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The Sokal Hoax

A fascinating event in academic history was the Sokal Hoax. A physicist reacted to the idea that reality is completely socially constructed and determined he would get published in a cultural studies journal.

Satirizing Academic Publishing

Before we celebrate Sokal’s inter-disciplinarity it is worth noting that he was satirizing social studies. The text he sent was gibberish. As he explained.

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. It didn’t occur to me that they might be hoaxes, I just thought they were very bad. Maybe they were in-jokes I didn’t get.

The Sokal Hoax Was To Show Reality Mattered

Sokal wanted to attack the idea that we are just constructing the world that we see. As he says:

There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter.

….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

Obviously in the nineties people were a bit more okay with joking about death for good or bad.

A Violation Of Trust

Sokal certainly had violated their trust. After all, academics believe in the papers they submit, or are at least expected to. Maybe you think Sokal was wrong? I believe that the nature of 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.

The Sokal Hoax

The Objective Of The Sokal Hoax

Sokal’s 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. That said, the objective was clear. To show 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

A generation on I worry that the problem Sokal saw still occurs. A worthy aim allows some pretty shoddy thinking to get through. This can happen on the left or the right. Imagine you broadly agree with an aim. My advice is do not accept nonsense even if it is argued to support your world view. In many ways we have a greater duty to call out people who we largely agree with. Only decent arguments can truly support the things that we believe in. As such fair play to Sokal.

For more on academia see here.

Read: Alan Sokal (1996) A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies,
Lingua Franca, May/June 1996, pp. 62-64,

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