Only one cheer for Sokal and Bricmont: Or, scientism is no response to relativism

Res Publica 5 (1):1-20 (1999)
Abstract
Macaulay was wrong: The British public in one of its periodic fits of morality may be a ridiculous spectacle but it has at least one rival in the reaction we have recently witnessed to ‘cultural relativism’, ‘postmodernism’, and suchlike phenomena. One good illustration of the point is the argument of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures (1998: London, Profile Books). Sokal and Bricmont spend the greater part of their time holding various postmodernist writers up to ridicule, and it would be a waste of time to defend it against them. However, their most seriously argued chapter (chapter four) is a critique, not of postmodernism, but of epistemic relativism in the philosophy of science, as mainly exemplified by the work of Popper, Feyerabend, and Kuhn, and it is important to answer the case they make. There are many reasons for finding that case unconvincing. For example: (i) Sokal and Bricmont repeatedly imply that epistemic relativism is counter-intuitive. Against them it can be objected that some quite ordinary proposition can be both true and, at the same time, only true for beings with certain types of visual apparatus or with a certain cultural history. Nor are they right in claiming that all scientists find epistemic relativism implausible. Some do, but Chomsky doesn't. Neither does Stephen Hawking; (ii) Sokal and Bricmont suppose that there is a single, uniquely correct description of the universe ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but all the evidence we have suggests the contrary; (iii) it is not the case that epistemic relativism entails that any description is just as good as any other, so they are wrong to insist that it must endorse all manner of silly superstition; (iv) Sokal and Bricmont frequently insist that “the scientific method is not radically different from the rational attitude in everyday life or in other domains of human knowledge” but this glosses over great differences between the procedures appropriate to different areas of inquiry – science on the one hand, history and/or psychoanalysis on the other.
Keywords Sokal  Bricmont  Haworth  science  philosophy of science  relativism  epistemic relativism  Intellectual Impostures  two cultures
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