Professionalism/The Sokal Affair

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The Sokal affair is an incident in which physicist Alan Sokal submitted a disingenuous article on quantum gravity to a postmodernist academic journal. This submission aimed to expose the lack of editorial oversight and intellectual integrity of the magazine and the integrity of the postmodernist movement. The article is titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The postmodernist journal, Social Text, is published out of Duke University and focuses on the concepts of relativity and postmodern ideals. Sokal’s article posits that the hard sciences such as mathematics be “purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist and ecological critiques” [1]. The journal, while initially skeptical about publishing the article, eventually published anyway. A few weeks after Social Text’s publication, Sokal released a counter article in the journal Lingua Franca called “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies,” in which Sokal reveals the false nature of the Social Text article [2]. After discussion with Social Text, the journal decided to keep the article in the publication despite Sokal’s intentional deception, as they believed it to offer an interesting perspective without infringing upon the ideals of the journal.

Historical Context[edit | edit source]

The Sokal Affair was an incident within a larger intellectual debate called the Science Wars. The Science Wars occurred in the mid-1990’s with natural scientists debating against social scientists.

In the early 1970’s, social scientists began challenging the objectivity of scientific findings [3]. Social scientists questioned whether scientific findings were impartial as advertised, or if they are based on traditions and institutionalized norms. This argument was intensified by postmodernists such as Paul Feyerabend, who argued against any structured methodology for acquiring knowledge [4]. Postmodernist questioning of objectivity continued into the 1990’s.

Refutation of the scientific method angered many natural scientists. In 1994, Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published a book attacking postmodernist interpretation of the scientific method [5]. Gross and Levitt argue that popular postmodernists lacked the technical knowledge needed for valid arguments against science. The authors claimed that postmodernist attacks of the scientific method were for political reasons and that it was time for scientists to protect their profession. Gross and Levitt’s publication inspired Sokal to fight postmodernist thought [6].

Participant Viewpoints[edit | edit source]

Alan Sokal[edit | edit source]

The impetus for the affair was predicated on Sokals belief that postmodernism’s relativist attitude was at “odds with scientists’ idea of their own practice,” and threatened serious scientific study. According to Sokal, “While scientists try, as best they can, to obtain an objective view of (certain aspects of) the world, relativist thinkers tell them that they are wasting their time and that such enterprise is, in principle, an illusion” [7]. Sokal was therefore angered by the perceived overstepping of philosophers into the scientific realm. He felt an ethical obligation to protect his profession from this philosophical invasion.

Social Text[edit | edit source]

Social Text is a journal published out of Duke University that focuses on social and cultural phenomena [8]. The journal is a self-titled “daring and controversial leader in the field of cultural studies” and “seeks provocative interviews and challenging articles from emerging critical voices…in the debates about postcolonialism, postmodernism, and popular culture.” Because of the wide range of voices that the journal publishes, Social Text does not have rigorous guidelines for accepting articles. The editors claim that the journal sees “its lineage in the ‘little review’ tradition of the independent left as much as in the academic domain” and therefore balances “diverse editorial criteria when discussing the worth of submissions” [9]. This review process was what Sokal aimed to exploit by getting his paper about “nonsense” published.

Cover of the Social Text Science Wars issue

After Sokal’s article in Lingua Franca came out, the Social Text editors responded with their account of the incident [9]. The editors were initially interested in Sokal’s article due to Sokal’s career as a physicist; at the time the editors did not desire more postmodern articles written by humanists or social scientists. The editors, however, asked Sokal to make large edits to the piece prior to publication. Due to stubbornness by Sokal to preserve the initial piece, Social Text published the article in a special issue of the journal, in which both natural and social scientists presented their opinions on the Science Wars. Because of the special publication context, the editors claimed that the article’s “status as a parody does not alter… our interest in the piece itself as a curio, or symptomatic document.” In response to the intent of the hoax, the editors attacked Sokal’s self-proclaimed status as a leftist. They maintained their ethical stance on the Science Wars and defended their involvement as non-scientists in scientific debates.

Ethical Dilemmas[edit | edit source]

Editorial Oversight[edit | edit source]

Sokal sought to expose the failings of postmodernism’s relativist attitude with the publication of his hoax article. He presumed that the acceptance of subjectivity within the postmodernist camp would impede their ability to turn down his article as it would be as valid as any other viewpoint. He felt that such a journal was prone to publish his unfounded article because it fell in line with their ideology and met their goals. Sokal constructed his article to play on these sensibilities, and further loaded it with references to other postmodernist thinkers as well as complex and incoherent jargon. Ultimately Sokal’s presumptions proved true and his article was published. [2]

Technical peer review is an essential mechanism of self-regulation that allows journals to verify the validity of a study or article by allowing relevant peers to check the submitted work. Peer review helps editors decide what should be published and gives readers greater confidence that a work can be trusted. [10]

In editorial review, a journal’s editors will check an article to make sure it meets standards of organization, clarity, and relevance. This process can screen out or help improve poorly formed papers where claims and evidence do not appear to line up. [10]

These standards protect publishing entities and can have serious consequences when they are neglected. The University of Virginia-Rolling Stone controversy is a prime example of editorial oversight with negative consequences. Rolling Stone’s editors were unwilling to question the reporting strategy of the article's author. The author did not interview the alleged, or the friends of the subject of the article. As a result of following a limited line of inquiry, the story proved to be false and had major consequences for the accused and the university. [11]

From an academic perspective, Social Text failed to exercise these standard review processes, which can be seen as an ethical failing. As a postmodernist journal, however, Social Text does not claim to have a rigorous peer review process.

Intentional Deception[edit | edit source]

Alan Sokal intentionally sent incorrect information to Social Text. He disguised his information in complicated jargon. Although he intended to reveal the false nature of the article, he still decided to use the means of deception to achieve his goal. If his goal was to make a stand against postmodernism and its potential attack on the scientific community, were there other ways for him to get his point across?

One relatively common example of deception that can lead to unwanted side effects is a form of internet dating called catfishing. The term was coined by a documentary in which a man carried on a long term, long distance relationship with someone he had never met. They would communicate online, and this woman told her boyfriend that she was single and young. The woman was actually 40 years old and was married. This was a shock to the young man, who believed he was dating someone completely different. The woman’s husband was asked to comment on the situation and gave an interesting reply:

“So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile [for improved taste]. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin”[12].

This quote reveals a perspective that this deception is justified in some circumstances. Alan Sokal can be viewed as one of these “catfish” that are nipping on the "fins" of others to make the world a more vibrant place. His attack on the journal was his way of attempting to reveal something that he believed was eroding away an important part of life.

Catfishing can also be viewed as a deceptive act with consequences. The term was popularized when Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o found himself in a similar situation. He believed he was dating a Hawaiian woman who was dying from cancer. He was actually dating his friend, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who was a male but was too scared to confess his love for Manti[13]. The release of the identity of Manti Te’o’s “girlfriend” damaged Manti’s reputation, although he had little control over the situation. This situation is similar to the way that Sokal appealed to the journal. He presented himself in all the right ways for the journal to accept his paper, yet he turned out to be something different than his presentation. These two viewpoints of catfishing and the act of deception to achieve a goal reveal an ethical conflict that his hoax has left us to disseminate.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The Sokal affair presents two competing ideological and ethical frameworks in conflict with one another. The two disagree on the role each camp should take in moderating and influencing the way science and social science are studied. Each group is able to justify their tactics in the affair through their own framework. In the scientific community, there is an ethical obligation to exercise editorial practices. For Social Text, these practices were not deemed necessary because of their belief in subjective truths. When ethical frameworks do not align, conflict is sure to arise. Due to fundamental differences between these frameworks, however, the responsible party is often hard to distinguish.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Sokal, A. D., (1996a). Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text.
  2. a b "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. 1996. 
  3. "Sociology of Science". Annual Review of Sociology. 1975. 
  4. "Against Method". New Left Books. 1975. 
  5. Gross, P. & Levitt, N. (1994). Higher Suerstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science - Johns Hopkins University Press
  6. "Physicist's Slick Hoax Leaves Egg on Face of 'Progressive' Academic Journal". Kamiya, G.. 1996. 
  7. Sokal, A. D. & Bricmont, J. (1999). Fashionable nonsense: Postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science - Picador
  8. [ "About the Journal"]. Social Text. 2016. 
  9. a b "The Sokal hoax: Response by *Social Text* [Email to Derrida"]. Erben, D.. 1996. 
  10. a b "The Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing". Mayfield. n.d. 
  11. "Rolling Stone's investigation: 'A failure that was avoidable'". Columbia Journalism Review. 2015. 
  12. Joost, H. & Schulman A. (2010) Catfish [Motion Picture]. United States. Supermache.
  13. Myerberg, P. (2013). A Timeline of the Manti Te’o Girlfriend Hoax Story. USA Today Sports.