Alan Sokal

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Alan Sokal
Born January 24, 1955
Boston, Massachusetts
Residence United States, Nicaragua, Great Britain
Citizenship American
Fields Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy of Science
Institutions New York University
National Autonomous University of Nicaragua
University College London
Alma mater Harvard University (B.A.)
Princeton University (doctorate)
Doctoral advisor Arthur Wightman
Known for Sokal Affair

Alan David Sokal (/ˈskəl/;[1] born 1955) is a professor of mathematics at University College London and professor of physics at New York University. He works in statistical mechanics and combinatorics. He is best known to the wider public for his criticism of postmodernism, after the Sokal affair in 1996 when his deliberately nonsensical paper was published by Duke University's Social Text. He also works to counter faulty scientific reasoning, as seen with his involvement in criticising the critical positivity ratio concept in positive psychology.

Academic career[edit]

Sokal received his B.A. from Harvard College in 1976 and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1981. He was advised by Arthur Wightman. In the summers of 1986-1988, Sokal taught mathematics at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, when the Sandinistas were heading the elected government.

Research interests[edit]

Sokal’s research lies in mathematical physics and combinatorics. In particular, he studies the interplay between these fields based on questions arising in statistical mechanics and quantum field theory. This includes work on the chromatic polynomial and the Tutte polynomial, which appear both in algebraic graph theory and in the study of phase transitions in statistical mechanics. His interests include computational physics and algorithms, such as Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithms for problems in statistical physics. He also co-authored a book on quantum triviality.[2]

In 2013 Sokal co-authored a paper with Nicholas Brown and Harris Friedman, rejecting the Losada Line, a concept popular in positive psychology. Named after its proposer, Marcial Losada, it refers to a critical range for an individual's ratio of positive to negative emotions, outside of which the individual will tend to have poorer life and occupational outcomes.[3] This concept of a critical positivity ratio was highly cited and popularised by psychologists such as Barbara Fredrickson. The trio's paper, published in American Psychologist, contended that the ratio was based on faulty mathematical reasoning and therefore invalid.[4]

Sokal affair[edit]

Main article: Sokal affair

Sokal is best known to the general public for the Sokal Affair of 1996. Curious to see whether the then-non-peer-reviewed postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text (published by Duke University Press) would publish a submission which "flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions," Sokal submitted a grand-sounding but completely nonsensical paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."[5][6]

The journal did in fact publish it, and soon thereafter Sokal then revealed that the article was a hoax in the journal Lingua Franca,[7] arguing that the left and social science would be better served by intellectual underpinnings based on reason. He replied to leftist and postmodernist criticism of the deception by saying that his motivation had been to "defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself."

The affair, together with Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt's 1994 book Higher Superstition, can be considered to be a part of the so-called Science wars.

Sokal followed up by co-authoring the book Impostures Intellectuelles with Jean Bricmont in 1997 (published in English, a year later, as Fashionable Nonsense). The book accuses some social sciences academics of using scientific and mathematical terms incorrectly and criticizes proponents of the strong program for denying the value of truth. The book had contrasted reviews, with some lauding the effort,[8] and some more reserved.[9][10]

In 2008, Sokal revisited the Sokal affair and its implications in Beyond the Hoax.

Quotes[edit]

  • 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.[11]
  • Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)[12]
  • Biblical scholar Jacques Berlinerblau points out, in an interesting recent book, The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (2005), that most contemporary atheists and agnostics — myself included, I must confess - are astoundingly ignorant of the details of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur'an. (not to mention the Bhagavad Gita and the Tripitaka, one could add)...When all is said and done, I see no reason to amend my judgment that the existence of the Jewish, Christian, Islamic or Hindu gods is about as plausible, given the currently available evidence, as the existence of Zeus or Thor.[13]

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijqy2A2wJJA
  2. ^ R. Fernandez, J. Froehlich, A. D. Sokal, "Random Walks, Critical Phenomena, and Triviality in Quantum Field Theory". Springer (April 1992) ISBN 0-387-54358-9
  3. ^ Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 30(9–10), 179–192.
  4. ^ Brown, N. J. L., Sokal, A. D., & Friedman, H. L. (2013). The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio. American Psychologist. Electronic publication ahead of print.
  5. ^ Sokal A. (1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text. 46/47 (46/47): 217–252. doi:10.2307/466856. JSTOR 466856. 
  6. ^ Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity
  7. ^ Sokal A. (1996). "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca: 62–64. 
  8. ^ Richard Dawkins (July 1998). "Postmodernism disrobed". Nature 394 (6689): 141–143. Bibcode:1998Natur.394..141D. doi:10.1038/28089. 
  9. ^ Stephen Hilgartner (Autumn 1997). "The Sokal Affair in Context". Science, Technology & Human Values 22 (4): 506–522. doi:10.1177/016224399702200404. 
  10. ^ William M. Epstein (1990). "Confirmational response bias among social work journals". Science, Technology & Human Values 15 (1): 9–38. doi:10.1177/016224399001500102. 
  11. ^ Transgressing the Boundaries: an afterword. 1996. https://www.physics.wisc.edu/undergrads/...f07/.../sokal-2.pdf
  12. ^ A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca. May/June 1996. http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html
  13. ^ Alan Sokal (2010). Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture: Science, Philosophy and Culture. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191623349. "Biblical scholar Jacques Berlinerblau points out, in an interesting recent book, The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (2005), that most contemporary atheists and agnostics — myself included, I must confess - are astoundingly ignorant of the details of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur'an. (not to mention the Bhagavad Gita and the Tripitaka, one could add)...When all is said and done, I see no reason to amend my judgment that the existence of the Jewish, Christian, Islamic or Hindu gods is about as plausible, given the currently available evidence, as the existence of Zeus or Thor." 

External links[edit]