A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax

January 31, 2012

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.


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.


This YouTube video is why we must save the Internet

January 30, 2012

I put up the conspiracy theory round-up last night, and this only arrived last night. It will doubtlessly be in the running for the conspiracy theory of the week. It’s really this guy’s language skills that knock me off my feet, hold me down, and beat me mercilessly:


This Week in Conspiracy (28 January 2012)

January 29, 2012

Amazingly, there were no new conspiracy theories this week. Everyone just kind of got it together and things ended up being pretty groovy. OH WHO AM I KIDDING?! I’VE BEEN SENTENCED TO LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE!!!

At any rate, I picked up Conspiracy Rising by Martha F. Lee. I’ll likely review it here in a few days. It’s one of my first few ebooks. I may review the ebook experience while I’m at it, since I have been a holdout for a long time.

  • Nanoparticles? At Fukushima? Oh no! Not NANO! Nano’s the conspiracy theorist’s flubber! Sure, there haven’t been any deaths from the meltdown at Fukushima, that doesn’t mean you can’t scare your readers. Unethical, InfoHub. Would you at least apologize when you are wrong? Reputable news outlets do that when they screw up so epically.
  • A new study finds that some conspiracy theorists are capable of believing two incompatible conspiracy theories at once. We are going to have to revise the definition of “genius,” clearly.
  • Well, a graduate student at Yale is having a bit of a protracted freakout. She was relieved of her teaching duties when she unrolled a mother of a conspiracy theory on her students. It’s out there.
  • Now, I’m not calling Above Top Secret reputable, mind you, but a mod did go out of his/her way to correct misinformation a contributor released. The tweet I received read:

Judge Has Ruled, Secretary Of State Agrees, Obama Off Of Ballot In Georgia!!!!!! (69 flags) dlvr.it/17Ttp

A moment’s consideration reveals that since this is not front page news all over the country it is unlikely to be true. The mod links to the AJC, which is darned respectable. Here’s their take.

The photos and an interview with an eyewitness who described the facility and its inward facing barbed wire fence and one-way turnstiles add more compelling evidence to the indisputable fact that FEMA operates as a modern version of the Gestapo.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

I easily could have picked “Extraterrestrial War of the 1930’s reveals Jewish holocaust true masterminds,” but I didn’t. I picked the conspiracy theory I’m calling: “You got the right one–babies!” Mike Adams over at Natural News accuses Pepsi of using aborted fetuses in taste tests. The story does not originate with Adams, who I can’t remember ever being right about anything, but it prompted an Oklahoma state senator to introduce anti-Soylent Green legislation. This guy also happens to be a birther. My favorite headline: “Fun-Hating Legislator Proposes Ban on Eating Aborted Human Fetuses.” Forbes discusses the fake controversy.

Exopolitics let me down this week, I have to day. Oh, well. I’m sure there will be more to it.

This Week in Conspiracy (22 Jan 2012)

January 22, 2012

…And we’re back. I am writing this at a Whole Foods, where I am surrounded by hippies, feeling a little like Cartman.

But not even wafting clouds of caustic patchouli could keep me from rounding up the worst of the web! I’m going to have to keep this one short, however, as I am gearing up for a pretty big job interview. This is the one, people.

  • Ah, it’s the end of the world. Again. This time, it’s skyquakes, and should my spell check ever accept that as a word, I shall promptly jump into a canyon. They are caused, sez this dude, by a “destabilizing core,” whatever that is. He might as well say it is caused by trolls. Visit that link only if you want to experience an intricate vacuity.
  • From the Most Irritating Man in the World comes, “Nicola Tesla–Superhero!” Stay goofy, my friends.
  • Orly Taitz’s subpoena of Obama not summarily thrown out of court, for once. The best coverage begins:

​Orly Taitz won a court motion in Georgia this week and, after consulting my ass and the sky, monkeys are not flying out of my butt and pigs still cannot fly.

AboveTopSecret @AboveTopSecret 2m  Reply  Retweet  Favorite · Open
Who killed Iran’s nuclear scientist? CIA, Mossed, Britain, Iran? Let
me know RT @ATSRecapBryan – ow.ly/8A37y

  • NASA: “Not all triangles are UFOs.”
  • The conspiracy to keep Ron Paul from ever winning anything at the national level continues in South Carolina.
  • Baby dies of disease she was probably not vaccinated against. BLAME THE VACCINES! There are lots of causes of meningitis, and she was vaccinated against the bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae, which used to be the prime cause. But there are other bacteria that cause meningitis, like, Streptococcus pneumoniae, which now causes most cases of bacterial meningitis. This poor girl’s first diagnosis was “slight chest infection.” By the way, take a gander at this woman’s CV. Her warped view of vaccines has led her to write a book suggesting that baby-shaking baby killers are falsely accused. Wow.
  • Grr.
  • Oh no! The Illuminati are invading Eastern European pop music! Is nothing too irrelevant?!?
  • Shaq reveals he is a Mason:

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

You almost won again again, Exopolitics.com, with “Evidence shows 9/11 false flag operation may have been a hyperdimensional ET event,” but this week’s prize goes to a family that should not have access to video equipment. Or the Internet. Or vinegar:

That’s all for now. I’m now off to have every item of clothing I own pressed and starched.


This Week in Conspiracy (15 Jan 2012)

January 17, 2012

Sorry I’ve been quiet lately, but I’ve been out and about in a big way. Since last time I posted, I have been to the Pacific Northwest, where I had the pleasure of hanging out with many of the Seattle Skeptics. I went birding on Mt. Rainier (foolish me) and interviewed people who were a little scared of the murals at the Denver International Airport. Hopefully that will become a Skeptical Inquirer article or post.

Unfortunately, I started this post in the lobby of my hotel, and lost a huge amount of work when I closed my laptop. Grr. But technical glitches will not stop me from bringing you the week in the weird-o-sphere.

The spraying itself is carried out by the U.S. military; probably the Air Force. The orders mostly come from Wall Street. The military man or men in charge of the operation take orders from an intelligence agency.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

No contest. It was tweeted by Jason Brown, @drunkenmadman:


That was at least as fun as “Terrified Woman From Other Universe Wakes Up Here.”

No wait. There is a new winner. It is this. She’s really sick, but the tales she tells (and the fact that she felt she needed to tell it in her bathroom wearing a bathing suit) freaking fascinate me. I mean…wow. Warning: this is so obscene your ears might burst in a desperate attempt to protect your sanity, but it won’t help. The sheer quantities of Jesuit bodily fluids. Be advised, do not watch this:

And that’s it. I’ll see you next week. I really hope. More traveling as the job situation gets serious. I have an interview in about two weeks and a talk to prepare to give to that department. I’m talking about…conspiracy theories (among other things). Go figure.


Skeptical Humanities Panel at Dragon*Con

January 15, 2012

We’ve been out of commission for a few weeks. I am working on another edition of the conspiracy theory round up this evening, but to tide you over, I’d like to direct you to a video that just went up, our Skepticism and Humanities panel at Dragon*Con, featuring Eve, Massimo Pigliucci, Jenna Marie Griffith, Joe Nickell and me.

Much thanks goes to Derek Colanduno, who runs the SkepTrack, and Mark Ditsler of Abrupt Media, who records every second of SkeptTrack in high-def on a minimum of five cameras.