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Sokal Affair

The Sokal Affair refers to a famous hoax played by physicist Alan Sokal on the post-modernest humanities academics world.

In 1996 Professor Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, submitted a deliberately pseudoscientific paper for publication in a post-modernist academic journal of cultural studies. The paper, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,", published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text, was submitted to see if an academic 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."

On the precise day of publication in Social Text, Sokal announced in another journal that the article had, in fact, been a hoax. This caused an academic scandal, both at Duke University (where Social Text is published) and for Sokal himself, as charges of unethical behaviour were levelled, but easily dismissed.

The article contains a number of statements that Sokal stated were "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense." At one stage he asserts that "physical reality is at bottom nothing more than a social and linguistic construct," and at another he proposes that the New Age concept of the morphogenic field actually constitutes a "cutting edge theory of quantum gravity." As further evidence of deliberate fabrications, Sokal also cited his proposition that "the axiom of equality in mathematical set theory is analogous to the homonymous concept in feminist politics."

By his use of parody in statements like 'mathematics has "nineteenth-century liberal origins"' and 'the gravitational constant of Newton is mired in "ineluctable historicity"', Sokal claimed to be demonstrating that some academics will gladly trade intellectual rigour for "what sounds good". He observed that the editors of Social Text "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject."

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 also examined the controversy in the context of academic editorial policies. Most academic journals submit prospective articles to a blind peer-review. This review is meant to ensure quality, but some critics have argued that it has stifled creativity, inhibited diversity, and led to mediocrity. Social Text was founded in part to provide an alternative to this system, by dispensing with peer-review. They hope that this will promote more original and less conventional research, and trust the authors of prospective articles to guarantee the academic integrity of their work. Social Text's editors held that, in this context, Sokal's work constituted a deliberate fraud and betrayal of that trust.

The concluding sentences of their rebuttal, "Should non-experts have anything to say about scientific methodology and epistemology? After centuries of scientific racism, scientific sexism, and scientific domination of nature one might have thought this was a pertinent question to ask," may go far to illuminate the concerns which inform the postmodernist attitude.

In his own counter-rebuttal, which was rejected by the editors of Social Text, Professor Sokal stated "Robbins and Ross say that I 'declined to enter into a publishable dialogue' with them. Quite the contrary: we're having that dialogue right now. What I declined was an oral dialogue, which in my opinion usually yields a low ratio of content to words. Robbins and Ross guess wrong when they say I feel 'threatened' by science-studies scholars. 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[1] with National Public Radio's All Things Considered Alan Sokal said that he was prompted to conduct his hoax (which he called an experiment) after reading Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science.

In 1999, Alan Sokal co-authored Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science 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. The extracts are intentionally rather long, so that Sokal and Bricmont could not be accused of taking sentences out of context; in each instance, explanations are given as to why they consider the usage of scientific terminology to be abusive. Finally, Sokal and Bricmont give a summary of postmodernism and criticize its "strong program".


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