Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Sokal Affair

In honor of the holiday today, I want to talk a bit about my favorite academic hoax of all time: the Sokal Affair. In 1996, Professor Alan Sokal (a professor of physics at NYU) submitted an article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" to the prominent postmodernist/literary criticism journal Social Text. His goal was to see if a well respected (at least within its own field) academic journal would publish an article whose point was total nonsense simply because it used pretty rhetoric and supported the ideological stance of the editorial board. "Transgressing the Boundaries" is delightfully absurd, containing such gems as:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality'', no less than social "reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.


Thirdly, the postmodern sciences overthrow the static ontological categories and hierarchies characteristic of modernist science. In place of atomism and reductionism, the new sciences stress the dynamic web of relationships between the whole and the part; in place of fixed individual essences (e.g. Newtonian particles), they conceptualize interactions and flows (e.g. quantum fields). Intriguingly, these homologous features arise in numerous seemingly disparate areas of science, from quantum gravity to chaos theory to the biophysics of self-organizing systems. In this way, the postmodern sciences appear to be converging on a new epistemological paradigm, one that may be termed an ecological perspective, broadly understood as "recogniz[ing] the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the embeddedness of individuals and societies in the cyclical patterns of nature.'

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and 'pro-choice', so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

In short, he argued that quantum mechanics have broadly progressive political implications, implications which favor radical feminism and and end to the "caste system in the sciences."

Of course one does not need to be a physicist to recognize that virtually everything in the paper (exemplified by my quotations above) is pure nonsense--Sokal himself thought it so obviously absurd that he was amazed when it was accepted for publication in Social Text's "Science Wars" issue; the idea that quantum mechanics is in some way "a progressive feminist science," for instance, is so bizarre as to boarder on total gibberish. In fact, Sokal even contacted the editorial board of Social Text repeatedly and asked them to read his article carefully and offer any suggestions for improvement or clarification (he said that he was, after all, a scientist writing in a humanities journal, and thus needed all the help he could get). The editors offered no suggestions and no criticism.

On the day the article was to be published, Sokal published another paper, this one in Lingua Franca detailing his hoax and discussing why he perpetrated it. Snip from that article:

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 political implications (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.

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 Text raises 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 is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. 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.

Regular readers will know that I have an ongoing Cold War with proponents of postmodernism and poststructuralism for more or less the same reasons Sokal outlines above: I think that there is a dangerous lack of critical academic standards within the field as a whole and that, as a result, it is far too easy to pass off utter nonsense as serious "philosophy" simply by draping that nonsense in literary allusion and obfuscating rhetoric; because of this, it warms my heart to see an actual academic catch these jokers with their pants down (even if said pantsing happened 10 years ago).

Predictably, there was some backlash to the so-called "Sokal Affair." The editorial board of Social Text complained that their publication (which was not peer-reviewed at the time) was based on a relationship of trust between editors and authors--a relationship which Sokal violated when he submitted an intentionally spurious article. Sokal contended (and rightfully so, I think) that this was precisely his point: the whole business of getting at the truth about reality isn't something that should be based on trust, but rather on careful consideration of the facts. He pointed out that:

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 Text editors 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 Text editors 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 Text editors. But I'm a leftist (and feminist) because of 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?

So, in honor of April Fool's Day, thank you Alan Sokal for using a prank to make the world a slightly more rational place.

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