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The Sokal Science Prank

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In 1996, New York University physics professor Alan Sokal mischievously wrote a paper that undermined those who criticized pure science as opinion rather than truth.

A Brief Explanation of Postmodernism

To understand Sokal's mischief we first need to have a grasp, however tenuous, of postmodernism; not an easy task and the writer who attempts an explanation is at risk of marching blindly into a field full of cowpats.

When my very good friend Stuart was asked to define postmodern he replied, “E-mail?” Very clever, but not terribly helpful in this context.

Researching the topic one runs into a verbal thicket that includes (but not limited to): epistemological relativism, eclecticism, self-referentiality, and many more headache-inducing words and phrases.

Many of those who set out give a simple explanation of postmodernist thought start out with the disclaimer that “Postmodernism is difficult to define.”

We are told that the modern era ended when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989—or, it may have been earlier or later depending on whose analysis one is reading. As the concrete slabs toppled, so the belief in universal truths was questioned. The core of postmodernist philosophy is that what has been accepted as absolute truth is, in fact, theory; “truth is up to each individual to determine for himself” (allaboutphilosophy.org).

The challenges to truth emerged in many academic disciplines and gave impetus in the 1990s to what was called the “science wars.”

“Postmodernists believe that the West’s claims of freedom and prosperity continue to be nothing more than empty promises and have not met the needs of humanity. They believe that truth is relative and truth is up to each individual to determine for himself. Most believe nationalism builds walls, makes enemies, and destroys 'Mother Earth,' while capitalism creates a 'have and have not' society, and religion causes moral friction and division among people.”

— allaboutphilosophy.org

The Science Wars

A squabble broke out in the lofty heights of academia as postmodernists challenged the sacrosanct foundations of scientific orthodoxy. Proven facts are indisputable facts, said the scientific realists. No, said the postmodernists, what you call iron-clad objective reality is better described as theory; your truth is really a belief.

Psychologist Gregg Henriques Ph.D. sums up: “On one side were the hardnosed scientists committed to the notion that science in general and physics in particular could reveal or at least approximate timeless objective truths about the universe and our place in it. On the other side was a certain sect of sociologists, historians, philosophers of science, and other postmodern intellectuals who were studying science as a social construction and were arguing or implying that science should not be granted the status of final arbiter of ultimate truth.”

The first major salvo in the battle was fired by biologist Paul R. Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt. Their 1994 book Higher Superstition carried the subtitle The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science thereby putting the debate on the footing of political ideology. Gross and Levitt accused humanities journals of favouring papers that had a leftist bias and were anti science.

Members of humanities departments in universities—history, English, feminist studies, media studies—responded with acerbic attacks about boffins having blind faith in the scientific method and incontrovertible truths. The scraps got downright nasty at times with name-calling and mud-slinging that was unbecoming in the rarefied seats of higher learning.

New York University physics professor Alan Sokal was a scientist with left-wing political credentials; he decided to set the record straight in his own unique fashion.

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The Sokal Prank

The academic journal Social Text is published by Duke University Press and it deals with cultural studies and postmodern thinking. The editors decided to publish an issue in May 1996 on the currently raging science wars, and Alan Sokal submitted a paper. It had the catchy title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”

The paper was a masterpiece fuzzy writing with this being a typical example: “The discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics . . .”

In the paper, Sokal took some arcane principles of physics and tied them to philosophical and cultural morals. The editors loved the submission. Here was someone inside the scientific community apparently agreeing with the postmodern critique of the discipline. Social Text published Sokal's offering without peer review.

A few days later, Sokal announced that his paper was a hoax “liberally salted with nonsense.” What had been largely unnoticed bickering within the academic community now burst out into the mainstream media, making a lot of professorial types look foolish.

Professor Alan Sokal in 2011.

Professor Alan Sokal in 2011.

The Impact of the Sokal Hoax

The scientific community was ecstatic; Sokal, its denizens believed, had pricked the bubble of postmodern pretension. There would be no more woolly-minded attacks on pure science. Postmodernism would consigned to the heap of ideas that didn't work. Academic journals would apply greater rigour in vetting submissions.

No. A little bit. And, no.

Science continues to be in the cross-hairs of many groups; we only have to look at the anti-vaxxer movement that is aided and abetted even by some academics.

Postmodernism has fallen out of favour somewhat although there are still skirmishes in university faculties.

Academic journals still get caught publishing papers that are complete nonsense. Here's the example of the submission “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon.

Bonus Factoids

  • There are probably 40,000 scientific journals published in the world and The Guardian newspaper says the some of them are “churning out ‘fake science’ for profit” You can read more about this here.
  • In 1999, National Geographic magazine published an article about a dinosaur it called Archaeoraptor liaoningensis. The editors excitedly proclaimed that a newly discovered fossil was the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Alas, the fossil was a fraud; someone had taken two fossil halves of different animals and patched them together.
  • The Tasaday people in The Philippines became a worldwide sensation in 1971. They were discovered deep in the forest and were said to be living a Stone Age existence. Their creation turned out to be an elaborate hoax. You can read more about the Tasaday people here.

Sources

  • “Postmodernism.” allaboutphilosophy.org, undated.
  • “Revisiting the Science Wars.” Gregg Henriques, Psychology Today, June 1, 2012.
  • “Transgressing the Boundaries.” Alan D. Sokal, Social Text, May 1996.
  • “The Sokal Affair.” Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, June 5, 2003.
  • “Sokal's Hoax.” Steven Weinberg, The New York Review of Books, August 8, 1996.
  • “Part 1. Sokal’s Hoax.” Flannery Wilson, The Humanities in Transition, June 16, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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