The Sokal Hoax

A fascinating event in academic history was the Sokal Hoax. In this a physicist, who had become annoyed with ideas that reality is completely socially constructed, got published in a cultural studies journal.

Before we celebrate his inter-disciplinarity he was satirizing social studies. The text he sent was gibberish. As he said; “Nowhere in [the article] is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.” (Sokal, 1996). (To be fair I have seen a number of papers like this and it didn’t occur to me that they might be hoaxes, I just thought they were very bad).

He wanted to attack the idea that we are just constructing the world we see. As he says: “There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter.” (Sokal, 1996). ” ….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.)” (Sokal, 1996).

Clearly some people were annoyed, he could be said to have violated trust; academics are expected to believe in the papers they submit. Although some might be I’m personally not too worried about the deception given the demonstration required him to be less than forthcoming. He also may have just shown that some editors are too busy/not competent enough to check the papers they publish. This is a sad state of affairs but a different problem than the entire field being nonsense.

His objective was more than just having fun. I personally have a lot of sympathy with his political points. He agreed with the progressive politics embraced by the cultural studies editors but was worried that you can’t support a worthy goal with sloppy thinking. “For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism….The recent turn of many ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique” (Sokal, 1996).

I worry that the problem Sokal saw still occurs. A worthy aim allows some pretty shoddy thinking to get through. Whether on the left or the right just because we agree with an aim doesn’t mean we need to accept all nonsense that is argued to support our world view. In many ways we have a greater duty to call out people who we largely agree with to ensure that only decent arguments are put up to support the things that we believe in.

Read: Alan Sokal (1996) A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies,
Lingua Franca, May/June 1996, pp. 62-64, https://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html