The Emperor Has No Clothes

The Enlightenment — a period of intellectual progress in Europe and North America during the eighteenth century — saw superstition, dogma and ignorance lose ground to reason, science and freedom of inquiry. Enlightenment thinkers questioned received ideas and used rational methods to explore new possibilities in many fields. Despite persecution by government and church, the enormous increase in the publication of newspapers and books spread ideas widely. The result was an outpouring of knowledge and understanding about the way the world works. Western civilisation’s high standard of living and openness today stem from the Enlightenment.

In the last 30 years, however, a fashion called “postmodernism” has challenged all claims to knowledge, including the work of scientists. Postmodernism is a general term for various theories, including post-structuralism and deconstructionism. They have their origin in modern German philosophy (eg Nietzsche) and in the adaptation of this philosophy by various French intellectuals (eg Foucault). This assortment of theories has had little impact in philosophy or science departments, but some academics in humanities and social sciences faculties have seized on it, leading to an ongoing decline in these faculties. Usually they are scholars who are critical of the western world; often they are very concerned about imperialism, racism or sexism. Some are former Marxists who have been forced by world events to abandon that discredited philosophy. Many post-modernists distrust science because it is central to the Western world’s success.

Postmodernism starts from reasonable premises: individuals perceive the world differently, and their opinions can be influenced by their backgrounds. Radical post-modernists, however, push their doubts about objectivity to absurd extremes. The race, class, gender and other attributes of individuals, including scientists, supposedly determine their understanding of the world. Anyone’s beliefs about the world are as valid as anyone else’s. There are no facts, only interpretations. All so-called evidence is in the nature of a text to be read in the light of the presenter’s class, race and other attributes. In May I attended an international conference where a scholar presented a paper in which she stated as a given that there are ways of knowing other than the rational and used the word “rational” as a term of abuse! Radical postmodernists say that all claims to knowledge are attempts to usurp power. The scientific method and empiricism supposedly are approaches that elites insist upon in order to strengthen their own standing.

These supposed insights are often expressed in obscure prose, riddled with jargon. Terms such as “episteme”, “dominant discourse”, “cultural paradigm” and “intellectual hegemony” sit alongside common words that are placed inside quotation marks in order to subvert their meaning. The result can be incomprehensible. An article published recently in the journal Rethinking History is full of sentences such as:

This definition of a ‘secondary break’ can clearly be seen to relate to the articulative function of the micro-period, in that the description of it as ‘secondary’ situates it in a subsidiary relationship to the episteme and suggests that it articulates varying possibilities on the surface without representing a break or rupture in relation to the larger episteme.

I have suffered through academic seminars that were full of such gibberish. I am sure no listener understood them. Out of politeness or timidity, however, no one stood up and said the paper did not make sense — that the emperor had no clothes.

Alan D Sokal, who is a physicist at New York University, was troubled by the decline in intellectual rigour in the humanities. In order to test academic standards, he submitted a nonsensical article to a leading journal of cultural studies. He made the article sound sophisticated and flattered the editors’ prejudices. Thus, Sokal opened by scorning “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook”:

that there exists an external world, whose properties … are encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ‘objective’ procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

The rest of the article was riddled with incoherent references to various philosophers and scientific terms, used nonsensically. The spoof ended by stating that post-modern science has abolished the concept of reality, which “is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”

The distinguished editors of Social Text published the paper, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Herm-eneutics of Quantum Gravity, in their Spring/Summer 1996 issue.

Many scholars agree with Perez Zagorin, writing in the journal History and Theory (1999) that postmodernism “is not a tenable set of theories.” The sloppy thinking and prejudice behind postmodernism need to be exposed. There is a real world, we can learn about it by using evidence and logic, and no amount of pretentious prose can avoid these obvious truths. It is amazing that we have to state the obvious, but such is the state of education in corners of today’s universities.

Dr Raymond Richards is a senior lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University. He can be reached at ray&64;

Pseudohistory Rules

Like scientists, historians use a dependable methodology to ensure their findings are reliable. Assertions of historical fact can properly be based only on empirical evidence. Historians then use their critical thinking skills to assess the trustworthiness of this data.

Lately, however, a vogue called postmodernism has challenged all claims to knowledge, including the work of scientists and historians. Science and empirical research supposedly are approaches that elites insist upon in order to strengthen their own standing. There are ways of knowing other than the rational. There is no one reality, only different perceptions and paradigms, all equally valid.

My favourite example of such thinking is the lecturer who told me some Polynesian students think the Earth is flat and that I deserve to be charged with harassment if I tell them they are wrong.

As a historian of the United States, I encounter postmodernism a lot when I teach and research the history of the Mormon church.

This church was founded in the state of New York in 1830 by a young man called Joseph Smith, who tried to use his interest in the amazing to make money. Smith claimed he had found a magic stone that let him see buried treasure. After hiring himself out as a treasure diviner, he was convicted of fraud by a New York court and largely gave up the practice.

Smith then started to claim that angels had been visiting him for years. They had led him to a buried box that contained golden plates. The history of ancient times was inscribed on these plates in “reformed Egyptian,” which Smith could translate by using magic stones. His translation of the golden bible went on sale as The Book of Mormon.

According to the Mormons, the book gives a divinely inspired account of ancient events in the Middle East and America. It treats the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as factual and adds a twist. A man called Jared, his brother and about 100 others were saved by the Lord from having their language confounded. God commanded the brother of Jared to build eight submarines and to load them with their friends and families, as well as their flocks and herds, including elephants. After travelling on and under the ocean for almost a year, the Jaredites discovered America. There they built great cities. After several centuries of civil wars among the Jaredites, one man was left out of millions of people. This adventure took place about 2000 BC.

The Book of Mormon is full of tales that belong to the same fantasy genre as The Lord of the Rings. But the Mormon church insists this fiction is fact and that historians and scientists have got things all wrong. Mormon leaders are hostile to evidence-based scholarship. They claim that their revelations trump research.

Church leaders claim to speak as the voice of God and to be infallible. They place great pressure on members to accept their teachings. For example, someone who leaves the church and becomes an apostate supposedly will lose his or her family for eternity. Even to question the teachings is a sin. So controlling is the Mormon church that some observers consider it a cult.

Last year, at Waikato University, I presented a seminar on Mormonism in which I outlined the tales in the Book of Mormon and said they obviously are not authentic history. Imagine my amazement when a professor who is not a Mormon leapt to her feet and denounced me. She quoted post-modernist theory, and said The Book of Mormon might be accurate. We cannot prove what is not true, she said. Some of my fellow academics gave her enthusiastic applause. The seminar left me sad about the state of education at New Zealand universities.

Even international, academic presses recently have published Mormon pseudohistory. Last year Oxford University Press published By the Hand of Mormon, by Terryl Givens, a Mormon who is Professor of English at the University of Richmond, Virginia. Givens says an angel really did reveal the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, and that its history of ancient America really is divinely inspired and true. Shame on Oxford University Press. And they are not alone.

I suspect many academics have not spoken out against the challenge from the Mormon church because they are not informed about Mormon ideas. Others may feel reluctant to criticise a religion. But when a religion claims to be the supreme fount of fact, when it contradicts research and opposes freedom of inquiry, then it should be challenged by academics. Although students can be victims of this church, universities should fail students who use unsound methodology to believe in pseudoscholarship, such as Creationism or the Book of Mormon, as history. If they do not insist on competent thinking, then universities are a joke.


Postmodern thinkers claim to have broken the fetters of logic that have characterised rational discourse since the enlightenment. They claim to have ushered in a new age of freedom of communication, that rationality is no longer the only, or even the major, “communicative virtue” and that social, psychological, political and historical considerations must all take precedence over logic and reason.

Freed from the confines of logic, discourse can now become open, honest, sincere, politically sensitive and historically conditioned. While premoderns and moderns judged a speaker’s claims on how well it was based on the facts of the case and the logic of the argument, the postmoderns “play the believing game” which accepts the speaker’s claims according to the degree of sincerity exhibited by the speaker. Hence expertise and authority are no longer possessed only by an elite few. Communication is truly democratic. We are all informed; we are all rational.

Hence we find educational curricula based on the premise that anyone can teach anyone else and the great sin is lecturing or instructing. Richard Rorty the American postmodernist has said our only task is to keep the conversation going.

The postmodernists conclude that there is no Truth to be aspired to, but that there are at any time a great many “little truths”. Each of these little truths depends on the social, psychological, political and other contexts of their utterance. Person A speaks as a woman, as an oriental, as an unemployed person, as a mother and so on. Person B speaks as a male, or as a Maori, or as an artist and so on. One person’s X is another’s NOT-X depending on who (and where, and when and what gender, race, and age) they both are.

This new age of Postmodernism has helped to foster the “New Age” of healing crystals, channelling, UFO abductions and the other beliefs of the Shirley Maclaine tribe because we are encouraged to ignore nonsense, unreason, and irrationality.

These postmoderns see science as “no more than the handmaiden of technology” according to Rorty. And technology is viewed as evil itself, because it is perceived to be the cause of most of today’s economic, environmental and medical ills.

Education has contributed to this evil advance and must be reformed in the postmodernist image. The enlightenment tradition must be rejected on moral grounds. There can be no separation of teacher (master) and student (slave) when there are no universal standards of truth. School children must be allowed to discover their own reality while facilitators encourage their creative and free ranging thought.

Postmoderns at first appear to be superbly tolerant. After all, if all ideas are equally true then your truths are equal to mine. We are truly all equal before this lore. My idea that Jim Anderton’s recent move in and out of party leadership reflects a similar trauma in one of his earlier lives and your idea that it reflects a complex interaction between public and private life are on a par with each other. Each deserves to be tolerated and given due recognition.

But just as Doris Lessing found that her Marxist friends seemed to love humanity but hated people so too this universal tolerance for ideas seems to go hand in hand with a remarkable intolerance for individual expressions of thought.

This apparent anomaly has its own internal logic. The philosophy that seeks only “local” truths rather than aspiring to universal truths not only repudiates science but divides people according to their “locality”, which means dividing them according to who, where, when, and what colour, gender they are or what political beliefs they hold. The natural result of such division is an intolerance that tends to manifest itself in racism, nationalism, sexism and all the expressions of hostility and intolerance which we identify as Political Correctness. It’s not the Truth that counts–but the Politics which give rise to your local truth.

When my truth and your truth are allowed to differ depending on the differences between us, then the differences between us can no longer even claim to be ignored–simply because these differences play far too great a role in our social discourse. Universities used to be places where we could escape the petty confines in which we had been bound by race, nation, status or class. Some universities of today seem determined to reinforce these schisms rather than to replace them with the ideal of the universal community of scholars.

Academic discourse too frequently focuses on where its students “are coming from” rather than on where they might be trying to go.

In more innocent times the Skeptics existed to challenge pseudoscience and the paranormal by applying the universally accepted standards of scientific method and logical argument which had been accepted since the Enlightenment.

We now face a large and more challenging task–which is to challenge those ideas which would challenge the utility of science and logic itself.


Reasoning About Reason

Congratulations on featuring the superb contribution from Peter Münz in Skeptic 31. It seems to concur with a passage from Antony Flew I have just been reading. He says that to know something is “to believe what is in fact true, and to be rationally justified in that belief”. Like most people shivering in the postmodernist shadow, my first reaction was to draw back, thinking that all seemed a bit too definite. Surely it’s not still allowed to be definite about something?

To question the veracity of crystals, palm-reading, apocalyptic prophecy and all the rest of it has been to incur the disapproving epithet “dogmatic”, or even “fundamentalist”. Now that’s really scraping the barrel of abuse.

The warning about the morass of justifications and provisos that await the advocate of “reason” is also timely. Is it not too harsh, however, to write the process of reason off as “woolly”, given the thoughts of Karl Popper, who Münz very rightly quotes approvingly elsewhere? Does not the distinction between critical and uncritical rationalism discussed in The Open Society and its Enemies ensure that the reasoning process, while at times being tortuous, need not be woolly? This is not a rhetorical question, I’d be very interested in an opinion on this point.

Bill Cooke, Auckland

Of Postal Permits and Other Weighty Matters

Readers who take time to study the face of their Skeptic when it arrives, rather than impatiently tearing open the seal to devour the contents, will have noticed a change with this issue. Gone is the Postage Paid Permit, “Merrilands No. 2”, replaced by a Christchurch number. With this change we let go a bit of our history and the connection with our first Editor.

Keith Lockett saw the first fourteen issues through the press, and, at his local Post Office in New Plymouth, into the mail. Keith died in 1990 (see the obituary in Skeptic 16). Now, Merrilands Post Office is also dead, killed by restructuring, and a new, valid permit has had to be negotiated.

The change is one of label only, not procedure. The Secretary and his long-suffering partner will continue to hand the boxes of newsletters over the counter of their local Postshop. Groaning under a load which is heavier with each issue, we console ourselves with the thought that this reflects a growing membership.

Bernard Howard, Secretary, NZCSICOP

Thoughts on the Longevity of Superstitions

What is it that keeps superstitions going in the face of our increasing knowledge about the world?

There is no easy, let alone absolute, way of telling the difference between a true belief and a false or superstitious one. In order to be able to label a belief a superstition, one would have to be able to define clearly what kind of belief would not be a superstition; or, for that matter, to call something abnormal, one would have to be quite sure what sort of thing would be normal.

However, people are very ready to insist on these distinctions and they tend to do so on the grounds of what seems to me a very mistaken notion. They think that one can distinguish between true and superstitious beliefs in terms of the method by which the beliefs have been arrived at. There is a correct method, it is alleged, and there are incorrect methods. If the correct method is followed, then the belief it leads to must be a true belief. When pressed such people cite “observation” and/or “reason” as the characteristics of a correct method. Both observation and reason are very woolly terms. If one wants to observe, one first has to know what one wants to observe. And then one has to make sure that the observation is not a hallucination, and so forth. There is no finality in “observation”. The method of reason is equally woolly. People differ very widely on what they suppose to be “rational” and in the end it boils down to little more than the invitation: “Be reasonable, think as I do!”

The moment we dismiss the naive notions of observation and/or reason, the notion of “correct” method involves one in a circularity. In order to decide which method would be a correct method of arriving at a true belief about the real world, one would have to know quite a lot as to what that real world is really like. Without such knowledge, there can be no telling what method would be the correct one. But it is precisely our ignorance of that real world and of what it is like that leads us to the search for the correct method.

The history of science provides countless examples of the absence of a correct method. Even a cursory examination of the “method” used by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin or Einstein will show that they had no real method at all. The most recent and best documented example is the history of the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.

There was Rosalind Franklin who tried to avoid all adventure and kept making X-ray pictures of DNA, putting her trust in old Francis Bacon, that heaps and heaps of these pictures would ultimately yield knowledge of the molecular structure of the substance X-rayed. And all the while, there were Crick and Watson, wildly speculating and inventing haphazardly and making informed guesses and using Rosalind Franklin’s X-rays merely to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses.

What makes us think, in the absence of a correct method, that the conclusions of all these people were not superstitions, is the fact that once they had made their discoveries, these discoveries have failed to be falsified. We owe this paramount insight into and understanding of the growth of knowledge to Karl Popper, whose classic book on the subject was first published in Vienna in 1935.

Since there is no correct method, there is no absolute distinction between a true belief and a superstition. At best, we can tell the difference after the discovery or the proposal of a solution has been made. A superstition, after it has been put forward, is either falsified or it is couched in the first place in such a form that nothing whatever could ever falsify it.

A true belief, on the other hand, is, at best, considered true because, although we know what would have to be the case for it to be false, it has so far not yet been falsified. A true belief is only provisionally and hypothetically true and is, for this reason, not absolutely different from a superstition.


Unfortunately this lack of an absolute difference between superstition and true belief has been exploited by a host of contemporary philosophers — the so-called postmodern or post-structuralist philosophers (Feyerabend, Rorty, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, to mention the most famous ones) — who relish telling us that we might just as well hold any belief we like, that there is no difference at all between superstition and true belief, no difference between science and fiction, and that people who claim their superstitions to be “science” are nothing but arrogant imperialists who use their power to ram their superstitions down their victims’ throats.

These “thinkers” maintain that “science” is nothing but the mythology of Western people. They sum all this up by saying that all beliefs, including those we call scientific beliefs, are social constructions and that their chief purpose is not to understand the world, but to act as ideologies which legitimise the exploitation and oppression of minorities, other races, or, in general, of whatever people we dislike. Bigoted heterosexuals construct beliefs which legitimise the persecution of homosexuals, male chauvinists construct beliefs to validate the oppression of women, and so forth.

In New Zealand we have to be specially wary of these postmodern “thinkers” because if we follow them we will end up believing that there is no difference between the myth of Kupe and the theory of Continental Drift. In the so-called minds of these postmodern “thinkers” the theory of Continental Drift is nothing but a belief employed by Europeans to put down people who believe that the North Island was fished up from the bottom of the ocean by Maui.

In spite of the faddishness of these so-called thinkers, who are now riding on a wave of popular acclaim because they make any group with the weirdest superstitions feel “culturally safe”, there is a very hard way of telling the relative, though never the absolute, difference between a superstition and a true belief. The more a belief coheres with other beliefs, the more scientific it is likely to be. The less it coheres and the more parochial it is, the less scientific it is likely to be.

By this standard, the concept of, for example, “Maori Science” (a course of which is part of the curriculum at Victoria University in Wellington!) is a contradiction in terms. If it is parochially Maori, it can, by definition, not be science; and if it is science, it cannot be specific to Maori. This is not to say that Maori had no science, but such science should be called “science among the Maori” not “Maori Science”. People who think of “Maori Science” ought to be reminded of the genocidal mischief caused in the middle of our century in Europe by the notion of “German (i.e., non-Jewish) Physics”.

A belief which claims to be scientific must always be open to criticism, and can never be shielded from criticism on the grounds that it ought to be respected because it is culturally ensconced in an ethnic group. The real obstacle to the progression of scientific knowledge, therefore, is not the absence of a correct method of finding it, but the demand that certain beliefs ought to be exempt from criticism on the grounds of cultural safety.

Superstitions which are parochial, however, do fulfill a social function. They function as charters of societies and hold those societies together as cooperating units and promote solidarity. This is, of course, more true of tribal or primitive societies than of modern, urban and industrial societies. In primitive societies we get the almost paradoxical situation in which a parochial superstitious belief is socially, though not cognitively, more efficient than a non-parochial, scientific belief.

Social Climate

The reason for this seeming paradox is quite easy to grasp. A society has to have boundaries and exclude lots of people. A parochial superstition is more likely to function well as such an exclusion principle than a more scientific belief which coheres with lots and lots of other beliefs.

A scientific belief can never function as an exclusion and boundary-defining principle. There is only one truth, but there are at least as many false beliefs as there are societies. One society could form itself around the belief that insects have nine legs; another, around the principle that insects have ten legs, and so forth. The society which, on the other hand, consists of people who believe that insects have six legs would include just about everybody. The true belief about insects could never be used as a boundary defining principle.

By the standards of evolution, one would expect that societies based on subscription to false belief would not last long, because they might waste their energy praying for rain rather than digging trenches for irrigation. But here again we come across another seeming paradox. The society based on the belief that rain comes from prayer is likely to be a society with strong social bonds and a good feeling of solidarity. That solidarity will make it more able to fend for itself and to compensate for its lack of true knowledge. It may lack food because prayer does not bring rain, but it will make a solid fighting force which can rob food from other people.

Parochial, false beliefs are not a good adaptation to the environment, but they are obliquely or indirectly adaptive because they are a good cement for the formation of the solidarity of robber gangs which can help themselves to food by other means. Such superstition-based societies have great staying power even though they are not good adaptations to the environment. Hence myths and superstitions are not likely ever to die out. Faith-healing may not be a cure for cancer, but it makes a good support group for cancer patients. Table-rapping may not be a suitable form of communicating with departed spirits, but it does make for conviviality.

For further discussion see two books by Peter Münz: Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge, London, Routledge, 1985; Philosophical Darwinism, London, Routledge, 1993; and the following papers: “Popper’s Contribution to the 20th Century”, New Zealand Science Review, 48, 1991; “What is Postmodern, Anyway?” Philosophy and Literature, 16, 1992; “Anne Salmond’s `Two Worlds’ in Postmodern Fancy Dress”, New Zealand Journal of History, forthcoming, 1994.