Paper: The Sokal Hoax

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal was unhappy with the tendency in academic postmodernism to dismiss scientific work. So he submitted a bogus paper called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, a journal in cultural studies. After it was published, he revealed it as a hoax. And now, it is one of the best known shots fired at academic anti-science.

While the hoax is a good conversation-starter, I would caution against thinking it’s a total slam-dunk. Journals are there to filter out shoddy work, rather than bad faith actors. Secondly, AFAICT Social Text is a journal of mediocre impact. Finally, Sokal himself said that academic postmodernism has now backed off from many of its previous excesses. (Sokal credits the Bush administration, which was more effective at satirizing academic postmodernism than he ever was.)

In any case, this is a paper report. To humorous ends, I will review Sokal’s paper as if it were a serious work.

On the shoulders of giants?

Sokal places his work in a long tradition of critical theory casting doubt on the “objective” “reality” of scientific “knowledge” (scare quotes his). This is no doubt a highly productive field of academic inquiry, so I tried sampling his references.

…should we think of a formula so long that only a computer could read it in one hour as an explanation of a type of phenomenon? The answer to this question is “no.” An explanation is a kind of social achievement.

-Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Ch. 2, 1986

I think it’s an interesting philosophical question why some things are considered explanations but not others. In introductory physics, you “solve” problems by using equations of motion to derive object trajectories. In later classes, you “solve” problems by writing down the equations of motion. I hope all the gender studies people are taking notes.1

Pleased so far, I then looked into a citation about the “gender encoding in fluid mechanics” [cn: genitalia]:

Thus if every psychic economy is organized around the phal­lus (or Phallus), we may ask what this primacy owes to a tele­ology of reabsorption of fluid in a solidified form. The lapses of the penis do not contradict this: the penis would only be the empirical representative of a model of ideal functioning; all de­sire would tend toward being or having this ideal.

-Luce Irigaray, This Sex which is not one, Ch. 6, 1985.

The whole chapter is like that, and the end makes an explicit nod to the fact that nobody understood it. Apparently, Irigaray has seen the inaccessibility of physics, and tried to replicate it. I do wonder what Irigaray would say about my field of study, a field that produces such paper titles as “Superconductivity: Is kinky conventional?” Possibly she would come up with better puns.

In summary, Sokal’s sources aren’t all bad, but he could benefit from a bit more discernment. (Note to outsiders: this is what an academic insult looks like.)

An uneven exposition

Sokal proceeds to describe all the grand themes of quantum gravity (discontinuity, wholeness, boundaries, etc.), mostly through a series of quotes from physicists and non-physicists alike. This exposition is a mixed success, although not necessarily in the way you might expect. Indeed, many physicist perspectives fall flat, while non-physicist perspectives shine. Take the following quote from a physicist:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability — it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something — of a center starting from which an observer could master the field — but the very concept of the game …

-Jacques Derrida, In The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy, p. 270, 1970.

While Derrida is no doubt a competent physicist whose opinions on physics should therefore be given due consideration, unfortunately his prose obscures any point that we might try to consider.2

In contrast, I felt especially enlightened by the perspective offered by biologist/parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake. While I had previously heard of string theory and quantum loop gravity, Sheldrake offers a fascinating alternative: the morphogenetic field.  I don’t understand any of it, but I’m sure it would make sense if you asked a developmental biologist.  In fact, why even bother checking?

Apparently Sheldrake’s theory is usually dismissed by the physics establishment. It goes to show the danger of rejecting ideas just because you don’t understand them.

My last complaint about Sokal’s exposition is that there are a few minor technical errors scattered throughout. For example:

the mathematical sciences, in the theory of wholes [théorie des ensembles], concern themselves with closed and open spaces … They concern themselves very little with the question of the partially open …

-Luce Irigaray, “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?”, 1982.

Sokal has clearly never taken a course in topology, which emphasizes that closed and open spaces are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps if he were a mathematician he might have caught Luce’s error and avoided spending a whole section elaborating its implications.  But like I said, this is only a trivial concern.

The tyranny of objective reality

Where previous work has shown how quantum gravity liberates us from the tyranny of “absolute truth” and “objective reality” (scare quotes his), Sokal proposes that it may also free us from the tyranny of other people.

How can quantum gravity revolutionize society? Quantum gravity shows that understanding any one thing, even space-time itself, requires multiple perspectives. Thus, quantum gravity serves “the radical democratization of all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life,” and in particular, the destruction of scientific elitism.

As Sokal notes, his theory should not be evaluated on the basis of whether it is true or false, but on the basis of whether it is strategic. In other words, it is compelling only to the extent that I already agree with its politics. And here is where I think Sokal makes his gravest error:

In addition to redefining the content of science, it is imperative to […] reframe the reward system that pushes scientists to become, often against their own better instincts, the hired guns of capitalists and the military. As Aronowitz has noted, “One third of the 11,000 physics graduate students in the United States are in the single subfield of solid state physics, and all of them will be able to get jobs in that subfield.”

Where Sokal sees my field as a bunch of hired guns, quantum theory shows that additional perspectives are needed to reveal the truth. My perspective: The goal of solid state physics is precisely to apply quantum theory to our everyday lives. We are in fact already undertaking the revolution that Sokal has only dreamt of. I can’t imagine how this ever got past peer review.

1. Snark aside, I did read through most of Harding’s chapter. My overall impression was that many of her general observations of the social processes in science were correct, but the particulars often seemed off the mark. Her project would have benefited from talking to some cooperative scientists, but Harding apparently met some hostile scientists and decided that hostility is a general principle. (return)

2. Yes, I know that Derrida is a famous continental philosopher, not a physicist. For an amusing defense of Derrida’s comment, see Gabriel Stolzenberg’s “The Invention of Jacques Derrida, Physics Faker“. It goes to show that even when we grant more space to explain Derrida’s meaning, there is still none apparent.(return)


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Da reader derides Derrida…

    While aware of the Sokal hoax, I really haven’t read much about it. But the Stolzenberg link put me on to something I look forward to reading later at my leisure; Weinberg’s article on the subject.

  2. says

    I agree with Weinberg that the Sokal hoax is a lot more damning when you actually read the thing. It’s not simply that Sokal liberally salts his article with absurdities, it’s that he quotes plenty of postmodern academics doing the same damn thing.

  3. Siobhan says

    It’s not simply that Sokal liberally salts his article with absurdities, it’s that he quotes plenty of postmodern academics doing the same damn thing.

    Which is the next level of admirable meta-snark if I’ve ever seen one. Sad I hadn’t discovered this sooner. x)

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