Saturday, March 1, 2014

Derrida's revenge

Remember the Sokal hoax? Physicist Alan Sokal wrote a nonsensical article, filled with postmodern gibberish and a few scientific terms tossed in and submitted it to a postmodern journal. The article had no meaning whatsoever. They accepted it and published it. Many scientists and philosophers saw this as justification of their belief that postmodernism was nonsense on stilts and that no actual claims were being made. Jacques Derrida was a particular target of their ire: Quine, Searle, and others strongly objected to Derrida's acclaim, arguing that he was just moving words around without saying anything. I've seen challenges to Derrida's supporters asking what difference does it make when we rearrange the paragraphs in his essays. And then we have the glorious Postmodern Generator: every time you click refresh, a new, unique, and totally meaningless postmodern essay is produced.

I'm an analytic philosopher, so my sympathies are partially on the side of the critics. However, I think their objections are far too strong. A great deal of Continental philosophy is wonderful and meaningful. For some such philosophers exactitude is a failing, so they do not produce in-depth analyses: rather they speculate. And it is often very difficult to understand precisely what is being said. But there are analytic philosophers who are fairly indecipherable as well, such as Quine himself, or Millikan. A lot of it becomes so technical that it is impossible for the uninitiated to understand. So I guess I'm willing to give the Continental philosophers the benefit of doubt in thinking that, insofar as I don't understand them, it's because I'm effectively one of the uninitiated.

I'm bringing this up because of a very disturbing story. Two academic publishers are removing 120 scientific articles from their databases that are nonsensical gibberish. They were produced the same way the Postmodern Generator produces essays, through a computer program to make the articles seem like they're saying something when they're not. The articles were published between 2008 and 2013. So this seems to be comeuppance of those who promote the Sokal hoax and the Postmodern Generator: allegedly the same thing can be done with scientific papers.

There are two mitigating factors, however: First, they were not published in academic journals, they were published in conference proceedings. Such publications often do not have any peer review, and so it's not as if the nonsense went through this process and went unnoticed. In fact, many conferences do not require submissions to be in the final form of the essay or presentation that will be presented. All one has to do is submit a short abstract summarizing the essay, and if it's accepted, then whatever you present will automatically be accepted into the conference proceedings. If the "authors" who used the computer program to construct meaningless papers wrote a meaningful abstract, then the paper is automatically slated to be published. And of course, many conferences are desperate for presenters, so they'll accept virtually anything that's submitted. So even if the abstracts were just as meaningless as the papers, the conference organizers may have just glanced at it and accepted it.

Second, all of the papers in question were "authored" by Chinese people, and perhaps the organizers of the conference gave them the benefit of doubt and thought that the incoherence was just a non-native English speaker struggling to explain complicated subjects. In other words, maybe they did the same thing I do when I read Continental philosophy that I don't understand. This only goes so far though: if the papers were literally meaningless, at some point you think you'd notice that nothing is actually being asserted.

Still, despite these caveats, I'm a little floored by this. I kind of chuckle about the Sokal hoax, but when I read about this I immediately tried to find some reason to explain it away. I'm just unable to believe that it's a general problem, whereas with the pomo stuff I wouldn't be that surprised if it was. I also have to say that the editors of these conference proceedings, as well as all the other contributors, now have black marks on their CVs, and I think that shows how immoral these acts were. The editors were trying to participate and contribute to academic thought, and now their names are associated with gullibility, fraud, and an uncritical attitude, all of which are verboten in academia. The "authors" of these articles have harmed a lot of people. Of course, that was also the case with the Sokal hoax, but for some reason, I never really thought about it there.

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