It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Apr 28, 2011

Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

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.  --Allan Sokal

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In its 1996 Spring/Summer issue (pp. 217-252), Social Text journal published an article by Allan 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.

At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. The journal's editorial collective did, however, express concerns to Sokal about the piece, and requested changes, which Sokal refused to make. Wishing to include the work of a physicist, the editors decided to accept the article on the basis of Sokal's credentials. 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". Needless to say that after the Sokal Hoax, Social Text established an article peer review process.

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To the extent that Sokal’s article is readable, it makes a grandly silly argument about the political implications of quantum gravity. Among other ludicrous assertions, the article claims that physical reality does not exist, that the laws of physics are social constructs, and that feminism has implications for mathematical set theory.

In his own words, in this 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." 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.

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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. This tendency to confirmation bias affects physicists as well as professors in the social sciences and the humanities.

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