Sokal Affair

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The Sokal Affair refers to an incident in 1996 when Professor Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, submitted a deliberately pseudoscientific paper for publication in an academic journal of cultural studies. The paper, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," (published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text) was submitted to see if an academic journal would (according to Sokal) "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."

On the precise day of publication in Social Text, Sokal announced in another journal that the article had, in fact, been a hoax. This caused an academic scandal, both at Duke University (where Social Text is published) and for Sokal himself, as charges of unethical behaviour were levelled.

The article contains a number of statements that Sokal stated were "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense". At one stage he asserts that "physical reality is at bottom nothing more than a social and linguistic construct", and at another he proposes that the New Age concept of the morphogenetic field actually constitutes a "cutting edge theory of quantum gravity". As further evidence of deliberate fabrications, Sokal also cited his proposition that "the axiom of equality in mathematical set theory is analogous to the homonymous concept in feminist politics."

Sokal claimed that he brought attention to his banal contentions (and some others, such as the statement that mathematics has "nineteenth-century liberal origins" and that the gravitational constant of Newton is mired in "ineluctable historicity") in an effort to illustrate that some academics will gladly trade intellectual rigour for "what sounds good". He observed that the editors of Social Text "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." The concluding sentences of their rebuttal, "Should non-experts have anything to say about scientific methodology and epistemology? After centuries of scientific racism, scientific sexism, and scientific domination of nature one might have thought this was a pertinent question to ask," may go far to illuminate the concerns which inform the postmodernist attitude.




References
All quotes are from Sokal articles or interviews found at
http://www.drizzle.com/~jwalsh/sokal/

Response from Social Text editors is at
http://www.nyu.edu/pubs/socialtext/sokal.html


See also: Hoax, False document, Quantum gravity

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