Friday, January 04, 2008

Obscurantism and Meaninglessness

If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.
1 Corinthians 14:11, NIV

I thought it was worth doing a post on one of the great landmark papers in the history of science and philosophy - the well-named Transgressing the Boundaries - Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. It was written by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University. Sokal comments on it here.

The paper is especially notable, because it was deliberately written as a load of rubbish and was submitted to and accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. Sokal himself wrote of it:

Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.

And it was accepted by a peer-reviewed academic journal. My point is this:

Rule 1 - If someone is not clear in what they are saying, it is quite possible that what they are saying is actually a load of rubbish.

Rule 2 - If we are not clear in what we are saying, there is a high chance of everyone else writing it off as a load of rubbish.

But then again, they might think it's really clever. But it's better to be understood and disagreed with than to have people think you're clever. If Rule 1 was more widely appreciated, it would help clarity of communication greatly.

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