Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Sokal Affair

Following up on my previous post "Postmodern writings", I thought I would write a few words about the Sokal affair. Everyone who knows me well enough must be very tired of my endless references to the Sokal affair, but I think it is a big deal, and in my opinion it has dire implications for those who respect postmodernism.

So what is it all about? In 1996 Alan Sokal, a physicist then working at New York University who was skeptical towards the incomprehensible and to him seemingly meaningless postmodern literature, decided to test his hypothesis that these people will publish anything as long as it sound right… How did he test this? Sokal wrote an article called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, an article which anyone with some knowledge on physics would see was rubbish. Even I, with a rather limited education in physics, would get suspicious when I see someone suggesting that quantum gravity has progressive political implications (a matter which I think I will write more about shortly). Alan Sokal submitted his article to the prestigious, though not peer-reviewed journal Social Text and asked them to publish it. He was careful to use all the postmodern fashion words such as hermeneutics (I still cannot spell that damn word), and apparently the editors of Social text fell for it. Amazingly they published the paper in the belief that it was a significant contribution to the field. To be fair, they did ask Sokal to change a few things, but when Sokal refused they went ahead and published it.

On the day of publication, Sokal published another paper in a different journal in which he revealed his scam. In this article he wrote about his own paper that it was "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense", which was "structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics made by humanities academics". Predictably, the editors of Social Text were not very happy about the whole affair and they claimed that they only published it because Sokal would not make the changes they asked for. I wish that the editors of the journals which my papers have been sent to would also publish anything if you just refuse to make any changes, but unfortunately (or fortunately) that is not the case.

It is obvious that the editors must have assumed, without consulting any knowledgeable person, that because of the way the article sounded it must have been a good article. I mean, if you can write a paper which is about physics and social issues at the same time, and then simultaneously throw in a bunch of fancy words, then the article has to be pretty great, right? In my opinion the Sokal affair provides strong evidence suggesting that postmodernists are really just playing around with fancy words without any real meaning.

For those of you who are want to know more about the Sokal Affair I recommend the book: "The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy"

Or, if you are more interested in a general criticism of postmodernism see the excellent book: "Intellectual Impostures"


Ulf Pettersson said...

You might enjoy this very post-modern dissertation, if you haven't seen it already.

"Quantum Feminist Mnemotechnics"!

rasmussenanders said...

Haha, Just the title makes me laugh. It is amazing how creative people are in using the word quantum...

Did you know that Deepak Chopra has even won the ig nobel prize (twice in fact) for his very creative use of the word (e.g. quantum nutritíon).