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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fashionable Nonsense

I've been reading a book by Alan Sokal entitled Fashionable Nonsense. The book unmasks academic pretentiousness by leading thinkers. I can only describe Sokal's effort as excellent. I have also learned quite a bit from it. For example, here's a quote on chaos theory I discovered in 1996. I was working at Borders at the time and just randomly picked up a book and opened to discover the passage. At the time, the passage reached me; it meant something to me. In reality the passage is really empty. How do I know the difference? You be the judge:
The theory of chaos links our everyday experiences to the laws of nature by revealing , in an aesthetically pleasing way, the subtle relationship between simplicity (on the one hand) and complexity (on the other) and between orderliness and randomness.
Sokal's book deal with how liberal arts postmodernists abuse science in their writing. This passage seems to go in the opposite direction. I respect mathematics too much to believe that chaos theory can link everyday experiences (eating cheese, watching television, writing a blog) to the laws of nature. I suppose it depends on what one considers the laws of nature. Nevertheless, the passage is oversimplistic. There seems to be something of value in the subtle relationship between simplicity and complexity, but Sokal would probably problematize a statement like that as non-scientific. I wonder what Peter Erdos would say (a man who devoted his entire life to pure mathematics). It's not that I believe the sciences and the liberal arts shouldn't share ground, on the contrary. However, building bridges that only the conceptualist can cross leaves the rest of us stranded.


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