A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax

Yesterday, chum of the Skeptical Humanities site, Sharon Hill of the Doubtful News blog, posted a generally excellent piece about skeptics putting on hoaxes. Go read it. But be ye warned, she ventures like a deer into the barreling Mack track that is Skeptical Humanities when she says:

Many other hoaxes can be found on the Museum of Hoaxes website including the famous Sokal hoax where Alan Sokal sent in a paper full of gobbledegook words to a journal to see if it would be accepted. It was. He succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals and embarrassing his field into reaction.

Well, not exactly. Sokal was a physicist, who was attempting to make a point about certain critics’ misuse of scientific terminology and a sort of absurd posturing that one often sees in the postmodern camps of literary theory.

In the schools of thought that concerned Alan Sokal, all language is basically a game and meaning is never absolute. He was prompted to perpetrate the hoax after he read Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Gross and Levitt. In Higher Superstition, the authors, both working scientists, look at a lot of the big names in critical theory, including Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, and others and show in excruciating detail how utterly unqualified to have an opinion about the scientific matters on which they publish. Most of what they find is gobbledegook, not unlike the science word-salad of newage gurus like Deepak Chopra and Ramtha, the guy from outer space who lives inside a lady.

Gross and Levitt notice that there are some similarities between the schools of thought that accrete around these academic gurus. In these cliques, you are generally rewarded for exaggerating the socially liberating potential of… whatever text you are looking at, whether it is Finnegans Wake or the back of a Happy Meal. (I’d rather read the back of a Happy Meal, to be honest.) They notice a particular ritual vocabulary, the presence of which seems to validate whatever is being said by the critical theorist, but which is impenetrable to mortals. And, lastly, they especially focus on the ways in which critical theory has presumed to critique not only the language in which science is communicated, but the content of the science itself, that is, that in the extreme forms of this criticism, all reality is merely a linguistic construct, often one that somehow offends the political principles that motivate the cultural critics. Therefore, the critic concludes: “Science is wrong. I just recreated the entire world. I’m pretty much a genius.”

You’d like to think that I’m joking, but take Sandra Harding’s closer to her book, The Science Question in Feminism:

“When we began theorizing our experience…we know our task would be a difficult though exciting one. But I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined that we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself to make sense of women’s social experience.”

So, this sort of self-important posturing by the scientifically illiterate does exist, and this is what Gross and Levitt demonstrated in spades in their book. How far can it go, wondered NYU physicist Alan Sokal?

Pretty far, it turns out.

Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodern critical journal, Social Text, called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” It’s a screamer. It makes no sense. The editors of Social Text accepted it without any changes (they had asked for some, but Sokal refused, and they ran it anyway). It seems they were excited to have a physicist speaking their language and trusted him.

Oops.

When “Transgressing the Boundaries” went to press, Sokal released yet another article in a different publication exposing the hoax. I was an undergraduate at the time and missed the controversy the first time around, but it was intense and still ignites fierce debate about the meaning of the hoax, academic honesty, and a whole range of other issues, many of which Sharon identifies with respect to other hoaxes. I discussed this hoax in a paper I gave in April, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory.”

What is important for the purpose of this post is that the Sokal Hoax does not actually demonstrate what people have said that it demonstrates. A sample size of one does simply does not qualify all-inclusive statements like “[Sokal] succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals….” He did, after all, only show that one journal of a specific academic bent, postmodern criticism, was WAY too uncritical about what it accepted, not that humanities journals are in decline.

The type of problem that Social Text represented back in the day (it is not often noted that the editors re-schooled themselves in science after the hoax was revealed, much to their credit) should not reflect on the myriad of other journals that use accumulated evidence and genuine expertise to make statements and meaningful arguments about history, linguistics and languages, literature, rhetoric, media, music, ethics, philosophy, theology, and all the other fields of study that fall under the purview of the humanities writ large. Yes, critical theory sometimes is wacky, but sometimes it’s sensible, even enjoyable. No, critical theory is not the humanities, though by the grandiose posturing that some practitioners have adopted, you might be tempted to think that they were.

This is the point of this blog, to show that there is more to the humanities than theorizing feminist algebra, whatever that is, and to remind our friends in the sciences that we are doing serious, scholarly work as well.

RJB

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14 Responses to A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax

  1. Ryan F says:

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve long been annoyed by the way skeptics misrepresent Sokal and humanities scholarship as a whole.

  2. Bob says:

    Me too. But, damn it, we’re clever! :)

    Bob

  3. pacal says:

    Well in fairness a lot of Post-Modernism is so convoluted and so throughly obtuse that the derision and contempt it attracts is hardly a surprise.

    I myself have suffered through reading Derrida, Foucault, Lacan etc. And I do mean suffer! However despite the obtuse vocabulary, the convoluted and obscuratist, turgid style of writing there is good stuff in there. This is despite the fact that frequently these people mouth banalities in convoluted prose using 10 words when one would suffice.

    Foucault esspecially I found insightful and interesting, when he wasn’t playing around with verbal diaharea cluster word fucks.

    Even Derrida, who in my opinion is one of the worst literary stylists ever, (Much, much worst than Hegal who is dreadful.) has interesting things to say once you figure out what he is saying. Derrida didn’t make it easy for anyone by making his already stunningly turgid prose, almost completely opaque.

    Also annoying was that so many Post-Modernists would make statements indicating that they thought reality was all in your head and a “social construct” and that you could not know anything for real. Then when critics said “are you saying that reality doesn’t “really” exist?”. They would deny it but go right on back to making remarks which indicated solipsism.

    Fortunately not all or it appears most Post-Modernists do not write like this or indulge in solipistic rhetoric, or at least such extreme crap.

    Sadly many Post-Modernists think that their worldview / theory is liberating and emancipatory. Not really in my opinion extreme Post-Modernism is nothing but from a political point of view except impotent and harmless. After all if the extreme Post Modernists are right and all opinions are valid what deference does it make what I think or in fact what I do, because I can’t “know” anything for real.

    Thus we get some extreme Post-Modernists when asked if all beliefs are equally valid about how the world operates etc, (I.e. equally “priviliged”. I note that such Post-Modernists “privlige” Post-modernism. They seem to be unaware of why we should use Post-modernism if all points of view are equally valid.), what about Holocaust denial? A response by some of these people is that the stories are moving, that they are true seems to be beside the point. Of courase this attitude provides no defence against the “equal validity” of something as disgusting and vile as Holocaust denial.

    I’m convinced that Post-Modernism can provide useful insights in how people construct reality, how beliefs are maintained and how “discourse” affects beliefs etc. I do wish the writing was less opaque than it frequently is and I do wish the extremists would stop spouting nonsense.

  4. Bob says:

    Don’t make me recreate reality around you, Pacal. :)

    I think that you are right about Foucault and Derrida. Foucault at his best is illuminating and enjoyable. If you know something about German philosophers, you can get a lot out of Of Grammatology.

    I think I look at that last bit a little bit in my science and theory talk. PoMo works like a lot of other self-sustaining belief systems.

    RJB

    • Ken says:

      PoMo works like a lot of other self-sustaining belief systems.

      With the peculiar twist that it is simultaneously self-refuting. The practitioners are engaging in the self-sustaining behaviors that maintain their group and reassure them that they have found the one correct way of thinking about the world, but the content of that belief is that there is no one correct way of thinking about the world.

  5. Ann Kittenplan says:

    The one thing sceptics aren’t sceptical about is scepticism*.

    This is a really interesting take on the Sokal hoax. You could almost use it as yardstick against which to measure sceptics.

    Do you have details/a reference for the point about the editors going away and booking up on some of the science in order not to get caught out again.

    *insert qualifiers as required

  6. Bob says:

    Well, that comes from one of their graduate students, who was at a panel I was on last year. So, I am taking it on the good faith that they did. Knowing my relationship with my diss director, I imagine that they are in a good position to know that–and they made a point of coming up to tell me. But I could be wrong. :)

    RJB

  7. Gabriel says:

    Very good! I’m a history graduate from Brazil and sometimes I feel so submerged in the postmodern crap that I think I’m gonna have an aneurism… It’s so good to know that I’m not the only skeptical in the humanities, even if I only founded another one in another country =)
    I know it’s a long shot, but anyone knows any site like this one in portuguese?

  8. Bob says:

    I’m glad you found us. I don’t know of any other blogs that do what we’ re doing here. I think bad history does something similar. But postmodernism tried to destroy the humanities, IMHO.

    • Gabriel says:

      Thanks anyway. I agree with you. I heard a few days ago some scientists saying in a podcast here that postmodernism is almost dead. Do you agree with that?

      • Bob says:

        I think it’s on its way out, but it probably left its mark on the humanities for good. The type of “argument-by-associative-logic” that it seems to promote, I think, will outlive the practice of self-identifying as a postmodernist.

        RJB

  9. Bob says:

    ZOMG, Ed! That is…a beautiful shame! Breathtaking. If that story tickles your fancy, you might like Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies, a classic exploration of cranks.

  10. skepoet says:

    What is strange to me about this is how much “Skeptic’s” outside of the humanities don’t really know the field much because while this gets passed around about post-modernism (although I will defend Foucault and to a lesser degree Bruno Latour as much more than word salad and a bit profound and at times infuriating, but Foucault actually is much clearer in French) as if post-modernism was even a regular practice in the humanities (furthermore, some of the authors they call post-modern or post-structural, like Lacan, aren’t.)

    A lot of continental philosophy right now is still just as hard to read (Badiou, Zizek) but completely endorsing of most if not all scientific practice. Badiou particularly is glowing about science as a truth procedure.

    Given the amount of papers published in humanities journals, I am actually surprised this doesn’t happen more.

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