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.
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.
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