A physicist with hidden motives writes something unexpected for a “cultural studies” journal.
Was it a churlish hoax or a valuable exposure of nonsense?

The Nando Times Voices recently published the following article:

Physicist Alan Sokal of New York University meticulously observed all the rules of the academic game when he constructed his article on postmodern physics and submitted it to a prestigious journal of cultural studies called Social Text.

The people he cites as authorities are the superluminaries of the field, the quotations he uses to illustrate his argument are strictly accurate and the text is bristling with footnotes.

All the rules but one, that is: Sokal’s article is a parody. Under the grandiloquent title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” it appeared in the Spring/Summer 1996 special issue of the magazine, one entirely devoted to “the science wars”, as the editors term the tension between people who actually do science and the critics who merely theorise about it.

Many scientists believe that the emperors of cultural studies have no clothes. But Sokal captured the whole royal court parading around in naked ignorance and persuaded the palace chroniclers to publish the portrait as a centrefold.

Once the article was safely in print, Sokal revealed his modest experiment. “Would a leading journal of cultural studies,” he wrote in the May/June issue of Lingua Franca, “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?”

Unfortunately yes, and Sokal’s deliberate nonsense is anything but subtle. Translated into plain English from the high-flown language he borrowed for the occasion, his first paragraph says that scientists “cling to the dogma” that the external world exists and its properties are independent of what human beings think.

But nobody believes that old stuff any more, right? Now we all know that physical reality is “at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”

Is there a sound when a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it? Under the theory of social construction, there’s not even a tree.

“There are so many red flags planted throughout the paper that even non-scientists should have spotted at least one and started laughing,” Sokal said Thursday. “Either this is a parody or the author is off his rocker.”

Sokal was prompted into parody by a 1994 book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, which ruffled a lot of postmodernist feathers.

“I’m an academic leftist and I have no quarrel with science,” Sokal said, “so the first thing I did was go to the library and check their references, to see whether (Gross and Levitt) were being fair”, and they were. In fact, he found even more examples of scientific illiteracy, some of them even worse.

“It would be so boring to refute them,” Sokal said. “I picked the silliest quotes from the most prominent people, and I made up an argument for how they were linked together.”

Was Sokal’s experiment ethical? “It’s true the author doesn’t believe his own arguments,” he wrote in Lingua Franca. “But why should that matter? If the Social Text’ editors find my arguments convincing, then why should they be disconcerted simply because I don’t?”

They are disconcerted, of course, and for reasons that transcend their private embarrassment at being taken in. Sokal’s successful spoof calls into question the intellectual standards of the whole field.

If you’re chuckling, but inclined to think it’s just professors doing their usual angels-on-a-pinhead thing, please do think again. Tuition and fees at the priciest private universities run nearly $1,000 for each week of class. Taxpayers pick up a big chunk of the bill for public universities. Many of those classes are being taught, it appears, by professors who deny the distinction between truth and falsity and consequently can’t distinguish double-talk from rational argument.

Maybe some of the junior professors and the graduate students do know what they’re hearing is nonsense, but think it would be harmful to their careers to speak out. Living with such deception, possibly for a lifetime, is profoundly corrupting. Honest people just get out, leaving the field to those who don’t mind deception or don’t recognise it. It’s hard to say which is worse.

But it’s easy to see why Sokal’s spoof was enticing to editors desperate for the imprimatur of a working scientist on their critical enterprise, and he even inserted the evidence by quoting Andrew Ross, who edited the special issue.

The kind of science that’s needed, Ross said, is one “that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests.”

So that’s the kind of science Sokal claimed to be writing about.

“A liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics,” he concludes. “We can see hints of (such emancipatory mathematics) in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.” He drags in catastrophe theory and chaos theory, too.

There is a political point to Sokal’s demonstration, but it’s not the right-wing one he’s sure will be attributed to him. He’s proud to call himself a leftist, and his resume includes a stint teaching mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.

“If you take up crazy philosophies you undermine your ability to tackle questions of public policy, like ecology,” he said. “It really matters whether the world is warming up.”

I don’t remotely share Sokal’s political views, but I agree with him that the corruption of clear thought and clear language is dangerous. And corruption has to be exposed before it can be cleaned up.

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