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Sokal Affair

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The Sokal Affair was a hoax by physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated on the editorial staff and readership of a leading postmodern cultural studies journal called Social Text (published by Duke University). In 1996, Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted a pseudoscientific 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 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 humanities academics.

The resulting debate focused on academic ethics, both in whether it was appropriate for Sokal to deliberately defraud an academic journal, and whether Social Text took appropriate precautions in publishing the paper.

Claims in the paper

Arguing that quantum theory has progressive political implications, the paper claims the New Age concept of the morphogenetic field could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity and 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['s] canon of 'high science'" for a "postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project".

Footnotes contain more obvious jokes, like the one which 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."[3] 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 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.[4]

In 1998, Sokal co-authored Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (known outside the US 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 allege are blatant abuses of scientific terminology. Finally, Sokal and Bricmont give a hostile summary of postmodernism and finish by criticizing the strong program of social constructionism in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Critics of the book contend that its misunderstandings of the postmodern theory it is attacking are at least as severe as the errors Sokal and Bricmont identify.

The affair spilled out of academia and into the mainstream press, and commentators are divided on the level of its consequences. Sociologist of science 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.

The controversy also had implications for peer review. Social Text was not a peer reviewed journal at the time, believing that this would promote more original, less conventional research, and trusted authors of prospective articles to guarantee the academic integrity of their work. Social Text's editors argue that, in this context, Sokal's work constituted 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, and many other instances in the history of science.

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 of 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."[5] He subsequently resigned from the program committee.


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