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Alan Sokal

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The poetry of reality
Science
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We must know.
We will know.
A view from the
shoulders of giants.
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.)
—Alan Sokal, A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies[1]
Alan Sokal's continuum from real science (left) to pseudosciences (right).

Alan Sokal is an American physicist and mathematician. He is best known for his criticism of Postmodernism, which implies strongly that the proverbial Emperor of Postmodernism may indeed have been naked all along. He came to prominence for the eponymous "Sokal Hoax"; namely, getting a pile of incoherent bilge published in the postmodernist journal Social Text.

The Sokal Affair[edit]

But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.
—Alan Sokal, Transgressing the Boundaries: an afterword.[2]

In 1994, Sokal authored the article Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, which was riddled with errors and nonsense obvious to everyone with an undergraduate's understanding of physics. Among other revelations, the piece posits that reality doesn't exist, that an increasing number of natural scientists were converting to postmodernist relativism, and that these developments would lead to a "liberatory science." He asserted that gravity was a social construct.[3] Sokal submitted the work to Social Text, suspecting it would be published because it was suffused with postmodernist jargon coupled with science-y sounding terms and equations that flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions. As a result of the affair, Social Text was awarded the dubious honor of an Ig Nobel Prize in literature for "eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless, and which claimed that reality does not exist."[4]

Hoax[edit]

When scientific research is increasingly funded by private corporations that have a financial interest in particular outcomes of that research—is the drug effective or not?—scientific objectivity is undermined. When universities are more interested in patent royalties than in the open sharing of scientific information, the public suffers. There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.
—Alan Sokal, Mystery Science Theatre[5]

Shortly after Transgressing the Boundaries was published, Sokal published another article in Lingua Franca revealing the first was a hoax. He claimed his main motivation was not so much to defend science against the onslaught of postmodernism, but rather to "defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself." According to Sokal, denying absolute truths exist will undermine any campaign for left wing causes. He further pointed out that left wing academics had historically shown that many of society's justifications for wrongs like racism or sexism were based on assertions that could not stand up to scrutiny; if postmodernism prevailed the basis for determining that an advocate of woman's rights or racial equality was right -- factually and morally -- would be wholly undermined.

Sokal went on to co-author a book titled Fashionable Nonsense with Jean Bricmont[6] in 1998 and Beyond the Hoax in 2008. In these works, he argues that most postmodernist claims regarding science are based on sloppy reasoning, mistaking scientific and everyday definitions of certain terms and wholesale misunderstanding of the scientific method. This book specifically attacked the use of science and scientific concepts in the works of many leading postmodernists such as Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray.

The book has been controversial, with postmodernists largely claiming that Sokal fails to understand the texts he cites and thus misrepresents them. Sokal counters this argument in the book, noting that if a scientist cannot understand the use of science to explain a concept, there is something wrong with the explanation. Sokal counters that he is not critiquing postmodernist's works at large, but rather their misappropriation of science. He maintains that heavily relying on unfamiliar scientific concepts as supposed metaphors only serves to obfuscate.

Concluding remarks[edit]

The results of my little experiment [Sokal affair] demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project’’ [sec. 6]. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.
—Alan Sokal, Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy[7]

As with many criticisms nearly any movement, it is important to recognize that charges leveled at the most extreme and dogmatic representatives of the movement often fail to translate to the whole - some postmodernists are sensible people who acknowledge that empirical reality exists and recognize that science is extremely useful for things like curing diseases and keeping us all from freezing to death.

Dawkins[edit]

In a review of Sokal and Bricomnt's work, Richard Dawkins observes:

In similar manner, Sokal and Bricmont expose Bruno Latour's confusion of relativity with relativism, Jean-François Lyotard's 'post-modern science', and the widespread and predictable misuses of Gödel's Theorem, quantum theory and chaos theory. The renowned Jean Baudrillard is only one of many to find chaos theory a useful tool for bamboozling readers. Once again, Sokal and Bricmont help us by analysing the tricks being played. The following sentence, "though constructed from scientific terminology, is meaningless from a scientific point of view":
Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes[8]
I won't quote any more, for, as Sokal and Bricmont say, Baudrillard's text "continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense". They again call attention to "the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology — inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning."

Responses[edit]

In defense theoreticians who initially used postmodernist approaches to study science have argued that scientific knowledge is 'constructed,' rather than 'socially constructed';[9] that interpretations otherwise have failed to appreciate the distinction between these two points. This assertion is, however, not true.

Sokal and Bricmont had already pointed out that it is, of course, trivially true that science is a human endeavor and as such 'constructed' and even 'socially constructed' in a mundane sense. Scientists are, after all, humans who developed their interests in a social setting. The scientific enterprise relies on funding and other factors that are likewise part of a cultural context. The knowledge that is produced is 'constructed' in a trivial sense, too, as humans discover some aspect of reality and have to cast this into a shape intelligible to humans. Sokal and Bricmont argued that postmodernists often rely on at least two different meanings of a word or a passage: one which is trivially true, and one that seems profound but is meaningless. In this instance, postmodernists had confused different notions of “science”, where “scientific knowledge” is but one aspect. The postmodernist response is exactly as expected, as they switched back to the trivially true meaning. Noam Chomsky has commented on this tendency of postmodernism with the remark that “ALL of this can be described literally in monosyllables, and it turns out to be truisms. On the other hand, you don’t get to be a respected intellectual by presenting truisms in monosyllables.”[10]

Fink[edit]

Bruce Fink offers a "critique", in which he "accuses" Sokal and Bricmont of demanding that "serious writing" do nothing other than "convey clear meanings."[11]

Fink asserts that some concepts which Sokal and Bricmont consider arbitrary or meaningless do have roots in the history of linguistics, and that Lacan is explicitly using mathematical concepts in a metaphoric way, not claiming that his concepts are mathematically founded.

And to be sure, Sokal and Bricmont take to task one of Lacan's students, Luce Irigaray, whom they quote as follows:

Is E=Mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest...

Oh the humanity! Pointing out that that does not make "convey clear meaning."

Derrida[edit]

In Jacques Derrida's response, "Sokal and Bricmont Aren't Serious," first published in Le Monde, Derrida writes that the Sokal hoax is rather "sad [triste]," not only because Alan Sokal's name is now linked primarily to a hoax, not to science, but also because the chance to reflect seriously on this issue has been ruined for a broad public forum that deserves better.[12]

Derrida's argument utterly misses the intellectual benefit the Sokal hoax has been for both science and non-scientific disciplines alike. As a New York Times arts writer put it, Sokal is standing up for "the territory of reasoned argument, objective fact and Enlightenment insight, where even debates like these might take place."[13] Or, as Natural Science put in a review of the Sokal/Bricmont book, the two perform a "thorough exercise in intellectual and moral hygiene."[14]

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