Sokal Hoax - 'A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies' by Alan Sokal

Sokal Hoax - 'A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies' by Alan Sokal

Physicist Alan Sokal reveals the motivations behind his infamous 'Sokal hoax' article - an experiment after becoming frustrated with what he saw as the abuses of science and mathematics by writers and academics under the umbrella of 'cultural studies/poststructuralism/postmodernism'.

The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is -- second only to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.
-- Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism (1990)

For some years I've been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I'm a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Interested readers can find my article, ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,'' in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text. It appears in a special number of the magazine devoted to the ``Science Wars.''

What's going on here? Could the editors reallynot have realized that my article was written as a parody?

In the first paragraph I deride ``the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook'':

that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

Is it now dogma in Cultural Studies that there exists no external world? Or that there exists an external world but science obtains no knowledge of it?

In the second paragraph I declare, without the slightest evidence or argument, that ``physical `reality' [note the scare quotes] ... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.'' Not our theoriesof physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough: anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

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.

Later in the article I propose that the axiom of equality in mathematical set theory is somehow analogous to the homonymous concept in feminist politics. In reality, all the axiom of equality states is that two sets are identical if and only if they have the same elements. Even readers without mathematical training might well be suspicious of the claim that the axiom of equality reflects set theory's ``nineteenth-century liberal origins.''

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.

The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the ``reasoning'' adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity -- the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter -- has profound politicalimplications (which, of course, are ``progressive''). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with ``postmodernist epistemology.'' Next, I assemble a pastiche -- Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity -- held together by vague rhetoric about ``nonlinearity'', ``flux'' and ``interconnectedness.'' Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that ``postmodern science'' has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.

In its concluding passages, my article becomes especially egregious. Having abolished reality as a constraint on science, I go on to suggest (once again without argument) that science, in order to be ``liberatory,'' must be subordinated to political strategies. I finish the article by observing that ``a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics.'' We can see hints of an ``emancipatory mathematics,'' I suggest, ``in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.'' I add that ``catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis.'' It's understandable that the editors of Social Text were unable to evaluate critically the technical aspects of my article (which is exactly why they should have consulted a scientist). What's more surprising is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article's overall illogic.

Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Textraises important questions that no scientist should ignore -- questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.

In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There isa real world; its properties are notmerely social constructions; facts and evidence domatter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths -- the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.

Social Text's acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory -- meaning postmodernist literarytheory -- carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn't bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and ``text,'' then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and ``language games,'' then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.

Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful -- not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many ``progressive'' or ``leftist'' academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about ``the social construction of reality'' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Textliked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ``the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.'' They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.

Of course, I'm not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust. But it is important to understand exactly what I did. My article is a theoretical essay based entirely on publicly available sources, all of which I have meticulously footnoted. All works cited are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. Now, it's true that the author doesn't believe his own argument. But why should that matter? The editors' duty as scholars is to judge the validity and interest of ideas, without regard for their provenance. (That is why many scholarly journals practice blind refereeing.) If the Social Texteditors find my arguments convincing, then why should they be disconcerted simply because I don't? Or are they more deferent to the so-called ``cultural authority of technoscience'' than they would care to admit?

In the end, I resorted to parody for a simple pragmatic reason. The targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside. In such a situation, a more direct demonstration of the subculture's intellectual standards was required. But how can one show that the emperor has no clothes? Satire is by far the best weapon; and the blow that can't be brushed off is the one that's self-inflicted. I offered the Social Texteditors an opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual rigor. Did they meet the test? I don't think so.

I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I'm a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua). On nearly all practical political issues -- including many concerning science and technology -- I'm on the same side as the Social Texteditors. But I'm a leftist (and feminist) becauseof evidence and logic, not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?

And why should self-indulgent nonsense -- whatever its professed political orientation -- be lauded as the height of scholarly achievement?

Alan Sokal is a Professor of Physics at New York University. He is co-author with Roberto Fernández and Jürg Fröhlich of Random Walks, Critical Phenomena, and Triviality in Quantum Field Theory(Springer, 1992), and co-author with Jean Bricmont of the forthcoming Les impostures scientifiques des philosophes (post-)modernes.

Adapted for libcom.org from: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html. [accessed 30 Dec 2008]

SIDEBAR: excerpt from original article, ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,'' in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text
"Thus, general relativity forces upon us radically new and counterintuitive notions of space, time and causality; so it is not surprising that it has had a profound impact not only on the natural sciences but also on philosophy, literary criticism, and the human sciences. For example, in a celebrated symposium three decades ago on Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l'Homme, Jean Hyppolite raised an incisive question about Jacques Derrida's theory of structure and sign in scientific discourse ... Derrida's perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability--it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something--of a center starting from which an observer could master the field--but the very concept of the game ...

In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation Gμν = 8πTμν tex2html_wrap_inline112 under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group ``acts transitively'': this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the tex2html_wrap_inline114 of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone. "

Comments

Steven.
Jan 5 2009 15:51

This is brilliant! I heard about this, but not read about it in detail. Very funny (but also unfortunately serious) stuff.

rsk
Jan 5 2009 17:15

It is interesting and funny. However it does not prove anything but laziness of editors of Social text in 90s. Social reality is indeed socially constructed. Class is socially constructed as well as nation is. That does not mean that there is no objective physical reality.
I think that this (copied from wikipedia) is important:
Anthropologist 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." Mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg, however, has written a number of essays with the stated purpose of debunking the claims made by Sokal and his allies[7]. He argues that Sokal and company do not possess a sufficient understanding of the philosophical positions that they criticize and that this lack of understanding renders their criticisms meaningless

Joseph Kay
Jan 5 2009 17:21

that's a pretty standard defence of nonsense though. christian theologists claim dawkins 'doesn't really understand' christianity, so shouldn't criticise it. homeopaths claim double-blind RCTs 'misunderstand the mode of action' for homeopathy and so can't measure its effects. if a prominent pomo journal's editorial board can't tell the difference between 'real' pomo and parody, the odds are bullshit's afoot.

i mean i don't rule out the idea that aspects of postmodernist theory could offer insights in areas like literary criticism and the like. but when you get into epistemelogical relativism, the reduction of science to 'just another narrative' (as some people have argued on here) - that way nonsense lies.

rsk
Jan 5 2009 17:28

The problem is misrepresenting. If A does not understand what B says and he criticizes it, he does not in fact criticize what B said but what he thinks that B said. So If Sokal does not understand social constructionism and he misrepresents what social constructionism is about how he can say it is bullshit? He does not criticize social constructionism but somethin completely different (ie. what he thinks that social contructionism is about and not what it really is).

Joseph Kay
Jan 5 2009 17:33

social construction is a sensible approach to epistemelogy, since knowledge is necessarily socially constituted. it's a mental, idealist approach to ontology. the former would lead to criticisms of the interpretation of data etc which may well expose methodological flaws or biases and unwarranted assumptions. such rational criticism is a part of normal scientific practice. the latter is often espoused on the left, usually because of the naturalistic fallacy and a consequent fear that scientific findings might result in reactionary politics. we've had a poster on here claiming his grandad might not have existed grin

Choccy
Jan 5 2009 18:07

I think you're actually misrepresneting the positions of Sokal here Rsk

Sokal and Bricmont in 'Intellectual Impostures' actually make explicit that they are not tackling 'poststructuralism/postmodernism' per-se. They make clear that they very much welcome criticisms of science, but in the book which elaborates on the motivations behind the Hoax and takes on 'postmodernist' writers themselves, they focus on what they see as the abuse of science by such writers.

Lacan, Kristeva etc taking complex mathematical & scientific concepts and using them in their discussion of social/political phenomena without any apparent justification, frankly obscuring discourse while doing violence to both the sciences and the humanities.

They stay away from the philosophical positions of such writers because as they admit themselves, they are just physicists. Where they do take them to task is on the nonsense they talk about very complex things, and in the case of say Kristeva where she presents it as if people should 'just know' what she is talking about - even mathematicians/physicists wouldn't do that while supposedly engaging with the public.

I think one things that actually strikes me from Sokal's writing is actually his pragmatism and humility, something sorely lacking in those he's discussing.

rsk
Jan 5 2009 18:07

Dont understand you smile But when reading Sokals article I am pretty sure he does not understand social constructionism.

Choccy
Jan 5 2009 18:24

I'd add that the same criticisms are made by Chomsky - these are not thickos that do not understand, or are they?

Both Sokal and Chomsky make the point with regards their apparent inability to dicipher some of what passes for intellectual discourse in poststructuralism/postmodernism, two possibilities:
- either they are stupid and don't understand it
- or it's not meant to be understood

Sokal goes out of his way to quote, from primary texts, their use of mathematics/science and makes the point that even where they show a rudimentary understanding of the concepts, their application to social/political phenomena his wholely unjustified.

The irony being, that scientists arew often villified as reductionist when using mathematical/scientific concepts in the understanding of human social affairs.
It's like the irony of biblical literalists invoking the language of academic freedom and postmodern relativism to try and get a 'fair' hgearing in public discourse.

rsk
Jan 5 2009 18:40

Well I never read Lacan or Kristeva so let him critisize them. I could agree that they speak in language which is not understandable. I was reacting on his article, I have not read Sokals book. But for example in his article he states:

"Theorizing about ``the social construction of reality'' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming."

Wrong. Well it can still help us understand how it is that certain people can still deny that aids or global warming exists . How is their realit constructed, their reality in which it is absolutly certain that AIDS and man made climate change is a lie. It can help us understand how the nation is constructed therfore how to fight nationalism or stop it from beiing constructed. And it can help us learn how to construct class to fight our class enemies. Of course class might described objectively. But how is it can become "class in itself"?

"scientists arew often villified as reductionist when using mathematical/scientific concepts in the understanding of human social affairs."

Of course they are reductionist!! And there is nothing wrong with this. You have to reduce to describe reality you cannot describe infinity completely. That is why you cannot be objective. You have to choose concepts with which you are gonna describe the reality. You have to chose categories in which you are gonna sort and then you will look what influences what. This chosing will be subjective. As a leftie I would probably use the concept of class. But not everyone is gonna do this so he will end up with different description. In a laboratory you can control all variables and concentrate on lets say "how temperature influences cubature of same fluid". Well in a society you CANNOT control all the variables.

Choccy
Jan 10 2009 02:57

Have you read the allied book 'Intellectual Impostures' Rsk?
Sokal and Bricmont don't deny anything liek the claims you're making, such as the social construction of class - that's got literally nothing to do with either the Hoax article or their book. In fact it could be said that the abuse of maths/science in attempts to understand social phenomena actually obscures any attempt to understand their social construction, buy impressing laws and equations upon them.

They tackle the completely unjustified obscurantist application of maths/science to social phenomena. Sokal's main motivation was reading Gross/Levitt's 'Higher Superstition: academic left and its quarrels with science'. He was like 'woah, hang on, i'm a physicist AND i'm a lefty, there is no quarrel, what are these guys talking about?'.
Once he dug a bit deeper he found a plethora of left academics talking utter shite about science and maths and blatantly abusing it under the veil of academic discourse.

Joseph Kay
Jan 5 2009 18:49

if this was aimed at me as well as/instead of conor...

rsk wrote:
Dont understand you tongue But when reading Sokals article I am pretty sure he does not understand social constructionism.

sorry, i've done a pomo. maybe i should get tenure in obscurity studies tongue i apologise; i'll explain in plain english.

social construction makes sense discussing human knowledge(s) (epistemology), because knowledge is necessarily a product of social practice (experiences, story-telling, experiments etc). this would include knowledge of reality - how we verify it, how we know what we know, the way such knowledge is mediated by social norms, ideology etc.

it doesn't make sense for understanding reality itself (ontology), because this reality exists independently of society. this is what Sokal's suggestion people 'transgress the social norm of gravity' from his 21st floor window is referring to.

Choccy
Jan 5 2009 18:52
rsk wrote:
Of course they are reductionist!! And there is nothing wrong with this. You have to reduce to describe reality you cannot describe infinity completely. That is why you cannot be objective. You have to choose concepts with which you are gonna describe the reality. You have to chose categories in which you are gonna sort and then you will look what influences what. This chosing will be subjective. As a leftie I would probably use the concept of class. But not everyone is gonna do this so he will end up with different description. In a laboratory you can control all variables and concentrate on lets say "how temperature influences cubature of same fluid". Well in a society you CANNOT control all the variables.

Exactly, so why do the likes of Kristeva, Lacan etc go to such pains to apply extremely complex mathematics to social/political phenomena without any apparent justification?

Seriously, read Intellectual Impostures - you'll find it stunning just how mad some of it is smile

rsk wrote:
choccy wrote:
"Theorizing about ``the social construction of reality'' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming."

Wrong. Well it can still help us understand how it is that certain people can still deny that aids or global warming exists . How is their realit constructed, their reality in which it is absolutly certain that AIDS and man made climate change is a lie. It can help us understand how the nation is constructed therfore how to fight nationalism or stop it from beiing constructed.

Well I think what Sokal is referring to in fairness in that case is, as JoeK alludes to, the ontological question of reality.

In the question of HIV denial, it's not so much that these people are relativists, although undoubtedly that would have an effect, but rather that they have an disgustingly irresponsible and piss-poor understanding of the relevant science, impacted often by all sorts of social factors. Sometimes people are just woefully ignorant or wrong, there doesn't always have to be a grand ontological scheme behind their view, they can just be stupid, sometimes.

Joseph Kay
Jan 5 2009 18:55
rsk wrote:
"Theorizing about ``the social construction of reality'' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming."

Wrong. Well it can still help us understand how it is that certain people can still deny that aids or global warming exists . How is their realit constructed, their reality in which it is absolutly certain that AIDS and man made climate change is a lie.

see this isn't a question about reality itself, but of knowledge/ideology. AIDS kills you whether you believe in it or not - like Christine Maggiore. reality exists independent of subjective interpretation/understanding/belief.

petey
Jan 5 2009 19:54
Quote:
I think one things that actually strikes me from Sokal's writing is actually his pragmatism and humility, something sorely lacking in those he's discussing.

spot-on. i remember the editor's reaction to sokal's piece in social text (the other one conor has posted today): instead of apologizing for his slackness, he hit the roof and blamed sokal entirely for the editor's own fuckup: sokal was irresponsible for submitting such a thing etc etc.

Choccy
Jan 5 2009 23:23

Fuck I read that Christine Maggiore stuff yesterday, mental. What happened to her kid was beyond tragic.

Choccy
Jan 5 2010 13:47

wee recent interview with Sokal in Philosophers' Magazine