on
to the serious task of studying science', but not within the
framework of the Strong Programme, which would no longer exist.
A Long and Sensible Chapter?
Bricmont and Sokal (2004: 107) note that Michael
Lynch discusses Sokal's one-line invitation to social 'conventionalists'
to jump from his window but not their 56-page chapter in Fashionable
Nonsense about philosophy of science (Sokal & Bricmont,
1998: 50105). As I explain in the review, in the same discussion
Lynch characterizes the metaphysical discourse of the science
wars, of which Sokal's quip is a notorious example, as 'sandlot'
philosophy, in the sense that few of the participants are professional
philosophers. Later, David Mermin (2001: 218) says that his physicist
colleagues, Bricmont and Sokal, 'clearly delight in sandlot philosophy',
adding that he too likes to play. Perhaps Bricmont and Sokal
now wish to suggest, without coming right out and saying it,
that the chapter in Fashionable Nonsense shows that they
are more sophisticated philosophers of science than the label
'sandlot philosopher' might lead one to think. Moreover, in support
of this assessment, they have the testimony of such luminaries
as Noam Chomsky, who calls the chapter 'a thoughtful and constructive
critical analysis of fundamental issues of empirical inquiry'
and Thomas Nagel, who calls it 'long and sensible'. 29
However, I see it differently. In my view, although Bricmont
and Sokal are to be commended for their discussions of Popper
and Kuhn, when they turn to skepticism, underdetermination, relativism,
or any of the issues related to Bruno Latour or the Strong Programme,
they misjudge the limits of their competence, with predictable
consequences. 30 I am
aware that to question someone's competence rather than merely
criticize particular applications of it may, like a charge of
irrationality, seem to verge on an ad hominem. But in
this case, it means no more nor less than it says. If I have
had anything distinctive to say about the science wars, it is
in the importance that I attach to the failure of my professional
colleagues, the science warriors, to recognize the limits of
their competence to read and reason intelligently about certain
texts that are outside their professional domains. Even when
I criticize their most egregiously unjustified readings, my point
is not that they should have been able to do better but that
they should have known better than to think they could. Indeed,
I am no more competent to read many of these texts than those
whose readings I criticize. 31
But I recognize this and try to act accordingly. I also
recognize that professional credentials do not guarantee success.
In the science wars, some of the worst offenders are academic
Incommensurable but not Incompatible
Bricmont and Sokal take issue with a claim of incommensurability
that I make, reminding us that the descriptive and normative
notions of reasoning are, or at least seem to be, compatible.
But I talk about incommensurability, not incompatibility, which
is a very different thing. For example, the two mindsets for
mathematics that I talk about in my reply to Collins are incommensurable,
but the bodies of mathematics produced in each are compatible
albeit in incommensurable ways. 32
Similarly, Bricmont and Sokal call attention to the compatibility
of the descriptive and normative notions of reasoning in the
teleological mindset, but they also are compatible in the naturalistic
one. 33 What is treated
in the former as a fact about correct reasoning is accommodated
in the latter, without loss of information, as a belief about
correct reasoning. If Bricmont and Sokal wish to object that
the naturalistic mindset fails to do justice to the normative
conception of reasoning, I agree. But the other half of this
truth is that the teleological mindset fails just as badly to
do justice to the descriptive one.
How Does Evidence Help to Make Us Believe that it is
In the review, I say that, to use an explanatory
scheme they seem to favor, Bricmont and Sokal must show that
the fact that something is evidence, which is a state
of the world, is a partial cause of the belief that it
is evidence, which is a state of mind. I also say that not only
do they fail to do this, they write in a way that conflates the
two states. 34 In reply,
Bricmont and Sokal (2004: 110) point out that, 'far from conflating
evidence with belief', they know very well that the relationship
between the two can be very complicated. But this is not the
conflation that I am talking about! I say that they conflate
the fact that something is evidence for a belief with
the belief that it is evidence for the belief and they
reply that they do not conflate the fact that something is
evidence for a belief with the belief for which it is evidence.
They give the right answer to the wrong question.
An example may help. Sokal (1998: 16) claims that to plausibly
explain the shift in scientific belief from creationism to Darwinism,
we must refer to the fossil record. But does he mean to evidence
provided by the fossil record or to the belief that
it provides evidence? Reference to the belief does seem necessary
but Sokal is talking about evidence. So, unless he knows a way
that evidence can help cause belief other than by helping to
cause the belief that it is evidence, to defend his claim about
the role of the fossil record, he would have to do something
that he does not seem to have tried elsewhere, with or without
Bricmont. As I see it, they have an unhappy choice to make. They
can either continue to ignore the crucial distinction between
the fact that something is evidence and a belief that it is or
they can face up to it and try to show, in at least one case,
e.g., Sokal's claim about the role of the fossil record in the
shift to Darwinism, that evidence did play a necessary causal
role in helping to convince people that it is indeed evidence.
But this, I think, is a fool's errand. It is, in effect, where
they came in promising to show us that, in some cases,
we must appeal to the truth of a belief to help plausibly explain
the belief that it is true. The only new twist here is that it
is the truth of a belief that something is evidence for the truth
of another belief. Is this progress?
A Serious Charge, But Also a Curious One
In the review, I discuss two cases in which Bricmont
and Sokal (2001a) claim that to explain what makes somebody hold
a certain belief, it is necessary to appeal to the fact
that it is true. In my critique of these claims, I observe that
Bricmont and Sokal offer no argument for either of them. They
merely preface the first by 'it seems obvious that' and the second
by 'certainly'. 35 But
they dispute this (2004: 107), claiming that 'Stolzenberg carefully
omits to mention the sentence immediately following the one he
quoted, which is devoted precisely to giving an argument
in support of the preceding assertion'. Even if we replace 'carefully'
by the less paranoid sounding 'carelessly', this is a serious
charge. It also is a curious one because not only does the sentence
they mention provide no such support, it doesn't even read as
if it does. It doesn't even read as if they think it does.
The assertion in question is that 'part of the explanation
of why someone standing in the rain says, "It is raining
today" involves the fact that it really is raining today'.
The sentence that allegedly contains an argument in support of
it reads, 'If someone said that it is raining when it is not,
one might think that he is joking or that he is mentally disturbed,
36 but the explanations would
be very asymmetrical depending on whether it is raining or not'.
But, as Bricmont and Sokal well know, a description of unreflective
responses that, in ordinary discourse, might be called 'explanations'
cannot provide support for their normative claim that there is
such a thing as 'the' explanation of why a person standing
in the rain believes that it is raining, part of which is that
the belief is true.
Nevertheless, it is true that, when I wrote the review, I
did not fully grasp what Bricmont and Sokal take themselves to
be doing in these two sentences. Nor did their reply help, except
to reveal that they did not understand my criticism and I did
not understand why. But, having reconsidered the matter, it seems
to me that, in their minds, the first claim, together with the
sentence that I 'carefully omit to mention', is an argument against
Bloor's symmetry principle that true and false beliefs are to
be explained by 'the same' kind of causes (Bloor, 1991: 7). However,
I don't talk about the symmetry principle because I think that
its wording invites misunderstanding. 37
I talk instead about the irrelevance of authenticity for
explaining belief causation in this case, of the fact that
the belief is true. Because of this, the target of my criticism
is not their argument, if that is what it is, against the symmetry
principle but as I make clear their two claims about the necessity
of referring to the truth of a belief in orde to explain its
causation. That Bricmont and Sokal think that I am mistaken when
I observe, correctly, that these claims are supported only by
'it seems obvious that' and 'certainly' suggests that they do
not understand that I am criticizing only the absence of support
for the claims themselves, not for any role they are alleged
to play in criticizing the symmetry principle. 38
The Irrelevance of Authenticity for Explaining Belief
Judging by their reply, Bricmont and Sokal agree
that no reference to the whiteness of a sheep, one side of which
I see, is needed to explain what makes me believe in it: at least
in this case authenticity is irrelevant. Yet they show no curiosity,
much less concern, about what, if anything, is different about
the beliefs in their two examples that make it necessary to appeal
to their truth to explain their causation. How can they justify
saying that an appeal to the truth is necessary for local weather
conditions but not for ewe hue? My impression is that, instead
of continuing to insist upon the need for such appeals, Bricmont
and Sokal are turning to other ways of trying to persuade us
of the superiority of their 'truth-based' explanations. One sign
of this is their acknowledgment of the interest-relative nature
of explanation; there is no more talk of 'the' explanation
and causes that must be part of it, only of explanations that
are deeper than other ones, or 'more adequate' or 'better' or
'based on simpler or more fundamental facts' or, my favorite,
'what one would quite reasonably want to know'.
But it is simplistic and even irresponsible to imply, as they
do, that one explanation is better or more adequate than another
one merely by virtue of being simpler or more fundamental, especially
when the relevant senses, if there are any, of 'simpler', 'better',
'more adequate' and 'more fundamental' have not been explained.
Worse, they ignore the crucial question of the intrinsic adequacy
of an explanation especially, of its causal mechanism.
They do point out that, unavoidably, many aspects of the causal
mechanism remain implicit 'until someone demands that they be
made explicit and subjected to questioning'. Yet, one of the
first things one notices about their alleged explanations of
belief causation is that, at every point in a causal chain at
which they go beyond the realm of Strong Programme explanations,
there is a conspicuous absence of anything that deserves to be
called 'a causal mechanism'. 39
I believe that, when such mechanisms are given in sufficient
detail, far from strengthening Bricmont and Sokal's case, they
will provide vivid proof of the irrelevance of authenticity by
allowing us to see that they operate not only on the content
of the belief but on any good enough 'imitation' of it.
A Belief and How I Came By It
I am inclined to see Bricmont and Sokal's rejection
of my 'truth-based' explanation of my ewe hue belief (wherein
the whiteness of a sheep 'explains' the whiteness of the side
that I see) as evidence of their new, more flexible, approach.
Although they still require that the truth of some belief
plays a crucial explanatory role, it no longer has to be the
one whose causation is to be explained. Thus, saying that my
'truth-based' explanation of my belief 'misses the main point',
they propose to explain it instead in terms of how I acquired
the more general belief that every sheep that is white on one
side is white. 40 In
the review, I was content to attribute this to 'my past experience',
assuming that readers would fill this in much as I would. But
I was mistaken. According to Bricmont and Sokal, an essential
part of the story is that, a long time ago, I saw 'both sides
of a large number of sheep, and they were unfailingly monochrome'.
But, even if something like this were true, which I strongly
doubt, 41 the irrelevance
of authenticity still rules. What insight into the process of
belief causation is gained by knowing that the animals that I
allegedly saw were not wolves impersonating sheep but authentic
'out there in reality independent of us' monochrome sheep?
A Truly Inadequate Explanation
In yet another attempt to persuade us of the rightness
of their causes, Bricmont and Sokal compare their 'truly adequate'
explanation of the acceptance of Newtonian mechanics with their
ungenerous representation of a Strong Programme one. In keeping
with the new paradigm, whereas, before, we were encouraged to
assume, falsely, that we have an adequate understanding of what,
if anything, is meant by 'the' explanation of something,
we are now encouraged to assume, falsely, that we have an adequate
understanding of 'a truly adequate' explanation so that
when they tell us that this one is not truly adequate
but that one is, we can look at the evidence and arguments
they give us and make up our own minds. The comparison, if it
can be called that, is essentially a thumbnail sketch of the
authors' ideas about how and how not 'to explain scientist X's
belief in some theory'. Pausing at places where they imply, falsely,
that a Strong Programme explanation must stop, they say that
it is 'not natural' to stop there because one would 'quite reasonably'
want to explain some of the things on which causal irrelevance
of authenticity is ignored, requires an independent determination
of whether the experiments that convinced X produced truth or
falsehood. This creates an infinite regress but they do not notice.
42 Depending on how it is
broken, 43 the punch
line of their explanation, the part that, in their eyes, renders
it 'truly adequate', is either that the experiment yielded E
because E is approximately true or because of experimental
error (including faking). However, if you find that it is 'not
natural' to stop here because you 'quite reasonably' want to
examine the causal mechanism in order to assess the causal
relevance, if any, of E being approximately true, then, for you,
this 'truly adequate' explanation is truly inadequate.
1. Or the text. Or both! Similarly, what I claim is faulty
logic may later be seen as a figment of my faulty logic.
2. I wish to thank myself for calling this to my attention.
3. But evidently not on matters of meaning. At the request
of Labinger and his co-editor (Labinger & Collins, 2001:
298), Bricmont & Sokal (2001b: 246) attempt to clarify a
statement they made. But I don't see how to separate the question
of what this 'clarification' means from that of its correctness.
I think it is nonsense but maybe I misunderstand it.
4. Remarks like 'One reasoner's faulty logic is another's
knockdown argument' suggest that Labinger (2004: 91) finds every
case extreme, if not as extreme as this one. But one reasoner's
faulty logic is not always another's knockdown argument.
In mathematics, it is expected that disagreements will be resolved
and they almost always are.
5. This is Labinger's (2004: 91) term. Actually, the only
thing to counter is the claim that it is an argument against
6. Having to do with 'listening the wrong way'.
7. See also the essays at < http://math.bu.edu/people/nk/rr
8. Weinberg's argument seems to rest on the rogue realist
intuition that, sometimes, a person will take a certain action
if he possesses knowledge of a certain proposition but not if
he merely believes that he does.
9. It is nothing like my favorite example, in which the philosopher
John Searle (1994: 213, note 5) interrupts an argument to inform
us that 6 added to itself 8 times is not 48, as is universally
believed, but 54, adding, 'It is amazing how often this mistake
is made'. The consideration that, if he is right, everyone else
is wrong gives Searle no pause. It has been suggested that he
is merely calling attention in a jokey way to an inconsistency
between our well-established use (or avoidance) of locutions
like '6 added to itself twice' and their literal meaning. But
the obvious literal meaning of '6 added to itself twice' is 6
+ 6 = 12, 6 + 6 = 12 and I know of no other. Searle says that
it means 6 added to the result of adding 6 to itself, which is
6 added to 12, not to 6, which is 18. But I doubt very much that
even he would dare claim that this is a literal rendering of
'6 added to itself twice'.
10. I allude to my view of this notion in note 24 of the review,
the subtext of which is 'Read Philosophical Investigations
and then we'll talk'.
11. I have a bad habit of saying 'misreading' when I mean
'unjustified reading'. I assume this also is what Saulson means.
The distinction is important. Often, we don't even need to know
what a statement means to know that a reading of it is unjustified.
12. But he also says that they 'work in an environment where
words mean what they say they mean, no more and no less'.
13. He accuses David Bloor (1991: 523) of writing in
code but not of enjoying it.
14. Whether it 'should have' occurred to him is another matter.
15. To me, the relevant distinction is not between understanding
and misunderstanding but, rather, between not misunderstanding
and misunderstanding. I can misunderstand English but not Chinese.
16. He adds that to understand these testimonies and denunciations
as scientists do, one must undergo 'the actual conversion of
unbelievers, which comes through a mysterious personal journey,
only partly mediated by written texts'.
17. Because it employs classical logic what David Hilbert,
writing in 1925, in 'On the Infinite' (1967), called 'the very
laws that Aristotle taught'. His full remark is worth quoting.
'In any case, those logical laws that man has always used since
he began to think, the very laws that Aristotle taught, do not
hold. But we just do not want to renounce the simple laws of
Aristotelian logic; and no one, though he speak with the tongues
of angels, will keep people from using the principle of excluded
middle. What, then, shall we do?' (Hilbert, 1967: 379).
18. I was young!
19. Precisely because it suppresses questions of constructivity.
20. The traditional proof of the infinitude of primes is often
touted as an illustration of 'the power of the indirect method'
(for example, Hardy, 1940: 9294), even though it is a 'direct'
proof pointlessly imbedded in an 'indirect' one.
21. Because every sentence that can be interpreted classically
can also be interpreted constructively and vice versa, it would
be a much better analogy if every drawing that could be seen
as a duck could also be seen as a rabbit and vice versa. Not
22. An impression created in part by criticizing it in a book
devoted to debunking 'fashionable nonsense'.
23. I used Starr, not because his behavior was especially
bad as these things go, it was not, but because it seems that
almost everyone has heard about it.
24. For example, even though he sees that his third reading
of Anyon's remark gets him off the hook, instead of retracting
his charge, he invents another, inconsistent with the first,
that does apply to this reading.
25. Their 'charitable reinterpretation' 'along lines similar
to Stolzenberg's by referring to "evidence"' (Bricmont
& Sokal, 2004: 111, n. 3) is not a reading of it, but merely
a thought evoked by the remark one that, despite its reference
to evidence bears no interesting similarity to my reading of
it. Yes, evidence usually figures significantly in a process
of this kind. But, for the point in dispute, it could just as
well consist in waiting for a word from God. Furthermore, what
is called for is not a logical qualifier like 'conclusive' but
a cognitive one like 'convincing' or 'convincingly conclusive'.
26. I wrote, 'Three physicists, two of whom wish to see the
Strong Programme dead and one who merely finds it boring, crippling
and wrong-headed, attack it'. Lighten up, guys.
27. In addition, in Fashionable Nonsense (Sokal &
Bricmont, 1998: 92), we are told that, depending on how one resolves
an ambiguity in the intent of the Strong Programme, 'it becomes
either a valid and mildly interesting corrective to the most
naive psychological and sociological notions, reminding us that
"true beliefs have causes, too" or else a gross and
blatant error'. Thanks a lot! Finally, in support of my claim
about 'repeated' statements, note that each of the two that are
quoted here appears twice more elsewhere, (Sokal, 1998: 1718,
2001: 2425), for a total of six.
28. See their argument that methodological relativism makes
no sense without philosophical relativism.
29. Chomsky's remark is on the book jacket. Nagel's is in
his review of the book (Nagel, 1998: 33).
30. However, if the criticism of their reply that I give here
is not convincing, I doubt that my critique of their chapter
will be any more so.
31. In such cases, I almost always argue only that a reading
is unjustified, for example, by giving a different one that is
no less plausible in the argument, not that it is incorrect.
32. I do not know any way to confirm the incommensurability
without learning to alternate between the mindsets. However,
it is very easy to describe the two kinds of compatibility. In
the classical mindset, constructivist mathematics is the part
of classical mathematics devoted to seeing what can be proved
without the law of excluded middle; whereas, in the constructivist
mindset, classical mathematics is the part of constructivist
mathematics devoted to seeing what follows from the law of excluded
middle. So, in each case, the compatibility is that of part to
whole. Each is a restricted subsystem of the other! However,
because of the incommensurability of the mindsets, saying this
does not do justice to either system.
33. I am using 'teleological' and 'naturalistic' as in Bloor
34. Philosophers have made the same conflation. For example,
Boghossian (2001: 8) writes, 'While it may be plausible to ignore
the truth or falsity of what I believe in explaining why I came
to believe it, it is not plausible to ignore whether I had any
evidence for believing it'. Thus, whereas I say that it is not
plausible to ignore his belief that he had evidence, he
says that it is not plausible to ignore whether this belief
is true, even while granting that it may be plausible to
ignore whether his first belief is true! If evidence helps cause
belief by helping to cause the belief that it is evidence, Boghessian's
first clause applied to his belief about evidence contradicts
the second one in its original form. See also Hacking
(1999: 232, note 13).
35. An alert reader points out that I first say that there
is no support for the weaker claim that, in each case, the truth
of the belief is a partial cause of its acceptance, if not a
necessary one. However, although I then thought better of opening
this can of worms in the review, I forgot to remove the remark!
36. I assume they mean to be giving only a sample of spontaneous
reactions that people commonly have.
37. It could be taken, as Bricmont and Sokal seem to take
it, to imply that one cannot give a causal explanation of a belief
until one has determined its truth value. In addition, Bloor
does not explain what he means by 'the same kind' even though
any two things are of 'the same kind' in infinitely many respects.
38. But, of course, criticism based on an unsupported claim
is itself unsupported.
39. For example, because Sokal conflates the existence of
evidence for Darwinism with the belief that it is evidence, he
is blind to the need for a mechanism by means of which the truth
of Darwinism helps make us believe it by making there be evidence
for it that helps make us believe it is evidence for it.
40. They also claim to explain why my belief that the sheep
is white is true. But, if they do not wish to appeal to its truth
to help explain why I hold it, this is pointless. Although they
do not say why they reject this appeal instead of joining it
with the explanation they prefer, it would not be too surprising
if their devotion to such explanations was tempered by the consideration
that treating 'the side is white because the sheep is
white' as a causal relation runs counter to the intuitive idea
that to cause something is to 'make' it happen. They do say that,
in some cases, an explanation may take the form of a logical
implication but I can easily imagine them declining to do so
in this one.
41. Indeed, I doubt that it had much, if anything, to do with
sheep, except in the negative sense of my never seeing what appeared
to be a counterexample.
42. Unlike X, without and independent investigation, Bricmont
and Sokal are unwilling to accept that the experimentalists got
result E because E is approximately true. They say that this
is an empirical question, which can be investigated by competent
scientists in the usual ways. But this seems to be true only
for the alleged cause, not for the causal claim. Also, unless
they come up with a nonquestion-begging reason to trust the 'competent'
scientists but not the 'honest and conscientious' experimentalists,
their independent investigation will have to be independently
investigated by other competent scientists and so on, ad infinitum.
Bricmont and Sokal's (2001a: note 9) talk of independent assessment
has the same problem.
43. For example, by Bricmont and Sokal deciding that they
have no good reason not to trust the 'honest and conscientious'
Bloor, David (1991) Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2nd
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(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press): 2747.
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Collins, Harry (2001) 'One More Round with Relativism', in
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and Does Not Prove', in Noretta Koertge (ed.), A House Built
on Sand (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press):
Sokal, Alan (2001) 'What the Social Text Affair Does
and Does Not Prove', in Keith M. Ashman & Philip S. Baringer
(eds), After the Science Wars (London & New York:
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Gabriel Stolzenberg is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Northeastern
University. For the past several decades, his mathematical work
has been devoted primarily to a 'non-scavenger' constructivist
development of mathematics and comparisons of it with the traditional
one. 'The Weiner Lemma and Certain of Its Generalizations' (Coquand
& Stolzenberg 1991 Bulletin of the American Mathematical
Society, 24(1), 110) is an exemplar of the approach.
An earlier essay, 'Can an Inquiry into the Foundations of Mathematics
Tell Us Anything Interesting about Mind?' (George A. Miller &
Elizabeth Lenneberg eds 1978 Psychology and Biology of Language
and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneberg: 22169),
focuses on false comparisons based on 'wrong-way listening',
a phenomenon that also figures significantly in the science wars.
Address: 1 Richdale Ave, Unit 11, Cambridge, Massachusetts
02140, USA; fax: +1 617 576 2066; email: email@example.com