The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether "a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions".
The article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", was published in the Social Text Spring/Summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. On its date of publication (May 1996), Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense...structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics".
The resultant academic and public quarrels concerned the scholarly merit of humanistic commentary about the physical sciences; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether the journal had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor before publishing the pseudoscientific article.
- 1 Background
- 2 The article
- 3 Responses
- 4 Sociological follow-up study
- 5 Similar scandals
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
In an interview on the NPR program All Things Considered, Sokal said he was inspired to submit the hoax article after reading Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994), by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. In their book, Gross and Levitt claimed that an anti-intellectual trend had swept university liberal arts departments (especially English departments), causing them to become dominated by a "trendy" branch of postmodernist deconstructionism.
Higher Superstition argued that in the 1990s, a group of academics whom the authors referred to collectively as "the Academic Left" was dominated by professors who concentrated on racism, sexism, and other perceived prejudices, and that science was eventually included among their targets—later provoking the "Science Wars", which questioned the validity of scientific objectivity. Academic journals in the humanities were publishing articles by writers who, scientists argued, demonstrated little or no knowledge of science. Per the introduction: "A curious fact about the recent left-critique of science is the degree to which its instigators have overcome their former timidity, of indifference towards the subject, not by studying it in detail, but rather by creating a repertoire of rationalizations for avoiding such study."
After analyzing essays from "the academic Left", scientists argued that some of these critical writers were ignorant of the original scientific documents they were criticizing and, therefore, were making a series of nonsensical statements about the nature and intent of science. Gross and Levitt found it especially troubling that academic journals were judging the scholarship not through peer review but merely according to their political tilt. Higher Superstition argued that for an article to be published in some academic journals, especially those associated with the humanities, it needed only to display "the proper leftist thought" and to be written by—or to quote—well-known leftist authors.[page needed]
Higher Superstition was thus an attempt to challenge purportedly uncritical subjectivist thought, the validity of which otherwise went largely uncriticized. The book also argued that the Science Wars were fought primarily by non-scientists pushing contentious claims about the dubiousness of scientific objectivity.[page needed]
Sokal reasoned that, if the presumption of editorial laziness was correct, the nonsensical content of his article would be irrelevant to whether the editors would publish it. What would matter would be ideologic obsequiousness, fawning references to deconstructionist writers, and sufficient quantities of the appropriate jargon. Writing after the article was published and the hoax revealed, he stated:
The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project’’ [sec. 6]. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.
Content of the article
"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" proposed that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, and that the "morphogenetic field" could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity (a morphogenetic field is a concept proposed by Rupert Sheldrake that Sokal characterized in the affair's aftermath as "a bizarre New Age idea"). Sokal wrote that the concept of "an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being" was "dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook".
After referring skeptically to the "so-called scientific method", the article declared that "it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical 'reality'" is fundamentally "a social and linguistic construct". It went on to assert that because scientific research is "inherently theory-laden and self-referential", it "cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities" and that therefore a "liberatory science" and an "emancipatory mathematics", spurning "the elite caste canon of 'high science'", needed to be established for a "postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project".
Moreover, the article's footnotes conflate academic terms with sociopolitical rhetoric, e.g.:
Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and 'pro-choice', so liberal (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.
Sokal submitted the article to Social Text, whose editors were collecting articles for the "Science Wars" issue. "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" was the only article submitted by a natural scientist. Later, after Sokal's self-exposure of his pseudoscientific hoax article in the journal Lingua Franca, the Social Text editors explained in a published essay that they had requested editorial changes that Sokal refused to make, and had had concerns about the quality of the writing, stating "We requested him (a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and (b) to excise most of his footnotes". Nonetheless, despite subsequently designating the physicist as having been a "difficult, uncooperative author", and noting that such writers were "well known to journal editors", Social Text published the article in acknowledgment of the author's credentials in the May 1996 Spring/Summer "Science Wars" issue.
In 1996, Social Text did not conduct peer review because its editors believed that an open editorial policy would stimulate more original, less conventional research.
Follow-up between Sokal and the editors
In the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, in the article "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies", Sokal revealed that "Transgressing the Boundaries" was a hoax and concluded that Social Text "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject" because of its ideological proclivities and editorial bias. In their defense, the Social Text editors said they believed that "Transgressing the Boundaries" "was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field" and that "its status as parody does not alter, substantially, our interest in the piece, itself, as a symptomatic document". Besides criticizing his writing style, the Social Text editors accused Sokal of behaving unethically in deceiving them.
In response, Sokal said that their response illustrated the problem he highlighted. Social Text, as an academic journal, published the article not because it was faithful, true, and accurate to its quantum gravity subject, but because an "Academic Authority" had written it and because of the appearance of the obscure writing. The editors said they considered it poorly written but published it because they felt Sokal was an academic seeking their intellectual affirmation. Sokal stated in his response:
My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. . . . There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counterproductive.
Social Text's response revealed none of its editors had suspected Sokal's piece was a parody. Instead, they speculated Sokal's admission "represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve". Sokal found further humor in the premise that his absurdity was difficult to spot:
In the second paragraph I declare without the slightest evidence or argument, that "physical 'reality' (note the scare quotes)... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough. 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.
Book by Sokal and Bricmont
In 1997, Sokal and Jean Bricmont co-wrote Impostures Intellectuelles (US: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, UK: Intellectual Impostures, 1998). The book featured analysis of writing extracts from established intellectuals that contained blatant abuses of scientific terminology. It closed with a critical summary of postmodernism and criticism of the Strong programme of social constructionism in the sociology of scientific knowledge.
Mainstream media and Jacques Derrida
In the United States, as Sokal revealed the hoax, French philosopher Jacques Derrida was initially one of the favorite targets of discredit, particularly in newspaper coverage. A U.S. weekly magazine used two images of Derrida, a photo and a caricature, to illustrate a "dossier" on the Sokal article. Derrida responded to the hoax in "Sokal and Bricmont Aren't Serious", first published in Le Monde. He called Sokal's action sad (triste) for having overshadowed Sokal's mathematical work and ruining the chance to carefully sort out controversies about scientific objectivity. Derrida went on to fault him and co-author Jean Bricmont for what he considered an act of intellectual bad faith: They had accused him of scientific incompetence in the English edition of a follow-up book (an accusation several English reviewers noted), but deleted the accusation from the French edition and denied that it had ever existed. He concluded, as the title indicates, that Sokal was not serious in his approach, but had used the spectacle of a "quick practical joke" to displace the scholarship Derrida believed the public deserved.
Stephen Hilgartner, the Cornell University science and technologies department chairman, wrote "The Sokal Affair in Context" (1997), comparing Sokal's hoax to "Confirmational Response: Bias Among Social Work Journals" (1990), an article by William M. Epstein published in Science, Technology & Human Values. Epstein used a similar approach to Sokal's, submitting fictitious articles to real academic journals to measure their response. Though far more methodologically rigorous than Sokal's work, it received scant media attention. Hilgartner thus argued that the intellectual impact of the successful Sokal hoax cannot be attributed to its quality as a "demonstration" but rather to journalistic hyperbole and the anti-intellectual biases of some American journalists.
The Sokal Affair scandal extended from academia to the public press. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, criticized in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (1998), described the scandal as a "tempest in a tea cup". The mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg wrote essays meant to discredit the claims of Sokal and his allies, arguing that they insufficiently grasped the philosophy they criticized, rendering their criticism meaningless. In Social Studies of Science, Bricmont and Sokal responded to Stolzenberg, denouncing his "tendentious misrepresentations" of their work and criticizing Stolzenberg's commentary about the Strong programme. In the same issue, Stolzenberg replied, arguing that their critique and allegations of misrepresentation were based on misreadings. He advised readers to slowly and skeptically examine the arguments proposed by each party, bearing in mind that "the obvious is sometimes the enemy of the true".
Science war commentary
In spring of 1997, the postmodern philosopher Fred Newman responded to the Sokal Affair in the paper "Science Can Do Better than Sokal: A Commentary on the So-Called Science Wars", which he presented at the Postmodernism and the Social Sciences conference at the New School for Social Research; Alan Sokal was a participant. Newman called for the union of science and postmodernism—proposing that postmodernism is not a critique of science per se but of the inappropriate application of the scientific paradigm to psychology.
Sociological follow-up study
Even though many people found Sokal's hoax convincing, it was a demonstration as opposed to a rigorous scientific study. For this reason, one main hypothesis was later tested in a controlled experiment, but with a different target group, by Cornell sociologist Robb Willer. Student subjects were randomly separated into treatment and control groups; both groups were presented with copies of Sokal's hoax article. Those in the control condition were led to believe that it was penned by another student; those in the treatment condition were told it was written by a famous academic. The experimenters found that those subjects who believed that the author of the text was a high-status intellectual were significantly more likely to claim that the text was comprehensible, interesting and valuable. The experiment thus suggested that Sokal was correct to claim that academic status may account for the intellectual appeal of unintelligible academic texts.
- In 2013 John Bohannon wrote in Science about a "sting" he conducted in which he submitted "a credible but mundane scientific paper, one with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable," to 304 open-access publishers. 157 journals accepted the paper. There have been serious questions about the sting's methodology and about what conclusions can be drawn from it.
- Dr. Maarten Boudry, a philosopher, in 2012 persuaded two theology conferences to accept abstracts composed of meaningless word salad as a paper.
- John McLachlan, a professor of medical education, hoaxed the Jerusalem Conference on Integrative Medicine in 2010 with invented nonsense.
- Doug Zongker, a software engineer at Google, presented a paper entitled "Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken" at the 2007 American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference, albeit at their "Improbable Research" session for joke papers (meaning the AAAS was in on the joke). The paper was originally submitted to the Annals of Improbable Research in 2006 as an example of complete gibberish presented in the standard format of a scientific paper.
- SCIgen program: a paper randomly generated by the SCIgen program was accepted without peer-review for presentation at the 2005 World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI). The conference announced the prank of having accepted the article as not peer reviewed, despite none of the three assigned peer-reviewers having submitted an opinion about its fidelity, veracity, or accuracy to its subject. The three MIT graduate students who wrote the hoax article said they were ignorant of the Sokal Affair until after submitting their article.
- The Bogdanov Affair, about theoretical physics, was called a reverse-Sokal controversy
- Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960: a 1998 art world hoax, by William Boyd
- Project Alpha: a hoax by James Randi perpetrated upon a psychic foundation
- Rosenhan experiment: the admission of healthy pseudo-patients to twelve psychiatric hospitals
- The Report from Iron Mountain: a hoax government think tank report
- Naked Came the Stranger: a 1969 novel by a group of American journalists attempting to satisfy, and thus expose, what they perceived as degraded standards in popular American literature; it succeeded, selling about 90,000 copies before the hoax was revealed
- The Ern Malley affair: a similar hoax, in which deliberately nonsensical poems were accepted for publication by a popular modernist magazine
- Atlanta Nights: a hoax, by a group of professional authors, perpetrated upon PublishAmerica
- Disumbrationism: a modern art hoax
- Pierre Brassau: exposing art critics to "modern paintings" made by a chimpanzee
- Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments: a modernist poetry hoax
- Piotr Zak: an experiment by the BBC examining the standard of criticism of contemporary experimental music in 1961
- Samuel Beckett: in 1930, while teaching at Trinity College Dublin, Samuel Beckett read a learned paper in French on a Toulouse author named Jean du Chas, founder of a movement called Concentrism. Chas and Concentrism, however, were pure fiction, having been invented by Beckett to mock pedantry.
- The Schön Scandal, an example of how scientific peer review processes (in this case, in semiconductor physics) may be inadequately structured to detect deliberately fraudulent journal submissions
- Chip Morningstar, a software developer known for his early hoax involving postmodern deconstruction at the 2nd International Conference on Cyberspace in 1991
- Fictitious entry
- Dr. Fox effect: an actor gave a lecture to a group of experts with almost no content but was praised
- "Politics and the English Language" (1946), by George Orwell, criticizing the use of verbose language in contemporary political British writing.
- Postmodernism Generator, a program that produces imitations of postmodernist writing
- snarXiv, a website that generates plausible titles and abstracts of high-energy physics papers
- Derrida (1997)
- Sokal, Alan D. (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. Retrieved April 3, 2007.
- Sokal, Alan D. (November 28, 1994, Revised: May 13, 1995 published May 1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996). Duke University Press. pp. 217–252. Retrieved April 3, 2007.
- Bruce Robbins; Andrew Ross (July 1996). "Mystery science theater". Lingua Franca.. Reply by Alan Sokal.
- Higher Supersitition, pg. 6.
- Sokal, Alan. "Revelation: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 2000. 49-54. Print.
- Editors' Letter in Lingua Franca
- Andrew Ross , "A discussion of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction", May 24, 1996
- Bruce Robbins & Andrew Ross, "Editorial response to Sokal hoax by editors of Social Text", 1996
- Gross, John, The Oxford Book of Parodies, Oxford University Press, 2010, pg. 307
- Derrida, Jacques (2005) . Paper Machine. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 70. ISBN 08-047-4619-2.
- Stephen Hilgartner (Autumn 1997). "The Sokal Affair in Context". Science, Technology & Human Values 22 (4): 506–522. doi:10.1177/016224399702200404.
- William M. Epstein (1990). "Confirmational response bias among social work journals". Science, Technology & Human Values 15 (1): 9–38. doi:10.1177/016224399001500102.
- Gabriel Stolzenberg, "Debunk: Expose as a Sham or False"
- "Reply to Gabriel Stolzenberg", Social Studies of Science
- Robb Willer, The Effects of Author's Status on the Evaluation of Unintelligible Texts, self-published study (no longer available; see Willer's page at robbwiller.org/projects for summary). quote:
[...] an unintelligible text [...] evaluated as significantly better [...] The results further suggest that high academic status could lead readers to evaluate an unintelligible text as intelligible. The research offers insights on the social psychological basis of biased evaluations of scholarship and points to one reason why unintelligible texts might be praised in academic discourse.
- Bohannon, John (4). "Who's Afraid of Peer Review?". Science 342 (6154): 60–65. doi:10.1126/science.342.6154.60.
- Taylor, Mike; Matt Wedell, Darren Naish. "Anti-tutorial: how to design and execute a really bad study". Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week. Retrieved 14 October 2013.
- Smith, Kevin. "The big picture about peer-review". Scholarly Communications @ Duke. Duke University Libraries. Retrieved 14 October 2013.
- A Sokal-style hoax by an anti-religious philosopher;Philosopher Pulls a Sokal on Theology Conferences;Atheist philosopher pulls Sokal-style hoax on theology conference
- Integrative medicine and the point of credulity
- http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/05/post_1/ Wired report on presentation
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL_-1d9OSdk YouTube video of presentation
- "Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken" paper
- Derrida (1997) Sokal et Bricmont ne sont pas sérieux in Le Monde, November 20, 1997, page 17. English translation in Derrida (2005) Paper Machine as "Sokal and Bricmont Aren't Serious" pp. 70–2
- Gross, Paul R. and Levitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8018-4766-4
- Ross, Andrew, ed. Science Wars. Duke University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8223-1881-4.
- Sokal, Alan D. and Bricmont, Jean. Impostures Intellectuelles. Editions Odile Jacob, 1997.
- Sokal, Alan D. and Bricmont, Jean. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. Picador USA: New York, 1998. ISBN 0-312-19545-1
- Editors of Lingua Franca. The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy. University of Nebraska Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8032-7995-7
- Sokal, Alan D. and Bricmont, Jean. (1997) Réponse à Jacques Derrida et Max Dorra, in Le Monde, December 12, 1997, page 23.
- Alan Sokal Articles on the Social Text Affair Alan Sokal's own page with very extensive links; includes the original article
- Original hoax article (HTML)
- Sokal Affair quotes
- Sokal's response to the editors
- A discussion by Richard Dawkins of nonsense in post-modernist literature
- the new site for Andrew Bulkan's Postmodernism Generator mentioned in Richard Dawkins' article above
- Gabriel Stolzenberg's collected essays on this and related topics
- The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing?