But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility2; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ``objectivity''.3 It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics4; in Ross' discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science5; in Irigaray's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics6; and in Harding's comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.7
It was of course a hoax, part of a long and very funny article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".
To Sokal the article was a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?
The answer was unfortunately yes.
And it was self-evidently nonsense. The quote I give you above includes that physical "reality" [and note the "scare quotes"] no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct. Sokal invites "anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of [his] apartment. (He lives on the twenty-first floor.)
I will observe when the physics has something useful to say and its an argument between left-wing social theorists and conventional physics the physicist wins. Conventional physics is (at least within the distances and energy levels we can measure) very settled science - and to say novel things you need to go to minute sizes or massive energy levels (as per the Large Hadron Collider).
The Sokal hoax was funny - but it was hardly necessary. The social sciences whose response to hard science is to deny it are best ignored. Unless you have Alan Sokal's sense of humour it is not even that much fun teasing them.
Anyway - this sort of anti-science based obscurantism has historically been the province of the Left. I mean who other than a left-wing loopy intellectual would think that the reality described by conventional physics is a social construction - a conspiracy of physicists. And a physical reality they can save you from by deposing the hard (and testable sciences) so they can install themselves as a priest-class who understand this social construction stuff (not to mention the obscure jargon in my opening quote).
Oh I know who gives these self-indulgent and self-important left-wingers a run for their money. The new anti-science conspiracy theorists are on the right. Evolutionary biology is a conspiracy of godless liberals who want to undermine God's laws. Climate change is a conspiracy to allow Government more control over your life.
It is funnier when it is a bunch of academics. History has a way of sending the loopy ideas of academics to the obscurity they deserve. It is less funny when it is politicians.
But this is not a blog about the anti-science elite in politics and academia. Its a blog mostly about financial markets and their goings on and all the crappy things you can invest in.
When people in financial markets behave that way - believing their socially constructed reality over physics - then it is time to go short them.
There are few technology companies out there (and sorry I will not name names because I don't want to make the shorts crowded) whose basic premise seems to conflict with the second law of thermodynamics. [Not understanding the second law of thermodynamics is to science what not being able to read is to literature.]
But when you see this stuff in markets you have just got to short it. I know rich people who are usually smart who invested in Blacklight Power. I just could not work out a way of shorting it.
It requires a special-brand of delusion to construct your world such that basic science does not apply to you. Its the brand of delusion that the fools from Social Text have. Its the brand of delusion that some of America's more loopy right-wing politicians have.
Alas it is also the brand of delusion that Phil Falcone has. It was the brand of delusion which powered Lightsquared.
The physics of radio interference is settled. This is physics at ordinary distances and ordinary energy levels. (To find non-settled physics you need to shorten the distances and raise the energy levels as per the LHC.)
We know this stuff.
We know that if you put a low power radio station near a high powered radio station the high-powered station causes interference. We understand resonances between different frequencies.
As I said - this stuff is settled.
But that did not stop Phil Falcone investing his clients money in a loophole - an attempt to take spectrum which was allocated to low-powered devices (satellites) and wish to use it for high-powered devices (mobile phone towers) and to think everything would be OK. I wrote about it recently - but have had the view for some time. And it was in contradiction to physical reality (and this time I did not put "reality" in scare quotes because that reality is really real).
Phil Falcone is almost certainly smarter than the idiots who edit Social Text. But years of success and the strange cocoon of being a Wall Street billionaire got Falcone to the point that he thought that reality did not apply to him.
He became just like the most loopy of left-wingers.
Still Lightsquared is dead - the FCC has now determined that the conflicts with GPS are not able to be resolved. That is a fatal blow to Lightsquared (and I am glad). It means that parts of the government (like Defence who value their GPS) still have a say and that anti-science obscurantism is not everywhere - just on the far-left, far-right and in the minds of some particularly self-indulged Wall Street types.
There is hope in the world.