[A ranting post very much not worth your time, I’m afraid.]
I’m proud to say that I’ve been writing a deconstructionist-inclined blog for almost a year now, and have never once engaging in a bitter assault on the popular detractors of continental theory. You’ll notice that no interminable post excoriating Sokal and Bricmont has yet appeared. I am a saint.
On the other hand, I’ve just started reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller ‘Fooled By Randomness’. (In a no doubt misguided attempt to dip my toe into the glibber end of popular accounts of probability theory; I guess I should buckle down and read some real books.) As soon as I figured out the tone, I guessed that an ignorant and philistine invocation of Derrida as charlatan wouldn’t be far away. And, sure enough, on page seven (so soon!) we get an approving reference to a Ph.D. thesis in philosophy. “But not the Derrida continental style of incomprehensible philosophy (that is, incomprehensible to anyone outside of their ranks, like myself).” I gritted my teeth and continued. (Still no ranting blog post! I have the patience of Job!) But then on pages 72-3 we get this – and I boot up my computer.
“Increasingly, a distinction is being made between the scientific intellectual and the literary intellectual – culminating with what is called the ‘science wars’, plotting factions of literate nonscientists against literate scientists. The distinction between the two approaches originated in Vienna in the 1930s, with a collection of physicists who decided that the large gains in science were becoming significant enough to make claims on the field known to belong to the humanities… The Vienna Circle was at the origin of the development of the ideas of Popper, Wittgenstein (in his later phase), Carnap, and flocks of others.”
This is like shooting fish in a barrel. I mean – don’t you think the distinction between the scientific intellectual and the literary intellectual might have had some force before 1930s Vienna? Can the Vienna Circle be entirely accurately described as “a collection of physicists”? Does the later phase of Wittgenstein really originate there (even as a reaction against it)? Be all that as it may; next we get this:
“I suggest reading the hilarious Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal [it’s just inevitable, this reference; the pages might as well be blank; we can fill them in ourselves]… (I was laughing so loudly and so frequently while reading it on a plane that other passengers kept whispering things about me) [Probably ‘what an arsehole’]… Science is method and rigour; it can be identified in the simplest of prose writing. For instance, what struck me while reading Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene is that, although the text does not exhibit a single equation, it seems as if it were translated from the language of mathematics.”
Superficial detractors of continental theory often invoke Dawkins as the exemplar of scientific rationality. Don’t get me started on him. (In a word, ‘The Selfish Gene’ is precisely not translated from the language of mathematics, because half the point of the thing is to develop a metaphor – a metaphor, of the ‘selfishness’ of the gene, which may or may not be helpful (and there’s a whole endless debate to be had about the validity of ascribing intentional states to apparently mindless objects, or to parts of/systems within organisms), but that only works as metaphor. Which isn’t to say that Dawkins doesn’t have strictly ‘scientific’ claims to make – but Dawkins himself is perfectly clear (in, for instance, the first chapter of ‘The Extended Phenotype‘) that ‘a change of aspect’, rather than a scientific hypothesis, is the main thing he hopes to advance in his popular science writing.) Anyway.
“[T]here is another, far more entertaining way to make the distinction between the babbler and the thinker. You can sometimes replicate something that can be mistaken for a literary discourse with a Monte Carlo generator but it is not possible randomly to construct a scientific one. Rhetoric can be constructed randomly, but not genuine scientific knowledge.”
If I understand him right, Taleb means, by “Monte Carlo generator”, a computer program that is capable of churning out vast numbers of imaginary events, according to a set of predetermined rules. I can’t pretend to understand [which is why I’m reading this stuff, after all] – with my knowledge of computers, it’s amazing this blog is still in one piece. But (in a fairly superficial way) what Taleb’s saying here is surely wrong. A ‘Monte Carlo generator’ can construct scientific knowledge – as Taleb has already told us.
“It is a fact that ‘true’ mathematicians do not like Monte Carlo methods. They believe that they rob us of the finesse and elegance of mathematics. They call it ‘brute force’. For we can replace a large portion of mathematical knowledge with a Monte Carlo simulator (and other computational tricks). For instance, someone with no formal knowledge of geometry can compute the mysterious, almost mystical, Pi.” (p. 47) If existing mathematical knowledge can be replicated in this way, I find it hard to believe that new mathematical – or scientific – knowledge can’t also be so produced. [Okay, I just did my googling. Wikipedia informs me that in mathematics “[t]he method is useful for obtaining numerical solutions to problems which are too complicated to solve analytically.” I need to learn about this sort of thing.] At any rate, the ability of ‘Monte Carlo generators’ to supply Taleb with knowledge and understanding seems to be the main reason he likes them so much.
Anyway. Next we get this:
“This is the application of Turing’s Test of artificial intelligence, except in reverse. What is the Turing test? [We get a description. Taleb continues:] The converse should be true. A human can be said to be unintelligent if we can replicate his speech by a computer, which we know is unintelligent, and fool a human into believing it was written by a human. Can one produce a piece of work that can be largely mistaken for Derrida entirely randomly?”
Well – let’s charitably put down to ‘humorous’ license Taleb’s ‘reversal’ of the Turing test. And lets ignore the fact that the so called ‘random’ production of any text is random only within incredibly limited bounds – most of the game’s effectiveness depends on the non-randomly selected phrases and rules for the combination of phrases that whatever program Taleb’s describing would consist in. (Just as Taleb’s method of ‘randomly’ computing the value of Pi isn’t random at all except in one of the program’s particular functions.) All that said – the answer to Taleb’s last question is: obviously yes. Of course you can ‘randomly’ produce a piece of text that can be mistaken for Derrida – by people who know fuck all about Derrida. In fact, I’d go further – if the program that produces phrases is sufficiently intelligently set up, I daresay I could be fooled by – or at least not confident in my judgement of the provenance of – some phrase or short sequence of phrases. At some point that would collapse – you’re not going to be able to generate an intelligible essay, or even a longish piece of text, using a ‘random’ method. (And if you can, maybe you should apply for that Turing Test prize money.) But I have no idea what Taleb thinks he’s demonstrating here.
“[T]here are Monte Carlo generators designed to structure such texts and write entire papers. Fed with ‘postmodernist’ texts, they can randomize phrases under a method called recursive grammar, and produce grammatically sound but entirely meaningless sentences that sound like Jacques Derrida, Camille Paglia, and such a crowd. Owing to the fuzziness of his thought, the literary intellectual can be fooled by randomness.”
What bullshit. What copper-plated, cast-iron, dug from a farmer’s prize bull’s ditch of prize bullshit bullshit. According to ‘Fortune’ magazine (I know, I shouldn’t expect much, why did I even buy the fucking thing?) ‘Fooled by Randomness’ is “One of the smartest books of all time.” Well, not so much. Not if it has stuff that even vaguely resembles this in it. Good lord. Why do people take this sort of thing seriously? What’s going on?
I was planning to write more, but I think I’ve reached a pitch of intemperance that requires a hasty close. Don’t buy ‘Fooled by Randomness’. I’ve got it here now, and I’m wondering whether to try to finish it or burn it. I guess I should toss a coin.
[Apologies for this nonsense post. Unusually, I have too much time on my hands today.]