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The Sokal Hoax

Well, it finally happened. My response paper for our class reading this week was actually enough fun to write that I thought I'd put it up here for general consumption and eventual archiving. The topic of this week's discussion is the so-called Sokal Hoax. NYU professor of physics Alan Sokal wrote an article for Social Text in which he spouted some complete gibberish about quantum gravity and liberatory science. They took it seriously enough to publish it, and were not pleased when he immediately annouced (via Lingua Franca) that the whole thing had been a joke intended to point up the lack of standards in cultural studies publishing, among other things.

Here goes. It's a bit longer than usual.

In the beginning, and somewhat reluctantly in the end, I have to side with Sokal on this one. Not because what I think he did was a good idea, which I don't particularly; it was to at least some extent a mean thing to do, in the schoolyard sense of the word. Not because it was funny, which I think it was; mean though it may be, I admit I enjoy seeing arrogant people caught looking foolish. Not because I feel a certain sneaking admiration for anyone bloody-mindedly dedicated enough to compile more than ten pages of footnotes in the course of composing a spoof. I'm coming down on his side because on a number of issues I think he had a good enough point to make that the whole thing was worth it.

Whether or not the standards issue is as widespread as he seems to think it is, it certainly exists at Social Text, which is as far as I know is actually one of the better known cultural studies journals. In my opinion the editorial board should thank him for the lesson, however painful it may have been (judging by the editorial response, it stung quite a bit). No editor, anywhere, should have published that piece, let alone offered lame and patronizing excuses afterwards as to why they did so. I remain amazed by their initial response. "Not knowing the author or his work" or anything about the subject that makes up a good half of the article, is apparently grounds to let a piece go to press without any sort of editorial oversight, particularly if the author proves "difficult" and "uncooperative." One wonders if this tactic for getting published has been incorporated into a self-help book yet. If fact checking is going to be considered "needless suspicion" in the future, then so be it.

I do wish, however, that he had not been quite so quick to announce his hoax to the world. I wonder what the response to the piece would have been from the cultural studies community at large. In any case, I think his point is well made: when cultural studies of science goes beyond studying how knowledge is produced to making proclamations about the worth and implications of that knowledge, it would behoove practioners to learn something about the science they're critiquing.

I was intrigued by the fact that the many respondants to the hoax seemed to draw so many disparate conclusions as to Sokal's original intent and to what extent he had achieved it, though there are some common threads. Most of the rebuttals seem to be along the lines of "we do NOT say there is no reality." Their protests to the effect that only someone who really doesn't know what he was talking about with regard to cultural studies would ever think that they thought such a thing, appear to convict them of the very flaws they see in the Western practice of science: arrogance, inward-focus, obscurantism.

The rigor with which "The Sokal Affair in Context" analyzes that event in comparison with another is actually kind of amusing, given that Sokal himself characterizes his "hoax" as a "modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment" and makes no wider claim. Nor, in my interpretation, was he making the kind of sweeping conclusion Hilgartner accuses him of; I interpreted his piece and the aftermath as demonstrating the existence of a symptom, not as a dramatic pronouncement that the patient was dead.

In fact, the degree of intensity loosed on all sides of the affair strikes me as somewhat ludicrous, given that 5.999 of 6 billion people have probably never even heard of it, and those who had heard about it would probably have a hard time recalling the details three years later. So much for striking a death blow into the academy.

The heart of the issue appears to be almost more political than anything else. Both Sokal and his detractors claim they have the best interests of the Left in mind. I'd like to think that I do, too, and in my opinion, if a little fracas like this is capable of doing in the Left, we're better off dead. The only people who care whether reality is socially constructed or our theories of reality are socially constructed are sitting around a table in the highest available room of the Ivory Tower, patting each other on the back about how they showed that upstart physicist a thing or two. What they fail to address is his contention that whether one goes with door number one or door number two, one is still letting relativism in through the back way, which can be quite fatal for a philosophy that wants (or claims to want) political action.

Relevance and relativism, the two "Rs" I keep coming back to in this class. Do these cultural studies people preach to anyone other than the choir? The fact of the matter is that cultural studies of science is a small sect of intelligentsia in a large world. When they claim to be critiquing the foundations of power in Western civilization, who are they talking to? And whether one views the world as a consensual hallucination on the part of illusory selves, or as something which may well be real but of which we can have no certain knowledge, what can we base social action on?

In other words: what, if anything, are they actually trying to accomplish, and have they themselves removed their ability to accomplish it? Some of the goals I think I understand: demystifying the scientific establishment, exposing the intertwining roots of power, laying bare the competing interests that drive "progress" over the centuries. On these, I agree with Sokal that good science actually demands these things be done. I am, however, at a loss to understand how any greater social goal can be conceived or attained via the relativistic framework cultural studies seems to bring to every table it sits down at. The assumption of a politics of change has appeared to underlie much of what we have read to date, but few include anything like practical suggestions for how to accomplish that change. Do they think that once scientific power has been demystified, it will wither away like the Marxist state?

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Except where otherwise noted, all material on this site is © 1999 Rebecca J. Stevenson