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The Sokal Affair (also Sokal’s Hoax) was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Prof. Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal dedicated to postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment testing the magazine’s editorial practice of intellectual rigor, to learn if an academic journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”[1]

The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct; it was published in the Social Text Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. At that time, the journal did not practice peer review fact-checking, and did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.[2][3] On its date of publication, in May 1996, in the journal Lingua Franca, Sokal revealed that “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was a hoax, identifying it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics he] could find about mathematics and physics”.

The resultant academic and public quarrels concerned the scholarly merit, or lack thereof, of sociologic commentary about the physical sciences; the social disciplines influenced by postmodern philosophy, in general; academic ethics — including whether Prof. Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether the journal had exercised the appropriate intellectual rigor before publishing the pseudoscientific article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.

Contents

Background

In an interview on the National Public Radio program All Things Considered, New York University Prof. Alan Sokal said he was inspired to conduct his 1996 intellectual rigor experiment after reading Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (1994), by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. In that book, the two report an anti-intellectual trend in university liberal arts departments (especially English departments) to become dominated by a “trendy” branch of post-modernist deconstructionism.

Higher Superstition reports that in the 1990s, the academic left-wing was dominated by professors concentrating upon racism, sexism, and other prejudices. Science was among the targets of this criticism that provoked the Science Wars questioning the validity of scientific objectivity. Academic humanities journals were publishing articles by extremely critical writers who, scientists argued, demonstrated little or no knowledge of the science criticized. Per the Introduction: “A curious fact about the recent left-critique of science is the degree to which its instigators have overcome their former timidity, of indifference towards the subject, not by studying it in detail, but rather by creating a repertoire of rationalizations for avoiding such study.”[4]

Some within the sciences argued, after analyzing essays from the academic left wing, that some of these critical writers were ignorant of the (original) scientific documents they were criticizing, and therefore making a series of nonsense statements about the nature and intent of science. Gross and Levitt found it especially troubling that academic journals were not judging the intellectual integrity of the scholarship by means of peer review, but merely judging it by its political tilt. Higher Superstition reports that for an article to be published in some academic journals, especially a humanities article, it need only to display “the proper leftist thought” and to be written by — or to quote — well-known leftist authors.[citation needed]

Thus Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science was an attempt to challenge purportedly uncritical subjectivist thought, the intellectual rigor of which went uncriticized in its fields. Moreover, the book served as an argument from scientists that the Science Wars were primarily fought by laymen, by non-scientists, publishing contentious claims about the dubiousness of scientific objectivity.

The article

Prof. Sokal’s intellectual rigor experiment tested Gross and Levitt’s Higher Superstition proposals by publishing a pseudoscientific article in Social Text, a prime academic journal specialising in deconstruction. If his presumption of editorial intellectual laziness were correct, the (nonsensical) content of the article would be irrelevant to whether or not the editors would publish it; what would matter would be ideologic obsequiousness, fawning references to deconstructionist writers, and sufficient quantities of feminist and socialist thought.

Sokal wrote “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, an article proposing that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, and that the “morphogenetic field” (a New Age concept by Rupert Sheldrake) could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity. He concluded that, since “physical reality” is, at bottom, a social and linguistic construct, a “liberatory science” and an “emancipatory mathematics”, spurning “the elite caste canon of ‘high science’ ”, must be established for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.”

Prof. 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 “real scientist”, physicist Alan Sokal. Later, after Sokal’s self-exposure of his pseudoscientific hoax article in the journal Lingua Franca, the Social Text editors defended themselves by claiming that they had had concerns about the quality of the writing, and had requested editorial changes that Prof. Sokal refused to make. Nonetheless, despite considering the physicist an exemplar “difficult, uncooperative author”, and noting that such writers were “well known to journal editors”, Social Text published “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the May 1996 Spring/Summer “Science Wars” issue.[3] Moreover, the article’s footnotes contain obvious (to mathematicians) jokes, such as:

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.

The consequences

In the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, in the article “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies”, Prof. Sokal revealed that his article “Transgressing the Boundaries” was a parody and a hoax, and concluded that Social Text, as an academic journal, ignored intellectual rigor and “felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject.” [5] In their defense, the Social Text editors said they believed that “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, “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.”[6] Besides criticizing his writing style, the Social Text editors accused Prof. Sokal of behaving unethically in deceiving them.

In response, Sokal said that their response illustrated the problem he highlighted: as an academic journal, Social Text published the article not because it was faithful, true, and accurate to its quantum gravity subject, but because an “Academic Authority” had written it, and because of the appearance of the obscure writing. The editors admitted that was true; they said they considered it a poorly-written article, but published it because they felt Sokal was an academic seeking their intellectual affirmation.

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. [The] sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counterproductive.
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Intellectual impostures

In 1997, Prof. Sokal and Jean Bricmont co-wrote Impostures Intellectuelles (US: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, UK: Intellectual Impostures, 1998). The book featured analysis of writing extracts from established intellectuals that contained blatant abuses of 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.

In the article “Experiments with Interactional Expertise”, published in 2006 in Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A, the social scientist Harry Collins reported a quantitative experiment to determine if he could successfully pose as a physicist.[7] Based on short questions and answers, not every physicist could distinguish his social science writings from those of real physicists.

Science war commentary

In spring of 1997, the postmodern philosopher Fred Newman responded to the Sokal Affair publishing hoax in the paper “Science Can Do Better than Sokal: A commentary on the So-called Science Wars”, which he presented at the Postmodernism and the Social Sciences conference at the New School for Social Research; Prof. Alan Sokal was a participant. Newman calls for the union of science and postmodernism — proposing that postmodernism is not a critique of science, per se, but of the inappropriate application of the scientific paradigm to psychology.

In context

Stephen Hilgartner, the Cornell University science and technologies department chairman, wrote “The Sokal Affair in Context” (1997)[8] comparing Prof. Sokal’s parody-article hoax to “Confirmational Response: Bias Among Social Work Journals” (1990), an article published in Science, Technology, & Human Values that reported an experiment by William M. Epstein.[9] He formulated an intellectual-bias hypothesis, tested 146 social work journals, used two versions of the report (one positive, one negative), randomly assigned a version to each journal (74 positive, 72 negative), and performed statistical and qualitative analysis of the results. For not obtaining the informed consent of his experimental subjects, Epstein was accused of unethical behavior; an academic ethics panel investigated him, he encountered great difficulty in being published, and he received little publicity.

In contrast, “Sokal’s Hoax”, an intellectual rigor experiment, was not science, yet effected a greater academic and public impact. Hilgartner said that the intellectual impact of the successful Sokal hoax cannot be attributed to its quality as a “demonstration”, but to journalistic hyperbole and the anti-intellectual biases of some American journalists.

In public

The Sokal Affair scandal extended from academia to the public press. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, criticized in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (1998), described the scandal as a “tempest in a tea cup”. The mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg wrote essays meant to discredit the claims of Sokal and his allies,[10] arguing that Sokal and allies insufficiently grasped the philosophy they are criticizing, hence rendering their criticism meaningless. In the Social Studies of Science journal, Bricmont and Sokal responded to Stolzenberg,[11] denouncing his “tendentious misrepresentations” of their work, and criticizing Stolzenberg’s commentary about the Strong programme. In the same issue, Stolzenberg replied, arguing that their critique and allegations of misrepresentation were based upon misreadings. He advised readers to slowly and skeptically examine the arguments proposed by each party, bearing in mind the dictum that “the obvious is sometimes the enemy of the true”.[12]

Peer review

The controversial Sokal Affair parody-article hoax compelled Social Text magazine to establish an article peer review process. In 1996, the magazine did not practice peer review fact-checking; the editors believed that an editorial open policy would stimulate more original, less conventional, research.[3] The editors argued that, in said context, Prof. Alan Sokal’s article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, was a fraudulent betrayal of their trust. Moreover, they further argued that scientific peer review does not necessarily detect intellectual fraud, viz. the later Schön scandal (2002), the Bogdanov Affair (2002), and other instances of published poor science.

The Sokal Affair has been compared with Noam Chomsky's 1959 review of B. F. Skinner's 1957 book Verbal Behavior. One article in The Analysis of Verbal Behavior titled "An Underdiscussed Aspect of Chomsky (1959)"[13] cited multiple instances where Chomsky did not accurately represent the work of Skinner and others in his review. It was concluded in the article that, as in the Sokal affair, its reviewers published the paper not on its merits as a review but because of a shared anti-behaviorist view.

Similar scandals

See also

References

Notes

  1. ^ Sokal, Alan (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html. Retrieved April 3, 2007. 
  2. ^ Sokal, Alan (1994-11-28, revised 1995-05-13, published May 1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996). Duke University Press. pp. 217–252. http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html. Retrieved April 3, 2007. 
  3. ^ a b c Bruce Robbins; Andrew Ross (July 1996). "Mystery science theater". Lingua Franca. http://linguafranca.mirror.theinfo.org/9607/mst.html. 
  4. ^ Higher Supersitition, pg. 6.
  5. ^ Sokal, Alan (May/June 1886), "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies", Lingua Franca: 2, http://www.ee.bgu.ac.il/~censor/katz-directory/01-07-17sokal-lingua-franca-experiment.pdf, retrieved 27 January 2010 
  6. ^ Andrew Ross , "A discussion of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction", 24 May 1996
  7. ^ Harry Collins et al. (December 2006). "Experiments with interactional expertise". Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 37 (4): 656–674. doi:10.1016/j.shpsa.2006.09.005.  See also
  8. ^ Stephen Hilgartner (Autumn 1997). "The Sokal Affair in Context". Science, Technology, & Human Values 22 (4): 506–522. doi:10.1177/016224399702200404. 
  9. ^ William M. Epstein (1990). "Confirmational response bias among social work journals". Science, Technology, & Human Values 15 (1): 9–38. doi:10.1177/016224399001500102. 
  10. ^ Gabriel Stolzenberg, "Debunk: Expose as a Sham or False"
  11. ^ "Reply to Gabriel Stolzenberg", Social Studies of Science
  12. ^ http://math.bu.edu/people/nk/rr/reply_to_bs.pdf
  13. ^ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2774611/pdf/anvb-23-01-29.pdf

Bibliography

  • Gross, Paul R. and Levitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8018-4766-4
  • Ross, Andrew, ed. Science Wars. Duke University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8223-1881-4.
  • Sokal, Alan D. and Bricmont, Jean. Impostures Intellectuelles. Editions Odile Jacob, 1997.
  • Sokal, Alan D. and Bricmont, Jean. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. Picador USA: New York, 1998. ISBN 0-312-19545-1
  • Editors of Lingua Franca. The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy. University of Nebraska Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8032-7995-7
  • Callon, Michel 1999 "Whose Impostures? Physicists at War with the Third Person", Social Studies of Science 29(2): 261-86.

External links


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