Sokal’s Hoax

Like many other scientists, I was amused when I heard about the prank played by the NYU mathematical physicist Alan Sokal, who late in 1994 submitted a sham article to the cultural studies journal Social Text. In the article Sokal reviewed various current topics in physics and mathematics, and, tongue in cheek, drew various cultural, philosophical, and political morals that he felt would appeal to fashionable academic commentators who question the claims of science to objectivity.

The editors of Social Text did not detect that Sokal’s article was a hoax, and they published it in the journal’s Spring/Summer 1996 issue. in which he explained that his Social Text article had been “liberally salted with nonsense,” and in his opinion was accepted only because “(a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” Newspapers and newsmagazines throughout the US and Britain carried the story, and Sokal’s hoax appeared likely to join the small company of legendary academic hoaxes, along with the pseudofossils of Piltdown man planted by Charles Dawson and the pseudo-Celtic epic Ossian written by James Macpherson. The difference is that Sokal’s hoax served a public purpose, to attract attention to what Sokal saw as a decline of standards of rigor in the academic community, and for that reason it was disclosed immediately by the author himself.

The targets of Sokal’s satire occupy a broad intellectual range. There are those “postmoderns” in the humanities who like to surf through avant-garde fields like quantum mechanics or chaos theory to dress up their own arguments about the fragmentary and random nature of experience. There are those sociologists, historians, and philosophers who see the laws of nature as social constructions. There are cultural critics who find the taint of sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism, or capitalism not only in the practice of scientific research but even in its conclusions. Sokal did not satirize creationists or other religious enthusiasts who in many parts of the world are the most dangerous adversaries of science, but his targets were spread widely enough, and he was attacked or praised from all sides.

Entertaining as this episode was, I could not immediately judge from press reports what it proved. Suppose that, with tongue in cheek, an economist working for a labor union submitted an article to The National Review, giving what the author thought were false economic arguments against an increase in the statutory minimum wage. What would it prove if the article were accepted for publication? The economic arguments might still be cogent, even though the author did not believe in them.

I thought at first that Sokal’s article in Social Text was intended to be an imitation of academic babble, which any editor should have recognized as such. But in reading the article I found that this is not the case. The article expresses views that I find absurd …

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Letters

Sokal’s Hoax: An Exchange October 3, 1996