The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax, was a scholarly publishing sting perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.
The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.
The hoax sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of commentary about the physical sciences by those in the humanities; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.
In an interview on the U.S. radio program All Things Considered, Sokal said he was inspired to submit the bogus article after reading Higher Superstition (1994), in which authors Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt claim that some humanities journals would publish anything as long as it had “the proper leftist thought” and quoted (or was written by) well-known leftist thinkers.
Gross and Levitt had been vocal defenders of the scientific realist camp of the “science wars”, opposing postmodernist academics who questioned scientific objectivity. They asserted that anti-intellectual sentiment in liberal arts departments (and especially in English departments) caused the rise of deconstructionist thought, which eventually led to a deconstructionist critique of science. They saw the critique as a “repertoire of rationalizations” for avoiding the study of science.
Sokal reasoned that, if the presumption of editorial laziness was correct, the nonsensical content of his article would be irrelevant to whether the editors would publish it. What would matter would be ideologic obsequiousness, fawning references to deconstructionist writers, and sufficient quantities of the appropriate jargon. Writing after the article was published and the hoax revealed, he stated:
The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that “the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project” [sec. 6]. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.
Content of the article
“Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” proposed that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, and that the “morphogenetic field” could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity (a morphogenetic field is a concept adapted by Rupert Sheldrake in a way that Sokal characterized in the affair’s aftermath as “a bizarre New Age idea”). Sokal wrote that the concept of “an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being” was “dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook”.
After referring skeptically to the “so-called scientific method”, the article declared that “it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality'” is fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct”. It went on to state that because scientific research is “inherently theory-laden and self-referential”, it “cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities” and that therefore a “liberatory science” and an “emancipatory mathematics”, spurning “the elite caste canon of ‘high science'”, needed to be established for a “postmodern science [that] provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.
Moreover, the article’s footnotes conflate academic terms with sociopolitical rhetoric, e.g.:
Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and “pro-choice”, so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo–Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.
Sokal submitted the article to Social Text, whose editors were collecting articles for the “Science Wars” issue. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was the only article submitted by a natural scientist. Later, after Sokal’s self-exposure of his pseudoscientific hoax article in the journal Lingua Franca, the Social Text editors said in a published essay that they had requested editorial changes that Sokal refused to make, and had had concerns about the quality of the writing, stating “We requested him (a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and (b) to excise most of his footnotes”. Nonetheless, despite subsequently designating the physicist as having been a “difficult, uncooperative author”, and noting that such writers were “well known to journal editors”, Social Text published the article in acknowledgment of the author’s credentials in the May 1996 Spring/Summer “Science Wars” issue. The editors did not seek peer review of the article by physicists or otherwise; they later defended this decision on the basis that Social Text was a journal for open intellectual inquiry and the article was not offered as a contribution to the physics discipline.
Follow-up between Sokal and the editors
In the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, in the article “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies”, Sokal revealed that “Transgressing the Boundaries” was a hoax and concluded that Social Text “felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject” because of its ideological proclivities and editorial bias. In their defense, the Social Text editors said they believed that “Transgressing the Boundaries” “was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field” and that “its status as parody does not alter, substantially, our interest in the piece, itself, as a symptomatic document”. Besides criticizing his writing style, the Social Text editors accused Sokal of behaving unethically in deceiving them.
Sokal said the editors’ response illustrated the problem he highlighted. Social Text, as an academic journal, published the article not because it was faithful, true and accurate to its subject but because an “academic authority” had written it and because of the appearance of the obscure writing. The editors said they considered it poorly written but published it because they felt Sokal was an academic seeking their intellectual affirmation. Sokal remarked:
My goal isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. … There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counterproductive.
Social Text’s response revealed that none of the editors had suspected Sokal’s piece was a parody. Instead, they speculated Sokal’s admission “represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve”. Sokal found further humor in the idea that the article’s absurdity was hard to spot:
In the second paragraph I declare without the slightest evidence or argument, that “physical ‘reality’ (note the scare quotes) is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough. Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. I live on the twenty-first floor.
Book by Sokal and Bricmont
In 1997, Sokal and Jean Bricmont co-wrote Impostures intellectuelles (U.S.: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, U.K.: Intellectual Impostures, 1998). The book featured analysis of extracts from established intellectuals’ writings that Sokal and Bricmont claimed misused scientific terminology. It closed with a critical summary of postmodernism and criticism of the strong programme of social constructionism in the sociology of scientific knowledge.
Media coverage and Jacques Derrida
As Sokal revealed the hoax, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida was initially one of the targets of discredit in the United States, particularly in newspaper coverage. A U.S. weekly magazine used two images of Derrida, a photo and a caricature, to illustrate a “dossier” on the Sokal article. Derrida responded to the hoax in “Sokal et Bricmont ne sont pas sérieux” (“Sokal and Bricmont Aren’t Serious”), first published on 20 November 1997 in Le Monde. He called Sokal’s action sad (triste) for having overshadowed Sokal’s mathematical work and ruining the chance to carefully sort out controversies about scientific objectivity. Derrida went on to fault him and coauthor Jean Bricmont for what he considered an act of intellectual bad faith in describing their follow-up book, Impostures intellectuelles (UK: Intellectual Impostures; US: Fashionable Nonsense): they had published two articles almost simultaneously, one in English in The Times Literary Supplement on 17 October 1997 and one in French in Libération on 18-19 October 1997, but while the two articles were almost identical, they differed in how they treated Derrida. The English-language article had a list of French intellectuals who were not included in Sokal and Bricmont’s book: “Such well-known thinkers as Althusser, Barthes, and Foucault—who, as readers of the TLS will be well aware, have always had their supporters and detractors on both sides of the Channel—appear in our book only in a minor role, as cheerleaders for the texts we criticize.” The French-language list, however, included Derrida: “Des penseurs célèbres tels qu’Althusser, Barthes, Derrida et Foucault sont essentiellement absents de notre livre.” Derrida may also have been sensitive to a slight difference between the French and English versions of Impostures intellectuelles. In the French, his citation from the original hoax article is said to be an “isolated” instance of abuse, whereas the English text adds a parenthetical remark that Derrida’s work contained “no systematic misuse (or indeed attention to) science.” Derrida cried foul, but Sokal and Bricmont insisted that the difference between the articles was “banal.” Nevertheless, Derrida concluded, as the title of his article indicates, that Sokal was not serious in his approach, but had used the spectacle of a “quick practical joke” to displace the scholarship Derrida believed the public deserved.
Social science criticism
Sociologist Stephen Hilgartner, the Cornell University science and technology studies department chairman, wrote “The Sokal Affair in Context” (1997), comparing Sokal’s hoax to “Confirmational Response: Bias Among Social Work Journals” (1990), an article by William M. Epstein published in Science, Technology & Human Values. Epstein used a similar approach to Sokal’s, submitting fictitious articles to real academic journals to measure their response. Though far more systematic than Sokal’s work, it received scant media attention. Hilgartner argued that the intellectual impact of the successful Sokal hoax cannot be attributed to its quality as a “demonstration” but rather to journalistic hyperbole and the anti-intellectual biases of some American journalists.
The Sokal Affair scandal extended from academia to the public press. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, criticized in Fashionable Nonsense, described the scandal as a “tempest in a tea cup”. Retired Northeastern University mathematician turned social scientist Gabriel Stolzenberg wrote essays meant to discredit the statements of Sokal and his allies, arguing that they insufficiently grasped the philosophy they criticized, rendering their criticism meaningless. In Social Studies of Science, Bricmont and Sokal responded to Stolzenberg, denouncing his “tendentious misrepresentations” of their work and criticizing Stolzenberg’s commentary about the “strong programme” of the sociology of science. In the same issue, Stolzenberg replied, arguing that their critique and allegations of misrepresentation were based on misreadings. He advised readers to slowly and skeptically examine the arguments proposed by each party, bearing in mind that “the obvious is sometimes the enemy of the true”.
Sociological follow-up study
In 2009, Cornell sociologist Robb Willer performed an experiment in which undergraduate students read Sokal’s paper and were told either that it was written by another student or that it was by a famous academic. He found that students who believed the paper’s author was a high-status intellectual rated it higher in quality and intelligibility.
Source from Wikipedia