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The hermeneutics of bunk

How a physicist gave postmodernism a black eye.
For anyone who pays attention to popular accounts of physics and cosmology, quantum gravity is a thing. How could it not be? Quantum gravity is the place where the two pillars of modern physics — quantum mechanics and relativity — collide head-on at the very instant of the Big Bang. The two theories, each triumphant in its own realm, just don’t play well together. If you are looking for fundamental challenges to our ideas about the universe, quantum gravity isn’t a bad place to start.

A bit over two decades ago, quantum gravity also proved to be the perfect honey trap for a bunch of academics with a taste for nonsense and an envious bone to pick with science.

In 1994, NYU physicist Alan Sokal ran across a book by biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt. In Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, Gross and Levitt raised an alarm about those in the new field of “cultural studies” who were declaring that scientific knowledge, and at some level reality itself, is nothing but a social construct. Unsure whether he should take Gross and Levitt at face value, Sokal went to the library and dove into the literature that they were criticizing. When he came up for air, he was much more familiar with the postmodernist critique of science. He was also appalled at the depth of its ignorance about the subject.

Most scientists respond to such nonsense with a muttered, “good grief,” but Sokal felt compelled to do more. He decided to give postmodernists a firsthand demonstration of the destructive testing of ideas that tie science to a reality that cuts across all cultural divides.

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