The Science Wars Redux
Fifteen years after the Sokal Hoax, attacks on “objective knowledge” that were once the province of the left have been taken up by the right.
In 1995, I was invited to speak to the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I was teaching at the time. The occasion was something they called their “Postmodern Science Forum.” I took it as a good sign that they were not allergic to the word “postmodern,” and I launched into a brief history of the term as it migrated from architecture to literature to philosophy to popular culture–before getting down to the real business at hand, a discussion of the influence of T. S. Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the humanities. Kuhn, I said, had shown us that scientific knowledge was not cumulative, however much it appeared so in retrospect; rather, it proceeded by way of upheavals in which a new worldview displaces the old. But had Kuhn thereby licensed a kind of shallow relativism in the humanities, where we can talk about “paradigm shifts” and “incommensurabilities” without any reference to the natural world of oxygen, Neptune, and X-rays (to take some of Kuhn’s most illustrative examples from the history of science)? Had we read Kuhn backwards from Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, a far more anarchic account of scientific research, concluding that scientists were just as irrational as everyone else, and that therefore both God and Science are dead, and everything is permitted? And when we claimed to be doing “science studies,” did we know what the hell we were talking about?
For some of my interlocutors–and they were a very lively bunch, full of great questions, random expostulations, and a few moderately hostile interruptions–the short answers to these questions were yes, yes, and no. They were willing to cut me some slack, not only because I was nice enough to visit them but because I took my own examples from the history of astrophysics, about which I know an elementary thing or two; but they were not so kind about some of my colleagues in the humanities, who, they believed, were overstepping their disciplinary bounds and doing “science studies” without any substantial knowledge of science. A couple of physicists had clearly read Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s then-recent book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, a free-swinging polemic against science studies, feminism, Jeremy Rifkin, jargon, and much more, and they were mightily pissed off about this Andrew Ross fellow, who had written a science-studies book, Strange Weather, which he dedicated to “all the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”
Well, yes, I had to admit, Ross’s dedication was rather cheeky. But it was not in itself evidence that Ross did not know his subject matter. Besides, I added, when in Strange Weather Ross called for science “that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests,” and Gross and Levitt responded by writing, “ ‘Of some service to progressive interests’ seems reasonably clear, if frighteningly Stalinist in tone and root,” weren’t Gross and Levitt being kind of…nutty? Hysterical, perhaps? What was wrong with wanting medicine or engineering or environmental science to be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests? Why shouldn’t we try to build a world that affords greater public access to people with disabilities, for instance? And since conservatives had even then largely abandoned their early-twentieth-century commitment to conserve the Earth’s natural resources, wasn’t “environmental science” now a “progressive ” in and of itself? It’s not as if Ross was calling for a Liberation Astronomy. Would Ross’s sentence sound out of place in a bulletin issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists?
Back then, of course, the humanities and the interpretive social sciences–the few remaining interpretive social sciences, that is, the fields that hadn’t gone totally over into the parallel Quantification Universe–were still reeling from the so-called “political correctness” battles of the early 1990s, and some of us humanists were kind of defensive about it. Though I wasn’t. I was perfectly willing to say publicly that Dinesh D’Souza was a liar and a scoundrel, and that most of the other right-wing critics of the humanities had no idea what they were talking about. And I was fond of saying to my friends in the sciences that mi problema es su problema: the culture warriors of the right are after English and women’s studies today, but they’ll be coming for you soon enough, just you wait. To a man (and they were all men), my scientist friends refused to believe this. Some merely said, plausibly enough, that debates over PC were irrelevant to their work on dark matter or the properties of metals; others insisted that the conservative attack on the universities was entirely the fault of radical artists and humanists with their queering this and their Piss Christ that and their deconstructing the Other. You’re the ones making it hard for all of us in the academy, they said, and things would be fine if you would just tone it down and knock off the épater-le-bourgeois bit.
And then, the next year, the Sokal Hoax happened.
Social Text Gets Punk’d
What, you ask, was the Sokal Hoax? While I was chatting with my colleagues at the Postmodern Science Forum, New York University physicist Alan Sokal, having read Higher Superstition, decided to try an experiment. He painstakingly composed an essay full of (a) flattering references to science-studies scholars such as Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, (b) howler-quality demonstrations of scientific illiteracy, (c) flattering citations of other science-studies scholars who themselves had demonstrated howler-quality scientific illiteracy, (d) questionable-to-insane propositions about the nature of the physical world, (e) snippets of fashionable theoretical jargon from various humanities disciplines, and (f) a bunch of stuff from Bohr and Heisenberg, drawing object lessons from the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics. He then placed a big red bow on the package, titling the essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The result was a very weird essay, a heady mix–and a shot heard ’round the world. For Sokal decided to submit it to the journal Social Text, where it wound up in a special issue edited by Ross and Aronowitz on…the “Science Wars.” Yes, that’s right: Social Text accepted an essay chock-full of nonsense and proceeded to publish it in a special issue that was designed to answer the critics of science studies–especially, but not exclusively, Gross and Levitt. It was more than a great hoax on Sokal’s part; it was also, on the part of Social Text, one of the great own-foot-shootings in the history of self-inflicted injury.
Cannily, Sokal chose Lingua Franca, a then-influential (since folded) magazine that covered the academy and the humanities, as the venue in which to publish his “gotcha” essay, in which he revealed that the whole thing was a great big joke. And as if on cue, Ross and Aronowitz fired back almost precisely as Sokal believed they would: Aronowitz called Sokal “ill-read and half-educated,” while Ross called the essay “a little hokey,” “not really our cup of tea,” and a “boy stunt…typical of the professional culture of science education.” Aronowitz and Ross had every reason to feel badly stung, no question; but the terms of their response, unfortunately, spectacularly bore out Sokal’s claim that “the targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside.” It was not hard to wonder, after all: If indeed Sokal’s hokey boy-stunt essay was not really your cup of tea, why did you publish it in the first place?
For many people, the answer to that question was simple: because the theory-addled, jargon-spouting academic left, of which Social Text now stood as the symbol, really didn’t know squat about science and really was devoted to the project of making shit up and festooning it with flattering citations to one another’s work. It was what critics believed all along, and now they had the proof. The disparity of audience response was–and remains–stark: In my academic-left circles, Sokal’s name was mud, his hoax an example of extraordinary bad faith; everywhere else, especially on the rest of the campus and in the world of journalism, Sokal was a hero, the guy who finally exposed the naked emperor (and there was much talk of naked emperors) and burst the cultural-studies bubble that had so drastically overinflated certain academic reputations–and academic egos.
The damage to the academic left–and the sense of betrayal on the academic left–was especially severe because the Sokal Hoax followed in the wake of the early-’90s culture wars. Left-leaning humanists were used to taking brickbats from movement conservatives like D’Souza, Lynne Cheney, and Bill Bennett; we had watched Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms attack the National Endowment for the Arts, and we had seen Cheney appeal to Congress to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities–when she was no longer directing it. Even a few intellectually respectable people came unhinged by mid-decade, as when biologist E.O. Wilson declared, in a 1994 talk, “multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism.” The fact that Sokal launched his critique in the name of the left was a real shock–indeed, it was simply unintelligible to some academic leftists, who insisted that all their critics were de facto conservatives (and even tried to label Sokal a “left conservative” as a result). But the hoax also played an important role in the intraparty squabbles on the left, insofar as it seemed to give ammunition to leftists who believed that class oppression was the most important game in town, and that all this faddish talk of gender and race and sexuality was a distraction from the real struggle, which had to do with capital and labor. Finally, in academic-hothouse politics, the hoax had any number of unintended side-effects, bolstering traditionalists’ beliefs that disciplines like women’s studies and science studies were just so much balderdash.
So what did the essay itself actually say? As a parody of certain academic styles and tics, it really was a tour de force–though most of the people celebrating it and denouncing it, I found, weren’t reading the thing all the way through. For most journalists, for example, the first paragraph was quite damning enough:
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. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.
The passage I’ve italicized makes it look as if Social Text itself, by publishing the essay, is proclaiming its belief in the nonexistence of the external world. That’s basically how most people construed the hoax: as Sokal’s proof that theory-besotted humanists on the academic left deny the existence of the external world. It was Dr. Johnson’s stone all over again, except that this time the stone came flying through the window of a hip academic journal.
But imagine, dear reader, that this essay has been submitted to you, and that you have no reason to think that it is anything but an ordinary journal submission. How would you have read that first paragraph? The first two sentences are unobjectionable; one might even want to call them “true.” The third sentence carries the payload. And yet even that one is trickier than it looks–if you stop and ask yourself what it means that an actual, real-live, university-faculty physicist is saying such things. On one hand, I have to admire Sokal’s powers of mimicry: the fact that he speaks sweepingly and dismissively of “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook” suggests that he was a quick study of the academic-theory left, and had learned that people who speak of the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook can usually expect to find a sympathetic readership at places like Social Text. On the other hand, why should anyone consider it strange that a physicist would be saying strange things about the physical world? Okay, so some physicist from NYU is challenging the idea that physics offers reliable knowledge of the external world that can be encoded in eternal laws. But don’t physicists say bizarre, counterintuitive things about the external world all the time? Isn’t it part of their job description, like talking about dark matter and dark energy and branes and eleven-dimensional strings and multiple universes and stuff that no reasonable person could possibly imagine on the basis of their daily lives?
As I argued in my 2006 book, Rhetorical Occasions, ever since the days of Bohr and Heisenberg, general readers have come to expect that physicists will not tell them that force equals mass times acceleration and that what goes up must come down; they expect that physicists will tell them that space-time is curved in the shape of a quantum donut whose jelly filling is composed of black holes that bend through Calabi-Yau space to produce “munchkins-branes.” So it’s curious–and telling–that Sokal’s essay goes on to cite Bohr and Heisenberg. But Sokal’s treatment of them is uneasy–and at one point, I think, Sokal gives away more of the game than he realizes. In “Transgressing the Boundaries,” Sokal notes that Bohr himself drew social implications from the principle of complementarity. The principle holds that two mutually exclusive definitions are in fact necessary for an adequate explanation of a phenomenon: light, for instance, is both a particle and a wave. “Bohr’s analysis of the complementarity principle also led him to a social outlook that was, for its time and place, notably progressive,” Sokal writes in an endnote, quoting from a 1938 lecture by Bohr:
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