Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly
The following article was published in The New York Times, May 18, 1996.
by Janny Scott
New York University physicist, fed up with what he sees as the excesses of the academic left, hoodwinked a well-known journal into publishing a parody thick with gibberish as though it were serious scholarly work. The article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," appeared this month in Social Text, a journal that helped invent the trendy, sometimes baffling field of cultural studies. Now the physicist, Alan Sokal, is gloating. And the editorial collective that publishes the journal says it sorely regrets its mistake.
But the journal's co-founder says Professor Sokal is confused. "He says we're epistemic relativists," complained Stanley Aronowitz, the co-founder and a professor at CUNY. "We're not. He got it wrong. One of the reasons he got it wrong is he's ill-read and half-educated." The dispute over the articlewhich was read by several editors at the journal before it was publishedgoes to the heart of the public debate over left-wing scholarship, and particularly over the belief that social, cultural and political conditions influence and may even determine knowledge and ideas about what is truth.
In this case, Professor Sokal, 41, intended to attack some of the work of social scientists and humanists in the field of cultural studies, the exploration of cultureand, in recent years, sciencefor coded ideological meaning. In a way, this is one more skirmish in the culture wars, the battles over multiculturalism and college curriculums and whether there is a single objective truth or just many differing points of view. Conservatives have argued that there is truth, or at least an approach to truth, and that scholars have a responsibility to pursue it. They have accused the academic left of debasing scholarship for political ends.
"While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious," Professor Sokal wrote in a separate article in the current issue of the magazine Lingua Franca, in which he revealed the hoax and detailed his "intellectual and political" motivations. "What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities," he wrote in Lingua Franca.
In an interview, Professor Sokal, who describes himself as "a leftist in the old-fashioned sense," said he worried that the trendy disciplines and obscure jargon could end up hurting the leftist cause. "By losing contact with the real world, you undermine the prospect for progressive social critique," he said.
Norman Levitt, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University and an author of a book on science and the academic left that first brought the new critique of science to Professor Sokal's attention, yesterday called the hoax "a lot of fun and a source of a certain amount of personal satisfaction."
"I don't want to claim that it proves that all social scientists or all English professors are complete idiots, but it does betray a certain arrogance and a certain out-of-touchness on the part of a certain clique inside academic life," he said.
Professor Sokal, who describes himself as "a leftist and a feminist" who once spent his summers teaching mathematics in Nicaragua, said he became concerned several years ago about what academics in cultural studies were saying about science. "I didn't know people were using deconstructive literary criticism not only to study Jane Austen but to study quantum mechanics," he said yesterday. Then, he said, he read Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrel With Science by Professor Levitt and Paul R. Gross. Professor Sokal said the book, which analyzes the critique of science, prompted him to begin reading work by the critics themselves. "I realized it would be boring to write a detailed refutation of these people," he said. So, he said, he decided to parody them.
"I structured the article around the silliest quotes about mathematics and physics from the most prominent academics, and I invented an argument praising them and linking them together," he said. "All this was very easy to carry off because my argument wasn't obliged to respect any standards of evidence or logic."
To a lay person, the article appears to be an impenetrable hodgepodge of jargon, buzzwords, footnotes and other references to the work of the likes of Jacques Derrida and Professor Aronowitz. Words like hegemony, counterhegemonic and epistemological abound. In it, Professor Sokal wrote: "It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific 'knowledge,' far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it."
Andrew Ross, a co-editor of Social Text who also happens to be a professor at N.Y.U., said yesterday that about a half-dozen editors at the journal dealt with Professor Sokal's unsolicited manuscript. While it appeared "a little hokey," they decided to publish it in a special issue they called Science Wars, he said. "We read it as the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some sort of philosophical justification for his work," said Professor Ross, director of the American studies program at N.Y.U. "In other words, it was about the relationship between philosophy and physics."
Now Professor Ross says he regrets having published the article. But he said Professor Sokal misunderstood the ideas of the people he was trying to expose. "These are caricatures of complex scholarship," he said. Professor Aronowitz, a sociologist and director of the Center for Cultural Studies at CUNY, said Professor Sokal seems to believe that the people he is parodying deny the existence of the real world. "They never deny the real world," Professor Aronowitz said. "They are talking about whether meaning can be derived from observation of the real world."
Professor Ross said it would be a shame if the hoax obscured the broader issues his journal sought to address, "that scientific knowledge is affected by social and cultural conditions and is not a version of some universal truth that is the same in all times and places."
Coiled Gibberish in a Thicket of Prose
Following is an excerpt from "Transgressing the Boundaries," a parody by Prof. Alan D. Sokal of New York University that was published in the journal Social
Text as a serious article.
"Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step further, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior scienceamong them, existence itselfbecome problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science."
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