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The Sokal affair 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). In 1996, Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted a paper of nonsense camouflaged in jargon 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."
The paper, titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", 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. 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 I 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 defraud an academic journal, as well as whether Social Text took appropriate precautions in publishing the paper.
Claims in the paper
Arguing that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, the paper claims that the New Age concept of the "morphogenetic field" (not to be confused with the developmental biology use of the same term) 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 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.
Asserting that such concepts are blatantly absurd, Sokal thus 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." They charged Sokal with unethical behavior and suggested they only published the article as it was because Sokal refused to make changes they suggested and because it was of relevance to a special issue they happened to be preparing.
Sokal argued that this was the whole point — the journal published articles not on the basis of whether they were correct or made sense, but simply because of who wrote them and how they sounded.
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 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.
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 Impostures) 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.
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. 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. Sokal and Bricmont replied to Stolzenberg in the journal Social Studies of Science, pointing out "tendentious misrepresentations" of their work and critiquing Stolzenberg's commentary on the strong program.
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. 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.
- SCIgen program
- A recent event which has been compared to the Sokal affair involved a paper randomly generated by the SCIgen program, which 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.
- 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." He subsequently resigned from the program committee.
- Bogdanov Affair — an event in theoretical physics once called a reverse-Sokal controversy
- Rosenhan experiment - involving the admission of healthy 'pseudopatients' to 12 psychiatric hospitals
- The Report From Iron Mountain — a hoax report purportedly leaked from a government think tank
- Project Alpha — hoax by James Randi on a psychic foundation
- Atlanta Nights — a similar hoax by a group of pro authors on a vanity press
- Ern Malley — a similar hoax involving modernist poetry
- Disumbrationism — a similar hoax involving modern art
- Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments - another hoax involving modernist poetry
- Nat Tate — hoax on the art world by William Boyd in 1998.
- Australian satirical comedy group The Chaser entered multiple exhibitions of modern art in 2007, placing garbage (old tyres, black bin bags etc) on the floor, and labelling them with a plaque describing the "piece". Some were thrown out, while others were admired by patrons and curators alike.
- False document and fictitious entry
- Journal club — a forum for peer review "after the ink is dry"
- Politics and the English Language — George Orwell's 1946 essay criticizing the use of bloated and verbose language in contemporary English writing
- Science wars — an entry with more information about the Sokal hoax
- Continuity thesis
- Fashionable Nonsense - Sokal and Bricmont's book explaining the hoax
- Journal of Irreproducible Results
- Peer review
- Sokal, Alan (1996). A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies. 'Lingua Franca'.
- Sokal, Alan. Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996). Duke University Press.
- Sokal, Alan D. and Bricmont, Jean. Impostures Intellectuelles. Editions Odile Jacob, 1997.
- Sokal, Alan D. and Bricmont, Jean. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. Picador USA: New York, 1998. ISBN 0-312-19545-1
- Gross, Paul R. and Levitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8018-4766-4
- Editors of Lingua Franca. The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy. University of Nebraska Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8032-7995-7
- Callon, Michel 1999 "Whose Impostures? Physicists at War with the Third Person", Social Studies of Science 29(2): 261-86.
- How to Deconstruct Almost Anything — early hoax from 1991 at the International Conference on Cyberspace.
- Alan Sokal Articles on the Social Text Affair Alan Sokal's own page with very extensive links; includes the original article
- Original hoax article (HTML)
- Sokal Affair quotes
- Sokal's response to the editors
- A discussion by Richard Dawkins of nonsense in post-modernist literature
- the new site for Andrew Bulkan's Postmodernism Generator mentioned in Richard Dawkins' article above
- Gabriel Stolzenberg's collected essays on this and related topics
- The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing?
- WARNING: Beware of VIDEA Fake abstracts accepted by the VIDEA 1995 conference
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