Sokal affair  

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"There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism."--"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" (1996) by Alan D. Sokal

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The Sokal affair was a scholarly publishing hoax perpetrated by physics professor Alan Sokal in 1996 when Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies.

The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether "a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions".

The article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" proposed that quantum gravity as a social and linguistic construct. On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.

The hoax sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of humanistic commentary about the physical sciences; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.


In an interview on the U.S. radio program All Things Considered, Sokal said he was inspired to submit the bogus article after reading Higher Superstition (1994), in which authors Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt claim that some humanities journals would publish anything as long as it had "the proper leftist thought" and quoted (or was written by) well-known leftist thinkers.

Gross and Levitt had been vocal defenders of the scientific realist camp of the "science wars", opposing postmodernist academics who questioned scientific objectivity. They asserted that anti-intellectual sentiment in liberal arts departments (and especially in English departments) caused the rise of deconstructionist thought, which eventually led to a deconstructionist critique of science. They saw the critique as a "repertoire of rationalizations" for avoiding the study of science.

Content of the article

"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" proposed that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, and that the "morphogenetic field" could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity (a morphogenetic field is a concept adapted by Rupert Sheldrake in a way that Sokal characterized in the affair's aftermath as "a bizarre New Age idea"). Sokal wrote that the concept of "an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being" was "dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook".

After referring skeptically to the "so-called scientific method", the article declared that "it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical 'realityTemplate:'" is fundamentally "a social and linguistic construct". It went on to state that because scientific research is "inherently theory-laden and self-referential", it "cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities" and that therefore a "liberatory science" and an "emancipatory mathematics", spurning "the elite caste canon of 'high scienceTemplate:'", needed to be established for a "postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project".

Moreover, the article's footnotes conflate academic terms with sociopolitical rhetoric, e.g.:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and "pro-choice", so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo–Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

See also

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