Knowing about knowledge

Kendrick Frazier (ed.) Encounters with the Paranormal: Science, Knowledge and Belief. Prometheus, 1998.
Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Intellectual Impostures: Post-Modern Philosophers' Abuse of Science. Profile Books, 1998.

Kendrick Frazier presents a wide selection of articles which have appeared in Sceptical Inquirer in the 1990's. These include some important studies of false memory, aware sleep-paralysis, the remote viewing experiments etc. It is interesting to see that CSICOP is now extending its field of attack beyond the usual paranormal and Fortean suspects, into subjects such as the polygraph, honesty detecting questionnaires, subliminal messages, and the whole repressed memory debate.

One of the problems with anthologies such as this, is that many of the pieces, while timely and important when first published, are by the time they are anthologised, rather old hat, and this is the case, for example, with some of the articles on the satanic abuse scare of the early 90's. However in what I found the single most enlightening, not to say, alarming article in the whole collection, Evan Harrington's account of a meeting of an anti satanic abuse conference in Dallas, shows how that part of the therapeutic community which most assiduously promotes the satanic abuse survivors stories has become a bedfellow of the promoters of barely disguised anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and similar material, producing the classic fusion paranoiac of the age.

However strange and bizarre the ideas attacked by CSICOP can become, one can usually make out at least what the author's might be trying say. The material attacked by Sokal and Bricmont - the work of some of the alleged avant-garde of French philosophy - consists of pompous scientific and mathematical sounding terminology, either misused, or simply spread like a linguistic paté, looking impressive but meaning absolutely zilch. The following extract, quoted at random gives a flavour, its from psychoanalyst Felix Guattari:

"And here again we need to rediscover a manner of being of Being-before, after, here and everywhere else - without being, however identical to itself; a procesual, polyphonic Being singularisable by infinitely complexifiable textures, according to the infinite speeds which animate its virtual composition."

I couldn't have put it better myself! Sokal hit the news a couple of years ago when he sent a spoof essay entitled 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity' to the journal Social Text, which consisted largely of quite accurate quotes of meaningless verbiage from the post modernist set, interspersed with a mass of technical sounding but empty phrases and misapplied science. The journal bought the whole thing and was understandably miffed when exposed. It was quite obvious that the editors didn't understand a word, but it looked good, and especially as it heaped praised on them and their circles, must have been, well, 'really profound, man'.

Sokal and Bricmont also launch several salvos at the relativisation of science, the assumption that scientific facts and theories are nothing more than one set of texts among many, and that all such texts are as valid as each other. Such relativers are invited to test their theories from Sokal's upper floor office window. Is there any reality in which you don't end up a squashed mess if you jump out? They warn that the use of such relativising argument by the elements of the academic left is ultimately self defeating for their own cause, after all if reality is relative and their is no absolute historical or scientific truth, then what is to stop relativisers arguing that the Holocaust and slavery for example did not occur in their truth?

In fact this is just what has happened in parts of the Fortean circuit, and the reason for that is that in many ways Fort was an ancestor of today's post-modern philosophers, being for example one of the first to argue that works of science such as Newton's Principia or Darwin's Origins of Species were just cultural texts in the same way that say Great Expectations was. Fort's philosophy included the denial of transhistoric or transcultural truths, and his theory of the dominants in many ways anticipated Kuhn's concept of the paradigm. Fort of course did not have access to the vast array of technical sounding words and phrases to use as mystification, but there are passages in his works which suggest that were he alive today he would have made use of them.

This does not, however, mean that social and cultural factors do not play a part in the development of scientific theories, in many cases they do, particularly in areas where emotions are high and the actual empirical evidence weak, or difficult to decipher. And though the facts of nature may be given, those of the textbooks, which is often the only window on science that many people have, are too often constructs.

For example between the wars, Piltdown Man held a centre place in the texts on evolution, and in the 1970's Ramapithecus was hai led as the earliest human ancestor and made the subject of various speculative drawings. Up to the 1950's Neanderthals were portrayed as shambling ape men barely able to walk upright. In the counter-cultural and post-colonial 60's and 70's they became fully human, dressed in well-tailored furs and laying their dead to rest in graves sprinkled with healing flowers. In the harsher 80's and early 90's they were again expelled from the human family, denied the ability to speak properly and their alleged cultural achievements explained away. The raw bones are real objects, not cultural constructs, but the meaning of the bones, for which there is no definitive empirical evidence, are cultural constructs.

Both books reviewed here point out the sangers of an authoritarian education system, which confronts students with facts drawn from textbooks, but does not educate them on how to evaluate evidence and arguments, or and to discover how these facts were discovered and to evaluate the evidence for them. That is perhaps the role of real scepticism. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 66, March 1999.

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