04 July 2011

The Sokal Hoax at 15

What, you ask, was the Sokal Hoax? [...]New York University physicist Alan Sokal, having read [Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s] Higher Superstition, decided to try an experiment. He painstakingly composed an essay full of (a) flattering references to science-studies scholars such as Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, (b) howler-quality demonstrations of scientific illiteracy, (c) flattering citations of other science-studies scholars who themselves had demonstrated howler-quality scientific illiteracy, (d) questionable-to-insane propositions about the nature of the physical world, (e) snippets of fashionable theoretical jargon from various humanities disciplines, and (f) a bunch of stuff from Bohr and Heisenberg, drawing object lessons from the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics. He then placed a big red bow on the package, titling the essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The result was a very weird essay, a heady mix–and a shot heard ’round the world. For Sokal decided to submit it to the journal Social Text, where it wound up in a special issue edited by Ross and Aronowitz on…the “Science Wars.” Yes, that’s right: Social Text accepted an essay chock-full of nonsense and proceeded to publish it in a special issue that was designed to answer the critics of science studies–especially, but not exclusively, Gross and Levitt. It was more than a great hoax on Sokal’s part; it was also, on the part of Social Text, one of the great own-foot-shootings in the history of self-inflicted injury. 
--Michael Bérubé, Democracy, Winter 2011
Even people who followed the story with some interest and amusement may still be wondering what, exactly, the hoax proved. As one of the editors of Social Text, I freely confess what I think it proved about us: that some scientific ignorance and some absent-mindedness could combine with much enthusiasm for a supposed political ally to produce a case of temporary blindness. It remains to be seen, however, whether our editorial failure is really symptomatic of a larger failure in the beliefs we hold or the movements from which we come, and if so, what it might be symptomatic of. 
--Bruce Robbins, Tikkun, Sept/Oct 1996
As an anthropologist, I suspect Sokal may have misheard the anthropologists. Certainly I would never claim that in point of fact, denial of the European invasion of the Americas and the millions of dead indigenous that resulted, was not true. Having said this, to some degree in order to make a useful point not only iconoclasts throughout history but standard theoretical propositions exaggerate the arguments – in effect, at least partially construct the opposing view. Motivated by the threat of contamination of truth and objective reality, perpetrated in outraged defense of attacks he saw against the nature and intent of science, Sokal drove a nail into the coffin of postmodernism, cultural studies, lit crit, deconstruction, etc. It contributed to, or accelerated, a growing consensus even among social scientists and anthropologists that postmodernism had gone too far. Social commentators and social scientists, in general, replied to the question “Is everything a social construct?” with the short answer, “No”. A longer answer must acknowledge that there is no exact mirror to truth, and that even the hard scientist does construct her/his facsimile, but a continuing dialectic between theory and data takes place to make the reflection sharper and sharper. 
--Jonathan Reynolds, Spike, 4 July 2011

In 1996, I was an undergraduate at NYU, where Alan Sokal was a professor of physics and Andrew Ross, one of the editors of Social Text, was a professor of social and cultural analysis. I never encountered either man, but Sokal's hoax stirred up enough news that I certainly knew about the controversy -- I think I might even still have somewhere the copy of Lingua Franca that alerted me to what was going on in the groves around me (and I probably read something about it in The Washington Square News, since I was writing theatre reviews for them then). Because of the controversy, I began to read around and gain an awareness of some of the writers and thinkers involved, and would find myself nine years later working on a masters degree in cultural studies at Dartmouth. By that time, the fires seemed to have cooled between the humanists and the scientists, and one of the things I most enjoyed during that time was a chance to look at epistemology through various lenses, which was of tremendous help to me when I had to sit down and write at length about the works of Samuel Delany, whose essays and interviews of the '80s and '90s bridged these worlds especially well, even as the Science Wars and Culture Wars and Wars Wars raged.

Although, as an inveterate postmodernist, I like Sokal's original hoax article more than most of his explanations/elaborations of it (they seem to me to set up whole armies of straw people), the hoax served both as a wonderful provocation toward discussion (see The Sokal Affair & Social Text -- a collection of primary sources and responses from 1996-1998) and as a warning to folks inclined to write about science and subjectivity -- a warning that the boundaries between useful philosophical speculation and ignorant nonsense are perhaps closer than one might wish to admit.

I'm not a philosopher and am really just a casual observer of all the ideas at issue in the hoax and its aftermath, but the hoax remains useful to think and argue about, as Michael Bérubé and Jonathan Reynolds do in the anniversary essays I linked to above, because the questions of truth and knowledge that Sokal addressed are ones that have never been solely matters for philosophers and academics, and in the years since 1996 they have become urgent ones within the realm of politics -- not only, most obviously, in questions of climate change or Intelligent Design, but also with the Tea Party's construction of American history. I'm with Bérubé and his tribe on this:
Fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the Sokal Hoax was [...] deepening the “two cultures” divide and further estranging humanists from scientists. Now, I think it may have helped set the terms for an eventual rapprochement, leading both humanists and scientists to realize that the shared enemies of their enterprises are the religious fundamentalists who reject all knowledge that challenges their faith and the free-market fundamentalists whose policies will surely scorch the earth. On my side, perhaps humanists are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place. Is it still possible? I don’t know, and I’m not sanguine. Some scientific questions now seem to be a matter of tribal identity: A vast majority of elected Republicans have expressed doubts about the science behind anthropogenic climate change, and as someone once remarked, it is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his tribal identity depends on his not understanding it. But there are few tasks so urgent. About that, even Heisenberg himself would be certain.