Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Sokal Affair

Following up on my previous post "Postmodern writings", I thought I would write a few words about the Sokal affair. Everyone who knows me well enough must be very tired of my endless references to the Sokal affair, but I think it is a big deal, and in my opinion it has dire implications for those who respect postmodernism.

So what is it all about? In 1996 Alan Sokal, a physicist then working at New York University who was skeptical towards the incomprehensible and to him seemingly meaningless postmodern literature, decided to test his hypothesis that these people will publish anything as long as it sound right… How did he test this? Sokal wrote an article called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, an article which anyone with some knowledge on physics would see was rubbish. Even I, with a rather limited education in physics, would get suspicious when I see someone suggesting that quantum gravity has progressive political implications (a matter which I think I will write more about shortly). Alan Sokal submitted his article to the prestigious, though not peer-reviewed journal Social Text and asked them to publish it. He was careful to use all the postmodern fashion words such as hermeneutics (I still cannot spell that damn word), and apparently the editors of Social text fell for it. Amazingly they published the paper in the belief that it was a significant contribution to the field. To be fair, they did ask Sokal to change a few things, but when Sokal refused they went ahead and published it.

On the day of publication, Sokal published another paper in a different journal in which he revealed his scam. In this article he wrote about his own paper that it was "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense", which was "structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics made by humanities academics". Predictably, the editors of Social Text were not very happy about the whole affair and they claimed that they only published it because Sokal would not make the changes they asked for. I wish that the editors of the journals which my papers have been sent to would also publish anything if you just refuse to make any changes, but unfortunately (or fortunately) that is not the case.

It is obvious that the editors must have assumed, without consulting any knowledgeable person, that because of the way the article sounded it must have been a good article. I mean, if you can write a paper which is about physics and social issues at the same time, and then simultaneously throw in a bunch of fancy words, then the article has to be pretty great, right? In my opinion the Sokal affair provides strong evidence suggesting that postmodernists are really just playing around with fancy words without any real meaning.

For those of you who are want to know more about the Sokal Affair I recommend the book: "The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy"

Or, if you are more interested in a general criticism of postmodernism see the excellent book: "Intellectual Impostures"

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Postmodern Writings

When I was in high school I was not always the best student. However, I have always been a pretty good writer and using this skill I have managed to pass more or less every exam. It seems to me that people have some type of mechanism, learned or innate, that says "if something sounds real smart and intelligent then it probably is, and if you don't understand it then it is probably because the person who wrote it is really really smart". Throughout high school and even to some extent at University I have, consciously or unconsciously, taken advantage of this mechanism to cover up gaps in my knowledge. Whenever I have had nothing intelligent to say I have just written something that sounds good but doesn't really mean anything.

However, over time I have developed a growing distaste for writings which conceal whatever ideas the text is meant to inform us about. Perhaps because of my background I get really suspicious about texts which seem unnecessarily complex. Is this just nonsense that sounds intelligent?, Is the author of this text just trying to trick me into believing that he or she knows something just like I used to? Now days, when I write I always do my best to be as clear as possible. Unfortunately not everyone is as mature as me…

Actually, it seems to me that there are quite a few very talented writers who have managed to get top notch academic positions by fooling everyone into believing that they actually know something. Most of these people belong to the postmodernists, two prime examples being Jacques Lacan, and Judith Butler (see below). So difficult are the writings of Lacan that many generations of subsequent scholars have devoted entire careers to interpreting the writings of Lacan. To my knowledge they have not succeeded (and no one ever will). To me this is very alarming. I can think of much better things to throw money at than pseudo academics who writes poetry but refer to it as scientific texts.

Now some people will object and say "well what about the texts that biologists produce, are they not are equally incomprehensible. To take an example, here is a random sentence from my book Molecular Neuropharmacology, A foundation for clinical neuroscience. "After phosphorylation, the Trk complex interacts with additional linker proteins and through an unknown mechanism, acticates Ras, a small-molecular-weight G-protein. Such activation in turn activates a cascade of protein-serine-threonine kinases…" Had I read this sentence before taking any biology or neuroscience I would, I admit, not have understood anything. However, after having taken courses and learned about the different molecules mentioned in the sentence above it is really not that difficult to comprehend. A lot of post modernist writing on the other hand is incomprehensible even after a long education. I have a degree in psychology but I still do not understand what Lacan (also a psychologist) mean when he writes that "the erectile organ is equivalent to the square root of minus one of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier".

For those of you who are still not convinced, read the book Intellectual Impostures by Sokal and Bricmont (see picture) or the chapter called Postmodernism disrobed in A Devil's chaplain by Richard Dawkins. Or try out the puzzle which my supervisor, Germund Hesslow, sent to me some time ago.

Below are two scientific abstracts (an abstract is a summary of a science article). One abstract is written by Judith Butler (picture), Tina Rosenberg's supervisor, and the other is a text created by Alan Sokal's automatic post modernist text generator.

1. The premise of the precapitalist paradigm of reality implies that truth serves to entrench hierarchy. "Sexuality is part of the rubicon of consciousness," says Lacan. But Debord uses the term 'socialist realism' to denote the role of the artist as poet. Several narratives concerning the precapitalist paradigm of reality may be discovered. A predominant concept is the concept of patriarchialist art. It could be said that the subject is interpolated into a socialist realism that includes consciousness as a totality. An abundance of desemanticisms concerning the bridge between class and sexual identity exist.

2. The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Those of you who are already familiar with Sokal's text generator have probably realized that the first abstract is a construction and that the second paragraph therefore must be genuine. It is amazing though how completely incomprehensible the second sentence, which is remember from a real published paper, is. It should be of no surprise that Judith Butler has been honored with first prize in a bad writing contest in the journal diacritics…

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The argument from design

Imagine that you are out walking an early Monday morning. Suddenly you detect something shining on the ground. You pick it up and see that it is a delicate watch. Intrigued, you take the clock back home and pick it apart. Amazed by the fine, very complex machinery inside you say to yourself "this cannot have just come about by chance, someone must have made this clock". Tuesday morning, when you are out walking again your foot suddenly bumps into something, and you look down… There lies a dead man. You take him home and dissect the body. With the aid of electron microscopy and other high tech tools you look into the cells and see how extremely, impressively complex they are. Again you look up and say to yourself "this human being is far more complex than the watch I found yesterday, this human cannot have just come from nothing, there must have been a creator"…

This argument which I believe is referred to as the argument from design or the watchmaker analogy, was put forward by a man named Paley (actually I think I have read somewhere that he was not the first person to use the argument, but it is associated with him). Unless this is the first time you read my blog you will probably know that I do not buy this argument, for several reasons. First of, this is an analogical argument, and analogical arguments are only as good as the analogy. In other words, the argument is valid only to the extent that a clock and a human being are similar, and we all know they are not very similar. For example, I happen to know that humans can make babies. In contrast, I have never seen clocks make new clocks, not even when I put my different clocks in the same drawer (though maybe that is because all my clocks are broken?). There are of course many other differences between clocks and human beings but I will let the reader use her imagination here.

The perhaps biggest flaw in the argument from design is to suppose that the alternative to design is sudden, random formation. Paley simply did not understand evolution, and neither does anyone today who argues that the theory of evolution by natural selection suggests that things just come about by chance (see my previous post called, "Natural selection is NOT blind chance"). Mutations, which are approximately random will give rise to new DNA molecules every now and then. Some DNA molecules, independent of whether they are in a virus, bacteria, mouse, dog, cat, whale, monkey or human being, will be more successful in terms of survival and replication, than the average DNA molecule. Sometimes the molecules just "gets lucky", but over time the phenotype (the characteristics) of the DNA molecule plays an important role in determining the fitness of that molecule. Say that one DNA molecule contains the code for making Prions, which then goes up and destroys the brain of its host. This molecule would not be very successful (unless it lets its host reproduce before starting to express the protein)... The Ebola virus is another example of a rather "unintelligent" strand of DNA (or is it RNA, I don't really know). Sure it is great at spreading between different individuals, however, this does not compensate for the fact that Ebola viruses kill their host really rapidly and brutally. Had the virus been a little bit more subtle and patient it would have been much more successful.

The point here is simply that the fitness of a particular strand of DNA is not random. Depending on what it does it will have a larger or lesser chance of getting into the next generation, and this process is referred to as natural selection. It is quite ironic that the argument from design so often comes from those who believe in God.

In essence, the argument from design becomes something like the following: No, humans surely cannot have come about through natural selection, that is just too unlikely! It is much more likely that we have a divine being, superior to all human being who came about (wait a minute, how did he come about???), and made the humans, that is much more likely… hmmm. Seems to me that creationists are undermining themselves…

For a much more thorough analysis of the argument from design I recommend Richard Dawkin's "The Blind watchmaker".

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The evolution of happiness

Our genes, containing the recipe for making us, do not care about our feeling. All they care about is replicating themselves. Whether their host is the most depressed anxious, suicidal person out there doesn't matter to the genes as long as they get into the next generation, preferably in great numbers. In a sense we are merely the means to obtaining a goal: replication of our genes.

So why do we have emotions? Why are we not just insensitive robots that do not break down because of something silly such as your dog dying, or too much stress at work? The reason is of course that emotions are adaptive in many important ways, and people who lack emotions evidently do not succeed very well in our society. Fear makes us avoid many dangers; pleasure makes us come back to the things that induced it. Guilt and shames tells us we have not been fair and that we should try to fix it, and so on. In other words, we are not born to be happy. Of course we are not born to be sad either; rather we are born with a spectrum of emotions, all of which are probably important in some ways.

What I want to argue here is that, by learning more about evolution, our ancestry, and which situations are likely to produce different emotions we will be able to form our lives as well as our society in such a way that happiness occurs more often, and sadness not so often. David Buss (see picture) from the University of Texas, have written an interesting article on this topic in which he lists the lessons that research in evolutionary psychology have taught us. For example, Buss argues that our anonymous metropolis society is bound to cause distress and anxiety due to a lack of belonging. You can easily live your entire adult life without really getting to know someone today. Our genes, because they are used to a society containing no more than a hundred or so individuals (read about ancestral environment), may feel distressed in the big cities today. Buss advices us to try to get closer to our extended kin, and to make use of today's technology in order to keep in touch with family as well as friends.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two evolutionary theorists from University of California, Santa Barbara (where I used to go to school), have done some interesting research about the meaning of deep friendships. David Buss writes about this research in his article as well. Without going into any details, it can be said that deep friendships are good for all kinds of reasons (e.g. live longer, less stress, happier etc). Talking about your problems is simply good for you (there is no ambiguity in the research on this point), so go get good friends!

Other examples of advice that Buss gives us in his article include, (1) Educating people about evolved psychological sex differences (I believe that sex differences, without proper understanding, can destroy any relationship), (2) Managing our competitive mechanisms, and (3) Fulfilling your desires and dreams (go do that thing that you have always dreamt about!).

Another thing that makes us happy is democracy. If you ask people whether they are "happy" and "satisfied with life as a whole", and then correlate that with the degree of freedom in the country, you will find a very nice positive correlation (see diagram). In other words, countries with democracy, free elections, and elective rule have happier citizens, than dictatorships. So here is a lesson for the society as a whole, don't vote for dictators, and keep fighting for freedom of speech…

Some people say that a belief in evolution by natural selection will corrupt a person into immorality. In contrast, I think that evolution is one of the keys to create a society in which people are happy, or as my former teacher put it:

"Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature"

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

James Randi

This week I want to pay a tribute to a man that I admire very much, the skeptic James Randi (see picture) who will turn 81 in august. Randi, in a sense, is a man with two faces. First there is "The Amazing Randi", a world famous magician who has performed many seemingly impossible tricks. Among his achievements Randi is the holder of two world records. On one occasion Randi outperformed the infamous Harry Houdini when he spent 104 minutes in a sealed coffin on the bottom of a swimming pool. He earned his second entry into Guiness world records when he came out alive after having been frozen in a block of ice for 55 minutes. Does anyone know how this was done?

Magicians are of course interesting and fun, however, it is not magic skills that makes Randi unique. Like the just mentioned Houdini, James Randi is a skeptic. He has openly admitted that he has never performed any real magic in the supernatural sense. In other words, all the magical shows that we laymen find impossible or at least incomprehensible have merely been trickery. This of course begs the question of whether other people who seem to have similar magical talents are also just using tricks. My belief is that they are merely using tricks, and I have never encountered any evidence (excluding anecdotal stories) that has made me contemplate this. Interestingly Randi has once been accused of being a fraud in the opposite sense. Once when he performed a man claimed that Randi was in fact using psychic powers and that he is lying when he claims he is using trickery.

Nevertheless, our dear magician is perhaps most famous for his one million dollar paranormal challenge. James Randi has 1.000.000 dollars waiting in a bank account for anyone who can demonstrate that he/she has psychic/supernatural powers. Hundreds have tried but no one has succeeded until this day. Others, including the previously mentioned Houdini, and the Swedish organization Humanisterna have posed similar challenges. (Just recently, a psychic in Sweden failed a mutually agreed upon test, getting zero correct of a possible fifteen.)

Through the years James Randi has appeared on TV quite a few times. If you go to "You Tube" and search for James Randi you will find many interesting clips to watch. Alternatively, you can also go to his website,, where there is a nice collection of multimedia as well as many interesting articles.

Below I have put together my own list of my favorite Randi multimedia including some personal comments. Enjoy!

Uri Geller and Peter Popoff. In this video Randi explains what he is doing and why he is doing it. Randi also shows how he exposed Uri Geller (see picture), the spoon bender phenomenon for what he really is, a fake (or perhaps he really just had a bad day). Finally he shows how Peter Popoff, a priest who makes miracles happen, was actually just using a wireless radio (Popoff went bankrupt a year after he had been exposed).

James Hydrick. James Hydrick, a 23 year old martial arts trained psychic, claims that he can turn pages the pages of a phone directory using his mental powers (and that we all can learn to do it). By using a simple control Randi shows that Hydrick is not using any psychic powers, but rather he is simply blowing. According to wikipedia, Hydrick has subsequently admitted that he was indeed a fraud, what a surprise…

Astrology. An entire class is given identical horoscopes and are asked to rate the accuracy. Everyone in the class rates the accuracy as being either four or five out of five.

Psychic surgery. In this video Randi performs, using only his bare hands, what looks like a very real surgery in order to show that no supernatural powers must be involved (as some others have suggested)

Homeopathy. This video is actually one of my favorites. Randi has a 15min lecture in which he explain the very odd principles of homeopathy. He also tells us about when he downed no less 64 tablets without being affected at all. This is despite the fact that that the cans say that you should call a poison doctor if you take 4 or so (I cannot remember the exact numbers).

Spoon bending. Randi shows us how he can bend a spoon using trickery. It looks just like when Uri Geller bends his spoons using his psychic powers, or perhaps Geller was also using trickery? You decide…

Medium discussion, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Randi is on Larry King live where he discusses an incident where the medium Sylvia Browne told the parents of an abducted child that their child was dead. The women who got the erroneous information from her spirits still claims to have psychic powers, she have accepted Randi challenge, but have still not actually done it. Afraid that she won't make it perhaps?

James Randi and a medium. In this video Randi exposes a medium by revealing a transcript in which the medium has given her client no less than 37 names, and asked him whether he feels there is any connection to any of these names. Statistically speaking it would be quite unlikely if the client had no connection to any of the names...

Applied Kinesiology. In this video James Randi, and a kinesiologist do a blind study, testing whether a particular chosen crystal make the test person stronger. If you are to believe the result in this particular test, the subject benefitted very much from rat poison, hmmm...

If anyone has any further multimedia tips I will watch them with much interest.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Cubic Zirconias, and why I regret buying a diamond ring…

I have never really understood people who say that they have no regrets, perhaps because I have lots of regrets. I regret all the times I have been unfair or even mean to friends as well as strangers, I regret the fact that I drank too much as a teenager, and I deeply regret having spent a good part of my life watching sunset beach. It seems to me that whoever claims he or she have no regrets is rather naïve. My most recent regret is my engagement ring choice.

At the time when I bought the engagement ring that my fiancé is now wearing, I wanted the most beautiful ring I could find (obviously). I finally settled on a ring made out of white gold with a small ingrained diamond. It is in this that my regret lies. Two factors have made me wish that I had not chosen a diamond ring. The first is the truly excellent Edward Zwick movie, Blood Diamond (see picture), starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Indeed it has all the attributes of a typical Hollywood epic, but it also sends a strong resounding message to the viewer: the diamond industry has caused much suffering in Africa, and it is up to us to make sure that the diamonds that we buy have not contributed to this suffering (by asking in the store for instance). Had I bought my diamond ring today I would have asked about this!

The second reason for my regret I heard in one of Richard A. Muller's terrific lectures. In this lecture (go to 48min) Richard introduces a stone that I had not previously heard about, the Cubic Zirconia (see picture below). This stone, is much less expensive than diamond, and it is not quite as hard as diamond (close though). However, I did not give my girlfriend a diamond because it is expensive or because it is hard, but rather because it is such a beautiful stone, and in this respect Cubic Zirconias actually beat diamonds. What makes a diamond beautiful is its high refractive index. In essence diamonds are good at bending light and therefore we perceive them as beautiful (anyone know why?). The refractive index, which is a measure of how much something bends light, for diamonds and Cubic Zirconias is 0.044 and 0.060 respectively, hence the latter are more beautiful. The diamond industry has protected themselves from this seemingly lethal threat by saying something like "how can you prove to someone you love them if you buy a cheap stone?". To me this is completely beside the point. I want my girlfriend to have the most beautiful ring, not the most expensive one, and when I want to spend money on her, I think I can find better priorities than the second most beautiful stone out there…

So here is my advice to my readers. Don't repeat my mistake. If you want your future fiancé to have the most beautiful ring, then get one with a Cubic Zirconia. If you still insist that the only way to prove your love is to buy an insanely expensive stone, then see to it that it has not cost people their hands…