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Sokal hoax

But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.  --Alan Sokal

In its 1996 Spring/Summer issue (pp. 217-252), Social Text journal published an article by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." The article was a hoax submitted, according to Sokal, to see "would a leading journal of cultural studies publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?" It would. Needless to say, the editors of Social Text were not pleased.

Sokal claims that the editors, had they been scrupulous and intellectually competent, would have recognized from the first paragraph of his essay that it was a parody. The physicist says he was "troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities." The hoax was his way of calling attention to this decline.

In his article, Sokal attacks "the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook" that there is an external world governed by laws of nature which we can understand imperfectly using the scientific method. He also claims that "physical 'reality' ... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." Furthermore, he says,

Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously. For example, I suggest that the "morphogenetic field'' -- a bizarre New Age idea due to Rupert Sheldrake -- constitutes a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity. This connection is pure invention; even Sheldrake makes no such claim. I assert that Lacan's psychoanalytic speculations have been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory. Even nonscientist readers might well wonder what in heavens' name quantum field theory has to do with psychoanalysis; certainly my article gives no reasoned argument to support such a link.

In sum, I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject.

Such lax editing might be expected in a New Age magazine, where preposterous and unfounded claims about paranormal "energies" being validated by quantum mechanics are commonplace. But Sokal thinks we should expect more of a prestigious journal edited by distinguished scholars in the humanities. But why did he pick on this particular journal?

Sokal hoaxed Social Text for political reasons. Both are "leftist" politically, but Sokal considers the New Left to be guilty of "epistemic relativism." (Is this another hoax?) He seems particularly peeved that the New Left promotes the notion that reality is a social construction. Furthermore, the New Left has created "a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside." So, apparently Sokal wanted to criticize the "epistemic relativism" and "social constructivism" of the New Left in a New Left journal but felt the only way they would let him do so would be if he pretended to share their ideology.

Many have pointed out the profound implications of this hoax. At the very least, articles should be reviewed by experts in the field covered by the article. Sources and references named in the article should be checked by the editors.

Above all, however, the Sokal hoax demonstrates how willing we are to be deceived about matters we believe strongly in. We are likely to be more critical of articles which attack our position than we are of those which we think supports it (Gilovich). This tendency to confirmation bias affects physicists as well as professors in the social sciences and the humanities.

See also Aztec UFO hoax, Carlos hoax, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, Cottingly fairy hoax, Arthur Ford hoax, Mary Toft hoax, Piltdown hoax, Pufedorf hoax, selective thinking, self-deception, Steve Terbot hoax, and subjective validation.

further reading

books and articles

The Sokal Hoax : The Sham That Shook the Academy by The Editors of Lingua Franca

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

Gross, Paul R. and Norman Levitt. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Koertge, Noretta. (Editor) A House Built on Sand : Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science (Oxford University Press, 1998).


The Sokal Incident - Everything on the Internet  relating to this hoax

Last updated 04-Jan-2015

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