Friday, August 26, 2016

Reiner Grundmann, Daniel Sarewitz and What's His Name: Sokal Science

Following quick on the heels of Reiner Grundmann's Nature Geoscience Comment demanding that scientists go back to the barracks and leave the hard work to the social scientists, came Dan Sarewitz, telling scientists that they are killing science and need to leave the barracks and enter the real world. The competition for the longest and most verbose strawman is indeed hard and the Garudian has brought up another competitor.

ATTP has been fishing these waters, but Eli wonders whether somebunnies have  discovered the a primitive Sokal Science generator changed a couple of words and are just grinding out version after version of  "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Climate Change", hoping no one notices.  Eli assumes that sooner or later one of the editors who, shall the Rabett say, fell for these April Fools jokes will look up from the grass and notice that all of the latest are but simple rip offs of the original.

 It is great fun ripping through the original Sokal Science article and comparing it to the recent Grundmann, Sarewitz and what's his name nonsense.  Indeed

Finally, postmodern science provides a powerful refutation of the authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science, as well as an empirical basis for a democratic approach to scientific work. For, as Bohr noted, ``a complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view which defy a unique description'' -- this is quite simply a fact about the world, much as the self-proclaimed empiricists of modernist science might prefer to deny it. 
In such a situation, how can a self-perpetuating secular priesthood of credentialed ``scientists'' purport to maintain a monopoly on the production of scientific knowledge? (Let me emphasize that I am in no way opposed to specialized scientific training; I object only when an elite caste seeks to impose its canon of ``high science'', with the aim of excluding a priori alternative forms of scientific production by non-members.
Where has Eli heard that before?


Russell Seitz said...

Having read Sokal, the Alt.Right plans to merge with The Temple of Moorish Science and invite the Heartland Institute to stage its next NIPCC conference in Jonestown.

Fernando Leanme said...

Meanwhile im providing public service announcements on Twitter (TM) about the Crystal Serenity cruise into the NW Passage, but Eli doesn't give me any publicity. I used to work aboard a NOAA vessel a few decades ago, this cruise ship is a quantum leap when it comes to exploration. I'm eagerly waiting to see the first tourist running away from a polar bear.

Anonymous said...

Dunning Kruger ensures the authors don't recognize the Sokolist nature of their pseudo science. But then again, it's not even pseudo science, it's politics and prose. AKA - propaganda. So again I ask, what's up at Nature?

Arthur said...

If I recall correctly, New Atlantis (Sarewitz's publisher) has been generally "right"-leaning and, despite nominally being about science and technology (and society), rather against modern science from the start. So his piece fits right in.

I actually found the article about half "spot on" and half "this makes no sense at all". It was a very odd experience. Sarewitz's main argument against Vannevar Bush's advocacy for basic research is the problems within our medical research community, but I have never considered the vast majority of medical research to be anywhere close to "basic" science, and I don't think it's what Bush was talking about either. When you are trying to find a cure for a disease you are not working on basic research, no matter if you are experimenting on mice or monkeys or humans.

The real break-down in recent advances in applying science to technology is I think highlighted instead in his side-mention of research at Bell laboratories. What happened to that place? Why are there no Bell Labs's around any more? I think there has been a fundamental change in corporate philosophy in the US, since around the 1980s, perhaps driven by changes in tax law, that has driven most industrial research into the ground. Government-funded research was never intended to be a replacement for the work corporate labs did in developing practical products. And there's a real gap there. Sarewitz is right that if you want research to have practical impact on the world you need to get it out there in some form of use, and the benefits of that use can drive funding decisions to focus on the right areas pretty far back into the research hierarchy. But when corporate research has fallen down, and when congress has surpassed any kind of goal-driven research in general (see the fights over ARPA-E, the Department of Commerce's attempts at such things in the past, etc) with the rubric of not "picking winners and losers", things can get very confused. It is pretty clear it is helpful to have a real money flow from practical uses (whether defense-related or health-related or space-related or just general useful product-related) driving research agendas; otherwise you get arbiters in the middle making best guesses on where research money should go...

Russell Seitz said...

8c, Sir John Maddox died some time ago.

Vinny Burgoo said...

So what? While science has provided the stratigraphic context of the Anthropocene and considers the material legacy of the human in geologic terms, hidden within its formulisation of collective geomorphic agency are the buried concepts of geomorphic power and the subjective condition of that agency — or geologic being — this geologic agency might be understood as a new geontology for the human achieved through the mineralisation of social forces. If we approach the science of the Anthropocene not as a “political” problem that needs to be critiqued from an purely analytical point of view (because this is relatively easy to do, and I think in the case of climate change it obscured some of the most important conditions that the science of climate change raised) but instead if we hold a certain fidelity towards the issues the Anthropocene raise, i.e. a fidelity to the future promises of the Anthropocene and the reconceptualization of social relations that are released by holding with its promises, then we must grapple with a different sort of politic than the one we’ve been doing thus far in social theory. That is not to say that we shouldn’t be critical of the rather obvious Universalisms, patriarchy and Nature/Culture divisions that are operationalized in accounts of the Anthropocene, rather this might not be the most interesting (nor faithful) project to engage in. [Contd p. 94.]

Anonymous said...

Grundmann: "... it seems only natural to ask climate scientists for policy advice when it comes to practical solutions. But climate scientists do not have the appropriate expertise."

What makes that statement as funny as it is is his suggestion that economists, historians, social scientists and policy wonks DO have the appropriate expertise.

EliRabett said...

Eli eagerly awaits Prof. Grundmann's unveiling his solution, which, of course, is the problem.

jrkrideau said...

Having looked at the Saving Science article I think the kindest thing one can say about Daniel Sarewitz is that he clearly does not understand the difference between science and technology. Or, he does but just wants to obfuscate.

I could not agree more with your brilliant summary.

Russell Seitz said...

Assembling a Lit Critical mass on the masthead of a flagship journal risks unintended outbursts of Sokalist Realism in the opinion pages and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

@Vinny Burgoo:

Sounds like randomly generated New Age tripe to me: "...mineralisation of social forces." Really now? Oh, wait:

Seriously though, might try reading some of Kathryn's stuff the next time I'm tripping on peyote or, hmm... perhaps not :-)

Kevin O'Neill said...

I gave up at 'geontology' - WTF?

KY talking to EP sheds light on the word:
"Kathryn Yusoff: If, I understand correctly, your use of the term “geontology” refers to the interpenetration of biography and geography and as an analytics for how power is arranged around bio-geographical obligation, often in violent confrontation with forms of governance."

Yep, that cleared it right up. Lots of syllables - still no meaning. Life's too short to even attempt to explicate that crap.

Bryson said...

Wow, Vinny-- pretty well done, I'd say, but I'm not sure where any of that gets us (or whether you're just pulling legs ;) ). Reliable factual claims are more my idea of a starting point. Things get slippery when the focus is on raising complex and obscure questions rather than asking clear questions we can actually answer. Personally, I'm concerned that the current direction of anthropocene developments poses a significant threat to its namesake/creators. Does what you said bear on that?

Russell Seitz said...

O, what a tangled Poe we plant
when first we snark in Adamant:

Anonymous said...

> Things get slippery when the focus is on raising complex and obscure questions rather than asking clear questions we can actually answer.

Things get slipperier when you realize you can't really answer the questions you thought were clear. In fact, the very idea of "asking" or "answering" questions is far from clear. As if we could stand aside all the crap upon which we build these questions and seek these answers anew. As if I could dig into science without reading anything and expect to understand everything. In this case, the background knowledge is a bit steeper than one may presume: Heidegger for the ontology part, Foucault for biopolitics, Canguilhem for biology, and Althusser for capitalism...

Removing the exploratory (and insufferable) flourish from Povinelli's interview gets us to a point that every bunny should have heard before:

"[W]e hear the soothing sounds of apocalypse or adaptation. The apocalyptic allows us to remain with(in) the comforting lullaby of finitude—death, death, death, immediate and decisive! And adaptation allows us to believe that we can continue on without change or major discomfort. Neither is true. Both are false. But both have a power in late liberalism that cannot be ignored."

What Eli recognizes as a journalistic bug may be an emergent feature of something that runs deeper, and which old-fashioned smugness can't cover much.

Not only has bunnies heard that before, but bunnies hear it in just about every ClimateBall exchanges everywhere - not so bad for a mere critical theorist!

Bryson said...

I prefer to separate the puzzles (some of which are real enough) from the stuff we can actually settle. We have very reliable methods for producing good answers to many questions-- Newton's methods and answers weren't 'the truth' but they still work a treat for a lot of physics. That's what makes Climateball a joke (except, I suppose to those who don't get the point). We don't have to be naive about the complexity of human social behaviour to recognize the reliability of well-grounded scientific conclusions.

Kevin O'Neill said...

Willard - For many years I've lamented that I don't have either the time or the expertise to write a book titled: "Every Rock Tells A Story." But even given my fondness for geology and a passing interest in meta-physics, I'm still WTF? on geontology.

I'm not a fan of certain schools of thought: "“If Gurdjieff had intended his meaning to be readily accessible to every reader, he would have written the book differently. He himself used to listen to chapters read aloud, and if he found that key passages were taken too easily – and therefore almost inevitably too superficially – he would rewrite them in order, as he put it, to “bury the dog deeper.”

Anonymous said...

> We don't have to be naive about the complexity of human social behaviour to recognize the reliability of well-grounded scientific conclusions.

Neither is it very complex to see how appealing to well-grounded scientific conclusions can become one of the most tired ClimateBall cliché, a gift that may keep on giving precisely because of the usual whitecoat naïveté, one which Sarewitz suprisingly reinforces and celebrates.

Reiner's not wrong because he's some pomo guy - he's wrong because his argument misprepresents wickedness and the history of the IPCC. Dan's not even wrong, because he has no real argument. Alan's paper was funny, but his overall argument sucks. Here could be something a bit more serious:

While Sokal's spoof was cunning and amusing, we also need sustained, philosophical responses to these movements. Portions of this book undertake this task. In contrast to relativism and anti-objectivism, I maintain that social practices can make both positive and negative contributions to knowledge. The task is to show just which social practices, under what conditions, will promote knowledge rather than subvert it. The notion that positive epistemic value can flow from social interchange appears in at
least two recent epistemological works: C. A. J. Coady's (1992) book on testimony and Philip Kitcher's (1993) book on the philosophy of science.

An important problem with dealing with crap is to take it seriously. If you don't, all you do is to denigrate, and this is as corrosive as any pomo crap. It creates strawman over strawman which are then used as ridicule weapons more than anything. In fact, one could argue that pomo crap is corrosive for this very reason: it misinterprets vague concepts like "liberalism" to denigrate them.

Anonymous said...

> I'm still WTF? on geontology

I'm still too, KevinO. Perhaps I'm more *shrug* on it. All I can say is be patient, grasshopper - it's like abstract art or ice hockey. Conceptual analysis evolved a bit since Sokal's hoax, at least I hope so.

These gals and guys are trying to analyze social power. Since their starting point is that our usual ways to think about it may be what emprisons us in the first place, they create whole new ways to envision our social reality. This seems to have led them to conceive that our beings (i.e. "we") should be connected to a "World" that is not purely conceptual but an earthly matter. We are geological beings too, I guess. Et cetera.

Some dig Heidegerrian crap, some don't. Some who do don't care much for it. I'm among these. Since I don't want to waste much time on that project, I'd rather just let them be. Their hearts are at the right place, and I surely can understand why they don't wish to perpetuate the argumentative machismo we can witness in ClimateBall players exchanges.

In any case, it does seem to me that Dan and Reiner come from another intellectual tradition altogether. It looks more like orthodox STS stuff.

Anonymous said...

Kind of like the crap I have to take here occasionally from supposedly sensitive, imaginative and intelligent bunnies, struck down with fear by the approaching headlights, such as, for instance, that I must vote along established two party lines in the US, that there are two sides to every argument, or that there are two kinds of music, country and western. Taking that kind of crap from frightened bunnies has gotten er ,,, well, at least it's not boring. So I ask, whither the usenet?

I really do think Bugs Bunny has a chance of winning this election. Especially with all those Elmer Fudds running loose across the third world and elsewhere, including now, the United States of Amurka.

And so I treat crap with caustics. At least it doesn't smell then.

Anonymous said...

> Kind of like the crap I have to take here [...]

It may not be the best of times for you to again rip off your shirt, Number 8.

Thank you for your concerns.

EliRabett said...

No bunny has to vote only for two parties in US presidential elections. Everybunny is free to waste their vote. Just don't expect your special snowflake badge.

Anonymous said...

Well maybe I'll just sit this one out then.

Is no vote a wasted vote too?

A lot of people just ignore science too.

Russell Seitz said...

"No bunny has to vote only for two parties in US presidential elections. Everybunny is free to waste their vote. "

What, no special snowflake badge for the last third party candidate to get elected President ?

Tall guy with a beard and stovepipe hat from Illinois :

Anonymous said...

The Lukewarm Gambit, Special Election Edition.

EliRabett said...

Republicans had already buried the Whigs by 1856 Russ.

Bryson said...

Neverending, you get no complaint from me for citing Coady and Kitcher; it's Bloor and Barnes that give me the willies. Kitcher has gone pragmatist in a fairly healthy way, which puts him not too far from my views (though I'm more interested in Peirce than Dewey or James). But I'm not hugely optimistic about efforts to solve or even reduce these problems by building new institutions/ social structures, as Kitcher has proposed. Perhaps it's the only game in town apart from watching the mess continue, but as things stand I think it just pushes the same messy fight into new arenas (which are just as slippery).

At a more concrete political level, I think current problems have a lot to do with neoliberalism-- when corporations are explicitly about profit for shareholders and nothing else (and that corporatist view of economics is a principal driver of politics) short-term, narrow-scope thinking dominates. The end of fairness requirements in news broadcasting was also significant- and I suspect that the cold war has helped build a permanent state of insecurity that helps make eve weak 'enemies' more salient than any mere natural catastrophe: I'm pretty sure the belief that terrorists pose an existential threat and climate change doesn't is more common than pure climate denial... Put broadly, public discussion isn't focused on what we should be concerned about, and there are systematic reasons for that.

Russell Seitz said...

Those where the Vile Whigs, Eli, the Jeffersonian force remains with the true ones.

Cue Neoknow-nothing complaints from Stern et al.