The Sokal Affair

In 1996 Alan Sokal published a now famous article : Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity in the postmodern journal Social Text. Immediately afterwards he revealed the paper to be an elaborate hoax engineered to expose the bankruptcy of postmodernist discourse about science. In Sokal's own words, it was designed to demonstrate that "a leading North American journal of cultural studies . . . would publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if
(a) it contained the right buzzwords and
(b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."

The affair generated an enormous amount of discussion most of which is neatly recorded on his page, which is probably a better place to learn about it.

First, I strongly recommend that you at least glance through the original articlepure enjoyment. Nonchalantly stating that physical reality is "at bottom a social and linguistic construct", Sokal goes on to perform spectacular leaps of imagination connecting feminism with the axiom of choice and "the pi of Euclid" with the "G of Newton". There is a lot of dense jargon connected with chaos and string theory all topped with a bibliography referring to such works as Joyce, Planck, Einstein, and Heisenberg: A relativistic quantum mechanical discussion of Ulysses. Once you stop laughing, the sheer meticulousness of his literature survey is astonishing.

The questions raised by the hoax can broadly be put into two categories -

Why did they print it?

It appears that Sokal's assumptions above are both correct. The article makes frequent mention of highly technical aspects of quantum field theory, differential topology and nonlinear dynamics. Of course, the unstated assumption is that Sokal being a bonafide physicist knows what he is talking even though the editors clearly don't. Transgressing the Boundaries... also faithfully quotes a gallery of postmodern thinkers including Derrida, Lacan and Foucalt (to the predictable charge that these quotations were taken out of context, the author replied that the relevant passages were even more ridiculous when taken in context - the reader may judge for himself by wading through the footnotes or by reading Fashionable Nonsenseby Sokal & Bricmont.)

Secondly Sokal was careful to follow a certain law of academic life: it is impossible to excessive in the flattery of one's peers. Stanley Aronowitz, one of the editors of Social Text, is quoted liberally as a definitive source on the "cultural fabric" that produced quantum mechanics. More importantly Sokal feigned complete belief in the postmodern view of science that sees it essentially as a social construct based on Eurocentric cultural values and power relations. Clearly this does not go down very well with the average scientist, so the editors must have beenflattered to receive such ardent support from the scientific establishment.

In fact, for unintended humour, it's hard to beat their own response which is a classic example of what not to do when caught sleeping on the job (apparently one of them still suspects that "Sokal's parody was nothing of the sort.")

What (if anything) does it prove?

First, that sloppy thinking has so far pervaded certain sections of the humanities that its practitioners are unable to see through the fog of their own ideas. The opaque nature of postmodern discourse to the uninitiated is well-known - just pick up any issue of litery criticism or "culture studies" but the affair seems to confirm our worst fears that these academics don't know what they are talking about and lack the minimum of rigour necessary at least to tell something of substance from pure bilge.

That said, there is no reason to taint serious researchers and indeed the whole field with giult association. However, we are still talking about a polemical journal with well-respected editors and one that, to put it bluntly does not lack pretense. So it is impossible to dismiss this as an aberration.

There is a second issue here there, which is the certain kind of relativism that has gained in academic popularity, at least in the humanities. Roughly, it tries to demonstrate that science is not some glorious search for the absolute truth but just another form of discourse about it, with its own cultural and political structure. This has attracted many intellectuals including feminists who see science as being poisoned by a male-dominated perspectives and Marxists who see a similar influence of capitalism. This kind of reasoning is the preserve of the academic left, a fact which particularly irks Sokal (who taught mathematics in Nicaragua under the Sandinista government.) Now, the hoax does not refute these notions. Sokal himself was careful to distance himself from supporters who claimed that the entire facade of relativism, postmodernism and perhaps even the left itself, had been completely demolished. The kind of epistomological relativism mentioned above needs a much more detailed and nuanced response. His book Fashionable Nonsense makes an attempt (and has more footnotes for your enjoyment!)

Finally, part of the intent of the hoax was to stimulate debate about what appears to an alarming instance of the emperor wearing no clothes. And of course, it was spectacularly successful. But Sokal also wanted to inspire change in the humanities not just talk (and laughter), and the verdict on that remains unclear.

Last modified on 23rd February 2004
Comments to : abhishek at ocf dot berkeley dot edu