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Alan Sokal
Born 1955 (1955)
United States of America
Residence United States, Nicaragua, Great Britain
Citizenship American
Fields Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy of Science
Institutions New York University
National Autonomous University of Nicaragua
University College London
Alma mater Princeton University (doctorate)
Doctoral advisor Arthur Wightman
Known for Sokal Affair

Alan David Sokal (born 1955) is a professor of mathematics at University College London and professor of physics at New York University. He works in statistical mechanics and combinatorics. To the general public he is best known for his criticism of postmodernism, resulting in the Sokal affair in 1996.

Contents

Academic career

Sokal received his B.A. from Harvard College in 1976 and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1981. He was advised by Arthur Wightman. Sokal taught mathematics at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in the summers of 1986-1988, during the rule of the Sandinistas.

Research interests

Sokal’s research lies in mathematical physics and combinatorics. In particular, he studies the interplay between these fields based on questions arising in statistical mechanics and quantum field theory. This includes work on the chromatic polynomial and the Tutte polynomial, which appear both in algebraic graph theory and in the study of phase transitions in statistical mechanics. His interests include computational physics and algorithms, such as Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithms for problems in statistical physics. He also co-authored a book [1] on quantum triviality.

Sokal affair

Sokal is best known to the general public for the Sokal Affair of 1996. Curious to see whether the then-non-peer-reviewed postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text (published by Duke University Press) would publish a submission which "flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions," Sokal submitted a grand-sounding but completely nonsensical paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."[2][3]

The journal did in fact publish it, and soon thereafter Sokal then revealed that the article was a hoax in the journal Lingua Franca[4], arguing that the left and social science would be better served by intellectual underpinnings based on reason. He replied to leftist and postmodernist criticism of the deception by saying that his motivation had been to "defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself."

The affair, together with Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt's book Higher Superstition, can be considered to be a part of the so-called Science wars.

Sokal followed up by co-authoring the book Impostures Intellectuelles with Jean Bricmont in 1997 (published in English, a year later, as Fashionable Nonsense). The book accuses other academics of using scientific and mathematical terms incorrectly and criticizes proponents of the strong program for denying the value of truth. The book had mixed reviews, with some lauding the effort, some more reserved, and others pointing out alleged inconsistencies and criticizing the authors for ignorance of the fields under attack and taking passages out of context.

In 2008, Sokal revisited the Sokal affair and its implications in Beyond the Hoax.

Quotes

  • But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.
  • 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.)

See also

References

  1. ^ R. Fernandez, J. Froehlich, A. D. Sokal, "Random Walks, Critical Phenomena, and Triviality in Quantum Field Theory". Springer (April 1992) ISBN 0387543589
  2. ^ Sokal A. (1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text 46/47 (46/47): 217–252. doi:10.2307/466856. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0164-2472%28199621%2F22%290%3A46%2F47%3C217%3ATTBTAT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-S.  
  3. ^ Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity
  4. ^ Sokal A. (1996). "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca: 62–64. http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4.pdf.  

External links

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