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Commentators reexamine physicist Alan Sokal’s purposeful 1996 parody paper

26 January 2017

“Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” still packs a sly punch.

New York University physicist Alan Sokal’s name will always be connected to his 1996 hoax academic paper. Credit: Sokal

New York University physicist Alan Sokal’s name will always be connected to his 1996 hoax academic paper. Credit: Sokal

The organization Improbable Research explains that its Ig Nobel Prize honors achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think. Following a recent retrospective article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the organization posted its own reminiscence about the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature. It went to the “editors of the journal Social Text, for eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless, and which claimed that reality does not exist.”

The Chronicle’s retrospective, “How the physicist Alan Sokal hoodwinked a group of humanists and why, 20 years later, it still matters,” joined a few other publications in looking back at the hoodwinking. The Chronicle’s collection of oral-history observations opened this way:

At first, no one noticed. When the left-wing cultural-studies journal Social Text released a special issue on “The Science Wars” in April 1996, the last article stood out only because of its source: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was written by the sole scientist in the bunch, a New York University physicist named Alan Sokal.

Liberally citing work by feminist epistemologists, philosophers of science, and critical theorists … Sokal endorsed the notion that scientists had no special claim to scientific knowledge. Just as postmodern theory revealed that so-called facts about the physical world were mere social or political constructs, he wrote, quantum gravity undermined the concept of existence itself, making way for a “liberatory science” and “emancipatory mathematics.”

A couple of weeks later, in the magazine Lingua Franca, Sokal revealed that he didn’t believe a word of what he’d written. It was all a big joke, but one motivated by a serious intention: to expose the sloppiness, absurd relativism, and intellectual arrogance of “certain precincts of the academic humanities.” His beef was political, too: He feared that by tossing aside their centuries-old promotion of scientific rationality, progressives were eroding their ability to speak truth to power.

The Sokal affair

Back in 1996, Sokal’s parody began by charging that physicists in particular “cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook.” This imposed dogma, the satirist wrote, holds “that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of” humans and humankind. He emphasized his feigned arguments with disdain-conveying quotation marks to stigmatize key terms: the properties, he explained, are seen “encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws” about which humans “can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge … by hewing to the ‘objective’ procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.”

The paper’s opening then asserted that “deep conceptual shifts” have “undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics” and that it has become “increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality’, no less than social ‘reality’, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” Also apparent is “that scientific ‘knowledge’, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it.” Moreover, “the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential,” such that scientific discourse, “for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.”

On that deliberately ludicrous foundation, Sokal erected a deliberately ludicrous declaration of his purportedly physics-based purpose:

Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step farther, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science—among them, existence itself—become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.

At the end—after pages “liberally salted with nonsense,” as Sokal put it in his Lingua Franca self-exposé—the paper declares that “the fundamental goal of any emancipatory movement must be to demystify and democratize the production of scientific knowledge, to break down the artificial barriers that separate ‘scientists’ from ‘the public.’” It urges that science and math teaching be “purged” of “authoritarian and elitist characteristics.” It proclaims that a “liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics.” It looks forward to math becoming “a concrete tool of progressive political praxis.”

Along with other observers in 1996, newspaper columnist George Will mocked what Sokal had satirized, calling the parody “a hilarious hoax that reveals the gaudy silliness of some academics.” Will pressed the point:

Sokal’s essay was intellectual cotton candy—the mere appearance of nourishment—spun from the patois by which certain charlatans disguise their lack of learning. He laid down a fog about “liberatory” this and “postmodernist” that, “nonlinearity” and “emancipatory mathematics” and “transformative hermeneutics” and the “morphogenic field,” and did not neglect that old reliable, “the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.” All this supposedly pertained to physics.

Still today, physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg’s 1996 Sokal critique, dense with serious physics discussion, merits particular attention. Weinberg criticized physics nonsense from scholars whom Sokal quoted, as Weinberg put it, “with sly mock approval.” English professor Robert Markley “calls quantum theory nonlinear, though it is the only known example of a precisely linear theory.” Two other scholars, including a member of the Academie Francaise, “grossly misrepresent the view of time in modern physics.”

Weinberg summed up that passage with a physicist’s observation not commonly seen in 1996 or now: “Such errors suggest a problem not just in the editing practices of Social Text, but in the standards of a larger intellectual community.” Later in the essay he returned to that phenomenon, proposing that the “gulf of misunderstanding between scientists and other intellectuals seems to be at least as wide as when C. P. Snow worried about it three decades ago.” Weinberg was referring to the first part of a lecture by British physicist and novelist Snow; that part became the article “The two cultures” and later a book. Snow found it deplorable that although physicists often had at least some sense of Shakespeare, humanists often had no idea what’s meant by the phrase Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Lessons learned?

In recent weeks, with commentators offering views on what it all means now, Washington Post editors highlighted two common themes in their choices of headlines for Will’s return to the subject in a retrospective column. Online, they chose “The hilarious hoax that should have taught the academy a lesson.” On paper, they chose “Is higher education beyond satire?” At the Weekly Standard, another commentary carried a headline telegraphing both themes: “Ridicule didn’t work.”

That commentary pointed out that Duke University Press still publishes Social Text, then quoted intellectual historian Wilfred McClay. He marveled but also lamented that concerning the hoax’s implications, humanities scholars weren’t “mortified with embarrassment.” The commentary also presented McClay’s view that the controversy, and the lack of response to it, call to mind a perceived general decline in respect for expert knowledge.

About that decline, the Chronicle of Higher Education quoted Yeshiva University emerita professor of history Ellen Schrecker:

What really bothered me was the inability of Alan Sokal and the other people who were responding to him to realize how this was playing out in the larger world. The hoax was very clever. But then he should have made the broader point about what’s really happening out there. I don’t think that things would have changed if he hadn’t written it, but he didn’t look around him and see that academic expertise was already under attack. Today is the culmination of 40 years of attacks on academic expertise. It’s fine if you want to make fun of deconstruction, but it’s not fine if you make fun of climate change.

At Commentary, Jonathan Marks requotes Schrecker’s concern in the opinion piece “Lessons left unlearned”—plainly in agreement with Will, and with writer and broadcaster Eric Metaxas, and with a Washington Free Beacon piece declaring that the hoax did nothing to halt “the flow of academics” toward what was parodied. Marks writes, “It is nice to see that people are still reflecting on the Sokal affair, but it would be still nicer to think anything had been learned from it.”

For Robert Carle at The Federalist, the hoax calls to mind John Bohannon’s 2013 Science magazine exposé reporting that in an elaborate sting operation, more than 150 open-access journals accepted a fake paper. Bohannon described the paper, which he submitted in slightly varying versions, as intended to be “credible but mundane” and afflicted with “such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable.” He wrote:

Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper’s topic was utterly inappropriate.

Carle could have gone further by citing the December Guardian report “Nonsense paper written by iOS autocomplete accepted for conference: New Zealand professor asked to present his work at US event on nuclear physics despite it containing gibberish all through the copy.” The Guardian’s gibberish examples included this: “The atoms of a better universe will have the right for the same as you are the way we shall have to be a great place for a great time to enjoy the day you are a wonderful person to your great time to take the fun and take a great time and enjoy the great day you will be a wonderful time for your parents and kids.”

That incident figured importantly in a 29 December New York Times analysis by Kevin Carey of the think tank New America. His examination of the growing businesses of academic publication fraud and academic conference fraud—issues unaddressed by Sokal—directly reflected on Sokal’s concern about standards. Carey ended with this:

It’s not surprising that some academics have chosen to give one another permission to accumulate publication credits on their C.V.’s and spend some of the departmental travel budget on short holidays. Nor is it surprising that some canny operators have now realized that when standards are loose to begin with, there are healthy profits to be made in the gray areas of academe.

The Bohannon hoax paper and the fake paper created robotically by Apple’s mobile operating system could call to mind another recent incident, which in turn can call to mind the Sokal hoax: consternation about the paper “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” Feminist glaciology? Lots of ink and electrons got expended discussing that one. Last spring, Fred Siegel at City Journal surmised that despite the obvious urge to see the paper as a “parody worthy of Alan Sokal,” the authors “seem to be in earnest.” And indeed the lead author, Mark Carey of the University of Oregon, told Science:

We chose the title “feminist glaciology” to provoke discussion about who is producing knowledge about glaciers and what the implications of that existing knowledge are, including whose voices are left out and what types of scientific questions are asked (and which ones might thus be ignored). We also wanted to present a variety of different sociocultural forms of glacier knowledge that go beyond science, to generate discussion. Our goal was to ask questions about the role of gender in science and knowledge—to start a conversation, not conclude the discussion.

Whatever is to be said about feminist glaciology, it might be important to quote what Cornell University professor of science and technology studies Stephen Hilgartner told the Chronicle of Higher Education in defense of what Sokal parodied two decades ago:

Sokal simply lumps people together, and these people often share neither intellectual outlook nor research questions, nor disciplinary background, nor the kinds of places they publish. I’m not saying there are not interconnections among these fields, but lumping them together and just calling them postmodernists, relativists, and their fellow travelers is really loose. It gets close to being a kind of academic McCarthyism, and it really is not something that is intellectually or ethically justifiable.

In 1996 and again recently, Weinberg offered summary thoughts about the Sokal hoax. His original critique praised the work as “a great service” in raising important issues “dramatically.” He warned that more was at stake “than just the health of science,” declaring, “We will need to confirm and strengthen the vision of a rationally understandable world to guard us from the irrationalities that still beset humanity.” In the 2017 Chronicle of Higher Education retrospective he contributed this:

We in science are not so naïve that we think that science is done in a vacuum or it’s done in outer space without being affected by the surrounding culture. We just think the final results that we’re aiming toward are culture-free.

People do decide what kind of evidence is relevant, but we’ve learned how to learn about the world, what kind of thing provides a standard of evidence. We may have not fully come to the end of that process, but the process is not something that is dictated by our culture. It is something that is dictated by our interaction with nature.

Steven T. Corneliussen is Physics Today’s media analyst. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA’s history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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