In response to:

Sokal's Hoax from the August 8, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Alan Sokal’s hoax is rapidly ceasing to be funny. An enterprise that originally had all the marks of a good joke is beginning to bring out the worst in respondents. This was obvious first in Sokal’s own account in Lingua Franca of what he had done (very amusing) and why (tedious and self-righteous), and then in the firestorm of letters in The New York Times and various professional journals. But as teachers of a course on literature and science at Yale, we found Steven Weinberg’s response to the hoax [NYR, August 8] particularly troubling.

We do not, of course, wish to defend the shoddy scholarship of the Social Text editors, and we deplore the pan-culturalist views of those whom Weinberg attacks. But Weinberg has gone to the other extreme. If, in what follows, we concentrate on his views, it is because as a distinguished scientist, his intervention has the capacity to create mischief far beyond that of Social Text. Culture is too important to be left to soi-disant cultural critics, but it is also the case that Nobel prize-winning physicists should not go unchallenged when they pronounce on culture—or science.

Alan Sokal and other scientists like Weinberg who have declared him a hero share one important feature with the editors of Social Text: both sides wish to locate science in a particular relation to other aspects of culture. The Social Text tribe sees science as merely a subfunction of the covering category “culture,” while Weinberg flatly states, “The discoveries of physics may become relevant to philosophy and culture when we learn the origin of the universe or the final laws of nature, but not for the present.” The Social Text editors fail to grant science sufficient distinctiveness in their homogenizing zeal. And Weinberg errs in the other direction: he argues science has no connection to the rest of culture. Both sides are guilty of egregious overstatement and impatiently exclude a middle where the real complexities are to be found.

Social Text and Weinberg both get the relation of science and culture wrong, but they do so in different ways. The claims of the Social Text editors have been self-discredited, not only by their acceptance of the Sokal piece, but by subsequent attempts they have made in statements to the press and in a Lingua Franca article to explain away their simple lack of basic seriousness, not only as scholars, but as intellectuals. Of Weinberg’s seriousness, however, there can be no doubt. For this reason his argument is ultimately the more dangerous of the two, not only because it has a certain superficial plausibility (especially when presented in such clear prose and with so many entertaining examples), but because it represents in highly reductive terms a view probably held by many other scientists.

Such believers hold that science is an undertaking fundamentally different from other human activities for a number of reasons, but primarily because of its relation to a reality that is ultimate in the sense that its truths cannot be reduced to any other form of explanation. Such truths are objective, impersonal laws (a phrase Weinberg repeats like a mantra). Insofar as it is universal and extrahistorical, science is qualitatively distinct from the rest of culture: science is nature, and therefore the very opposite of culture.

The most striking feature of this argument is its radical dualism: on the one side are timeless laws and selfless truths; on the other, is the social world of culture, with its ineluctable contingency, its ramifying particularity, its dictates that change with time. But the poles of this opposition are not equally weighted. Despite Weinberg’s claim that in natural science “authority counts very little,” his remarks are clearly intended to be definitive: Weinberg clearly sees himself as giving voice to the impersonal laws of natural science. These two fundamental aspects of Weinberg’s argument—its obsessive dualism and and its assumption of overwhelming authority—are grounded in a mode of thought frequently encountered in traditional societies where the distinctive feature of the culture is the dualism that separates the world of the profane from the sacred.

It would be absurd to compare the erudite and cosmopolitan scientist to a member of, say, one of the tribes of central Australia described by Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life were it not for the binarism that so compulsively attends the thinking of both: “…The real characteristic of religious phenomena is that they always suppose a bipartite division of the whole universe, known and knowable, into two classes which embrace all that exists, but which radically exclude each other.”

What does Weinberg’s dualism include—and exclude? The innermost sanctum of his temple (before which all else is, in the etymological sense of the word, profane) is occupied by particle physicists. His use of the covering term “science” is deceptive, for it excludes microbiology, genetics, and the new brain sciences, to name merely a few. “Science” boils down to the work being done by a relatively small number of men in theoretical and high-energy physics. Outside the temple would be found first of all the enemies of the truth Weinberg specifically attacks for their impurity—the Social Text editors, of course, but as well most other historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science: “Scientists like Sokal [among whom Weinberg clearly counts himself] find themselves in opposition to many sociologists, historians, and philosophers as well as postmodern literary theorists.” But in another circle of darkness would be found even other scientists, heretics such as Heisenberg and de Broglie. This list of apostates can be extended, by the same logic, to include the Newton who in his old age said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”


Why, we may reasonably ask, has the mantle of purity Weinberg assumes in his attack on the editors of Social Text fallen precisely on the shoulders of particle physicists? Is it because defending pure science against philistine non-scientists gives particle physicists the opportunity to define science in their own image? The particle physicist stands ready in his role as pre-Kantian shaman to declare tabu all that which falls outside his narrow definitions. He defends pure science from the philistine laity by defining “science” in his own image. But it is not necessary to accept the mantras of particle physicists, with their reductionist view of science, to reject the foolishness of Social Text.

Since at least the pre-Socratics the greatest minds have striven to understand the relation of the incommensurable to our situatedness at a particular moment in a specific time. Since at least the Enlightenment this problem has been articulated in questions about how we relate physical sensation to processes of the understanding. All the gains we have made in this inclusive endeavor that has given new power not only to the natural sciences, but to other aspects of culture such as poetry and art as well, are now endangered by new polarizations in the science wars that rage about us. If we are to preserve a more holistic view of nature and our own place in it, we must resist not only those extremists who exclude formal knowledge in the name of a homogenizing concept of culture, but those as well who make equally privative claims for an immaculate conception of science. Or as Lionel Trilling deduced from the Leavis-Snow controversy, what gets lost in such conflicts between extremists is that quality of mind which creates the culture they claim to protect.

Michael Holquist

Professor of Comparative Literature

Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

Robert Shulman

Sterling Professor of Molecular

Biophysics and Biochemistry

Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

To the Editors:

With all the broad discussion of the Sokal affair, not enough has been made of the way the counter-attackers against “postmodernism” and science studies get irrational and unscientific in the name of science and with the voice of common sense. Since part of the project of the writers Sokal mocks and Steven Weinberg criticizes is to force awareness of the metaphysical assumptions embedded in the language of common sense, they will often, even when sensible, sound obscure and irrational. I hope nobody wants to defend the awful jargon of much current theory and criticism. But Weinberg’s demonstration of Derrida’s vacuity on the basis of his failure to make sense of a passage selected by Sokal for mockery has no more weight than would a similar comment on science from a distinguished literary critic. Like Derrida or not, his linguistic project can’t be dismissed with a commonsensical “I don’t understand it.”

Moreover, whereas every writer knows that all written words escape authorial control, Weinberg claims that the conclusions of physics can have no cultural implications. This is an extraordinary, a profoundly irrational claim. “Those who seek extrascientific messages in what they think they understand about modern physics,” says Weinberg, “are digging dry wells.” This is special pleading with a vengeance and Weinberg even provides two counter-examples.

How special the pleading is can be suggested by making an example of material from Sokal’s parody. Sokal, Weinberg chortles, “leaps from Bohr’s observation that in quantum mechanics ‘a complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view which defy a unique description’ to the conclusion that ‘postmodern science’ refutes ‘the authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science.”‘ Weinberg laughs at the obvious absurdity of the conclusion, and then concludes that ANY cultural inference from Bohr’s argument is illegitimate. Sure, Sokal probably had some real targets among cultural critics; but that an absurd inference is drawn doesn’t for a moment preclude the possibility that there are other more reasonable ones. It is difficult not to see Bohr’s argument as loaded with telling cultural implications. If Weinberg is right that such ideas apply always and everywhere, Bohr’s observation ought to change the way lay people look at the world. Denying such possibility sounds more irrational, ideological, and misguided than anything Social Text did when it gave Sokal too much trust. It was not after all Social Text that drew the absurd conclusion about authoritarianism and elitism; it was Sokal, trying to ventriloquize work he didn’t fully understand.


The new counter-aggression of scientists hostile to “postmodernism” is surely the consequence of an economic pinch hurting them as well as humanists and social scientists. On all sides intellectual activity not for profit or salvation is under pressure. Both sides have got far too defensive and should be taking this awkward moment as an occasion for recognizing common interests and arguing their positions rationally. The most dangerous thing about Weinberg’s kind of response is that it closes doors. He waves the banner of common sense, a banner that has been held higher, and waved more effectively by ideologues and demagogues, and in the vanguard of a war that inhibits science and crushes cultural critique.

George Levine

Center for the Critical Analysis of

Contemporary Culture

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey

To the Editors:

Steven Weinberg has used Alan Sokal’s entertaining hoax (perpetrated against the editors of the formerly obscure journal Social Text) as an occasion for airing his own views on the nature of science, which he represents as those of “scientists” in contrast to “others” (historians, philosophers, and sociologists). He hopes thereby to “strengthen the vision of a rationally understandable world” so that we can “protect ourselves from the irrational tendencies that still beset humanity,” for he is convinced that the “others” are promoting irrationality with their cultural relativism and attendant denial of objective reality. The difficulty with this representation is that all historians, philosophers, and sociologists that I know share Weinberg’s hope for rational understanding and that none of them deny objective reality as Weinberg presents it. As a historian of physics I will remark on the relation between reality and relativism.

To evoke objective reality, Weinberg says that the laws of physics are as real as rocks and that we did not create them. Recognizing, however, that we have no access to any laws that we have not ourselves expressed, he retreats to the mundane formulation that our lawlike statements about aspects of the world correspond consistently to our experience of those aspects. Such laws he epitomizes by Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, stressing that they are “an approximation that is valid in a limited context” or better, “valid in certain known circumstances.” This validity criterion for realism—if it works it’s real—would convert every empirically adequate simulation into reality and every anti-realist into a realist. If such validity constitutes objective reality, Weinberg will search in vain for any historian who has ever denied the objective reality of Maxwell’s equations. (His citation among others of Thomas Kuhn—so recently deceased after a lifelong attempt to articulate the nature of objectivity and rationality in science, including rigorous graduate courses in the history of electromagnetism—is outrageous.)

The issue of cultural relativism is not validity; it concerns multiplicity: the multiplicity of valid positions that have been available at any time, the many ways in which those positions have been embedded in the cultures from which they emerged, and the diverse processes through which they have both crossed cultural boundaries and have changed fundamentally over time, with massive implications for both science and the rest of culture. These objective realities leave conscientious historians in a somewhat relativistic position as compared with such absolutist claims as Weinberg’s that “as far as culture or philosophy is concerned the difference between Newton’s and Einstein’s theories of gravitation or between classical and quantum mechanics is immaterial.” This strange notion denies the experience of virtually every physicist who lived through the changes from 1900 to 1930. Continuing, Weinberg repeats the standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics—sometimes called observer-created-reality—according to which “electrons in atoms do not have definite positions or velocities until these properties are measured.” While Einstein, among others, regarded this interpretation as unacceptable subjectivism, Weinberg presents it as an objective reality of no great historical significance, without telling us that it involves a renunciation (Bohr’s term) of the classical causal description in space and time of the trajectory of a particle and without telling us that it has once again become controversial with the revival of David Bohm’s long-dismissed deterministic (and holistic) alternative. Is Weinberg’s blatant falsification of history excusable in the interest of damning the literary critic Andrew Ross as “simply wrong” in his remarks about the cultural significance of quantum mechanics? Multiplying errors, unlike multiplying interpretations, does not lead to wisdom.

There is a deeper question. Is it justifiable to try to expunge all mystical physicists (whom Weinberg has “never met”), “creationists and other religious enthusiasts” from the historical processes that have contributed to the immense power of science to predict and control events in the material world? Consider Maxwell’s equations. They emerged during the course of the nineteenth century from the work of some of the most deeply religious people who have ever contemplated a battery: Oersted, discoverer of electromagnetism and author of The Soul in Nature; Faraday, devout member of the Sandemanian sect who discovered electromagnetic induction and articulated field theory; William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and Maxwell, who mathematized field theory while holding that mathematical physics could produce only idealized accounts, accessible to finite human minds, of limited aspects of God’s infinite action in the world; and a whole bevy of more spiritualist physicists who saw the electromagnetic field as the carrier of their dreams of uniting religion and science. These are some of the objective realities that historians of physics must learn to understand, however much we may disdain their role in contemporary society, for they are crucial aspects of the work in physics of the people who made Maxwell’s equations. Again, the issue is not the validity of field theory (nor of long-competing theories of action at a distance using retarded potentials) but of culturally embedded meanings.

And it does no good to suppose that science is no longer like that. Wolfgang Pauli, certainly one of the best mathematical physicists of the twentieth century, interpreted the oft-cited mysticism of Johannes Kepler, concerning the harmonies of planetary motion, in terms of his own belief in Jungian archetypes, which promised to account for both mathematical forms and his own dreams during years of analysis in the 1930s under Jungian guidance. More radically, Pascual Jordan, another of the primary mathematical founders of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, presented these theoretical accomplishments during the Thirties as a foundation not only for telepathy and clairvoyance but for Nazi politics as well. The only surprise is that (so far as I know) no physicist has yet presented the beautiful mathematical work of Edward Witten and others on string theory as the best-ever form of Platonic mysticism, since no direct empirical test seems conceivable at present.

In short, Weinberg presents us with an ideology of science, an ideology which radically separates science from culture, scientists from “others,” and splits the personalities of scientists into rational and irrational components. However desirable this ideology may be in other respects, it will never do for comprehending the history of science. To preserve it, he has to indulge in the unsavory rhetorical ploy of dismissing other Nobelists, who have regarded their physics as having considerable philosophical and cultural significance, as aged oddballs appearing “from time to time” and “past their best.” Thus Heisenberg’s discussions of the subject-object problem become “philosophical wanderings” from someone who “could not always be counted on to think carefully.” But scientists who have drawn on their philosophical, political, economic, and other beliefs for conceptual resources and motivation in pursuing their best scientific work permeate the history of physics. To remove them from quantum mechanics would be to wipe out the field: Planck, Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Pauli, Jordan, Schroedinger, Weizsäcker, to list only the obvious. So what is Weinberg up to? Is he not promoting a cultural agenda of his own in his attempt to rewrite history? Historical realities can be interpreted with validity in various ways, but like physical laws and rocks, they resist when kicked.

M. Norton Wise

Program in History of Science

Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey

To the Editors:

Sokal’s hoax and Weinberg’s article explaining and amplifying its message effectively remove the smoke and mirrors from those social critics, philosophers, and historians of science who want to regard the human circumstances of a scientific discovery as more important than the discovery itself. As working physicists we know that the laws of nature we study are apprehended (tested and validated by independent experiments) the same by women and men, and by people in every culture. The scientific revolution and continued discoveries give knowledge about the universe that can be comprehended and used by all. We commend Sokal and Weinberg for their defense of the scientific revolution.

Nina Byers

Professor of Physics

University of California at Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California

Claudio Pellegrini

Professor of Physics

University of California at Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California

Steven Weinberg replies:

I am grateful to those who sent comments on my article “Sokal’s Hoax,” including those who, by disagreeing with me, have given me this chance to take another whack at the issues it raised.

Professors Holquist and Shulman have me dead to rights in calling my views dualistic. I think that an essential element needed in the birth of modern science was the creation of a gap between the world of physical science and the world of human culture.1 Endless trouble has been produced throughout history by the effort to draw moral or cultural lessons from discoveries of science. The physics and biology of Aristotle were largely based on a conception of naturalness, which was believed also to have moral and cultural implications, as for instance that some people are naturally slaves. After relativity theory became widely publicized in 1919, the Archbishop of Canterbury like many others conscientiously worried over the effect that relativity was going to have on theology, and had to be reassured by Einstein himself in 1921 that relativity had no implications for religion.2 Professors Holquist and Shulman quote Durkheim for the proposition that a gap between ways of viewing reality such as that between science and culture is characteristic of religious phenomena, but I think that just the opposite is true; if you want to find astronomy all muddled with cultural or moral values, you would turn to Dante’s Paradiso rather than Galileo’s Dialogo. In trying to revive a “holistic view of nature,” Professors Holquist and Shulman are seeking to fill a much-needed gap.

Quantum mechanics provides a good example of the need to maintain this separation between physics and other forms of culture. Quantum mechanics has been variously cited as giving support to mysticism, or free will, or the decline of quantitative rationality. Now, I would agree that anyone is entitled to draw any inspiration they can from quantum mechanics, or from anything else. This is what I meant when I wrote that I had nothing to say against the use of science as metaphor. But there is a difference between inspiration and implication, and in talking of the “telling cultural implications” of quantum mechanics, Professor Levine may be confusing the two. There is simply no way that any cultural consequences can be implied by quantum mechanics. It is true that quantum mechanics does “apply always and everywhere,” but what applies is not a proverb about diverse points of view but a precise mathematical formalism, which among other things tells us that the difference between the predictions of quantum mechanics and pre-quantum classical mechanics, which is so important for the behavior of atoms, becomes negligible at the scale of human affairs.

I suggest the following thought experiment. Suppose that physicists were to announce the discovery that, beneath the apparently quantum mechanical appearance of atoms, there lies a more fundamental substructure of fields and particles that behave according to the rules of plain old classical mechanics. Would Professor Levine find it necessary to rethink his views about culture or philosophy? If so, why? If not, then in what sense can these views be said to be implied by quantum mechanics?

I was glad to see that Professor Wise, an expert on late-nineteenth-century physics, finds no error in what I had to say about the history of science. Unfortunately he does find a great many errors in things that I did not say. I never said there were no physicists in the early twentieth century who found cultural or philosophical implications in relativity or quantum mechanics, only that in my view these inferences were not valid. I never said that the apparent subjectivism of quantum mechanics was “of no great historical significance,” only that I think we know better now. Just as anyone may get inspiration from scientific discoveries, scientists in their work may be inspired by virtually anything in their cultural background, but that does not make these cultural influences a permanent part of scientific theories. I never tried “to expunge all mystical physicists” as well as “creationists and other religious enthusiasts” from the history of science. I did say that I had never met a physicist who was a mystic, but my article had nothing to say about the frequency of other forms of religious belief among scientists, past or present.

On the subject of mystical physicists, it is interesting that when Professor Wise tries to find up-to-date examples, he can get no closer than two physicists whose major work was done more than sixty years ago. He expresses surprise that no physicist has yet presented string theory as a form of Platonic mysticism, but I think I can explain this. It is because we expect that string theory will be testable—if not directly, by observing the string vibrations, then indirectly, by calculating whether string theory correctly accounts for all of the currently mysterious features of the standard model of elementary particles and general relativity. If it were not for this expectation, string theory would not be worth bothering with.

I tried in my article to put my finger on precisely what divides me and many other scientists from cultural and historical relativists by saying that the issue is not the belief in objective reality itself, but the belief in the reality of the laws of nature. Professor Wise makes a good point that, in judging the reality of the laws of nature, the test is not just their validity, but also their lack of “multiplicity.” Indeed, as I wrote in my article, one of the things about laws of nature like Maxwell’s equations that convinces me of their objective reality is the absence of a multiplicity of valid laws governing the same phenomena, with different laws of nature for different cultures.

(To be precise, I don’t mean that there is no other valid way of looking at the electric and magnetic phenomena that Maxwell’s equations describe, because there are mathematically equivalent ways of rewriting Maxwell’s theory, and the theory itself can be replaced with a deeper theory, quantum electrodynamics, from which it can be derived. What I mean is that there is no valid alternative way of looking at the phenomena described by Maxwell’s equations that does not have Maxwell’s equations as a mathematical consequence.)

Whatever cultural influences went into the discovery of Maxwell’s equations and other laws of nature have been refined away, like slag from ore. Maxwell’s equations are now understood in the same way by everyone with a valid comprehension of electricity and magnetism. The cultural backgrounds of the scientists who discovered such theories have thus become irrelevant to the lessons that we should draw from the theories. Professor Wise and some others may be upset by such distinctions because they see them as a threat to their own “agenda,” which is to emphasize the connections between scientific discoveries and their cultural context; but that is just the way the world is.

On the other hand, the gap between science and other forms of culture may be narrow or absent for the sciences that specifically deal with human affairs. This is one of the reasons that in writing of this gap in my article, I wrote about physics, and explicitly excluded science like psychology from my remarks. I concentrated on physics also because that is what I know best. Professors Holquist and Shulman are mistaken in thinking that when talking of “science,” I meant just physics, and excluded “microbiology, genetics, and the new brain sciences.” I was pretty careful in my article to write of physics when I meant physics, and of science when I meant science. I can’t see why Professor Shulman, a distinguished molecular biophysicist and biochemist, should be unhappy with my not offering opinions about the cultural implications of biology.

I should perhaps have made more clear in my article that I have no quarrel with most historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science. I am a fan of the history of science, and in my recent books I have acknowledged debts to writings of numerous historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science.3 In contrast with Alan Sokal, who in perpetrating his hoax was mostly concerned about a breakdown of the alliance between science and the political left, my concern was more with the corruption of history and sociology by postmodern and constructivist ideologies. Contrary to what Professor Levine may think, my opposition to these views is not due to any worry about the effects they may have on the economic pinch hurting science. In years of lobbying for federal support of scientific programs, I never heard anything remotely postmodern or constructivist from a member of Congress.

Among philosophers of science, Thomas Kuhn deserves special mention. He was a friend of mine whose writings I often found illuminating, but over the years I was occasionally a critic of his views.4 Even in his celebrated early Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn doubted that “changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.” I corresponded with him after we met for the last time at a ceremony in Padua in 1992, and I found that his skepticism had become more radical. He sent me a copy of a 1991 lecture,5 in which he had written that “it’s hard to imagine…what the phrase ‘closer to the truth’ can mean”; and “I am not suggesting, let me emphasize, that there is a reality which science fails to get at. My point is rather that no sense can be made of the notion of reality as it has ordinarily functioned in philosophy of science.” I don’t think that it was “outrageous” for me to have said that as I understood his views, Kuhn denied the objective nature of scientific knowledge.

Professor Levine and several others object to my criticism of Jacques Derrida, based as it seems to them on a single paragraph chosen by Sokal for mockery, which begins, “The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability—it is, finally, the concept of the game.” When, in reading Sokal’s Social Text article, I first encountered this paragraph, I was bothered not so much by the obscurity of Derrida’s terms “center” and “game.” I was willing to suppose that these were terms of art, defined elsewhere by Derrida. What bothered me was his phrase “the Einsteinian constant,” which I had never met in my work as a physicist. True, there is something called Newton’s constant which appears in Einstein’s theory of gravitation, and I would not object if Derrida wanted to call it “the Einsteinian constant,” but this constant is just a number (0.00000006673 in conventional units), and I did not see how it could be the “center” of anything, much less the concept of a game.

So I turned for enlightenment to the talk by Derrida from which Sokal took this paragraph. In it, Derrida explains the word “center” as follows: “Nevertheless,… structure—or rather, the structurality of structure—although it has always been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin.”6 This was not much help.

Lest the reader think that I am quoting out of context, or perhaps just being obtuse, I will point out that, in the discussion following Derrida’s lecture, the first question was by Jean Hyppolite, professor at the Collège de France, who, after having sat through Derrida’s talk, had to ask Derrida to explain what he meant by a “center.” The paragraph quoted by Sokal was Derrida’s answer. It was Hyppolite who introduced “the Einsteinian constant” into the discussion, but while poor Hyppolite was willing to admit that he did not understand what Derrida meant by a center, Derrida just started talking about the Einsteinian constant, without letting on that (as seems evident) he had no idea of what Hyppolite was talking about. It seems to me that Derrida in context is even worse than Derrida out of context.

This Issue

October 3, 1996