Like the postmodernism generator, but funnier

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Good news for pomo­phobes, Julian Baggini has a new game pok­ing fun at cer­tain crit­ical pos­tures in aca­demia: Žižuku. I much prefer this to the post­mod­ern­ism gen­er­ator as a satir­ical tool.

The post­mod­ern­ism gen­er­ator is some­thing that fol­lows lan­guage rules to pro­duce gib­ber­ish. This is funny, so long as you don’t read the sort of mater­ial that it pur­ports to send up. I’m not say­ing that a lot of post­mod­ern­ism isn’t twaddle, but it’s a recog­nis­ably dif­fer­ent sort of twaddle. The reason Sokal’s hoax was funny was that it was indis­tin­guish­able from some of the straight mater­ial in Social Text. Essays from the post­mod­ern­ism gen­er­ator aren’t going to pass muster with another journal, even if the ref­er­ences are altered. Comparing the out­put of the Postmodernism Generator with post­mod­ern schol­ar­ship is like com­par­ing a Lorem Ipsum gen­er­ator to a Latin text. Superficially sim­ilar, but not close enough.

What I do think is inter­est­ing is that if you loaded it with genu­ine ref­er­ences, and a bit more them­atic con­nectiv­ity then v2.0 might pro­duce genu­ine pomo text but that’s another matter.

Žižuku requires a bit more work, but I think it’s a lot fun­nier because I can fore­see this hav­ing ser­i­ous poten­tial. It’s from Baggini’s review of Slavoj Žižek’s Violence. In it Baggini notes a con­stant.

Žižek arranges his book like a piece of music with dif­fer­ent move­ments, with chapter sub­head­ings such as “allegro mod­er­ato”. This is fit­ting, because Žižek is some­thing of a vir­tu­oso, but as a player of para­doxes. His great riffs take one of a finite num­ber of forms. There is the simple psy­cho­ana­lytic trope of claim­ing that how­ever some­thing seems, its true nature is the pre­cise oppos­ite. Then you have the repeated claim that a cer­tain pos­i­tion entails its oppos­ite, but that both sides of the para­dox are equally real. Then again, there is the reversal of com­mon sense, in which, whatever the received wis­dom is, Zizek pos­tu­lates the opposite.

And that really is it: Žižek simply repeats these intel­lec­tual man­oeuvres again and again, albeit bril­liantly, sup­ple­ment­ing them with Lacanian embel­lish­ments such as the objet petit, the Other and the Real.

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Postmodern scepticism

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How do you get a hun­dred people in tin foil hats to queue out­side your door? Easy — you stick a sign like this one outside.

Ufology sign
Made with txt2pic

I men­tion this because Bing McGandhi has asked what a Skeptical Humanities Journal would look like. He ima­gines it as a journal against post­mod­ern­ism — except that wouldn’t work for a few reas­ons, three of them being attrib­utes three, four and five of a New Theory. I’ll dig them out so you don’t have to traipse back to the ori­ginal post.

  1. Whatever it is you’re study­ing will provide the per­fect example of the bold insights that New Theory can bring to a topic.
  2. Any praise of another New Theorist’s work is also praise of your work as it recog­nises the import­ance of New Theory.
  3. Any cri­ti­cism of another New Theorist’s work does not apply to your work as your work will be sig­ni­fic­antly dif­fer­ent in at least three import­ant aspects, and the cri­ti­cism does not recog­nise the vibrant diversity of New Theory.
  4. Any fail­ure of New Theory to solve any ques­tions people were ask­ing before its arrival simply illus­trates that people were ask­ing the wrong questions.
  5. Old Theory is the product of the polit­ical pre­ju­dices of the time. Awkward ques­tions from Old Theorists can there­fore be dis­missed. The same would apply to New Theory, were it not for the fact that New Theory is far too new to be cri­tiqued in the same way.

I can sym­path­ise with Bing, a lot of self-consciously post­mod­ern writ­ing hits these fea­tures head-on. The prob­lem I have is that I’ve also read some awful wannabe-science papers which do exactly the same. In archae­ology there are some good papers on com­plex­ity, but at the same time there are some aston­ish­ingly bad papers too. A new cliché which is catch­ing on is that an indi­vidual is a fractal of soci­ety. It’s an appeal to homo­lo­gies from the math­em­at­ics of com­plex­ity and dis­cov­er­ies in phys­ics. It’s very pro-science and pro-modernity. It’s only flaw is that it’s utter rub­bish which actu­ally removes mean­ing from what it being said. If you dis­agree read the pre­vi­ous link, or give me the Hausdorff dimen­sion of the Church of England.

The exist­ence of bad post­mod­ern­ists isn’t an argu­ment against post­mod­ern­ism any more than some awful meme paper­backs are argu­ments against social evol­u­tion. Postmodernism, being the main­stream since the 1980s has been the safe choice for bad aca­dem­ics. As fash­ion changes and agency or memet­ics become pop­u­lar then these growth areas will attract light­weight schol­ars of their own and we’ll have some really atro­cious papers based on other ideas to look for­ward to.

I’m actu­ally quite com­fort­able with a lot of ideas which are post­mod­ern­ist. I simply have grave doubts about whether post­mod­ern­ism, as a philo­soph­ic­ally mean­ing­ful term, exists. It helps if you think about what post­mod­ern­ism is and Bing is spot on when he says a lot of self-proclaimed post­mod­ern­ists really don’t want to do that. Indeed if you hold to point 3 it’s impossible, or is it? I think post­mod­ern­ists are like lions.
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Mo’ evidence-based microfascism?

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Straw Man
Straw Man. Photo by Natmandu.

From Bad Science comes news that blog­gers are evis­cer­ated in a post-modern way by Professor Alan Pearson. Remember the paper Deconstructing the evidence-based dis­course in health sci­ences: truth, power and fas­cism? Prof Pearson takes to task com­menters on one spe­cific blog who den­ig­rated this paper in a non-scholarly way in his paper Scientists, post­mod­ern­ists or fas­cists?, behind sub­scripition bar­rier. The abstract is fas­cin­at­ing:

The some­what fren­zied reac­tion to pub­lic­a­tion of a pro­voc­at­ive, dis­curs­ive paper titled ‘Deconstructing the evidence-based dis­course in health sci­ences: truth, power and fas­cism’ by Holmes et al. in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare is both sur­pris­ing and worrying.

Worrying per­haps, but sur­pris­ing? Someone says that sci­ent­ists are a bunch of micro­fas­cists in a pro­voc­at­ive man­ner, and you’re not expect­ing a reac­tion? What kind of reac­tion should someone expect from a pro­voc­at­ive paper? It is pos­sible that Pearson is express­ing sur­prise that any­one could be bothered to read it.

The paper is essen­tially a post­mod­ern­ist cri­tique of evidence-based health­care. In the same issue of the journal in which the paper was pub­lished both the guest edit­or­ial and a response to the paper refute its claims.

This I will admit con­fuses me slightly. The paper was about Evidence-Based Medicine, which I took to be a spe­cific sys­tem which had taken the name and not neces­sar­ily about all med­ical research that was evidence-based. This would be inter­est­ing because then by tak­ing that name you’re imply­ing that research which doesn’t work to those cri­teria isn’t evidence-based. Which is why I didn’t feel the urge to take it apart, because not all of the paper was evid­ently rub­bish to me as a non-specialist, merely sub­stan­tial por­tions. Nor was I aware of the response or edit­or­ial and I’ll come back to that.

However, media cov­er­age on the paper gave rise to numer­ous defens­ive responses that attacked the paper through claim­ing it rep­res­ents ‘bad sci­ence’ or by dis­par­aging the International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare, its Editor, its peer review pro­cesses or the organ­isa­tion linked to the journal, the Joanna Briggs Institute. It is clear that those who moun­ted these attacks had no know­ledge of the journal (or of the edit­or­ial and response refut­ing the claims made in the paper, pub­lished in the same issue) or its par­ent organ­isa­tion; and none of them attemp­ted to cri­tique the paper in a schol­arly fashion.

So, if I under­stand the argu­ment cor­rectly, Pearson’s argu­ments are:

  1. The attacks aren’t evidence-based
  2. That might be amus­ing, but for reas­ons above I’m not con­vinced evidence-based means the same as Evidence-Based. There is an obvi­ous reason for why the cri­ti­cisms are not fully evidence-based. This is tackled below if you can’t work out why.

  3. The responses did not cohere to the form of the schol­arly journal in which they were published.
  4. Now this is inter­est­ing. The major point of the paper is that the respond­ents on the web didn’t respond in the estab­lished way. Fair play to the Professor, he does point out below in his abstract that this too could be con­strued as micro­fas­cist — how­ever acknow­ledging the point doesn’t refute it.

  5. The sum total of responses to the paper are rep­res­en­ted by the com­ments on the Bad Science blog.
  6. This is indefensible.

For a start, there is no sub­stan­tial response in the full paper to the com­ment­ary by Ben Goldacre, the chap that wrote the art­icle that the com­menter are respond­ing to. Further there is more than one web­site avail­able on the inter­net. There are other com­ments. Here’s an entry on Pharyngula, which isn’t a blanket con­dem­na­tion. Here’s another entry at Respectful Insolence. Orac puts together a long art­icle dis­cuss­ing the paper and bring­ing evid­ence from other sources. This isn’t ill-informed ram­bling, it is a ser­i­ous cri­tique, even if it isn’t in a tra­di­tional format. It’s also skewered briefly by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels. While the entry is brief, there is extens­ive dis­cus­sion in the com­ments which, iron­ic­ally, ques­tion the rigour of the ori­ginal paper. That’s quite a col­lect­ive cri­tique. How do you respond to that?

Pearson doesn’t.

This paper sets out to con­struct a schol­arly argu­ment to refute these claims and to con­sider why it is that those who sup­port evidence-based health­care and/or sci­ence chose to dis­par­age a journal and an organ­isa­tion that pro­motes and facil­it­ates evidence-based approaches to health­care – and the value of the Cochrane Collaboration – rather than devel­op­ing a rig­or­ous cri­tique of the argu­ment developed in the Holmes et al. paper.

Interesting use of the word rig­or­ous, which is a value-laden term. It implies that rigour is mono-dimensional, that there is one uncon­tested scale of rigour and that the Professor is in a pos­i­tion in which he can judge this. As for schol­arly, I sup­pose this depends on what Pearson’s tar­get is. If it’s blog-centred cri­tique of the Holmes paper, then it’s poor.

Although this response appears to be an attempt to silence dis­sent­ing views (and may, to some, sug­gest that the ref­er­ence to micro­fas­cism in the paper in ques­tion may, indeed, have some valid­ity) we con­clude that the post­mod­ern­ist cri­tique of evidence-based health­care embod­ied in the paper sets out cri­ti­cisms that, though wide­spread in health­care, can be chal­lenged in a con­sidered, schol­arly way. The ill-informed, reac­tion­ary responses to it by the defend­ers of sci­ence make little con­tri­bu­tion to the ongo­ing devel­op­ment of evid­ence to improve global health.

So here the ends, post-modern eman­cip­at­ory lib­er­a­tion, jus­tify the means, which appears to be a titled author­ity select­ing a weak tar­get for cri­ti­cism. Here ends the abstract.

Now if I left the end there, then this would be a largely mis-representative cri­tique of Pearson’s art­icle. Continue read­ing

Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

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Why Truth MattersI’ve had Why Truth Matters on the shelf for a while. I’ve read it a couple of times and dipped into it to re-read chapters many more. It’s a safe bet I like this book, but is it a good book? This ques­tion per­haps mat­ters for this book more than most. It’s a book about the import­ance of reason, evid­ence and above all truth.

It opens with an intro­duc­tion couple of chapters talk­ing about what we mean by ‘truth’ and how philo­soph­ers have tackled the sub­ject before mov­ing on to recent chal­lenges to the concept of truth. Later chapters are case stud­ies from vari­ous con­texts, such as dog­matic attacks on bio­logy, the ‘empower­ment’ or oth­er­wise of oppressed peoples and in aca­demia. It’s thought­ful and well-presented. Rather than vague attacks on post-modernists or other bogey­men, it cites spe­cific examples and explores either the reas­on­ing, or what has been sub­sti­tuted for reas­on­ing, behind vari­ous claims. I think its a reas­on­able explor­a­tion of the topic and by and large I agree with the con­clu­sions which is where the big prob­lem arises.

Do I like this book because it is a good book or because it con­firms my pre­ju­dices about cer­tain authors?
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Shopping for Philosophy II: This time it’s personal

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The Road to Hell
Is this where I lose the plot?

One reason for reject­ing crit­ical the­ory as used by many archae­olo­gists is that I can­not take it ser­i­ously. A help­ful book I read was Intellectual Impostures by Sokal and Bricmont. Not because it gave me an excuse to ignore a large body of work, but rather because it gave me the con­fid­ence to be able to say that some of this stuff was inco­her­ent. It wasn’t a blanket rejec­tion of philo­sophy. Around the same time I was get­ting inter­ested in Singer’s work, because I could see what the prob­lems he wanted to solve were. And any philo­sopher that has to have an armed guard must be doing some­thing right. But by and large I’ve been able to com­fort­ably ignore much mod­ern the­ory not simply because it’s bad, but worse – it’s irrel­ev­ant. I sup­pose with Ophelia Benson skew­er­ing crit­ical the­ory and with the launch of Theory’s Empire*, a book I haven’t read yet, I could fos­sil­ise in my views with no real injury. Indeed yes­ter­day I showed that it would be par for the course in archae­ology to select a the­or­et­ical school and squeeze snugly into it.

It would be a little dull though and rather paro­chial.
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From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture by Cornelius Holtorf

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This is another dif­fi­cult book to read. Like The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, it invites the reader to put it down and think about it. Unfortunately this reader was hav­ing his house rebuilt at the time, which meant it kept dis­ap­pear­ing once it was put down. The book, like the title sug­gests, con­siders archae­ology as a prac­tice of pop­u­lar cul­ture and exam­ines how our view of archae­ology might change as a result.

It’s not a book that you can read quickly and review. The argu­ment isn’t densely writ­ten, it access­ible and that makes it more pro­voc­at­ive. In addi­tion theses are added in snazzy boxes which reduce argu­ments to sound­bite form which can make them even more chal­len­ging. As an example is Thesis 3:

Archaeology is about search­ing and find­ing treas­ure underground.

This should be easy enough to demol­ish.
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More on Latour, We Have Never Been Modern

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Impossible Roman Columns
20041112183044191. Photo by Emile.

This is an image that comes to mind when I read some inter­dis­cip­lin­ary art­icles or books. It’s often done very well, if you exam­ine any of the areas closely it’s sound, but when you put the whole thing together some­thing isn’t quite right.

I’m still work­ing on a paper on the disc of Nebra, where a lot of very clever people work­ing entirely reas­on­ably have put together an odd idea, without mak­ing any obvi­ous errors along the way. Rather than being wrong, they’ve simply not been entirely rel­ev­ant when talk­ing to each other. Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern is some­times like this, the math­em­at­ical ideas are to a fair degree cor­rect, but simply not rel­ev­ant. This shouldn’t mat­ter. He’s talk­ing about soci­ety not maths, but it does because he’s using maths as an ana­lyt­ical tool. Here’s his model of sym­metry for instance.
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