Friday, January 14, 2011

Liberals – Essential Beliefs Deconstruction 134

Modern argumentation owes much to Wayne Booth, Steven Toulmin, Chaim Perelman, Charles Hamblin, Frans van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst and Jurgen Habermas* (Habermas was mentioned in the immediately preceeding blog post). These gentlemen brought argumentation out of the narrow area of disputes over certainty to the modern challenge of making judgments and decisions on incomplete information. These new approaches have been assisted by such developments as game theory, originally a branch of mathematics and philosophy dealing with games and war planning.

* this list of thinkers is from Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning by David Zarefsky

Some games offer us with entirely new methods of making decisions. My own favorite in this area is modern contract bridge, itself based on a change in rules invented by Commodore Vanderbilt in 1924. This newer and superbly complex form of bridge was losing favor in the 1930s because of its very complexity. Just in time to keep the game going, a new system of bidding was popularized (but not invented) by Charles H. Goren. The Goren method “saved” the game and represents an impressive approach to making decisions on incomplete information.

Making “game” and, especially, bidding and successfully making a “slam,” will make a believer out of anyone doubting the power of this special new form of logic. In studying conflict, especially the Second World War, it is daunting how many of the top strategic experts and intelligence experts played bridge. Even Ian Fleming's James Bond was a bridge player.

All of this presents a case for argumentation rather than deconstruction. The essential purpose and power of language is to communicate clearly and universally. The existence of bias or historical error or intellectual history does not prove that argumentation is ineffective. Modern game theory shows that the lack of perfect or complete information does not prove a decision unwise, since the Goren method can lead to a successful slam based on incomplete information (and there are other examples of successful game theory).

Another argument for argumentation over deconstruction involves intermittent perfect communication. Sometimes humans communicate perfectly for a brief interval. This is true in intimate relationships, of course, but it is also true in comedy. Generally, we laugh because we are shocked that we completely understand the point that has been made. Under deconstruction, such complete and perfect understanding is impossible.

A third argument against deconstruction: it is susceptible to swindle and misdirection. The obtuse, obscure, polysyllabic jargon of deconstruction (as seen in the preceding blog post) is easy to imitate and easy to manufacture in order to fool committed deconstructionists themselves.

Let is combine humor and and misdirection in a splendid example proving the dangers of deconstruction: “The Sokal Affair”.

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It is Easy to Create a Hoax on Deconstruction

Alan David Sokal (born 1955) is a professor of mathematics at University College London and professor of physics at New York University. He works in statistical mechanics and combinatorics. To the general public he is best known for his criticism of postmodernism, resulting in the Sokal affair in 1996.

The Sokal Affair

Sokal is best known to the general public for the Sokal Affair of 1996. Curious to see whether the then-non-peer-reviewed postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text (published by Duke University Press) would publish a submission which "flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions," Sokal submitted a grand-sounding but completely nonsensical paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."

The journal did in fact publish it, and soon thereafter Sokal then revealed that the article was a hoax in the journal Lingua Franca, arguing that the left and social science would be better served by intellectual underpinnings based on reason. He replied to leftist and postmodernist criticism of the deception by saying that his motivation had been to "defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself."

The affair, together with Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt's book Higher Superstition, can be considered to be a part of the so-called Science wars.

Sokal followed up by co-authoring the book Impostures Intellectuelles with Jean Bricmont in 1997 (published in English, a year later, as Fashionable Nonsense). The book accuses other academics of using scientific and mathematical terms incorrectly and criticizes proponents of the strong program for denying the value of truth. The book had mixed reviews, with some lauding the effort, some more reserved, and others pointing out alleged inconsistencies and criticizing the authors for ignorance of the fields under attack and taking passages out of context.

In 2008, Sokal revisited the Sokal affair and its implications in Beyond the Hoax.


  • But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.
  • Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

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