This is quite a story - if you haven't already read it, you might
want to check it out. . .
Michael Hoechsmann, OISE
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 21 MAY 1996 21:11:35 GMT
From: D. Jason Nolan <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: From NY Times
>>>From this morning's New York Times, front page:
>> May 18, 1996
>> Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly
>> By JANNY SCOTT
>> [N] EW YORK -- A 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, entitled "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 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 article -- which was read by
>> several editors at the journal before it was published
>> -- goes 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
>> In this case, Sokal, 41, intended to attack some of the
>> work of social scientists and humanists in the field of
>> cultural studies, the exploration of culture -- and, in
>> recent years, science -- for 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
>> "While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly
>> serious," 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, 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 Sokal's attention, Friday called the hoax "a
>> lot of fun and a source of a certain amount of personal
>> "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.
>> 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 Friday. Then, he said, he
>> read "Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its
>> Quarrel With Science" by Levitt and Paul R. Gross.
>> 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 Aronowitz. Words like hegemony,
>> counterhegemonic and epistemological abound.
>> In it, 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 NYU, said Friday that about a
>> half-dozen editors at the journal dealt with 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 Ross, director of the
>> American studies program at NYU "In other words, it was
>> about the relationship between philosophy and physics."
>> Now Ross says he regrets having published the article.
>> But he said Sokal misunderstood the ideas of the people
>> he was trying to expose. "These are caricatures of
>> complex scholarship," he said.
>> Aronowitz, a sociologist and director of the Center for
>> Cultural Studies at CUNY, said Sokal seems to believe
>> that the people he is parodying deny the existence of
>> the real world. "They never deny the real world,"
>> Aronowitz said. "They are talking about whether meaning
>> can be derived from observation of the real world."
>> 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."
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D. Jason Nolan
[log in to unmask]
Department of Curriculum
Ontario Institute for Stupidity in Education
University of Toronto