Many of our readers will recall the celebrated hoax perpetrated by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 against the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal submitted an article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” for an issue on “Science Wars”. The article strung together buzzwords helter-skelter to conclude with a flattering claim of the importance of social theory for natural science. The fact that it was published is cited even today by supercilious physicists and insecure journalists as conclusive proof that academic jargon in the humanities and social sciences is all fake.
Anyway, I was just reading Montaigne’s essay “Du pedantisme” (On pedantry), and found the following anecdote:
J’ay veu chez moy un mien amy, par maniere de passetemps, ayant affaire à un de ceux-cy, contrefaire un jargon de Galimatias, propos sans suitte, tissu de pieces rapportées, sauf qu’il estoit souvent entrelardé de mots propres à leur dispute, amuser ainsi tout un jour ce sot à debattre, pensant tousjours respondre aux objections qu’on luy faisoit. Et si estoit homme de lettres et de reputation, et qui avoit une belle robbe.
I observed at my home a friend of mine making sport of one of these [pedants] by making up a nonsense jargon, propositions with no succession, a patchwork of pieces that had nothing in common except for some buzzwords that he stuck in that related to their topic, and he amused himself a whole day with this crazy debate, always managing to think of new answers to the man’s objections. And this was a greatly reputed man of letters.
I was listening to BBC radio this morning, which I rarely do, because I find it generally dull. A scientist named Mark Lythgoe was being interviewed, director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, and an enthusiastic mountain climber. The interviewer asked — inevitably — about the connection between mountain-climbing and science. The answer was almost archaically macho, in what it said both about science and about mountain climbing. It wasn’t anything about planning or co-operation, or the beauty or peace of nature, not evening about pushing yourself to your limits. No, it was about deflowering virgin territory.
There is a very special moment when you stand on a part of this earth that no one else has ever stood on, and look out on a view that no one else has seen… That’s the same as when someone calls you up from the lab with an image that no one else has seen before… The hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
I don’t know of any better argument against the narrow British approach to education — where a scientist will never read a book after age 16 — than that through exposure to the humanities a certain percentage of scientists would recognise deflowering virgin nature as an embarrassing 19th century cliché. Some might acquire enough of a familiarity with how to think about human matters — about society and gender and nature — with a sophistication to match the overweening self-confidence that their scientific expertise tends to impart.
He also presented what was supposed to be an example of the brilliant eclecticism of his institute (and himself), a collaboration with a biologist to study homing pigeons. He says that there was a theory that pigeons have magnetite in their beaks or brains that orient them with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field. So they developed a brand new imaging technology that could make refined images of the distribution of magnetite in the beaks and brains, and found — there is no magnetite. Brilliant! Except, isn’t it a huge waste of time and effort to develop refined imaging technologies, without first figuring out (by, I don’t know, grinding up the beaks and doing some chemical tests)? Maybe I’m missing something — maybe that wasn’t possible for some reason that he was too busy talking about his drive for success to explain — or maybe I just don’t sufficiently appreciate big science and IMPACT.