I Refute It Thus

By David H. Freedman|Wednesday, January 01, 1997
In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science--among them, existence itself--become problematized and relativized.

Did that not make sense to you? Oh well, never mind, says author Alan Sokal--just kidding. Sokal, a New York University physicist, assembled an article’s worth of such impressive-sounding but largely meaningless expoundings, gave it the daunting title Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, and submitted it to the academic journal Social Text, whose editors were impressed enough to publish it last spring. When Sokal publicly revealed his little joke in May, a howl went up: Has academia lost its ability to distinguish scholarship from junk?

The target of Sokal’s hoax was postmodernism, a movement associated with the intellectual left which holds, among other things, that science has no more claim to the truth than any other cultural enterprise. Sokal, who is himself a leftist, purports to argue in the article that modern physics proves that reality itself is subjective, which in turn proves that postmodernism has it exactly right. But in fact, says Sokal, the article simply glues physics truths and half-truths together with hair- raising leaps in logic to prove . . . well, it doesn’t really prove anything, he says, except that the editors of Social Text and some of their colleagues among the intellectual left have abandoned accepted academic standards. They should have at least sent it to a physicist for review, Sokal says. And even without understanding the physics, they should have noticed the grossly absurd analogies I made between quantum mechanics and political process.

The editors of Social Text, sadly deceived in their conviction that Sokal’s article was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy (as their Web site explains), claim it was he who flaunted academic standards. They argue that since Social Text is not a scientific journal, it was reasonable for them to assume that an established physicist like Sokal would have his physics straight. This was a highly engineered hoax of the sort that only someone in a comfortable professional position would attempt, says Social Text coeditor Andrew Ross, who directs the American Studies program at New York University. For a lot of people this would be seen as falling under the rubric of scientific fraud.

Ironically, the hoax racked up some of its heaviest mileage with the Rush Limbaugh crowd, which was quick to hold up the incident as proof that academia is overflowing with eggheaded liberals spouting politically correct baloney. But Sokal remains unrepentant. People have said to me I shouldn’t wash the left’s dirty linen in public, he explains, but where else should I wash it? This was a way of strengthening the left, not subverting it. Which might leave many left-wingers hoping that Sokal will someday take an interest in strengthening the right.
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