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.

5 comments:

  1. Berube's work makes it unpleasant to critique his essay on the Sokal hoax. Still, he's dead wrongwhen he cites Ellen Willis' argument "that “the left” should see politics in Sokal’s terms was thoroughly self-defeating, inasmuch as the belief that morality and justice are a matter of immutable natural law is far more congenial to conservatism than to a movement trying to imagine that another world is possible." Geology and biology have those wicked immutable natural laws yet these sciences are the direct target of conservative political movements!

    As for the notion that multiplicity of viewpoints is somehow not part of science, how can one square such an absurd contention with an ideas so well known as special relativity or the cosmological principle?

    As an inveterate postmodernist, perhaps you could explain what is leftist about postmodernism?

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  2. I haven't been able to find the Willis article in its original, so I can't say what the context of the short quote Berube uses is, but I don't think morality and justice are the same sorts of things as biology and geology, so equating them is like equating apples and gravity.

    I'm wary of the word "immutable" because it suggests an omniscient knowledge of all that has been and all that will be, and that's certainly not something I'd want to claim for even the best science, but, like Berube, I'm fond of Searle's distinction between "brute facts" and "social facts", and I'm a pragmatist as much as I am a postmodernist (I seem to like philosophies that begin with a P, as long as they're not Platonist), so, for instance, I find it endlessly irritating that anti-evolutionists seem incapable of recognizing the fundamental usefulness of evolutionary theory. Or, to make a bit more relevant to this discussion, look at the history of "sex hormones" -- a history in which the brute facts of bodies are at least mildlly misunderstood (to this day) because of the social facts of how they are studied and the assumptions lent to that study first by the original scientists and then by the language used (for a good discussion of this topic, which is well beyond what I can offer in a blog comment, see Nelly Oudshoorn's Beyond the Natural Body, Ann Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body or Rebecca M. Jordan-Young's Brainstorm).

    Indeed, as you say, it is idiotic to suggest science lacks a multiplicity of viewpoints, and I'm not sure which piece you're referring to that suggests such stupidity. I would hope an elementary school student would be able to show the flaws in such a statement. I certainly didn't see that statement in Berube, but I'm generally fond of his writing, so perhaps am missing something a more critical eye notices.

    Defining both "postmodernism" and "the left" is extremely difficult, and in some ways both terms have been used so much in so many different ways that neither has much meaning, if they ever did, so saying "postmodernism is leftist" would be courting disaster, but I would say I think most definitions of postmodernism as a theory of critique (as opposed to postmodernism as an aesthetic, which is somewhat different) include at least a dash of anti-hierarchic tendencies, anti-essentialism, a critique of how power is used and consolidated, and a strong awareness of contingency, social construction, etc. Few of those are items I associate with the right or conservatism; indeed, "the right" as I understand it is predicated on ideas of universal, unchanging social facts, eternal morality, etc.

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  3. Thank you for the answer. Features like "anti-hierarchic tendencies, anti-essentialism, a critique of how power is used and consolidated, and a strong awareness of contingency, social construction, etc." tend to be the kinds of ideas that owe much to anarchism.

    In my opinion, revolutionary anarchism doesn't have much of a claim to be leftist, not even in the days of Proudhon and Bakunin. Some of these ideas are found in libertarianism and all the Republican/conservative momvements influenced by it. Other types of traditionalist conservatism, influenced by thinkers like de Maistre and Leo Strauss also tend to think of social facts as acts of will.

    But I don't want to be load you down with references to things you aren't interested in. However, Berube wrote "But in dismissing Bohr’s attempt to apply the principle of complementarity to social life, Sokal ducks the question of whether a multiplicity of viewpoints might in fact be more adequate to the phenomenon at hand. What if postmodern philosophy turns out to have good reasons for its love of the multiplicity of viewpoints? Why wouldn’t it be useful to understand cultural conflicts in terms of “complementarity”? What counts as a legitimate inference from the world of the physical sciences, and what is just a sloppy analogy or a metaphor?"

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  4. Hey, I didn't say that conservatives love all things that involve immutable natural laws. I merely said (as did Willis) that construing morality and justice as beholden to immutable natural laws is congenial to conservatism -- as is obvious when you think about things like gender and sexuality.

    Nor did I say that science lacks a multiplicity of viewpoints; I merely pointed out, in the passage you cite, that Sokal and Bricmont sneer a bit at how "postmodern philosophy ... loves the multiplicity of viewpoints," as if this is self-evidently foolish.

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  5. Immutable natural laws do not abolish history in biology and geology and they can't abolish it in the study of morality and justice either. The study of the history of morality and justice refutes conservative apologies for the current order. How denying laws of nature helps that is a mystery to me.

    Sokal wrote "...the multiplicity of viewpoints, the importance of the observer, holism, and indeterminism..." Naturally I read this in context. So, yes, sneering at a concept of multiplicity of viewpoints in which all are necessarily equally valid is perfectly reasonable.

    (To spell it out, this kind of multiplicity of viewpoints assigns equal validity to all viewpoints because there is no determinate objectivity aka reality; because there are no privileged observers and they are the ones who create the viewpoint instead of observing it; because all the viewpoints have to contribute to the whole.)

    My apologies for somehow misreading "...Sokal ducks the question of whether a multiplicity of viewpoints might be more adequate..." as implying science didn't already have a multiplicity of viewpoints.

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