Bullshit Detector

In which The Author expounds on the Two Cultures

(Readers of a nervous disposition are advised that the following entry contains mathematical symbols.)
I was probably one of the first people to read Does God Play Dice? by Ian Stewart. I was working in Blackwells in the Polytechnic of Wales at the time, and borrowed the hardback copy when it first came into stock. At the time, Chaos Theory was starting to make waves in the popular imagination, and Prof. Stewart’s book was an entertaining, amusing and sometimes baffling introduction to a subject I was interested in.
Some time later I come across another treatment of the subject in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s book Metamagical Themas, and it was equally fascinating. Here’s a taster of what Prof. Hofstadter had to say:
Let us work our way up … by beginning with the more basic concept of an attractor. This whole field is founded on one concept: the iteration of a real-valued mathematical function – that is, the behaviour of a sequence of values x, f(x), f(f(x)), f(f(f(x)))), … , where f is some interesting function. The initial value of x is called the seed. The idea is to feed f‘s output back into f as new input over and over again, to see if some kind of pattern emerges.
An interesting and not too difficult problem concering the iteration of a function is this: Can you invent a function p with the property that for any real value of x, p(x) is also real, and where p(p(x)) equals –x? The condition that p be real is what gives the problem a twist; otherwise the function p(x) = ix (where i is the square root of -1) would work. In fact, you can even think of the challenge as that of finding a real-valued “square root of the minus sign”. A related problem is to find a real-valued function q, whose property is that q(q(x)) = 1/x for all x other than zero. Note that no matter how you construct p and q, each will have the property that, given any seed, repeated iteration creates a cycle of length four (Hofstadter, 1986, 366).
(You can come out now, they’ve gone!)
Another book I read at about the same time was John Fiske’s An Introduction to Communication Studies. This employed a very different idiom. It wasn’t a mathematically-defined, logical structure which could be followed step-wise by someone with a background in the subject. It was far more vague and ‘woolly’ (to use an oft-used adjective). Here’s a short extract so that you can see what I mean:
Each type of clothing constitutes a paradigm – ties, shirts, jackets. trousers, socks. Dressing in the morning is encoding a message. We select a unit from each paradigm and combine it with others to make a statement. This statement uses a presentational, indexical code and conveys a meaning about (1) us as the wearer of the clothes, (2) our perception of our relationships with the people we expect to meet, and (3) that status or role within the social situation we shall come across during the day (Fiske, 1990, 77).
It’s interesting – but nowhere as precise as the extract from Prof. Hofstadter’s book. My A levels were in mathematics, pure mathematics, biology and chemistry – the hard sciences. I’d done the first year of a degree in Applied Biology. I wasn’t accustomed to technical terms being thrown around without any real consideration given to their meanings. But I was kicking about with a bunch of radical kids who seemed to speak this as their first language. Everything was ‘ideology,’ ‘hegemony,’ ‘deconstructionist,’ ‘postmodernist,’ ‘post-structuralist’. I was intrigued, but not convinced that these words actually meant anything.
Oddly enough, a book referenced by both Fiske and Hofstadter (in his earlier book Gödel, Escher, Bach) was Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication – so I ordered myself a copy of that as well. I’ve tried to get through it a couple of times, but it’s hard work. Even so, it’s the foundation on which the Internet was built, so it’s an important book. It’s also got applications in genetics, amongst other things, as it defines information mathematically. (I very much doubt if my HTML skills are up to quoting any of the mathematics here.)
There’s a copy in the university library in Treforest, apparently. There’s also a copy on my shelves at home. Along with the one at the National Library in Aberystwyth, they may well be the only copies in Wales …
Anyway, several years later I was working in Dillons Bookstore in Cardiff. In those days, we were very concerned with depth of range, so we kept a variety of academic textbooks in stock. We knew that we had a huge number of students on the doorstep (this was in the days before Amazon killed off the textbook trade in retail). Naturally, when they were in town they’d come to us to seek out odds and ends for their university projects.
One such customer was a girl of about 19 or 20, who asked me if we had anything on Chaos Theory. I was the buyer for Popular Science, so I knew straight away that I had at least three reasonably accessible books on the topic.
I took her to the shelves and pulled off Does God Play Dice, Chaos by James Gleick, and Chaos for Beginners by Ziauddin Sardar & Iwona Abrams. I knew that we had one or two books in the maths section that covered the subject as well. I decided not to mention this high-level stuff. After all, to most people, ‘chaos’ meant just a collection of pretty pictures, like these:

This was when the Rave culture was in full swing, and lovely fractal images like these seemed to be everywhere. Maybe they look even nicer when you’re tripping your face off. I don’t know.
‘Chaos’ was a buzzword with kids, because they thought that the words ‘fractals’ and ‘chaos’ were freely interchangeable. I guessed that this girl was just looking for nice pictures. I was wrong …
She leafed through Mr Gleick’s book for a few seconds before deciding she wanted something easier to understand. Prof. Stewart’s book is on a similar level, so I decided I’d better give her the third one. This tells the story through cartoons, one of a very popular series which Icon Books had produced – lucid and entertaining primers to a whole spectrum of study. And after flicking through it for a little while, she decided she still wanted something easier.
‘You won’t get anything easier than this,’ I told her.
But she insisted she wanted something without any mathematics in it. I explained that Chaos Theory was actually part of mathematics. By now I was starting to feel a bit sorry for her, so I asked her to what level she’d studied maths.
‘I got a C in my GCSE,’ she admitted.
My sorrow turned to concern. ‘I hate to say this,’ I told her, ‘but you’ve got no chance of understanding this stuff. I did pure maths to A level, and I still had to get a friend with a degree in engineering to talk me through some of it.’
‘But I’m not interested in the maths,’ she protested. ‘I want to know how it relates to free will and determinism.’
Well, there’s a simple answer to this, of course: It doesn’t!
Chaos Theory is a branch of applied maths which deals with iterated non-linear dynamic systems, like turbulent flow in fluids. And, yes, by interating certain complex functions in the Argand Plane, we can get computers to make Mandelbrot sets, Julia sets and all manner of exotica like the ones pictured above. But it’s got sod all to do with philosophy!
I realised that she’d fallen into the trap in which so many humanities students find themselves – trying to blind their lecturers with science, while missing the essential point that they are equally blind.
In 1996,a cultural studies journal named Social Text published a paper called ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.’ Here’s how it starts:
There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which may be summarised briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method (Social Text 46/47 (spring/summer 1996), 217–52).
(If you really want to read the rest of this, don’t let me stop you …)


It was a massive hoax.
The author, Alan Sokal, was Professor of Physics at New York University, and it was designed to parody the sort of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook which fills the pages of social science texts.
A little while later, Sokal collaborated with Jean Bricmont, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium, to produce Intellectual Impostures. When the book was published – inititally in Paris, and subsequently in translation in the UK – Sokal and Bricmont received a barrage of criticism from social scientists who felt that they had been unfairly treated. Yet hardly anyone rushed to the defence of the beleagured French intellectuals who bore the brunt of Sokal and Bricmont’s attack.
Richard Dawkins, writing in Nature, described it as ‘a splendid book’. At the time, Dawkins was Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. His endorsement of the book was, I suspect, partly responsible for the massive publicity surrounding its UK publication in 1998. Some measure of the book’s impact can be extrapolated from the newspaper reviews:
‘A forensic examination of sackloads of ordure from the postmodern stable’ Financial Times
‘The exposures of ignorance, pomposity and pseudo-science in this book are truly breathtaking’ Sunday Telegraph
‘A delicious revelation that even the perpetrators of postmodern philosophy often have no idea what they’re saying’ The Observer
‘Virtually no one has attempted to defend the texts which Sokal and Bricmont have attacked’ The Guardian
I insisted that the book was prominently displayed in the shop when it was published, and I’m pleased to say that we sold a respectable number of copies. I read part of it myself, but as I wasn’t really familiar with the philosophers they were discussing, it didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. Here’s a taster:
In this sentence, [Jacques] Lacan has used four technical terms from mathematical analysis (space, bounded, closed, topology) but without paying attention to their meaning; the sentence is meaningless from a mathematical point of view. Furthermore – and most importantly – Lacan never explains the relevance of these mathematical concepts for psychoanalysis. Even if the concept of ‘jouissance‘ had a clear and precise meaning, Lacan provides no reason whatsoever to think that jouissance can be considered a ‘space’ in the technical sense of this word in topology (Sokal &  Bricmont, 1999, 19).
Fast forward to 2000.
Our bookshop (more specifically, my colleague Jo R. and I) had been roped into arranging a signing at the Norwegian Church Arts Centre in Cardiff, as part of the Bay Lit festival.
Cardiff-born psychoanalyst Adam Phillips was giving the Gwyn Jones Lecture. We took a selection of his books with us to sell to the arty crachach types who always turn up at these things. It was going to be a late night, so Jo was driving me home afterwards. I don’t think I’d been to the Bay very often at that time, so it was a change of scene for me.
It turned out to be a strange evening all round. At one amusing point while were setting up our stall, I was approached by a woman who asked me if I was Adam Phillips. (Now, he was born in 1954 and I was born in 1966, so I must have looked as if I’d had a very long day.) Finally, we took our seats to hear Phillips deliver his lecture, called On Translating a Person. Here’s an extract:
Psychoanalysts don’t tend to think of themselves as translating people. The analyst interprets, reconstructs, questions, re-describes, returns the signifier, as Lacanians say, but he rarely describes what he does as translating the patient’s so-called material. Translation is what we do to texts, and we can’t read people like books. Even though words are the thing in analysis, translation isn’t often the word that comes to mind, at least for the analyst. And yet, of course, each of these techniques, or rather practices, both overlap with the work of the translator, or are just simply of a piece with what translation entails. To interpret, to reconstruct, to re-describe, to question – even to return the signifier, if only to the dictionary, or the author’s other work – this is what the translator also does with his text. Such disparate practices share a likeness. So I want to consider what kind of analogy translation is for what goes on in psychoanalysis, how it is linked to a consciousness of history and possibility; and whether, by implication, this can tell us something about the act of translation, as well as about psychoanalysis itself.
(Once again, if you can take any more of this crap, here it is:)
Surrounded by sagely nodding punters, I started to feel completely adrift in an ocean of psychobabble and pseudery. I glanced at Jo to see how she was managing. She was fast asleep. Fortunately, she didn’t start snoring.
Conscious of our status as an academic bookshop, we were always keen to broaden our range. This involved always making sure we had the latest editions of Terry Eagleton, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Theodore Adorno, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, and others of that ilk. Occasionally we’d have to order something especially for a customer – a book by Luce Irigaray, or Julia Kristeva, say.
Even the titles were mystifying in the extreme. They were usually published by Basil Blackwell, Routledge, Sage, Verso Press, or obscure American university presses. And to our amazement (not!) they sat on the shelves for months until the time came to return them. From our point of view as booksellers, it seemed that these radical thinkers at the forefront of current philosophical debate were largely talking to themselves.
Fast forward to 2011.
As part of the Reading Texts module I’m enrolled on, I’ve been working my way through Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. And I’m up against psychobabble and pseudery again. Here’s an extract from their chapter on ‘The Uncanny’:
Analysis of the word ‘uncanny’ seems ineluctably, even fatalistically, bound up with an experience of the uncanny, an experience which disturbs any attempt to remain analytically detached and objective. This is strikingly clear from the early pages of Freud’s essay, in which he seeks to show how the German word for ‘homely’ (‘heimlich’), with its connotations of ‘private’. ‘hidden’, ‘secret’, inevitably contains is opposite – the ‘unhomely’ or unheimlich. From this it may be concluded that the uncanny cannot readily be avoided or denied: ultimately, the uncanny is aligned with death. As a form of strange disruption, questioning and uncertainty, the idea of the uncanny may be frightening, but it also continues to be a crucially important and productive area of literary study (Bennett & Royle, 2009, 42).
Mind you, that’s a breeze compared to everyone’s favourite Marxist critic, Terry Eagleton. Here’s a little bit to whet your appetite:
If it will not do to see literature as an ‘objective’, descriptive category, neither will it do to say that literature is just what people whimsically choose to call literature. For there is nothing at all whimsical about such kinds of value-judgement: they have their roots in deeper structures of belief which are as apparently unshakeable as the Empire State building. What we have covered so far, then, is not only that literature does not exist in the sense that insects do, and that the value-judgements by which it is constituted are historically variable, but that these value-judgements themselves have a close relation to social ideologies. They refer in the end not simply to private taste, but the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others (Eagleton, 1983, 16).
Is it just me, or is this the written equivalent of what former MP Kim Howells once referred to as ‘conceptual bullshit’ in the field of the arts?
Sokal and Bricmont’s book is sadly out of print now, but by the wonders of Amazon I’ve acquired my own copy. I’ve been alternating chapters of that with Bennett & Royle’s book. I know which one makes more sense to my way of thinking.
Literary criticism is like Hans Christian Andersen’s emperor, eager for a new suit. Marxist/ Freudian/ Lacanian/ feminist critics are queuing up to make his clothes, and a whole generation of humanities students are conned into saying how marvellous the new suit really is. I’m pretty sure I could write a convincing essay on some obscure aspect of a novel, padding it out with obscure scientific jargon and making up some silly equations for extra visual impact. And I’m sure it would get a very good mark from a baffled lecturer.
I take my hat off to Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont for standing up and pointing out that the emperor is actually parading around in his birthday suit. It’s just a shame that most of my fellow students won’t even get to read their book, because they’re filling their heads with bullshit instead.
BENNETT, A. and ROYLE, N. (2009) An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 4th edn. Harlow: Pearson Longman.
EAGLETON, T.(1983) Literary Theory: An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
FISKE, J. (1990) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd ed. London: Routledge
HOFSTADTER, D. R. (1986) Metamagical Themas: Questing for the essence of mind and pattern. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
SOKAL, A. & BRICMONT, J. (1999) Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern philosophers’ abuse of science. Rev. ed. London: Profile Books.
Other works mentioned:
GLEICK, J. (1988) Chaos: Making a new science. London: Little, Brown
HOFSTADTER, D. R.(1979) Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
SARDAR, Z. and ABRAMS, I. (1998) Chaos for Beginners. Cambridge: Icon Books.
SHANNON, C. E. & WEAVER, W. (1963) The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana. IL.: University of Illinois Press.
STEWART, I. (1990) Does God Play Dice? The mathematics of chaos. Harmondsworth: Penguin

2 thoughts on “Bullshit Detector”

  1. I have do be honest: You’ve done an incompetent job of dredging up the element of obscurantist bullshit in critical theory. As a critical theory advocate who has encountered this pretentious element, I can assure you it does indeed exist, but selecting a fairly elementary Terry Eagleton quote about Ideological assumptions and historical contingency to demonstrate it is just lazy. Eagleton’s pretty readable, and if you really wanted to scare people away you could have easily picked just about any Derrida quote at random. Ultimately, the fact that some amateur critical theorists (and some professionals) get away with bullshitting doesn’t mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m unfamiliar with “the Argand Plane and “Mandelbrot Sets,” but I’m not going to assume everything you’re saying is bullshit just because you used some phrases I’m not familiar with. In short, the scientific method is an incredibly valuable yet limited means of verification, and non-scientific conceptual models designed to describe the human condition and reveal the possibilities of how it can be changed have been historically proven to have remarkable value for humanity.

    1. You’re right, it was plain lazy – but I only had the Eagleton book to hand. I’ve never picked up a Derrida book (except to shelve it in the shop – or [more likely] to return it) so I couldn’t find anything else suitable. Although afterwards, I found a Baudrillard book lurking in my collection (how the hell did that get there?) which I could have used. I can do no better than refer you to Sokal & Bricmont’s book if you want to continue the argument further. It’s a blog entry, not a full-blown paper. If you look at the heading, it reads “My Life and Opinions” (emphasis added), and merely reflects my own suspicions (not only mine, but those of people far better qualified to judge) that the critical theorists are in fact talking out of their arses a lot of the time.

Please tell me if you've enjoyed this (or if you haven't.) Feel free to rate it, 'like' it, and/or leave a comment.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s