Physicist Publishes a Deliberately Fraudulent Article Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Concerned about a perceived misuse of scientific vocabularies and theories by postmodernist critics, American physicist Alan Sokal parodied postmodern criticism in a journal article he later acknowledged was a hoax. The incident provoked widespread debate about intellectual integrity, academic publishing, postmodern criticism, and cultural studies.

Summary of Event

Physicist Alan Sokal, distressed by what he considered was a retreat from a responsible concern with evidence in both academics and leftist politics influenced by postmodernism, conducted an experiment that would ignite a firestorm of controversy in academia and the press. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” a brilliant parody of the jargon and attitudes of faddish leftist academic scholarship, was the outcome of that experiment. The essay, which Sokal submitted to the respected critical and cultural studies journal Social Text, was filled with what Sokal considered characteristically ill-defined claims having little but their fashionableness to recommend them. Those with knowledge of mathematical set theory, for example, could only chuckle at the following Sokal line, taken from a footnote in the controversial work. [kw]Physicist Publishes a Deliberately Fraudulent Article (Spring, 1996) [kw]Fraudulent Article, Physicist Publishes a Deliberately (Spring, 1996) Sokal, Alan Social Text (journal) Sokal, Alan Social Text (journal) [g]United States;Spring, 1996: Physicist Publishes a Deliberately Fraudulent Article[02750] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Spring, 1996: Physicist Publishes a Deliberately Fraudulent Article[02750] [c]Publishing and journalism;Spring, 1996: Physicist Publishes a Deliberately Fraudulent Article[02750] [c]Education;Spring, 1996: Physicist Publishes a Deliberately Fraudulent Article[02750] Ross, Andrew Robbins, Bruce Aronowitz, Stanley Bricmont, Jean

[L]iberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice. But this framework is grossly insufficient for a liberatory mathematics, as was proven long ago.

Journal editors published Sokal’s essay in the Spring/Summer, 1996, “Science Wars” issue of Social Text.

Sokal acknowledged his deception in “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies,” published in the May/June, 1996, issue of the popular academic magazine Lingua Franca. He then submitted a second essay to Social Text to explain his motives for the deception, but the journal declined to publish the piece. That second essay, “Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword,” was published in the fall, 1996, issue of the political journal Dissent and in slightly different form in the October, 1996, issue of the journal Philosophy and Literature.

Intense debate ensued. Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries” was full of exaggerated and absurd science, nonsensical claims, ungrounded assertions, and vocabulary considered politically correct and fashionably flattering. Two editors of Social Text, Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins—and various sympathizers—explained how the article came to be accepted, but the reasons they offered cast an even less flattering light on the viewpoints they represented.

Social Text founding editor Stanley Aronowitz defended the journal’s decision to publish the essay. He took issue with Sokal’s belief that, as Aronowitz put it, “proper scientific method filters out social and cultural influences in the process of discovery.” Others also questioned the belief that scientific method is clear and that only error can be explained in terms of cultural factors. Literary theorist Fish, Stanley Stanley Fish argued, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times (“Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke,” May 21, 1996), that Sokal’s deception undermined the basic trust and collegiality relied on by scientific investigation.

To many others, however, Sokal’s experiment demonstrated the incompetence (at best) or dishonesty (at worst) of those who had been deceived. More generally, the hoax seemed a decisive demonstration of the intellectual bankruptcy of trendy postmodernism in its various guises.

Some of those sympathetic to postmodernism’s virtues embraced dismissive explanations or changed the subject to Sokal’s own motivations, and a few misunderstood the hoax as a right-wing entry in the debate over political correctness (either to revile or salute it). Indeed, Sokal did not conceal his own leftist political sympathies. Others argued that Sokal had caricatured postmodernist philosophy and oversimplified the history of science. Mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg, for example, critiqued Sokal’s work in a series of articles emphasizing “the failure of my professional colleagues, the science warriors, to recognize the limits of their competence to read and reason intelligently about certain texts that are outside their professional domains.” Philosopher and historian of science Mara Beller argued that “astonishing statements, hardly distinguishable from those satirized by Sokal, abound in the writings of [famous physicists such as] Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Born and Jordan.”

With many additional examples on hand of the (apparent) misuse of science by nonscientists, mostly collected during the preparation of the parody, Sokal wrote a book, in French (Impostures intellectuelles, 1997), with his Belgian colleague, Jean Bricmont. Published later in the United States as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (1999), the work offers detailed criticism of the scientific faux pas of a number of French intellectuals who had influenced American academics. A new firestorm was ignited.

Undeterred, Sokal continued what he considered was his second career: defender of an evidence-based, scientific approach to social issues. In later work, he explored the ways in which pseudoscience shares intellectual weaknesses with postmodernism. Sokal argues that pseudoscience and postmodernism encourage a self-serving scientific gullibility. He also turned his attention to the ways in which the political left’s postmodernist vices facilitated the conservative distortion of science during the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush, a distortion based on the vested interests of big corporations and religious fundamentalists. Sokal’s criticism culminated in the book Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy, and Culture (2008).

Impact

The Sokal hoax provoked international debate, especially in the United States and France, about the meanings of science, rationality, and intellectualism, and about the academy in general. According to scholar Patricia Clough, the hoax and ensuing debate help to explain why the so-called culture wars became the so-called science wars. In assessing the long-term effects of the hoax, Clough laments that “cultural studies of science have been turned over to disciplinary studies,” meaning that the social sciences and humanities have themselves formed their own science-studies specializations (within their respective fields), “as if to assure the disciplinary and methodological rigor of those engaged in science studies.” That shift, she suggests, had the effect of limiting or restricting criticism: Questions about the legitimacy of science and reason had been “quieted,” Clough argues, and the relationship of such questions to various differences (of race, gender, and class) has “ceased to be central to social criticism.” Sokal himself rejoiced that among the academic left, “pronouncements of extreme relativism have subsided significantly in recent years.”

Even assuming that such changes in scholarship and focus were made, their connection to the hoax remains uncertain. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that Sokal’s engaging criticism of the abuse of science played a major role in focusing attention on these issues. Some even would contend that because postmodernist attitudes are so impervious to reasoned criticism, effective refutation ironically had to employ more than merely argumentative means. Arguably, it was scandal alone—the scandal of appearing (and, in fact, being) gullible—that affected the selective skepticism and convenient relativism of academics at the end of the twentieth century. Sokal, Alan Social Text (journal)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Mara. “The Sokal Hoax: At Whom are We Laughing?” Physics Today 51, no. 9 (September, 1998). Bell argues that it was “the great quantum physicists,” and not modern cultural critics, “in whose writings we find roots of the postmodernist excesses of today.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clough, Patricia Ticineto. “Technoscience, Global Politics, and Cultural Criticism.” Social Text 22, no. 3 (Fall, 2004): 1-23. Introduction to an issue examining the impact of Sokal’s parody. The authors “think about technoscience not only as an object of social criticism” but also “as a resource of thought for social criticism.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mooney, Chris, and Alan Sokal. “Can Washington Get Smart About Science?” Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2007. A brief discussion of the ways in which right-wing corporate and fundamentalist science abuse in Washington, D.C., has supplanted leftist postmodernist science abuse in the academy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sokal, Alan D. Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy, and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. A reconsideration of his own 1996 hoax and an extension of its lessons to right-wing abuses of science. Includes a reprint of the parody, with explanatory footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sokal, Alan D., and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. New York: Picador, 1999. Originally published in French in 1997, this detailed criticism of the postmodernist thought of French intellectuals examines a broad range of texts discovered in the course of Sokal’s preparation of his parody. Includes a reprint of the parody and its later-published afterword.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The Sokal Hoax: The Sham that Shook the Academy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. An anthology by the editors of Lingua Franca. Surveys the impact of the hoax (the original parody, Sokal’s “confession,” and numerous commentaries).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stolzenberg, Gabriel. “Reading and Relativism: An Introduction to the Science Wars.” In After the Science Wars, edited by Keith Ashman and Philip Baringer. New York: Routledge, 2001. One of several essays in which Stolzenberg makes his case that the Sokal-style criticism of postmodernist and other philosophical thought frequently misreads texts, argues simplistically, and generally overreaches its limits of competence.

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