Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Jennifer Ruark: How the physicist Alan Sokal hoodwinked a group of humanists and why, 20 years later, it still matters

Bait and Switch: How the physicist Alan Sokal hoodwinked a group of humanists

An oral history by Jennifer Ruark
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 - including two of Social Text’s editors, the NYU American-studies scholar Andrew Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at CUNY Graduate Center - 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.

Newspapers around the world lapped up the hoax. Conservatives exulted. "Deconstructionists read things like Social Text, which will never again be called a ‘learned journal,’" gloated George F. Will in The Washington Post. The success of the prank appeared to confirm all their suspicions about tenured radicals.

Though it met with stinging rebuttals, Sokal’s critique also prompted a period of soul-searching among scholars, who held campus symposia and churned out their own essays considering the issues it raised. Today, a search for the term "Sokal hoax" on JSTOR turns up scores of references in articles from fields as different as law, literary studies, education, mathematics, and economics. Sokal made something of a second career of his critique, writing two subsequent books on the topic.


Twenty years later, the incident still resonates. Writing in New York magazine in November about the presidential campaign, Jonathan Chait said he first saw Donald Trump "as a living, breathing Sokal hoax on the Republican Party." And as academics grapple with the implications of Trump’s victory, the issues at stake in the hoax take on a renewed urgency. Disagreements over how scholars arrive at truth, how academic expertise is viewed by the public, and the potential excesses of skepticism have only grown more prominent.

In what follows, people close to the events or affected by them reflect on their thinking at the time and what hindsight offers. Their accounts have been edited for clarity.

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ALAN SOKAL: In the spring of 1994, I saw a reference to the book by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. My first thought was, Oh, no, not another one of those right-wing diatribes that tell how the Marxist deconstructionist professors are taking over the universities and brainwashing our children. There had been a whole spate of such books in the early 1990s — Dinesh D’Souza and others.

My second thought was "academic left and its quarrels with science"? I mean, that’s a little weird. I’m an academic leftist. So I decided to read it. I learned about a corner of the academy where people were employing either deconstructionist literary theory or extreme social constructivist sociology of science to make comments about both the content of science and the philosophy of science, often in gross ignorance of the science. The first thing I wanted to do was go to the library and check out the original works that Gross and Levitt were criticizing to see whether they were being fair. I found that in about 80 percent of the cases, in my judgment, they were.

EMILY MARTIN, professor of anthropology, New York University: People kept telling me, "Oh, you know you’re in that book, and they’re on the attack." The tone of the writing was very dismissive and disrespectful, and it kind of stung because science studies was such a new field. It had just been getting going in the late ’80s and ’90s. It was very exciting, and a lot of incredibly interesting work was being done.

SOKAL: I thought, well, I could write an article to add to the Gross and Levitt critique, and it would probably disappear into a black hole. So I had the idea of writing an article that would be both a parody and an admittedly uncontrolled experiment: I would submit the article to a trendy journal and see whether it would be accepted. Writing the parody took maybe two or three months.

Before I submitted it I did show it to a few friends - I tested them blind to see how long it would take them to figure out that it was a parody. The scientists would figure out quickly that either it was a parody or I had gone off my rocker. But I mostly tried it on nonscientist friends, in part to see whether there were any obvious giveaways. I wanted it to not be so obvious.

I was looking for a journal that published articles that were kind of in a similar ideological vein. There are several, and they’re not all the same. But Social Text was kind of in that intellectual sphere.

thanks for submitting your interesting article to social text. the editorial committee is reviewing it, and we hope to get word to you soon. — email to Sokal from Andrew Ross, Feb. 8, 1995

I hope I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself in the section on cultural and political implications. As I said in the cover letter, I’m a total amateur in those areas. Anyway, I look forward to the reviewers’ comments and suggestions. — email to Ross from Sokal, Feb. 8, 1995

That spring, Social Text accepted Sokal’s submission, and on May 15, Sokal sent a final version of the article, with only minor revisions. It would take nearly a year for the article to appear.

SOKAL: I had no idea when this special issue would be published, and the hoax had to be kept secret. During all this time, I studiously found excuses to avoid meeting Andrew Ross, even though his office was one block away from mine at NYU. It’s one thing to write a parody and to dissemble in an email. It’s another to be a good actor, which I’m not.

The small number of people that I had shown it to before it was accepted would come to me and say, "Can I show it to my friend so-and-so, who is a philosopher or who is a historian or who is a sociologist and who would appreciate it," and my answer was always, "Yes, but you have to swear them to secrecy." There was an ever-widening circle of people — that was how I met Barbara Epstein... read more:

see also
The New York Review of Books, Volume XLIII, No. 13, pp 11-15, August 8, 1996
IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.