December 17, 2010


The Science Wars Redux: Fifteen years after the Sokal Hoax, attacks on “objective knowledge” that were once the province of the left have been taken up by the right. (Michael Bérubé, Winter 2011, Democracy)

What, you ask, was the Sokal Hoax? While I was chatting with my colleagues at the Postmodern Science Forum, New York University physicist Alan Sokal, having read Higher Superstition, decided to try an experiment. He painstakingly composed an essay full of (a) flattering references to science-studies scholars such as Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, (b) howler-quality demonstrations of scientific illiteracy, (c) flattering citations of other science-studies scholars who themselves had demonstrated howler-quality scientific illiteracy, (d) questionable-to-insane propositions about the nature of the physical world, (e) snippets of fashionable theoretical jargon from various humanities disciplines, and (f) a bunch of stuff from Bohr and Heisenberg, drawing object lessons from the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics. He then placed a big red bow on the package, titling the essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The result was a very weird essay, a heady mix–and a shot heard ’round the world. For Sokal decided to submit it to the journal Social Text, where it wound up in a special issue edited by Ross and Aronowitz on . . . the “Science Wars.” Yes, that’s right: Social Text accepted an essay chock-full of nonsense and proceeded to publish it in a special issue that was designed to answer the critics of science studies–especially, but not exclusively, Gross and Levitt. It was more than a great hoax on Sokal’s part; it was also, on the part of Social Text, one of the great own-foot-shootings in the history of self-inflicted injury.

Cannily, Sokal chose Lingua Franca, a then-influential (since folded) magazine that covered the academy and the humanities, as the venue in which to publish his “gotcha” essay, in which he revealed that the whole thing was a great big joke. And as if on cue, Ross and Aronowitz fired back almost precisely as Sokal believed they would: Aronowitz called Sokal “ill-read and half-educated,” while Ross called the essay “a little hokey,” “not really our cup of tea,” and a “boy stunt . . . typical of the professional culture of science education.” Aronowitz and Ross had every reason to feel badly stung, no question; but the terms of their response, unfortunately, spectacularly bore out Sokal’s claim that “the targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside.” It was not hard to wonder, after all: If indeed Sokal’s hokey boy-stunt essay was not really your cup of tea, why did you publish it in the first place?

For many people, the answer to that question was simple: because the theory-addled, jargon-spouting academic left, of which Social Text now stood as the symbol, really didn’t know squat about science and really was devoted to the project of making shit up and festooning it with flattering citations to one another’s work. It was what critics believed all along, and now they had the proof. The disparity of audience response was–and remains–stark: In my academic-left circles, Sokal’s name was mud, his hoax an example of extraordinary bad faith; everywhere else, especially on the rest of the campus and in the world of journalism, Sokal was a hero, the guy who finally exposed the naked emperor (and there was much talk of naked emperors) and burst the cultural-studies bubble that had so drastically overinflated certain academic reputations–and academic egos.

The damage to the academic left–and the sense of betrayal on the academic left–was especially severe because the Sokal Hoax followed in the wake of the early-’90s culture wars. Left-leaning humanists were used to taking brickbats from movement conservatives like D’Souza, Lynne Cheney, and Bill Bennett; we had watched Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms attack the National Endowment for the Arts, and we had seen Cheney appeal to Congress to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities–when she was no longer directing it. Even a few intellectually respectable people came unhinged by mid-decade, as when biologist E.O. Wilson declared, in a 1994 talk, “multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism.” The fact that Sokal launched his critique in the name of the left was a real shock–indeed, it was simply unintelligible to some academic leftists, who insisted that all their critics were de facto conservatives (and even tried to label Sokal a “left conservative” as a result). But the hoax also played an important role in the intraparty squabbles on the left, insofar as it seemed to give ammunition to leftists who believed that class oppression was the most important game in town, and that all this faddish talk of gender and race and sexuality was a distraction from the real struggle, which had to do with capital and labor. Finally, in academic-hothouse politics, the hoax had any number of unintended side-effects, bolstering traditionalists’ beliefs that disciplines like women’s studies and science studies were just so much balderdash.

So what did the essay itself actually say? As a parody of certain academic styles and tics, it really was a tour de force–though most of the people celebrating it and denouncing it, I found, weren’t reading the thing all the way through. For most journalists, for example, the first paragraph was quite damning enough:

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

The passage I’ve italicized makes it look as if Social Text itself, by publishing the essay, is proclaiming its belief in the nonexistence of the external world. That’s basically how most people construed the hoax: as Sokal’s proof that theory-besotted humanists on the academic left deny the existence of the external world. It was Dr. Johnson’s stone all over again, except that this time the stone came flying through the window of a hip academic journal.

But imagine, dear reader, that this essay has been submitted to you, and that you have no reason to think that it is anything but an ordinary journal submission. How would you have read that first paragraph? The first two sentences are unobjectionable; one might even want to call them “true.” The third sentence carries the payload. And yet even that one is trickier than it looks–if you stop and ask yourself what it means that an actual, real-live, university-faculty physicist is saying such things. On one hand, I have to admire Sokal’s powers of mimicry: the fact that he speaks sweepingly and dismissively of “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook” suggests that he was a quick study of the academic-theory left, and had learned that people who speak of the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook can usually expect to find a sympathetic readership at places like Social Text. On the other hand, why should anyone consider it strange that a physicist would be saying strange things about the physical world? Okay, so some physicist from NYU is challenging the idea that physics offers reliable knowledge of the external world that can be encoded in eternal laws. But don’t physicists say bizarre, counterintuitive things about the external world all the time? Isn’t it part of their job description, like talking about dark matter and dark energy and branes and eleven-dimensional strings and multiple universes and stuff that no reasonable person could possibly imagine on the basis of their daily lives?

As I argued in my 2006 book, Rhetorical Occasions, ever since the days of Bohr and Heisenberg, general readers have come to expect that physicists will not tell them that force equals mass times acceleration and that what goes up must come down; they expect that physicists will tell them that space-time is curved in the shape of a quantum donut whose jelly filling is composed of black holes that bend through Calabi-Yau space to produce “munchkins-branes.” So it’s curious–and telling–that Sokal’s essay goes on to cite Bohr and Heisenberg. But Sokal’s treatment of them is uneasy–and at one point, I think, Sokal gives away more of the game than he realizes. In “Transgressing the Boundaries,” Sokal notes that Bohr himself drew social implications from the principle of complementarity. The principle holds that two mutually exclusive definitions are in fact necessary for an adequate explanation of a phenomenon: light, for instance, is both a particle and a wave. “Bohr’s analysis of the complementarity principle also led him to a social outlook that was, for its time and place, notably progressive,” Sokal writes in an endnote, quoting from a 1938 lecture by Bohr:

I may perhaps here remind you of the extent to which in certain societies the roles of men and women are reversed, not only regarding domestic and social duties but also regarding behavior and mentality. Even if many of us, in such a situation, might perhaps at first shrink from admitting the possibility that it is entirely a caprice of fate that the people concerned here have their specific culture and not ours, and we not theirs instead of our own, it is clear that even the slightest suspicion in this respect implies a betrayal of the national complacency inherent in any human culture resting in itself.

So why does Sokal single out this passage for mockery? Is it as patently ridiculous as the idea that there is no external world? In the follow-up book Fashionable Nonsense, co-written with Jean Bricmont and published in 1998, Sokal argued that his target was humanists’ “fondness for the most subjectivist writings of Heisenberg and Bohr, interpreted in a radical way that goes far beyond their own views (which are in turn vigorously disputed by many physicists and philosophers of science).”

...the subjectivity of Science or of Academia?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2010 5:22 AM
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