Skip to content

Postmodernism for zillionaires

“Postmodernism” in academia is the approach of saying nonsense using a bunch of technical-sounding jargon. At least, I think that’s what postmodernism is . . .

Hmm, let’s check wikipedia:

Postmodernism is a broad movement that developed in the mid- to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism, marking a departure from modernism. The term has been more generally applied to describe a historical era said to follow after modernity and the tendencies of this era.

Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism . . .

Postmodernism is often associated with schools of thought such as deconstruction, post-structuralism, and institutional critique, as well as philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson.

Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse and include arguments that postmodernism promotes obscurantism, is meaningless, and that it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. . . .

OK, so, yeah, postmodernism is a kind of aggressive anti-rigor.

I was thinking about this when reading about Elon Musk’s latest plan, which is to build highway tunnels in Miami . . . a city that’s basically underwater. I mean, why not go all-in and build a fleet of submarines? Musk’s an expert on that, right?

It’s hard for me to believe Musk really plans to build tunnels in Miami; I guess it’s part of some plan he has to grab government $ (not that I have any problem with that, I spend government $ all the time). Meanwhile, various local government officials in Miami are saying positive things about the ridiculous tunnel plan—but I’m guessing that they don’t believe in it either; they just want to say yeah great because that’s what politicians do.

Anyway, the whole thing is so postmodern. It’s like some clever-clever philosopher positing a poststructuralist version of physics, or someone arguing that Moby Dick is just a text with no author, or whatever.

As with academic postmodernism, perhaps the very ridiculousness of the tunnels-in-Miami idea is part of its selling point? After all, anyone can come up with a good idea. It takes someone really special to promote a ridiculous idea with a straight face.

Also as with academic postmodernism, it’s almost irrelevant if the idea makes sense. For example, suppose some literature professor somewhere gets a reputation based on the latest version of hyperstructuralism or whatever. You and I can laugh, but this dude has a steady job. He doesn’t care whether this makes sense, any more than the beauty-and-sex-ratio researchers care whether their statistics make any sense. They have success within a closed community. With a zillionaire, the currency is not academic success but . . . currency. What does it matter to a zillionaire that he’s promoting a ridiculous idea? He has a zillion dollars, which in some way retroactively justifies all his decisions. Kinda like those pharaohs and their cathedrals. Or maybe it’s a Keynesian thing—taking literally the economic dictum about hiring people to dig holes and fill them up again. Experimental theater for the ultra-rich.

P.S. It seems that the above is unfair to postmodernism; see comments here, here, and here.


  1. jim says:

    “more road infrastructure for cars is the worst and most misbegotten way to address traffic congestion and its environmental hazards, which makes it the very last thing virtually any municipality needs or will ever need.”

    badabing! I mean the last thing we’d want to do is improve the transportation grid in a way that would improve economic opportunity! The advance of human well being must be stopped! And Omari Hardy disapproves! That seals it for me. A 31yo congressman with a degree in economics from the challenging curriculum at University of Miami, rumored to once have had a *JOB*, *and* a former member of the **Beach Commission**, Hardy has accomplished a great deal in his life and is NOT to be taken lightly!

    Stupid Musk!! All his ideas are stupid and never work!! Cars with batteries? STUPID!! Reusable rockets? DUMB!!! Musk = DORK!!

    • somebody says:

      Progress is digging a subway tunnel, but instead of transporting many people with a little steel, it transports very few people with a lot of steel, and instead of having very few points of failure, every single passenger’s vehicle is an additional point of failure. I, too, love “economic opportunity.”

    • Andrew says:


      I agree that there’s no particular reason to trust a random politician. I have a sense that there is a consensus of experts that these one-car tunnels are a bad idea for many reasons and are particularly ridiculous in this case, that it would not actually improve the transportation grid. Regarding improve economic opportunity, I think this is literally the classic Keynesian idea of increasing employment by hiring people to dig holes and then fill them up. The linked opinion piece and politician quote are amusing (or annoying) but they rest implicitly on experts’ assessment of the plan, or non-plan.

  2. MJM-WA says:

    Well… then there is this to consider …

  3. sentinel chicken says:

    You know nothing about postmodernism. If you did, you wouldn’t fall prey to the thirst-trap-for-righteous-empiricists that is this ignorant Wiki entry. You should really avoid invoking or implicitly critiquing things you know nothing about.

    • chrisare says:

      PoMo empowers people to criticize things they know nothing about since it observes epistemological nihilism. It is therefore not possible to defend PoMo from criticism on the basis of the lack of knowledge of the critic.

  4. Andrew says:


    But . . . criticizing things I know nothing about . . . that’s what blogging’s all about! More seriously, I do think that uninformed criticism has as much value as uninformed hype, and we see lots and lots of uninformed hype.

    That said, I’ve seen lots of ignoramuses criticize “Bayesian statistics” based on received ideas and second-hand arguments that they don’t understand, and that annoys me. So I can see that a postmodernist could be legitimately annoyed by the above post.

    • David says:

      It’s fine to know nothing about postmodernism, but one of the reasons I like this blog is that you are usually generous-minded about other fields of inquiry, and thoughtful about what those other fields are trying to achieve and why they might not get there. That’s where this post really falls short.

      “Postmodernism” in the humanities and humanistic social sciences arose out of the failure of the mid-century modernist idea that you could treat human beings and their behavior like classical-physics particles–categorizing them, modeling them, and predicting them, all according to stable rules. It turned out that people are more complicated than that, and also that the very terms of your categories and models (your language, your political institutions) shape the human beings you’re supposedly analyzing at a remove. Things are a lot less stable than modernists hoped. So all the theories that get lumped together as “postmodernism” are basically an attempt to say, “now what?”

      Like many other sets of academic ideas or theories, they share powerful insights and also some pretty big problems, and like every other idea or theory, sometimes they are applied well and usefully, and sometimes they degenerate into self-parody. There is definitely nonsense among the humanities, and on the margin humanists could probably be a little more active in clearing it out. What the humanities aren’t, despite their critics, is **indifferent** to truth, as you suggest they are. Even if postmodernists do think that we need to think harder about what “truth” means and how we as imperfect human observers can ever access it, they aren’t callous about it.

      In fact, that humility towards knowledge is an area where you and the “postmodernists” you’re criticizing might well have something to talk about! It’s no good when lazy humanists criticize social science as “the approach of saying nonsense using a bunch of technical-sounding jargon,” and it’s not any more constructive the other way around. We all have a lot to learn from each other! And in general, my experience is that even under conflicting professional and career incentives, people in all fields are more self-reflective than people in other fields give them credit for.

      • Jorge says:


        Postmodernism has several minor variations, but in general it is a social ideology that rejects factual truth as being an objective, unchanging reality.

        ‘Truth’ is thus subjective. Your truth can be different from my truth.
        Truth is conditional upon one’s environment, upbringing and personal socio-economic status.

        Postmodernism is therefore incompatible with normal science and logic premises.

        It has its roots in Cultural Marxism. Karl Marx maintained that a person’s very basic mental processes and understanding of reality were primarily shaped by their socio-economic status; bourgeoisie truth was invalid to proletariat truth.

        • somebody says:

          > Karl Marx maintained that a person’s very basic mental processes and understanding of reality were primarily shaped by their socio-economic status; bourgeoisie truth was invalid to proletariat truth.

          It’s really fascinating to me how everyone has such a strong opinion about books they’ve clearly never read.

        • Willard says:

          > ‘Truth’ is thus subjective.

          At best that’s a caricature:

          hat I wanted to analyze was how the truth-teller’s role was variously problematized in Greek philosophy. And what I wanted to show you was that if Greek philosophy has raised the question of truth from the point of view of the criteria for true statements and sound reasoning, this same Greek philosophy has also raised the problem of truth from the point of view of truth-telling as an activity. It has raised questions like: Who is able to tell the truth? What are the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual conditions which entitle someone to present himself as, and to be considered as, a truth-teller? About what topics is it important to tell the truth? (About the world? About nature? About the city? About behavior? About man? ) What are the consequences of telling the truth? What are its anticipated positive effects for the city, for the city’s rulers, for the individual, etc.? And finally: what is the relation between the activity of truth-telling and the exercise of power, or should these activities be completely independent and kept separate? Are they separable, or do they require one another? These four questions about truth-telling as an activity — who is able to tell the truth, about what, with what consequences, and with what relation to power — seem to have emerged as philosophical problems towards the end of the Fifth Century around Socrates, especially through his confrontations with the Sophists about politics, rhetorics, and ethics.

          That’s from a famous lecture by Michel Foucault, but I could find similar claims in just about every POMO thinker one can think of. Just as I can find quote from epistemological relativists in analytical philosophy, e.g. Stephen Stich.

      • +1. I think of the most basic tenet of postmodernism as being the acknowledgement that meaning is relative / socially constructed regardless of how “objective” we think we’re being.

        • David says:

          Thanks, Jessica–that last phrase is so important, and I think maybe suggests why so many people are allergic to postmodernist ideas. If you like certainty, they can make you uncomfortable! The key is to turn that unsettling sense into something constructive. (Glad to learn about your work via the link, too!)

        • Pragmatist says:

          If both a modernist and a postmodernist each drop a glass on the floor, will they differ in their observation of the result?

          Just a pragmatist asking of help here.

          • Ben Bolker says:

            If you ask a Bayesian and a frequentist to characterize the difference between two large, randomly sampled, non-overlapping groups of observations, they’ll come to the same conclusions (e.g. we can be confident that the populations those distributions were sampled from differ in the observed direction). But somehow both philosophies endure and are useful (IMO) in particular situations.

        • David says:

          …and therefore, postmodernism is also socially constructed. If you speak to these people and I do (I work in a department full of them) they spend a lot of time criticizing others (critical social psychology rejects mainstream “social psychology”) but they do not spend much time in self-reflection because they *know* they are basically right. It is very much an ingroup (we’re right) vs outgroup (you are wrong or misled by power structures or whatever). A think a lot of people in the stats community scoff at psychologists and their p-vale obsession but I’d prefer that to postmodernism any day.

      • Matt Skaggs says:

        “It’s no good when lazy humanists criticize social science as ‘the approach of saying nonsense using a bunch of technical-sounding jargon’”

        I think we can all agree it is no good. Fortunately no one said it except you.

      • Joshua says:

        David –

        Nicely done. Well-balanced.

  5. Dmitri says:

    The linked article uses the phrase “the ability to project a curated unreality out into the world,” and that seems like a good starting point. There’s a lot of power in curated unreality, and it’s not limited to any one sphere of life. We’re probably never going to eliminate it altogether (and maybe wouldn’t want to), but we do need to manage it somehow …

  6. DDunbar says:

    Ever driven through the Lincoln Tunnel? It’s ~100 ft under the Hudson River. The La Fontaine Tunnel under the St Lawrence river? The Channel Tunnel under the English Channel? What’s so outrageous about tunnels under water?

  7. Adede says:

    “I guess it’s part of some plan he has to grab government $ (not that I have any problem with that, I spend government $ all the time)”

    If you think the tunnel plan is so ridiculous, then you should have a problem with it. You are, presumably, using your government money to improve the world in some way, while Musk’s plan, according to your assessment, would enrich him while wasting the money.

    If you’re employed by a bank, you are technically spending the bank’s money on your groceries, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a problem with someone else trying to pass bad checks.

  8. Matt Skaggs says:

    What happens when we get the first Tesla lithium battery fire in a major traffic tunnel?

  9. Carlos Ungil says:

    > Elon Musk’s latest plan, which is to build highway tunnels in Miami

    The red flag there is not the combination of “tunnel” and “Miami”. It’s the combination of “Elon Musk” and “latest plan”.

    • Steve says:

      + 1 I happened to be in Thailand when the kids were stuck in the cave and the entire country was focussed on getting the kids out. Specialized divers from all over the world were there, and miners trying to figure out if they could tunnel into the cave without killing the kids. And, along comes Musk with the stupidest possible idea, a cave spelunking unmanned submarine. It was so ridiculous. So impossible to implement in time to do anything, and so unrelated to any actual plan to rescue the kids that is just made me think, there is something wrong with this guy. It can’t just be about grifting for money or doing a publicity stunt. It was so beyond dumb that there must be some level of mental illness at work.

      • Phil says:

        My problem with the “cave spelunking unmanned submarine” was that Musk called it a “submarine.” It was an airtight tube, just large enough to fit a person inside. The idea was to put a kid inside it and have divers tow it through the cave to safety. I don’t think this was ridiculous or dumb idea at all, and it’s my understanding that they had a working version within three days of starting to work on it…where “working” just means they could put a person inside it, seal it up, and provide the person with air. I think this could have actually been used…except that the cave had one or more bottlenecks that were so small that the ‘submarine’ couldn’t fit through them.

        I think the Musk hype machine is pretty ridiculous sometimes. Also it seems unfair that Musk insisted that some critic is a pedophile but was somehow found innocent of slander. I don’t want to come across as a Musk fanboy. But I think there was nothing nuts about the ‘submarine’ idea, except the amusingly ludicrous insistence on calling it a ‘submarine.’

        • Steve says:

          It is ridiculous when you consider that divers already had the ability to pull the children out in suits that restrict motion and provide oxygen. I didn’t know that at the time, but there are experts in diving who did, and they were working on the problem. Inventing a device that cannot navigate the cave in question to provide a means of transport where one already existed is ridiculous.

          • Phil says:

            Steve, I think you’ve forgotten how risky it was (or at least, how risky it was believed to be) to rescue them the way they did. From Wikipedia:

            The international cave diving team was led by four British divers: John Volanthen, Richard Stanton, Jason Mallinson and Chris Jewell (each assigned a boy) and two Australians: Richard Harris, a physician specializing in anesthesia, and Craig Challen.[46][52][109] Their portion of the journey would stretch over 1 kilometre going through submerged routes while being supported by 90 Thai and foreign divers at various points performing medical check-ups, resupplying air-tanks for the main divers and other emergency roles.[110]

            The boys were dressed in a wetsuit, buoyancy jacket, harness and a positive pressure full face mask. A cylinder with 80% oxygen was clipped to their front, a handle attached to their back and they were tethered to a diver in case they were lost in the poor visibility. The rescue divers described them as “a package.”[52][111][112][113] Harris administered the anaesthetic ketamine to the boys before the journey, rendering them unconscious, to prevent them from panicking on the journey and risking the lives of their rescuers. They were also given the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the drug atropine to steady their heart rates.[114][95][115] The Thai government provided doctor Harris and two medical assistants with diplomatic immunity in case something went wrong.[111][116][117][118] The anaesthetic lasted between 45 minutes to an hour, requiring divers, whom Harris had trained, to re-sedate the boys during the three hour journey.[52][119] The boys were manoeuvred out by the swimming divers who held onto their back or chest, with each boy on either the right or left side of the diver, depending on the guideline; in very narrow spots divers pushed the boys from behind.[52][112] The divers navigated them through tight passages carefully to avoid dislodging their full face mask against rocks. The divers kept their heads higher than the boys so that in poor visibility the diver would hit their head against the rocks first.[52] After a short dive to a dry section, the divers and boys were met by three divers, and the boys’ dive gear was removed. The boys were then transported on a drag stretcher over 200 m of rocks and sand hills. Craig Challen assessed them, and their dive gear was put back on before they were re-submerged for the next section.[52] The boys arrived at 45-minute intervals.[120] The divers knew the boys were breathing from their exhaust bubbles, which they could see and feel.[111]

            After being delivered by the divers into the staging base in Chamber 3, the boys were then passed along a ‘daisy chain’ by hundreds of rescuers stationed along the treacherous path out of the cave.[121] The boys, wrapped in ‘sked’ stretchers, would alternately be carried, slid and zip-lined over a complex network of pulleys installed by rock-climbers.[122] Many areas from Chamber 3 to the entrance of the cave were still partially submerged and rescuers described having to transport the boys over slippery rocks and through muddy water for hours.[123] The journey from Chamber 3 to the cave entrance took about four to five hours initially, but was reduced to less than an hour after a week of draining and clearing the mud path using shovels.[121]

            In retrospect it’s easy to say that hey, sure, they knew they could just sedate the kids and drag them through the submerged tunnels for hours, what’s the big deal. But at the time this was considered extremely risky: knock a kid’s facemask off, or crack it on a rock, and there’s a good chance of a dead kid. By the time Musk delivered the “submarine” the rescue team had already rescued most of the kids and figured correctly that they could do the rest of them, but as recently as two days earlier it was unclear what method they would use.

            There are plenty of things Musk deserves to be criticized or ridiculed for, including some things associated with the Thai cave rescue, but having some engineers make an airtight tube in a legitimate effort to save the kids isn’t one of them.

    • Jackson Curtis says:

      Yeah heaven forbid we let the guy who’s company built a million electric vehicles and a fleet of rockets start thinking he could build something as crazy as a tunnel.

  10. Joshua says:

    > You and I can laugh, but this dude has a steady job. He doesn’t care whether this makes sense, any more than the beauty-and-sex-ratio researchers care whether their statistics make any sense. They have success within a closed community.

    I’d say that makes little sense (ironically).

    I’d say one thing we know about psychology with relatively high confidence is that relatively few people promote ideas where they don’t “care” whether what they’re promoting “makes any sense.”

    • Andrew says:


      I think these people believe that their big theories make sense; they just don’t care if their statistics make sense. For them, the statistics are a hoop they need to jump through to convince other people of the validity of theories that they (the promoters of the theories) already believe in.

      • Joshua says:

        I’m a proponent of the “cognitive empathy” model as a default, absent evidence that there’s really another model in play.

        Seems to me like ignorance about somewhat arcane questions of statististical methodology is a more parsimonious explanation. What’s obvious to you about basic statistics is likely seem as incredibly complex to non-experts.

        Sure, “motivated reasoning” can kick in at the level where it would certainly seem that a serous scientist should be more curious about even somewhat arcane questions of statistical validity, so as to do a better job of getting it right. And yes, a stronger “motivation” to be right, in comparison to a commitment to doing due diligence, is a likely mechansistic explanation.

        But I think there’s a difference between that and “not caring” about getting it right. Few people don’t care about whether they’re promoting something that is clearly wrong pending a sound scientific evaluation. It just goes against basic human psychology.

        Maybe this is a question of semantics.

        • Andrew says:


          I say they don’t care because people point out their errors to them and they don’t engage. Perhaps they rationalize this to themselves as that this is all technical nitpicking. Or they say to themselves that they got a statistically significant result, so who cares about fancy statistical arguments? Something like that. When I try to engage people on these issues directly, it’s difficult because they typically come into the discussion with the firm intention not to give an inch on any of their substantive claims. That’s a very strong constraint and it leads to heavy denial of methodological problems.

          I agree with you that in some deeper sense they care about getting things right, but they don’t care enough to consider that they might have made mistakes which are fatal to the development of their theories.

          • Joshua says:

            Andrew –

            We’re almost in agreement.

            I agree here:

            > When I try to engage people on these issues directly, it’s difficult because they typically come into the discussion with the firm intention not to give an inch on any of their substantive claims. That’s a very strong constraint and it leads to heavy denial of methodological problems.

            I think that’s pretty much a natural state. It exists in different strengths among different people to some extent, and it depends on context; perhaps ironically, people are more resistant to opening up their claims as their claims become more important to them.

            I don’t agree here:

            …but they don’t care enough to consider that they might have made mistakes which are fatal to the development of their theories.

            I gonna say this is a false binary framing in disguise. “They don’t care enough to…” is functionally like saying “they don’t care.”

            I think they care, and that “caring” here takes different forms in different people in different congexts.

            Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics, but I suspect not. I think the framing of “they don’t care enough to…” is a form of essentializing, of otherizing.

            As a mental exercise, suppose they function with a roughly equivalent amount of caring about being right about being right as you do as a baseline assumption. Can you then work to an explanation of their behavior with that as a constraint? I think it’s possible, even if maybe not always going to be right (sure, sometimes maybe “they” don’t care “enough” in some meaningful sense.

            I would even go so far as to suggest that if you’re willing to go to the “they don’t care enough to…” framing, you’re always going to wind up in that spot. It takes diligence to resist that temptation, and to more or less force yourself to keep looking for another explanation. Of course, as I said, that could be wrong. Maybe it’s true that “they don’t care enough” and there’s some risk involved if you cut off that avenue.

        • Morris39 says:

          Which is the stronger motivator, getting it right or not getting it wrong (anti-consensus)? Obviously that depends on the circumstances,specifically who pays for the work and how is the outcome success judged. Collecting knowledge v.s. applying knowledge is a case which can be analyzed on a number of parameters including “caring”.

          • Joshua says:

            Morris –

            Your comment is interesting to me. I’ll try to think it through more when I have more time, as I don’t quite understand it…but I do think there’s possibly a meaningful distinction between caring about being right and caring about not being wrong, and it interacts somehow with what I’m referring to as “cognitive empathy” although “empathy” is probably a counterproductive work as it has emotive connotations that aren’t helpful.

  11. Joe says:

    I think the problem with postmodernism is that it allowed people who read very little philosophy to generate a lot of “novel” readings of texts (basically, run an analysis through an interpretation machine” to get more publications. But that doesn’t mean that the critiques of postmodernism are just as uninformed as some of the people who are using it to get new publications (the critiques have actually the same motivation: get a publication without much concern for getting things right). So I would probably make some distinctions, much like I wouldn’t ditch statistics because people use it in articles about ESP, evolutionary psychology, etc.

    And about the (death of the) author. It’s been a while since I was interested in these issues, but the point is a subtle one. Take films (which might make the idea sound more intuitive). We talk about a Stanley Kubrick film, even though we realize there are a host of other creators involved in in the production of a movie (screenwriters, actors, etc). If you say the “director” is dead, you’re not saying a film has no director. You’re basically saying that a “director” can’t serve the purpose of saying thatthere is only “one” guiding voice that defines the only way to determine something as the director-function or the myth of the “DIrector” in the 20th century, would imply. Again, it’s not to say that directors as individuals don’t play a role, its just that the particular cultural/ideological idea of the director has changed.

    For director, think “Shakespeare”, who likewise has meant a lot of different things other than a particular individual who wrote poetry and drama,

    • Yes! Now we’re getting somewhere. The death of the author is more about understanding that authors are grounded in context like all “truth”. That’s the over-arching postmodern message—truth isn’t “out there” X-files or Plato style. The world is out there, though, so things aren’t as ungrounded as the anti-postmodernist caricature might have you believe. The problem is that “truth” is a human construction grounded in vague and intertwined natural language. One has to start by asking what the unit of truth-bearing is. It’s certainly not the sentence, because sentences like “It is raining” have no meaning outside of the context in which they’re used.

      Lit-crit folks generating lots of “novel” readings of text seems no different to me than statisticians generating lots of “novel” models using probabilistic programming languages. So I’m with Joe here. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      • Agree, we have to separate what it was most often used for from what it most profitably should be used for, where profit depends on the purpose.

      • DT says:

        problem is that if we accept that “… “truth” is a human construction grounded in vague and intertwined natural language” then this also applies to post-modernist utterances too (and meanwhile, many thousands of Foucault fans are getting very nice salaries and sitting round coffee shops thinking they are generally superior to everyone, working class, scientists etc.

  12. somebody says:

    > Anyway, the whole thing is so postmodern. It’s like some clever-clever philosopher positing a poststructuralist version of physics, or someone arguing that Moby Dick is just a text with no author, or whatever.

    If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read Roland Barthe’s essay on Death of the Author — it’s quite short and very accessible. There is no technical jargon, and it argues something quite different than the literal non-existence of authors. To me, this postmodern position on authorship is (having read it) common sense–the fact is, there is no mystical connection between someone who wrote a text and what they wrote, and the idea of such a significance of the author is nothing more than magical thinking. Knowledge of the author can help my interpretation of an obscure text to stabilize in the same was as discourse with anybody else, but their intentionality of lack thereof doesn’t affect what’s already on the page.

  13. Alain says:

    >> What does it matter to a zillionaire?

    Well, we could argue that zillions of $ will never buy anyone happiness.
    No one can escape their human condition, even zillonaires seek happiness, which can not be ultimately found in a bank account.

    • Is it surprising that Andrew still continues to publish given his citation index? I don’t think happiness can be found in a citation index any more than it can be found in a bank account, but it sure helps to have that capital if you want to get something done in academia or business.

  14. Willard says:


    POMO may be hard to read at first but is easy to dig. A few paragraphs suffice:

    The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking is very readable. Here’s a review:

    As I suspect you know, it’s not more difficult to hide verbiage behind equations. Sometimes it’s easier, I would argue. Coming from Climateball, where non-scientists argue on scientific points as if they knew everything, I may be biased. Next time you’ll encounter someone who denies the Tyndall Gas effect, you’ll see yourself.

  15. Peter Gerdes says:

    I’m not seeing the problem. Tunnels already deal with water and are frequently below the water table. Even if the water table in Miami is only an inch below the ground I don’t really see how this interferes with the tunnels. Musk’s plan is to use a TBM which (in cases like this) often use increased pressure at the face to keep out water etc until the cement rings go in to seal the tunnel.

    I don’t think Musk is doing anything really interesting with the tunnels. I expect he did the same thing I did: some quick back of envelope calcs on the relative prices of tbm tunnels and the value of real estate and figured it was a good deal.

  16. The irony here is that Andrew is among the most postmodern of statisticians. Andrew regularly asserts on this blog that the world isn’t as black and white as NHST tries to make it out to be. For crying out loud, he positively cites Kuhn, who’s arguably the postmodern philosopher of science. Maybe reading this Scientific American piece will help.

    I would like to again point out that Quine’s paper, “Two dogmas of empiricism”, is the jumping off point for analytically inclined postmodernism. Perhaps the latter Wittgenstein will be easier to read, but this literature is technical much like the scientific literature. One can’t just jump into BDA without a background in math stats any more than one can jump into Quine or Wittgenstein without a background in the “modern” analytic philosophy that’s being rejected. Until he gets up to speed, Andrew’s going to continue to sound like the people objecting to Bayesians “putting their thumb on the scale” with priors. It’s missing the whole point.

    Quine’s not saying there isn’t a truth. He’s saying that truth is relative to a bunch of human designed categorizations which are not analytically reducible to simple statements about perception (that being the goal of the analytic philosophers during the so-called modern period in the first half of the 20th century). This is essentially the same idea that Kuhn applies to science. The late Wittgenstein is an easier entry into these ideas, as he’s applying them to language, not science, which gets peoples’ hackles up less. I could also recommend some of the more popular writings of Richard Rorty (yes, I know these folks are all pragmatists of different stripes, just like Andrew, but they embody the notions of postmodernism that many scientists still don’t buy).

    I think it’d be amusing to run a reverse Sokal hoax on the physicists. It’s not like the physics journals don’t publish crap stats papers all the time. The trick is making it sound legit without being legit. Shouldn’t be that hard with a little persistence.

    I’d like to also point out that just as deconstruction can fail the Derrida test, scientific modeling failed the salmon test and scientific refereeing failed the N[eur]IPS experiment. Even so, it’d be a mistake to equate the postmodern turn in the philosophy of science with Derrida-style deconstruction.

    • Steve says:

      I agree the Quine, Kuhn, and other philosophers in the Analytic tradition have come to conclusions that have similarity to some of the things being said in Continental philosophy by the likes of Foucault, Habermas etc. However, there is a real distinction. There is an embrace of obscruatism by some of the Continental philosophers. There is a rejection of the use of mathematical logic. Quine and Kuhn are making claims that clear and can be evaluated. I am not sure that Derrida is making any clear claims or even means to.

      • I think the deconstructionists are trying to be as clear as they can. They just haven’t succeeded. Hence the Derrida test I linked above. I always hesitate to criticize something I don’t understand (like free jazz or opera or cricket or soccer or European animated movies of the 1950s), but in the case of Derrida, it’s not clear to me anyone understands it.

        There’s a similar emperor’s-new-clothes feel around Chomskyan linguistics and its cargo cult of pseudo-mathematical definitions and notation. And you can’t be much more of an avowed Platonist than Chomsky. When I was co-teaching philosophy of language with a philosopher (at Carnegie Mellon), my co-prof was shocked at a Chomsky paper in our text about the innateness of semantic concepts. He asked me if it was a prank or a historical oddity. When I assured him people took it seriously, his shock turned to disgust.

        • Oh, but I forgot to mention that when I pointed Andrew to Quine before, he thought it was about as clear as mud. All of these things take a lot of immersion to understand where they’re coming from. Which again, ironically, is one of the main points of the focus on context in postmodernism.

          • Joe says:

            It’s been a couple of decades since I read Derrida (I moved on to something completely else) but I generally passed the various Derrida tests (and I wasn’t a specialist). Not sure if I would now, though. But I think that what makes Derrida difficult is that it’s hard to extract his close readings of texts and turn them into propositions (which unfortunately is what people tend to do). I think that was part of his point: he wasn’t trying to build a system, even though people tried to turn various statements he made in relationship to a commentary on a very specific reading of a particular passage to a method that could be applied to any text. In a way, I think that was his appeal to literature specialists at the time, who were trying to figure out the uniqueness of a text rather than uncovering generalities.

            It does raise the question of what’s the point if his writings aren’t meant to be propositions, but I guess the answer is that are precursors for that sort of approach in continental philosophy (Nietzsche is an obvious example, but he’s probably even more notorious)

    • somebody says:

      > For crying out loud, he positively cites Kuhn, who’s arguably the postmodern philosopher of science.

      I first read Kuhn in a class on interpretation alongside assigned readings from Baudrillard, Stanley Fish, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag.

      > Quine’s not saying there isn’t a truth. He’s saying that truth is relative to a bunch of human designed categorizations which are not analytically reducible to simple statements about perception (that being the goal of the analytic philosophers during the so-called modern period in the first half of the 20th century). This is essentially the same idea that Kuhn applies to science.

      Perhaps this quote is misattributed, but it’s a neat summary of my perspective on science and is unmistakably postmodern in flavor

      “Physics is not about how the world is, it is about what we can say about the world”

      – Niels Bohr

      > I think it’d be amusing to run a reverse Sokal hoax on the physicists. It’s not like the physics journals don’t publish crap stats papers all the time. The trick is making it sound legit without being legit. Shouldn’t be that hard with a little persistence.

      I don’t know about physics, but it’s a certainty that this happens all the time in biomedicine.

      Lots of researchers build decades-long careers with a hundred publication on fabricated experiments before being caught–indubitably, some are never caught. So long as you use the right diction and methodology, so long as you go through the same motions as everyone else, you can make like bandits without any content, even in science.

      Abstaining from criticism of things you don’t understand does create a loophole: write something people can’t quite say is random, but which has no semantic content, and then it’s completely beyond criticism. If someone does criticize it, you can call them too stupid to understand it. To this day I also suspect this is Derrida’s main trick, but “postmodernism” in general is too nonspecific to dismiss in this way and has generated at least a few unmistakably valuable insights.

      • Steve says:

        Quine is very definitely not saying that truth is relative to anything. Truth per Tarski is a predicate restricted to a metalanguage, in which is simply means that a proposition in the object language is correctly asserted, i.e., the sentence “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. Quine says that the ontology (what the theory asserts exists) of a theory (language or model) is relative to that theory in part because of Tarski theorem that truth cannot be a predicate of the object language.

        Kuhn and others seem to have over interpreted this result. We should think of the problem not in terms of relativity because that confuses people but in terms of completeness. Tarski’s theorem tells us that we always need a more inclusive theory to talk about the truth of our theories. It is not a philosophically unimportant point. It just doesn’t mean that we cannot assert the correctness of a theory. It means that theory cannot contain an assertion of its own correctness without creating semantic paradoxes.

    • Michael J says:

      Yeah I was surprised by this post because I also thought of Andrew as a postmodernist! His 2017 article with Hennig seemed precisely to argue a postmodern take on statistical science. Even the title “Beyond subjective and objective in statistics” screams postmodernist, and if that wasn’t enough there’s also this line “Active scientific realism implies that finding out the truth about objective reality is not the ultimate aim of science, but that science rather aims at supporting human actions.”

      Don’t mean to hate or anything, I love that Gelman & Hennig article! But it’s also a bit ironic, as Bob said.

  17. Michael Nelson says:

    By association, the first post-modernest was Charles Ponzi. But maybe there’s something actually postmodern about these schemes getting so much attention, when half of it is coming from people who know it’s a fugazi.

  18. Peter Dorman says:

    I don’t know about Musk, Miami and tunnels, but I’ve had to grapple with postmodern variants for decades as an instructor in interdisciplinary higher ed programs. Here are what I regard as the three serious failings of PM in practice. (Maybe the most advanced theorists avoid them.)

    1. Confusing truth value with belief. Standpoint, cultural lenses and language all influence what we tend to believe, including our interpretations of our beliefs. In principle they should have no effect on the truth value of propositions. PMers slide back and forth between statements about belief and truth; they also conflate the “truth” of my experience or perceptions with the “truth” of what I claim my experience or perceptions are about. It tends toward pure subjectivism.

    2. Treating truth value as binary. If something is shown to be less than fully certain (and what isn’t?), then it is held to have no truth value at all. The notion that credibility (truth value) is on a continuum, and propositions can move up or down within it, seems entirely foreign to PM.

    3. Inappropriate criteria for evaluating propositions, especially one’s own. PM derives from the practice of criticism in the arts, where the value of a claim or interpretation is primarily its aha-ness. Critical claims ought not be provably false, but beyond that they are valued by the interpretative community on a subjective basis: does this work for me? I have no problem with that. The difficulty arises when the same subjective criterion is imported into the analysis of society, the sciences, etc. This is the source of much of the hostility toward empirical work one finds in PMers. It’s not so much the critique of empiricism itself, much of which is useful and can be incorporated into empirical work. It’s the subordination of empirical investigation to a style of cultural critique whose ultimate criterion is, does this feel right?

    • Steve says:


      I was with you on #1 and then by #2 you confused truth values with belief. Truth values are binary (although three-valued and many valued logics have been created, we don’t normally use them, and they come at a very high price, i.e., jettisoning the law of excluded middle.) Credibility is believability not truth. Yes, belief may come in degrees, alternatively we could say that belief is also binary, but certainty comes in degrees. Everyone just needs to read Tarski or Ramsey’s work on truth and realize they need to stop using the word “truth” when the mean knowledge or belief.

      I am with you on #3, again I think the problem though is the distinction between subjective and objective or fact/value. The PM are correct to throw out the subjective/objective dichotomy. However, the alternative to that dichotomy is not that everything is subjective, the alternative is that everything is on a continuum. Yes, we can try to eliminate bias and researchers’ degrees of freedom.

      • Peter Dorman says:

        If truth value is a binary attribute, I have used the wrong term. I mean simply the likelihood that a proposition is true, as opposed to the empirical extent of belief in a proposition. Does the current crop of approved Covid vaccines reduce one’s likelihood of getting infected by more than, say, 20% in a given social context (location, activities, local caseloads)? The likelihood that this proposition is true is one thing, the percentage of the relevant population that believes it to be true is another. And both are probabilistic, not deterministic.

  19. Joe says:

    I think the problem at some point is that “postmodernism” has become a just a catch-all for a range of different theories, philosophies, and political movements since the second world war (“post” in the sense of “after” modernism) and in many cases, ideas latent in modern philosophy (there’s nothing particular “postmodern” about radical subjectivity: my own understanding is that (at the philosophers labelled as “postmodern” reject the notion of the “subject” that subjectivity rests upon). I don’t think there’s anything postmodern about your above points. Those ideas have been floating around in one form or another for probably about 200 years, if not more. Again, the problem from my own perspective is that some “postmodern” ideas are just plain hard to think about, and it’s easy for both proponents and detractors to translate the concepts back into ideas that are familiar (relativism, subjectivity, determinism, etc), even when the authors themselves explicitly say those ideas are precisely what they are trying to think through and beyond.

  20. mu says:

    I think this is partially echoing a lot of what people have already been saying, but: I wonder how many people actually call themselves postmodernists versus just agreeing with some (or all) of the ideas that are tagged with that label. And I wonder how much of that is because so many of the ideas have just melded into daily discourse, so that people who mock postmodernism are just attacking a caricature. I know only one person who calls herself a poststructuralist, and no one who calls themselves a postmodernist.

  21. Mikhail Shubin says:

    After reading this comments I got an idea… should we start calling “Bayesian Statistics” “postmodern Statistics”? It sounds cooler, and I dont like it when research fields are called after specific people.

    • Ben says:

      This is genius. I’m in. The Bayesian thing is annoying and apparently quite relative (see the various posts about bad characterizations of Bayesian statistics)

    • Mikhail Shubin says:

      I mean, just take E. T. Jane’s idea (If I attribute it correctly) that unconditional probabilities does not exist: all probabilities are conditional on something, at least on the model which defines then.

      This is like ultimate postmodernism! And it does look like “rejection of objective Truth” from outside.

  22. Kerem says:

    In my understanding, in it’s mostly abused form, postmodernism -or let’s say majority of postmodern practitioners of thought- reduces everything into a matter of interpretation. One emblematic move is to attack the binary oppositions(day-night, man-woman, healthy-ill, moral-immoral etc) that exist in any given text. By showing how weakly grounded and how arbitrarily created those binary oppositions in any thought system, postmodernism indeed creates a path for alternative interpretations of reality. But the problem so far is, then, there is no scale by which all those alternative interpretations of reality can be ranked and filtered. What happens of course is, when the common ground is destroyed, all interpretations -no matter how sound or crazy they are- are being treated in a similar fashion. Since, rejecting the nonsensical one indeed prerequisites the definition of nonsensical and logical in the first place, nobody attempts for such demarcation. I am not claiming that postmodernism itself can be reduced to this rough depiction that I made above. However I can’t deny the existence of the zillionaire. He is there, he is feeding himself, if you ever try to criticise him what you get is wide array of heavy words such as being modernist, being positivist, being bla bla which even extends itself to being a micro-fascist… (yes, just because you tried to define what nonsensical is)

    With bayesian statistics it’s really interesting. Take Prof.Gelman for instance, in one hand, his understanding of p-values based statistical practice is sort of postmodern in a way that it deconstructs the binary opposition of statistically significant vs insignificant. However, he is not fraud postmodernist at all because, I am sure that if I send him a regression model with a terrible fit and crazy priors he wouldn’t treat this model as “one of the possible interpretations of the world which should be respected equally”. Most probably he would bring that model to this blog and mock it. (because it should be mocked).

    • Joshua says:

      Kerem –

      Nice summary.

      When you say this:

      > What happens of course is, when the common ground is destroyed, all interpretations -no matter how sound or crazy they are- are being treated in a similar fashion.

      Do you have an example in mind, or is that just a description of what’s theoretically possible?

      You did lose me, however, when you began talking of the zillionare.

    • Kerem says:

      Ps: The part about zillionaire is actually a typo normally I was planning to write another paragraph about Elon Musk. While trying to delete that paragraph and arrange the text, most probably that part stayed in the wrong place. Zillionaire should be replaced by “Postie” which is a word I use for defining aggressive post modernists who answer back to your criticism in the way I wrote in the original text.
      Joshua, I guess I have some examples, I will write when I have time tonight.

  23. Rodney Sparapani says:

    Reminds me of the Johnny Canal skit on SNL…

  24. Jukka says:

    I wanted to see a Bansky exhibition this weekend. But it was too far away, and they say there is not even a Bansky, and even that the exhibitions are false. Besides the art itself, I think the whole Bansky thing is pretty postmodern (probably intentionally?), which kind of also proves that postmodernism is well and alive in 2021. Another point: it was always a bigger thing in the arts (incl. architecture, etc.) than in the sciences, including social sciences. And for a reason.

Leave a Reply

Where can you find the best CBD products? CBD gummies made with vegan ingredients and CBD oils that are lab tested and 100% organic? Click here.