It’s now been twenty years since the “Sokal affair,” also known as the “Sokal hoax”, in which physicist/mathematician Alan Sokal submitted a bogus postmodernist paper to the journal Social Text, with the jawbreaking pomo title, “Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.” (Paper free at link.) The paper used real quotes from professors of science studies, as well as other postmodernist scholars, to show that the field of quantum gravity was riddled with patriarchy and deeply polluted by social attitudes. In reality, it was intended to show that the humanities (not all of them!) were infected by a profound subjectivism about ways of finding truth, as well as by a deep suspicion of science.
Here are a couple of quotes from Alan’s paper; only a postmodernist could take these seriously:
Over the past two decades there has been extensive discussion among critical theorists with regard to the characteristics of modernist versus postmodernist culture; and in recent years these dialogues have begun to devote detailed attention to the specific problems posed by the natural sciences. In particular, Madsen and Madsen have recently given a very clear summary of the characteristics of modernist versus postmodernist science. They posit two criteria for a postmodern science [JAC: italicized bits are quotes from other papers; consult original for references]:
A simple criterion for science to qualify as postmodern is that it be free from any dependence on the concept of objective truth. By this criterion, for example, the complementarity interpretation of quantum physics due to Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen school is seen as postmodernist.
Clearly, quantum gravity is in this respect an archetypal postmodernist science. Secondly,
The other concept which can be taken as being fundamental to postmodern science is that of essentiality. Postmodern scientific theories are constructed from those theoretical elements which are essential for the consistency and utility of the theory.
Thus, quantities or objects which are in principle unobservable — such as space-time points, exact particle positions, or quarks and gluons — ought not to be introduced into the theory. While much of modern physics is excluded by this criterion, quantum gravity again qualifies: in the passage from classical general relativity to the quantized theory, space-time points (and indeed the space-time manifold itself) have disappeared from the theory.
However, these criteria, admirable as they are, are insufficient for a liberatory postmodern science: they liberate human beings from the tyranny of “absolute truth” and “objective reality”, but not necessarily from the tyranny of other human beings. In Andrew Ross’ words, we need a science “that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests.” From a feminist standpoint, Kelly Oliver makes a similar argument:
… in order to be revolutionary, feminist theory cannot claim to describe what exists, or, “natural facts.” Rather, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories — not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories.
But wait! There’s more!:
Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, “neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination’ of the social.” And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: “mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.” Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis. Finally, chaos theory — which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity — will be central to all future mathematics. And yet, these images of the future mathematics must remain but the haziest glimmer: for, alongside these three young branches in the tree of science, there will arise new trunks and branches — entire new theoretical frameworks — of which we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive.
The paper is larded with outrageous statements about physics and math, as well as with genuine but risible quotes from “science studies” scholars (see the footnotes). Social Text accepted it anyway. Sokal’s paper didn’t go out for formal review, but was accepted after four editors approved it in house, including Stanley Aronowitz and Andrew Ross.
Soon afterwards, Sokal published a piece in the journal Lingua Franca revealing the nature of the hoax. While many postmodernists and humanities professors were outraged, to the point of accusing Sokal of unethical behavior, scientists snickered, for we were simply tired of the ludicrous claims about science (including its failure to provide knowledge any better than other “ways of knowing”), and, in truth, I can see no better way to make Sokal’s point than through such a hoax. (I’m proud to say that the first letter to the editor about the hoax published in the New York Times, which wrote about the hoax on its front page, was by me, praising Alan’s gambit. On the same day, one of my “friends”, a postmodern English scholar, read my letter and phoned me, immediately screaming, without saying “hello” or identifying herself, that I was just dead wrong!)
What was Sokal’s point? He lays it out in another Lingua Franca piece:
WHY DID I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important issues that no scientist should ignore–questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.
In short, my concern about the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths.
I have personal experience of this subjectivism, and from someone who should have known better: philosopher Michael Ruse. A while back he gave a talk to the history and philosophy of science group at my university, and claimed that Western medicine was just one “way of healing”—no better than any other form of folk medicine. In the question session, I asked him whether, if his kids were sick, he’d take them to a Western doctor or a shaman. He didn’t have a good answer, but mumbled and grumbled.
I’ll be talking about this kind of subjectivism—the claim that some questions can be objectively answered by methods other than “science broadly construed,” and there are “ways of knowing” that reveal truths about the universe hidden from science—at the LogiCal meetings in Los Angeles in about two weeks. (Sean Carroll is headlining.)
I had hoped that Sokal’s Hoax would at least mitigate the pomo nonsense, and perhaps it has, but I don’t know, for I have little contact with humanities scholars.
However, in a new piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Anatomy of a hoax,” Jennifer Ruark collects statements by several of Hoax’s participants and onlookers, and it’s an edifying read. It reveals, for example, Barbara Epstein’s complicity with Sokal in revealing the hoax, Lingua Franca‘s worries about publishing the reveal, and some of the reasons why Social Text published the paper in the first place. As Bruce Robbins, one of the journal’s editors reveals, there was some preening involved:
ROBBINS: They decided to take it because here was a scientist — even expressing himself very awkwardly and without much knowledge of what it was that he thought he was enthusiastic about — weighing in and kind of on “our side.” The fact that he quoted Stanley Aronowitz 13 times was probably not a matter of complete indifference to Stanley Aronowitz, and Stanley Aronowitz was the one surviving founder of the journal, who was 10 or 15 years older than anybody else. So if he wanted it — Social Text is not a refereed journal — if one of the founders was there and wanted it, it was probably going to go in.
But this is a long prelude to my highlighting one of the quotes in the piece, by someone who wasn’t even cited or quoted in Sokal’s paper. Here it is, with my emphasis:
HELEN LONGINO, professor of philosophy, Stanford University: Certainly there are some deconstructionists who have tried to take on science. But that was, by far, the minority of the work that was being done in science studies. If Sokal had submitted it to a serious science-studies journal, people would have seen through it. Sokal has this very sort of old-fashioned idea about science — that the sciences are not only aiming at discovering truths about the natural world but that their methods succeed in doing so.
When I read that last sentence, the soles of my shoes almost curled up. What is “old fashioned” about the idea that science succeeds it discovering truths about the natural world? Is Longino claiming that science does not in fact do this? If so, she’s dead wrong, and the kind of subjectivism that was Sokal’s target remains, in her person, a festering sore in the academy.
I wonder if Dr. Longino has ever been vaccinated, taken antibiotics, or used a cellphone or a personal computer. If so, then she has implicitly accepted that science succeeds in finding truth. Was the elimination of smallpox from the world, which began by scientifically identifying the infectious agent, and then developing vaccinations against it, simply a conjurer’s trick?
I have trouble controlling my anger when I read statements like Longino’s. If it’s “old fashioned” to think that science homes in on the truth, then what is the “new fashion”? That science doesn’t home in on the truth? I’d love to have Longino talk about that view in a room full of scientists. She’s wrong, her words are a travesty, and if she really believes them then she’s a malign influence on Stanford students—and philosophy.
h/t: Matthew Cobb