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Aug 29 2005

Science and trust – 3: The Sokal affair

In 1996, NYU physicist Alan Sokal published an article titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity in the journal Social Text, a publication that deals with the sociology of science. The same day that the journal appeared, Sokal published another article in the magazine Lingua Franca (which stopped publishing in 2001) exposing his other article as a hoax. He said that he had mimicked the dense and obscure style of some branches of the arts and humanities (especially the post-modernist philosophers and the area known as cultural studies), but had loaded the paper with citations to well-known people in that field and had asserted conclusions he thought would be pleasing to the editors.

A nice wikipedia article on this hoax explains Sokal’s rationale for it and the response by the embarrassed editors of Social Text:

In their defense, the editors of Social Text stated that they believed that the article “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.” They charged Sokal with unethical behavior and suggested they only published the article as it was because Sokal refused to make changes they suggested and it was of relevance to a special issue they happened to be preparing.

Sokal argued that this was the whole point: the journal published articles not on the basis of whether they were correct or made sense, but simply because of who wrote them and how they sounded. [He said] “Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.”…..The controversy also had implications for peer review. Social Text had dispensed with peer review, hoping that this would promote more original, less conventional research, and trusted authors of prospective articles to guarantee the academic integrity of their work. Social Text‘s editors argue that, in this context, Sokal’s work constituted a deliberate fraud and betrayal of that trust.

To my mind, this episode does not reflect well on any of the parties involved. First, if the editors of Social Text decided to dispense with peer review for the (perfectly acceptable) reasons given, then they should have on their editorial board a diverse enough group of people to make judgments about papers. They clearly did not in this case. Either the editors did not have the competence to judge the quality of the paper or they did not give it enough scrutiny.

It also is the case that in academia there is an undesirable element of ‘physics envy’, and the editors were clearly thrilled that a real physicist from a reputable department was publishing in their social science journal, presumably giving their journal greater credibility. It was probably this reason that enabled Sokal to persuade them to publish his paper despite some initial reservations they had about it.

On the other hand, it was not good of Sokal to take advantage of the absence of peer review to get his article published. The elimination of peer review imposes a greater obligation on authors to be more self-critical and scrupulous and to not to take advantage of those journals, because the journal editors are deliberately making themselves more vulnerable.

It is said that if you are invited into the home of a friend and steal a small amount of money that is lying around, you are committing a worse moral offense than if you break into your friend’s safe and steal a very much larger amount from their safe. Because it is not the magnitude of the amount stolen that is a measure of the crime, it is the degree of violation of the trust.

If Sokal had not exposed his own hoax, what would have most likely happened is that the article would have either been ignored (since it had no content most readers would have been simply baffled by it) or at some time later, a more discerning reader would have exposed it as a fraud. It would not have done any harm to the field itself, just like most scientific errors or fraud.

So what did the Sokal hoax accomplish? Unlike ‘hoaxes’ that are part of a research study to study the processes of research and publication (see my earlier post for examples of this), the main result of this was to make the editors of Social Text look foolish and incompetent. There was no other benefit that I can see. Sokal himself is aware ethical issues involved because he says: “Of course, I’m not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust” and tries to explain why it was justified.

I don’t think that that his reasons were enough to justify playing the trick. I believe that trust among researchers is a valuable quality and I would hate to see researchers squandering it away.

POST SCRIPT: Tracy Kidder to speak at Case

Tracy Kidder, the author of the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world which I wrote about earlier is the speaker at the Fall Convocation on Thursday, September 1 at 4:30 pm in Severance Hall.

The event is free and open to the public but prior registration is required. For more information and registration, go here.

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