What An Affair

What is the scientific world coming to? Is the educated community becoming a “secular priesthood”(Sokal Transgressing) of authorities maintaining and controlling the paths of the scientific world? Who or what determines where science goes: war, society, mass media? Alan Sokal, a physicist teacher from NYU, tried an experiment to show how some very smart people do some incredibly sloppy thinking. Writing an essay suggesting a link in quantum mechanics and postmodernism, Sokal was able to cause a heated debate among institutions of cultural studies that is still ongoing.

The document entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was published in the spring of 1996. Being a hoax, he wanted to see if: “a leading North American journal of cultural studies . . . would publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”(Kimball). He believed that the editors would have known right from the beginning that his paper was a swindle.

He tells how he did this. Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously. For example, I suggest that the “morphogenetic field” — a bizarre New Age idea due to Rupert Sheldrake — constitutes a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity. This connection is pure invention; even Sheldrake makes no such claim. I assert that Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations have been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory.

Even nonscientist readers might well wonder what in heavens’ name quantum field theory has to do with psychoanalysis; certainly my article gives no reasoned argument to support such a link. In sum, I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject. Carroll) Sokal’s main objective was not to target the journal for mockery but to identify the “apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities”(Sokal Experiment).

Sokal set up his paper so the reader could clearly see it was a parody if they just looked into it a bit. After he announced the hoax he pulled off he goes into more detail how he wrote it. The paper was based on quotations that he had found written by scholarly people.

Each one was very silly in nature and therefore he needed to only connect and praise them. He did this by “advocating an incoherent mishmash of trendy ideas — deconstructive literary theory, New Age ecology, so-called “feminist epistemology”, extreme social-constructivist philosophy of science, even Lacanian psychoanalysis” (Sokal Afterword). Sokal uses abstrack ideas in his paper in order to add to the humor of the paper. Sokal also talks about reading scholarly journals of scientist who wrote page after page on things they are still confused on.

Sokal formed his own opinion. Bruno Latour’s semiotic analysis of the theory of relativity, published in Social Studies of Science, in which “Einstein’s text is read as a contribution to the sociology of delegation” … Latour has produced 40 pages of comical misunderstandings of a theory that is nowadays routinely taught to intelligent college freshmen, and Social Studies of Science found it a worthy scholarly contribution. You can start to see what fueled Sokal’s drive to pull off this hoax.

Reading publications like this with people talking nonsense about his field of work sure lit the fire. His paper also illustrated the play on words that the writers use. More specifically, “confusing truth with claims of truth, fact with assertions of fact, and knowledge with pretensions to knowledge”(Sokal Plea). Different levels of analysis could be used. Sokal explains this topic by using an example of a man running from a theater. He begins to explain that we see a man running from a theater screaming there are a herd of elephants in the theater.

Now we don’t know if there are really elephants in the theater until we look for ourselves. If we see such clues that there were elephants in the room then we would call the zookeepers. If we don’t see any sign that there were elephants in the room then we assume that the man suffered from a psychosis and imagined it (Sokal Plea). Sokal uses this example to explain the “First Rule of Interpretation of Postmodern Academic Writing — no sentence means what it says”(Sokal Plea). We can see how Sokal uses this in his essay in the second from last paragraph.

The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist and ecological critiques”(Sokal Transgressing). Now how silly does it sound to ‘incorporate the insights of the queer and feminist’ into the teaching of math and science? Math and science don’t have a side to them that is queer. Scholarly journals are publishing the writings of credential people with very little review of their work.

As Sokal pointed out in his explanation of the parody: It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty, by publishing an article on quantum physics that they admit they could not understand, without bothering to get an opinion from anyone knowledgeable in quantum physics, solely because it came from a ”conveniently credentialed ally”…(Sokal Prove) Sokal is just trying to point out the faults in the system. New York Times writer Stanley Fish sees the same idea. Scholars with impeccable credentials making statements no sane person could credit (Fish).

These scientists can make statements and no one will check them. Steve Weinberg, Nobel Prize in Physics and the National Medal of Science, points out “part of Sokal’s hoax was in his description of developments in physics. Much of it was quite accurate, but it was heavily adulterated with howlers, most of which would have been detected by any undergraduate physics major”(- 5 -Weinberg). Now one could argue about the ‘trust’ that is put into scholars works.

As Fish explains there must be faith taken when colleagues share information. “All work is not able to start from scratch so when one researcher is dependent on another faith plays a role in that colleague”(Fish). As editor of a leading journal you need to take some precautions. The idea of a hoax should always be on their mind. You can relate it to the idea of a young boy getting on the front cover of a major newspaper. The newspaper editors pay attention for people playing tricks to get in the paper.

The editors have to protect their journal, not only from a hoax but any other such concerns that can go on. Looking back on an incident it is clear to see where mistakes are made. Social Text made many mistakes when publishing Sokal’s essay. First of all they published something they didn’t understand. The editors admitted that the physics was Greek to them. Second, they had no respect for Sokal which editor Bruce Robbins says,“From the first, we considered Sokal’s unsolicited article to be a little hokey … His adventures in PostmodernLand were not really our cup of tea”.

The next mistake was publishing the article for political reasons. Again Robbins explains, “We thought it argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy”. One of the final mistakes they made was giving in to Sokal’s resistance of their input to improve on his publication. Editors Robbins and Ross advise Sokal to: “a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and b) to excise most of his footnotes”. (Rosen) In a letter to the editor of the Social Text Sokal reveals his disgust in the way science evolves.

His intentions of the essay was a test of “cultural studies of science”, to see if they were lacking “intellectual standards”(Sokal). According to Professor Paul Boghossian: Social Text is a political magazine in a deeper and more radical sense: under appropriate circumstances, it is prepared to let agreement with its ideological orientation trump every other criterion for publication, including something as basic as sheer intelligibility. Boghossian knows the fact the editors could not understand Sokal’s essay yet it still passed.

He also points out exactly why they would do this. The prospect of being able to display in their pages a natural scientist — a physicist, no less — throwing the full weight of his authority behind their cause was compelling enough for them to overlook the fact that they didn’t have much of a clue exactly what sort of support they were being offered. Sokal knew all this, he points out ”scientific research is increasingly funded by private corporations that have a financial interest in particular outcomes of that research”(Sokal Plea).

He makes the point that there needs to be objectivity to research and not guided by fact that “universities are more interested in patent royalties than in the open sharing of scientific information”(Sokal Plea). Sokal had big intentions with his essay. By duping the Social Text, he made it very clear what it all meant. He knew that publications like this journal had political ties in a round about way. Scientists with all of the credentials are apart of a “secular priesthood… maintaining a monopoly on the production of scientific knowledge”(Sokal Transgressing). Sokal’s essay worked just as he planned it.


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