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A few weeks ago someone posted on hacker news an (oldish) long rant by a certain Steven Dutch against the weasel wording of post-modern philosophy of science.

For a physicist, being called solipsist is tantamount to being accused of inventing his experimental results, pretty much the worst thing one could do. For anyone in the humanities, people being their object of study, and people having a strong tendency to behave in solipsist ways, disregarding solipsism out of hand is inventing experimental results.

Certainly the claim that people act solipsistically will sound as outrageous po-mo babble, so let me make it more precise. Recall the “Coordinated Attack Problem“. (This is a computer science problem were two computer nodes must agree on some given data over an unreliable link, depicted as two generals sending messengers through a battlefield. The first sends the datum, but since he does not know whether the messenger got through, he must ask for an acknowledgement message. The second sends the acknowledgement, but he also must be sure of reception, so he too must request acknowledgement, generating an infinite recursion.) Mathematically it is proven that a perfect solution to the problem is impossible. Pragmatically, the more messages the more certainty. But the hard fact is that in day to day interactions people exchange almost no acknowledgements. People simply behave as if other people’s experiences did not matter, or as if everyone’s experiences were the same as his.

I am somewhat relying on anecdotal evidence, as i am not aware of any experiments in exactly those terms, but what i am describing is ethnocentrism, the fact that people take their own culture as reality. This is not opinion, this is not interpretation, this is documented in basically every anthropology work ever. Someone from the hard sciences wanting to question something like this will be received as if he took Galileo’s experiments for failures.

Incidentally, mr. Dutch does just that, when he quips that “nobody has ever demonstrated the existence of another reality“. That might as well be so, if you take “another reality” to mean a different physical universe, which does not really matter for sociology. Berger and Luckmann’s book “The Social Construction of Reality” does a reasonable job of showing how different people identify “reality” in different ways. Therefore, for sociology, whether or not it is the case that there exists only one physical universe, it is still useful to think about realities in the plural. Mr. Dutch complain, offered as proof, could sound as someone claiming there is no proof that any number multiplied by itself can result in -1, and that this debunks Quantum Physics — there is a kind of a point to it, but not really.

So, even if i do agree that weasel words are a problem for the humanities, and i even think he does not go far enough in that he does not question whether those weasel words are not fooling even the very speakers, even then i do not see how his criticism could be taken seriously. Which is kind of a shame, because i really would prefer to be on the side of “the hard sciences” on this one, but this point of view is expressed in such absurdly rabid ways that my initial reaction is to latch into opposition rants.

The problem of weasel words is, certainly, a problem of language. The study of language is part of the humanities, and it is surprisingly hard. Historically, the problem does come out of logics and fallacies, which to many people in the hard sciences the false notion that they do understand what is at stake. Another thing posted on hacker news recently, about how Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is mostly disproved by lots of evidence, shows the size of the misunderstanding. By which i do not mean that physicists can’t talk about language, but that claims that Po-Mo must use unambiguous language are simply impossible — there is no such things as unambiguous language.

Many points in mr. Dutch’s rant show how much his disgust with post-modernism is just a superficial matter of taste. He dislikes the sociology style, mostly because he is more used to the physical terms. So when one of his friends swaps “objectivity” for “spatiotemporally universal” this is OK, even though he does acknowledge it is basically the same thing said in a byzantine physical-sounding way to dodge the criticism of “objectivity” on the first place. But when Derrida says colonisation involves violence this is a crime (and it seems to me that Derrida never claims colonisation = violence, but that’s beside the point).

I am pretty sure mr. Dutch couldn’t care less about sociology and the humanities. When he says that sociology is “mostly harmless”, the irony sounds to me as contempt. But this is totally OK. No one is in any way required to read Derrida, certainly mr. Dutch must not be. But the spiteful tone of the accusations are certainly not building any bridges.

2 Comments

  1. Well, you’d never know that my “rant” consists of lengthy quotes from various post-modernists and analysis of them.

    • I avoided going into detail because it was just too insulting, since in many places i basically have to say that you can’t read. But, anyway, here are some points:

      • * Your opening quote is “actually paraphrasing a viewpoint that is not really stated so explicitly by its proponents”. And you yourself claim “The quote is so widely cited because, first of all, if it didn’t exist, scientists would be accused of constructing a straw man by stating that philosophers of science held any such views”. So you are quoting something someone does not actually say, but says other people say, and you are claiming to not be making a strawman. Does that even make sense? It sincerely sounds to me as self-parody.
      • * The thing about “Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot…” is pure flame-bait, the exact same kind of bad argumentation you are accusing post-modernists of doing.
      • * About “Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability” — the main point seems to be that no frame of reference is preferable to any other and that therefore you must constantly “play a game” of choosing frames of reference. Your rewriting as “dynamic frame of reference” suggests you are reading the passage in a very shallow way.
      • * When Latour talks about relativity, i find no reason to assume he is talking about Einstein’s relativity. What i take from the text (and i remember having read it ages ago, and disliked it, for completely different reasons than yours) is he is referring to the fact that a measurement is a relation between two things. If i say “the book weights 1.5Kg” that means “relative to the International Standard Kilogram cylinder hosted in France, the book is one and a half as heavy”.
      • * The harm in saying distinctions are absolute is that this kind of “made up fact” usually has unintended consequences.
      • * Comparing Creationism to Deconstruction implies a enormous misunderstanding of Deconstruction. You say that just making words mean things different than they should or than the writer meant is Deconstruction. In fact, you almost equate Deconstruction to weasel-wording. Deconstruction actually means something like “recursive self-criticism”, so that a discourse made at an enemy will never be Deconstruction, by definition.
      • * The utility of lumping many things under the concept of myth is that myth is a “term of art” in sociology, and the pertinence in the dialogue is pretty obvious (if you know anything at all about sociology). All your examples are “symbol systems that get acted out in life”. Ones for lab reasons, others for folkloric reasons. Since symbol systems and their acting out are everywhere in societies, it is not surprising sociologists actually care about them.
      • “Ultimately though, what in the world is Latour talking about? How does rejecting an absolute framework allow him to “to establish relations and distinctions, and to measure the gaps between points of view” any better or any differently than having an absolute framework would?” You certainly have no idea what Latour was talking about, since later you dismiss the central claim of the book (that objects are first-class citizens, to use a programming term) as if it was a detail. But generally speaking, this is the basic assumption of anthropology, that when cultures meet, both will have culture that serve as frames of reference, and that common understanding will only arrive when both give up their own values and concepts and try to make a third, auxiliary, even temporary frame of reference. That is extremely hard, and there are whole bookshelves about this in any decent library. And it is also very basic in the humanities, so much so that you can’t pretend to understand if you dismiss the concept so lightly.
      • * If a sociologist claims it is possible to speak truly, they certainly do not claim it is possible to speak unambiguously. Language is way less reliable, and at the same time way more flexible, than you seem to realize.
      • * Derrida does not, in your passage, at least, say colonisation = every power differential. This is a very basic text comprehension issue.
      • * Derrida is not saying you should go to the dictionary and strike out reconciliation, salvation, etc. He is talking about multi-layered symbol systems and systems of relationships between people. He is not saying “forgiveness means X”, he is saying there are levels of forgiveness and that there is one king of extreme forgiveness that is important. To take his claim as some fighting over words is puerile.

      I could go on. But boredom stops me.


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