The Sokal Affair

An interesting thing I discovered while trying to gain some more background on relativism, was various accounts of the Sokal affair. The Sokal affair was something of a big deal in the Postmoderist world, wherein Alan Sokal, a physics professor at NYU, wrote a deliberately nonsensical paper in his own words, “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, and submitted it to Social Text, a postmodern journal published by Duke.

The same day his article was published, he revealed in the journal Lingua Franca that in fact his article was meant as a parody. Of course, scandal ensued, with the story being picked up by many newspapers around the world, and various angry articles written about it.

In defense of Social Text, they are not a peer reviewed journal for the reason that they wished to promote more original research, and thus provide less of a guarantee about the accuracy of its articles. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that if someone like Chomsky were to write an incomprehensible treatise on nothing, many journals would be tempted to publish it simply on the weight of his name alone.

There are many sources of knowledge about the hoax, Sokal’s Website and Wikipedia provide a good overview.

Of course, I’m sure many of us have toyed with the idea of doing something similar, in both arts and sciences: whether to insert jargon in order to bewilder whoever happens to be marking it, that they will hopefully be fooled into believing the work is credible, or that they will be too baffled (and too proud to admit it) to comment on it. In high school, I played with this a little bit, where I would use two very uncommon words (correctly) in essays in close proximity, followed by a completely made up word that sounded ok. On one occaison, the first two words were underlined, however the third wasn’t, leading me to believe my teacher looked up the first two in the dictionary, and then seeing that they checked out, gave me the benefit of the doubt. Of course, Sokal took this a step further, by openly rubbing it in the faces of those who had bought his self described parody.

The hoax also serves to highlight the disconnect in academia which exists in many places between the arts and sciences. I can’t say I’ve ever really discussed social construction, relativism, or postmodern thought in university prior to this class (although I’ve only taken three arts classes) and I don’t imagine I’m alone. Likewise, I don’t imagine too many arts students have taken a lot of physics or mathematics courses. I suppose it’s a product of having undergraduate education becoming so focused, I feel like it’s not uncommon for people in the same field to be completely unaware of each others specializations.

6 Responses to “The Sokal Affair”

  1. sieber says:

    Very interesting. I will be sure to check your research paper very closely 😉

  2. sieber says:

    What did you think of the Cyborg Manifesto, with its lines like “nor does it mark time on an oedipal calendar, attempting to heal the terrible cleavages of gender in an oral symbiotic utopia or post-oedipal apocalypse”?

  3. Pete says:

    Overspecialization in education and in research was one of the reasons the MSE was founded. Our goal is to cross disciplinary boundries, both within the sciences and between the social and natural sciences. We still need specialists, but someone has to take the broader view. Besides, the more areas you have at least some literacy in, the less likely it is that some clown will pull the wool over your eyes…

  4. Ira says:

    I’ve come to believe after some time working towards my undergraduate degree that Geography is one of
    the most inter-disciplinary disciplines. I know that sounds like a contradiction but I really love how
    geography casts a wide net over sociological, political, economic, historical, and many other factors
    all relating to space ane environment. When I mentioned this to a poli-sci prof recently, he jokingly said
    said that geographers are imperialists – they’ll take on any discipline. I found this quite funny!

  5. sieber says:

    This is ironic, considering that political scientists I’ve met consider themselves rich with theory and geographers bereft of theory.