Sokal affair

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The Sokal affair (also Sokal's hoax) was a hoax by physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated on the editorial staff and readership of the postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text (published by Duke University Press). In 1996, Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted a paper for publication in Social Text, as an experiment to see if a journal in that field would, in Sokal's words: "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."[1]

The paper, titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"[2], was published in the Spring/Summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue of Social Text, which at that time had no peer review process, and so did not submit it for outside review.[3] On the day of its publication, Sokal announced in another publication, Lingua Franca, that the article was a hoax, calling his paper "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense", which was "structured around the silliest quotations [he] could find about mathematics and physics" made by postmodernist academics.

The resulting debate focused on the relative scholarly merits or lack thereof of sociological commentary on the physical sciences and of postmodern-influenced sociological disciplines in general, as well as on academic ethics, including both whether it was appropriate for Sokal to deliberately mislead an academic journal, as well as whether Social Text took appropriate precautions in publishing the paper.


[edit] Background

In an interview with National Public Radio's All Things Considered Alan Sokal said that he was prompted to conduct his "experiment" after reading Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. The book discusses what the authors believed was a disturbing trend in university liberal arts departments, especially English, to become dominated by a "trendy" branch of postmodernist deconstructionist thought.

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, deconstruction is "A strategy of critical analysis [...] directed towards exposing unquestioned metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literary language."[4] The technique is somewhat mechanical in nature; a body of work is examined to find words with ambiguous or multiple meanings, and then re-written (in part) using these alternate meanings to produce a new version that may be very different from the original. By examining these differences, deconstruction attempts to find the author's underlying assumptions. A corollary to the deconstructionist methodology is that every "text" has multiple meanings, so the original meaning of the text is somewhat unimportant - the words are more important than the statements they make.

In the 1990s, according to Higher Superstition, the "academic left" was dominated by authors who were demonstrating what they believed was widespread racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice. A particular target at that time was science, and journals serving the market were filled with articles using scientific papers as their text in what became known as the "science wars". This was in spite of the practitioners having little or no knowledge of the topic they were discussing. As they state in the introduction, "A curious fact about the recent left-critique of science is the degree to which its instigators have overcome their former timidity of indifference towards the subject not by studying it in detail, but rather by creating a repertoire of rationalizations for avoiding such study."[5]

Higher Superstition selected a number of these papers that contained statements that suggested that the authors had no idea what the original text meant, but nevertheless felt they were able to critique it anyway. The result was a series of non-sensical statements. That alone was not disconcerting, since poor quality papers are being created all the time. What was disconcerting is that these papers were being accepted into major journals serving the postmodernist community. The success of a paper was being judged not by its quality, but its academic leanings - papers displaying the proper leftist thought, especially if written by or quoting well known authors, were being published in spite of their low quality.[citation needed]

Gross and Levitt's stated aim was not to critique deconstructionism itself, but to expose the particular brand of fuzzyheaded thinking that was allowed to go unchallenged in the field. Furthermore, they wanted to expose the fact that these practitioners were taking part in the "science wars" in spite of very few people from the sciences taking part. The one-sided debate was going largely unchallenged in spite of highly contentious claims.

[edit] The paper

Sokal's "experiment" directly tested Gross and Levitt's claims by attempting to get a paper published in a top deconstructionist journal. If they were correct, the content of the paper would not matter and could be filled with complete nonsense; what would matter would be fawning references to other deconstructionist authors and the proper amount of feminist and socialist thought.

Sokal produced a paper that argued that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, and that Rupert Sheldrake's New Age concept of the "morphogenetic field" could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity. It concludes that, since "physical 'reality' ... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct", a "liberatory science" and "emancipatory mathematics" must be developed that spurn "the elite caste canon of 'high science'" for a "postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project".

Footnotes contain more obvious (to mathematicians) jokes, such as one that comments:

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.

Sokal submitted the paper to the leading journal Social Text. They were collecting papers for an upcoming issue dedicated to the science wars, and his was the only article submitted by a "real scientist". The editors had a number of concerns about the quality of the writing, and requested changes which Sokal refused. They decided to publish it anyway, considering Sokal to be an example of a "difficult, uncooperative author," noting these were "well known to journal editors". The Science Wars issue was published in May 1996.

[edit] Fallout

In Lingua Franca, Sokal pointed out the absurdity of his paper, and concluded that the journal ignored intellectual rigor and "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject."

In their defense, the editors of Social Text stated that they believed that the article "was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field" and that "its status as parody does not alter substantially our interest in the piece itself as a symptomatic document."[6] After criticizing his writing, they charged Sokal with unethical behavior by trying to "trick" the editors.

Sokal argued that their response illustrated the problem he hoped to demonstrate; the journal published the article not on the basis of whether it was correct or made sense, but simply because of who wrote it and how it sounded. The editors admitted this in their response, stating that they thought it was a bad article, but published it anyway because they felt he was seeking affirmation from them.

My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. ... There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.

In 1998, Sokal co-authored Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (originally published in French as Impostures Intellectuelles and in English outside the U.S. as Intellectual Imposters) with Jean Bricmont. The book contains a long list of extracts of writings from well-known intellectuals containing what Sokal and Bricmont characterize as blatant abuses of scientific terminology. Finally, Sokal and Bricmont give a critical summary of postmodernism and finish by criticizing the strong program of social constructionism in the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Postmodern philosopher Fred Newman responded to the Sokal affair in his paper "Science Can Do Better than Sokal: A commentary on the So-called Science Wars," presented at a conference in Spring 1997 on Postmodernism and the Social Sciences, at the New School for Social Research, where Sokal was a participant. Newman calls for a coming together of science and postmodernism -- arguing that postmodernism is not a critique of science, per se, but of the inappropriate application of the scientific paradigm to psychology.

The affair spilled out of academia and into the mainstream press, and commentators are divided on the level of its consequences. Anthropologist Bruno Latour, one of those singled out by Sokal in his later book, has described the whole affair as a "tempest in a tea cup." Mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg, however, has written a number of essays with the stated purpose of debunking the claims made by Sokal and his allies[7]. He argues that Sokal and company do not possess a sufficient understanding of the philosophical positions that they criticize and that this lack of understanding renders their criticisms meaningless. Bricmont and Sokal replied to Stolzenberg in the journal Social Studies of Science[8], pointing out what they claimed were "tendentious misrepresentations" of their work and critiquing Stolzenberg's commentary on the strong program. Stolzenberg replied in the same issue, arguing that both the critique and the allegations of misrepresentation were based on misreadings. He advised readers to examine the arguments on each side slowly and skeptically, bearing in mind the dictum that the obvious is sometimes the enemy of the true.[9]

The controversy also had implications for peer review, at least as far as Social Text was concerned. At the time of Sokal's hoax, Social Text was not a peer-reviewed journal; its editors believed that a more open editorial policy would promote more original, less conventional research.[10] Social Text's editors argue that, in this context, Sokal's work was a deliberate fraud and betrayal of that trust. They further note that scientific peer review does not necessarily detect fraud either, in light of the later Schön scandal, Bogdanov Affair, and other instances of poor science achieving publication.

In 2006 social scientist Harry Collins reported a quantitative experiment examining whether he could pass as a physicist.[11] Based on short questions and answers, not all physicists were able to distinguish the social scientist's writings from those of real physicists.

[edit] Similar affairs

The hoax which resulted in the publication of an article making spurious scientific claims about contemporary genetic research in the right wing Australian magazine Quadrant. The project was designed with the aim of demonstrating that Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant's editor, would print “outrageous propositions” which accord with his ideological disposition. The article was also designed to lampoon Windschuttle’s mode of historical research.
In an event which has been compared to the Sokal affair, a paper randomly generated by the SCIgen program was accepted as a non-peer-reviewed paper for presentation at the 2005 World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI). The conference announced the prank article's non-reviewed acceptance even though none of the article's three assigned reviewers had submitted a response. The three MIT graduate students responsible for the hoax said they were unaware of the Sokal affair until after they had submitted the article.
  • Purgathofer
A prior event which may also be compared to the Sokal affair involved the VIDEA 1995 conference, organized by the Wessex Institute of Technology. Professor Werner Purgathofer (Vienna University of Technology), a member of the VIDEA 1995 program committee, became suspicious of the conference's peer review standards after not receiving any abstracts or papers for review. To confirm his suspicions, he wrote four absurd and/or nonsensical "abstracts" and submitted them to the conference. All were "reviewed and conditionally accepted."[12] He subsequently resigned from the program committee.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Sokal, Alan (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". 'Lingua Franca'. Retrieved on April 3 2007. 
  2. ^ Sokal, Alan (1994-11-28, revised 1995-05-13, published May 1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996). Duke University Press. pp. 217-252. Retrieved on April 3 2007. 
  3. ^ Andrew Ross (1996-05-24). "The Sokal hoax: Response by *Social Text*". Retrieved on November 30 2008. 
  4. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary: deconstruction", accessed July 26, 2008.
  5. ^ Supersitition, pg. 6
  6. ^ Andrew Ross , "A discussion of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction", 24 May 1996
  7. ^ Gabriel Stolzenberg, "Debunk: Expose as a Sham or False"
  8. ^ "Reply to Gabriel Stolzenberg", Social Studies of Science
  9. ^
  10. ^ Andrew Ross (1996-05-24). "The Sokal hoax: Response by *Social Text*". Retrieved on November 30 2008. 
  11. ^ Harry Collins et al. (December 2006). "Experiments with interactional expertise". Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 37 (4): 656–674. doi:10.1016/j.shpsa.2006.09.005.  See also
  12. ^

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] External links

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