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Sokal Affair

From Academic Kids

The Sokal Affair was a famous hoax played by physicist Alan Sokal upon the editorial staff and readership of a leading journal in the academic humanities, in 1996. Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted a pseudoscientific paper for publication in a postmodern cultural studies journal, as an experiment to see if a humanities journal would, in Sokal's words: "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."

The paper, titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," [1] (http://www.physics.nyu.edu/~as2/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html) was published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text, without any review from a qualified physicist. On the same day of its publication, Sokal announced in another publication, Lingua Franca, that the article was a hoax.

The expose caused an academic scandal for Duke University, where Social Text is published. Sokal called his paper "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense", which was "structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics" made by humanities academics.

Contents

Claims in the paper

Arguing that quantum theory has progressive political implications, the paper claims the New Age concept of the morphogenetic field could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity and concludes that since "physical 'reality' ... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct", a "liberatory science" and "emancipatory mathematics" must be developed that spurn "the elite caste['s] canon of 'high science'" for a "postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project".

Footnotes contain more obvious jokes, like the one which comments "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."

Noting that such concepts are blatantly absurd, Sokal thus concluded the journal ignored intellectual rigor and "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject."

Fallout

In their defense, the editors of Social Text stated that they believed that the article "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." They charged Sokal with unethical behavior and suggested they only published the article as it was because Sokal refused to make changes they suggested and it was of relevance to a special issue they happened to be preparing.

Sokal argued that this was the whole point: the journal published articles not on the basis of whether they were correct or made sense, but simply because of who wrote them and how they sounded. "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."

In an interview (http://zpedia.org/Physics_Professor_Parodies_Linguistic_Absurdities) with National Public Radio's All Things Considered Alan Sokal said that he was prompted to conduct his "experiment" after reading Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science.

In 1998, Sokal co-authored Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (known outside the US as Intellectual Impostures) with Jean Bricmont. The book contains a long list of extracts of writings from well-known intellectuals containing what Sokal and Bricmont allege are blatant abuses of scientific terminology. Finally, Sokal and Bricmont give a hostile summary of postmodernism and finish by criticizing the strong program of social constructionism in the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Although the affair spilled out of academia and into the mainstream press, it has since faded and did not lead to any major changes or rethinking in "postmodernism" (a somewhat complicated grouping used by Sokal, et al, for a number of different philosophical points of view). Postmodernists claim that although they are open to constructive criticism, Sokal lacks a basic understanding of their field and so in their view many of his objections are incoherent and useless. Sociologist of science Bruno Latour, one of those singled out by Sokal in his later book, has described the whole affair as a "tempest in a tea cup." Defenders of Sokal have responded that postmodernists have a vested interest in denying the validity of his criticisms, which could not be accepted without serious harm to many careers and incomes.

The controversy also had implications for peer review. Social Text had dispensed with peer review, hoping that this would promote more original, less conventional research, and trusted authors of prospective articles to guarantee the academic integrity of their work. Social Text's editors argue that, in this context, Sokal's work constituted a deliberate fraud and betrayal of that trust. They further note that scientific peer review does not necessarily detect fraud either, in light of the later Schn scandal, and many other instances in the history of science.

A recent event which has been compared to the Sokal affair was when a computer-generated article was accepted for presentation of the 2005 World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI), when the conference announced the prank article's acceptance before it had received comments from any of the article's three assigned reviewers. The authors of the computer-generated article, three MIT graduate students, said they were unaware of the Sokal hoax until after they had submitted the article.

References

See also

External links

de:Sokal-Affre pl:Sokal hoax zh:索卡事件

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