Every author has to expect that some reviewers will dislike his book, perhaps intensely. That is par for the course. But one might hope that even a scathingly negative review would be accurate in its summary of the book’s contents and principal arguments. Alas, Peter Saulson’s review (Physics Today, December 2008, page 56) of my book Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2008) fails to meet that minimum standard.

Saulson implies that the whole book is a rehash of the stale science wars debates from the mid-1990s—a characterization that could at best apply to the first third of the book, whose function is simply to set the stage for the rest. Saulson does not even mention the two chapters on the philosophy of science or the long chapter on pseudoscience; and he mentions the chapter on religion only to grossly misrepresent it (see below).

Worse yet, Saulson alleges that my “method relies [solely] on finding the most ridiculous possible passages … to lampoon.” That might be an accurate description of the “Social Text” parody article—which was indeed constructed around some rather shocking abuses of scientific terminology by prominent philosophicoliterary intellectuals—but as a summary of the rest of the book, it is so far out of touch with reality that one wonders whether the reviewer actually read the book beyond part 1. In fact, those gross abuses are barely mentioned in the rest of the book, whose aim is to discuss questions that are, frankly, more substantial.

Saulson says my book displays “intellectual mean-spiritedness.” I am perplexed as to how any fair-minded reader of the whole book could come to such a conclusion, and I am saddened that Saulson did. But let us suppose, just hypothetically, that the book’s tone is every bit as vile as Saulson claims. So what? In what way would that affect the validity or invalidity of my arguments? Quite simply, I did not write the book to be nice or nasty to anyone but rather to analyze ideas. If Saulson thinks that some or all of my arguments are mistaken, then he should say so and say why. But he does not bother to cite any of my arguments, much less say why he thinks they are wrong.

Saulson does make one valid criticism: In preparing the annotations to chapter 1, I forgot to cite Mara Beller’s excellent article (Physics Today, September 1998, page 29) in which she quotes Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli engaging in absurd extrapolations of ideas from quantum physics to politics, psychology, philosophy, and religion. I did, nevertheless, make clear my own negative view of much of Heisenberg’s and Bohr’s philosophical and popular writing, as well as point out its pernicious influence on a later generation of academic postmodernists (pages 12, 14, 18, and 42 of Beyond the Hoax).

Last but not least, Saulson reduces my 76-page analysis of religion to the assertions that I “attack” religion and consider it “stupid and dangerous.” It is true that I consider religion dangerous to some extent and in some circumstances, and I spend much of the essay trying to delineate those circumstances in a nuanced way. But to say that I consider religion simply “stupid” is such a caricature of what I have written that one has to wonder, once again, whether the reviewer actually read the essay. In fact, I explicitly say the contrary:

People who hold false beliefs are not necessarily stupid or even irrational…. Religion is a delusion, but one that is extraordinarily well-adapted to the human mind (in exactly the same way that the cold virus is well-adapted to the human nose); that is presumably why religion of some kind is near-universal in human societies. In particular, young minds are designed to absorb information in vast quantities from their caretakers; and even if some of that “information” is false, it can become very difficult to dislodge later (especially in matters, such as cosmology, that are not open to everyday observation and falsification). So those of us who were not exposed, in youth, to this particular intellectual virus should not be too smug towards those who were. (page 427)

Potential readers who desire an accurate overview of the book’s contents and main arguments can consult the critical reviews written by philosopher Simon Blackburn 1 and physicist Philip Anderson, 2 among others. 3  

But in the end, each interested person can read the book and evaluate its arguments with his or her own brain. I welcome thoughtful critiques, both in public forums and by private e-mail. A more detailed version of this letter is available at http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal.

1.
S.
Blackburn
,
New Republic
239
(
2
),
40
(13 August
2008
).
2.
P.
Anderson
,
Phys. World
21
(
8
),
40
(
2008
).
3.
See, for example,
J.
Ladyman
,
Philosophers’ Magazine
42
,
105
(
2008
)
J.
Touger
,
New Politics
12
(
2
),
64
(Winter
2009
).