It was the greatest emperor’s-new-clothes gag in modern intellectual history. Physicist Alan Sokal’s famous hoax article—a putative attack on the legitimacy of science and even on the notion of “objectivity” itself—appeared in the trendy academic journal Social Text in the spring of 1996. With its precise mimicry of postmodern language and ideas, Sokal’s parody worked like a laser scalpel, mercilessly exposing the movement’s incoherence and foolishness. Even the paper’s title—“Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”—perfectly captured the Olympian pretentiousness of the field. And the journal’s editors fell for it. Hard.
A few weeks after the paper was published, Sokal revealed the truth: He’d come to bury postmodernism, not to praise it. His stunt, now universally known as the “Sokal Hoax,” proved that the editors of the most prestigious postmodern journal in America couldn’t tell the difference between an actual work of scholarship and a vicious satire intended to make them look silly. Even 25 years later, Sokal’s paper remains stunningly funny and audacious; every word is a delight. But reading it today is also disquieting. The academic absurdities that Sokal punctured with surgical precision no longer strike one as particularly outré. If anything, they are now commonplace.
The idea that science is just one of many equally valid “ways of knowing,” that Western rationalism is ideologically corrupt, that “your truth” is largely determined by your gender or the color of your skin—these are no longer views held mostly by insufferable Yale undergraduates. These notions underpin “anti-racist” training programs in Fortune 500 corporations and in U.S. government agencies. They shape curricula in American schools down to the early grades. And they influence the views of ordinary Americans about everything from our own history to the safety of vaccines.
Sokal’s paper was a hand grenade tossed into the middle of one of the great intellectual debates of the 1990s, which came to be known as the “Science Wars.” For the previous two decades, postmodern ideas had been all the rage in elite academic circles. Following a path blazed by leftist French thinkers (among them Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault), scholars were “deconstructing” everything in sight. Western institutions including democracy and the rule of law were deemed mere façades designed to shield the privileges of the powerful. The most basic facts about our world were asserted to be “socially constructed.” Even the methods and discoveries of the hard sciences were derided as ideological weapons wielded to enforce economic and social oppression. At the same time, postmodern thinkers loved to borrow—and usually mangle—scientific concepts and terminology. True to their Marxist roots, they liked to think their own style of thinking was “scientific” in nature, albeit conducted on a higher intellectual plane than the work of grubby researchers using outdated approaches such as the scientific method.
Eventually, a few actual scientists spoke up to defend not only their own work but the whole project of scientific inquiry. In 1994, biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt waded into the controversy with a book entitled Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. In a recent interview on the Savage Minds podcast, Sokal recalled when he first heard about it. A self-described leftist, Sokal assumed it would be another “right-wing diatribe about Marxist-feminist subversives brainwashing our children.” But then he read Higher Superstition and went on to read widely in the postmodern literature about science. He discovered that the truth was even worse than Gross and Levitt had claimed. These trendy academics weren’t just arguing that the science community lacked diversity, say, or that sexist attitudes compromised some medical research. Instead, Sokal discovered, “these people were claiming that the content and methodology of the entirety of modern science—that means astronomy, physics, and chemistry no less than psychology, biology, and medicine—all of this was somehow irredeemably infected by patriarchal, capitalist, and colonialist ideology.”
Sokal began keeping a file of postmodern papers touching on the two fields he knew best, mathematics and physics. “People were making off-the-wall claims about these things with no apparent knowledge of what they were talking about,” he said. “Some of these people were quite famous.” But what could he do with this wealth of material? He considered writing an article challenging postmodern fallacies but realized such a piece would likely wind up in a “black hole,” unread and unheeded. His breakthrough idea came to him—as ideas often do—while he was sitting on the toilet: What if, Sokal asked himself, “instead of writing an article criticizing these people, I would write an article praising them?” He decided to invent an absurd argument, “woven around the worst quotations I could find about mathematics and physics, from the most prominent intellectuals.” The piece would be a parody, a hoax, but also in a sense an experiment. If leading postmodern thinkers took his pile of crap seriously, that would say a great deal about their intellectual standards.
Sokal toiled on his manuscript for months. “I had to revise and revise until it reached the desired level of unclarity,” he said. Meanwhile, the editors of Social Text were planning a special issue, intended to be a resounding rebuttal to the criticisms lodged by Gross, Levitt, and other scientists. Though Sokal wasn’t aware of the project at the time, his faux paper fit their “Science Wars” issue like a skeleton key in a padlock. Social Text’s editors included Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson and other top names in the field. They wanted to put those quibbling scientists in their place. And here came a real scientist—an expert in quantum mechanics, no less!—telling them the postmodernists had been right all along. It was (literally) too good to be true.
“Transgressing the Boundaries” hits all the right progressive buttons. The essay begins by rebuking the mainstream scientists who resist being enlightened by their postmodernist superiors. These recalcitrant schmucks are still trapped in the “post-Enlightenment hegemony,” Sokal writes, clinging to outdated dogmas such as the idea “that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws; and that humans 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.”
In plain English, Sokal’s essay says that science as most of us conceive it is a scam. How do we know? Because, the essay goes on to argue, 20th-century breakthroughs in physics and in the philosophy of science have properly undermined the credibility of science in general. Meanwhile, “feminist and poststructuralist critiques” have (so its facetious argument goes) revealed “the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity’.”
In the end, the essay claims, “we can only conclude 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.” The essay, therefore, argues both that scientific insights are bogus and that they exist only to serve the needs of various power elites. Finally, it concludes that science and scientists don’t deserve the respect our society affords them. Or, to put that in postmodern-ese: “the discourse of the scientific community … cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.” You’ll note I write that “the essay” says these things rather than Sokal saying these things because, of course, Sokal actually believes none of this.
PRIOR to publishing “Transgressing the Boundaries,” the editors of Social Text asked Sokal whether he could trim it a bit, especially the voluminous footnotes. He refused, mostly, he later said, because “some of the best jokes were in the footnotes.” In fact, even the first two footnotes in the article reveal how well Sokal understood his target audience. First, when he mentions scientific breakthroughs that have undermined “Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics,” he drops a footnote referencing the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle shook up 20th-century physics. In the same sentence, he notes that “revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility.” A second footnote takes us to science historian Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which argued that scientists rely more on shared “paradigms” than on hard facts when building their models of the world.
It was a one-two punch. Heisenberg, boom! Kuhn, bam! Once Sokal dropped those two names, the editors of Social Text were on the ropes, powerless to resist Sokal’s flurry of postmodern nonsense. Sokal knew his audience didn’t know much about actual science. But he also knew that left-wing academics revered Heisenberg and Kuhn. In their view, Heisenberg proved that scientific knowledge—really any knowledge of objective reality—was a physical impossibility. Kuhn went further, they believed, showing that the entire scientific project was, in effect, socially constructed. In the postmodern interpretation, these two thinkers had revealed that even the hardest of hard sciences were built on a foundation of shifting sand. They were wrong, of course. In reality, while both Heisenberg and Kuhn made large contributions to human understanding, their ideas are among the most widely misunderstood—and overapplied—concepts in the history of science.
Heisenberg first articulated his uncertainty principle in 1927. On one level, it expresses a technical limitation in our ability to observe tiny particles. When scientists try to establish the exact location of an electron, he and his colleague Niels Bohr discovered, they can’t simultaneously determine the electron’s momentum. As Heisenberg wrote, “the more precisely the position is known, the less precisely the momentum is known.” Is this limitation a quirk of how we observe these particles? (The electron can be observed only if it happens to collide with one of the photons researchers blast in its direction. But the impact of that photon instantly changes the electron’s momentum, making it impossible to measure.) Or does the principle reflect a deeper property of matter itself? Heisenberg tended toward the latter view, suggesting that there are aspects of the physical world that are not just unknown, but unknowable.
The uncertainty principle quickly became one of the most famous concepts in modern physics—and not just among physicists. Major scientific breakthroughs often attract followers from outside the field in which they occur. And these followers usually want to apply the hot new concept to questions far removed from the original focus of the theory. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, for example, was embraced by a host of thinkers who tried to graft ersatz “Darwinian” notions onto unrelated fields such as ethics and political science. The late 19th century’s ruthless philosophy of “Social Darwinism” was an all-too-predictable result. (Early-20th-century progressives also cited Darwinian notions as justification for their proposed human eugenics campaigns.)
The uncertainty principle appealed to a certain class of thinkers—including those who couldn’t tell a proton from a photon—in a similar fashion. To many, it implied a welcome leveling of the intellectual playing field; why should physicists get to claim their conclusions are any more “real” than those of, say, literary critics? Within the field of physics, however, Heisenberg’s claims got a more complex reception. Einstein, for one, was a famous holdout. In his new novel When We Cease to Understand the World, the South American author Benjamin Labatut revisits the debate over uncertainty. “Einstein sensed that if one followed that line of thinking to its ultimate consequences, darkness would infect the soul of physics,” he writes. In the end, of course, the field of physics wound up doing just fine. Yes, the questions Heisenberg raised still resonate. But whether one takes the broad or narrow view of the uncertainty principle, it doesn’t make physics impossible. How could anything make physics impossible anyway? Physics describes; it does not prescribe. And in recent times, our growing understanding of how particles behave at the quantum level has opened up new fields of research and new opportunities for applying that knowledge (as in the case of quantum computing).
Nor did Heisenberg magically pull the rug out from under science in general. Uncertainty about the behavior of subatomic particles hasn’t hampered the work of biologists, geologists, or medical researchers. On the contrary, we live in an age of unprecedented scientific discovery. But Heisenberg’s ideas did become a magnet for postmodernists. One of Social Text’s co-founders was the City University of New York sociology professor Stanley Aronowitz. In his 1988 book Science as Power: Discourse and Ideology in Modern Society, Aronowitz describes science as little more than a tool of capitalism, one that has “imprisoned us in a logic of dominance and degradation.” Aronowitz embraces Heisenberg precisely because he believes the physicist proved that scientific knowledge lacks an objective foundation. And that means everything is open to interpretation. After all, if even hard-nosed physicists couldn’t nail down the truth, how could specialists in economics or psychology or history make any claim to be dealing in verifiable facts?
For a postmodernist, this absence of objective facts is considered a wonderful thing. It allows the critic to treat any field of knowledge—about society, history, even science—as something akin to a literary text. Rather than grappling with stubborn facts, the postmodernist is now free to interpret that text as cavalierly as a literary critic might dig for Freudian symbolism in one of Shakespeare’s plays. This is why postmodernists like to describe their method as “deconstructing,” “unpacking,” or “interrogating” a text. In their view, the work of the critic is the highest form of intellectual activity. (This also explains why the journal Sokal hoaxed is called Social Text, and why left-wing academics like to append the word “critical” to any field of study they’re trying to subvert.) Working in the realm of texts, critics can make any claims they like without the need to defend them from factual rebuttal by so-called experts. In pure form, postmodern arguments—such as those in radical feminism, critical race theory, and related fields—are unfalsifiable.
When the American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962,
it didn’t make much of a splash initially, selling fewer than 1,000 copies the first year. By the 1970s however, it had become one of the bestselling academic works in history. (Tellingly, it was far more popular with those in the humanities than among working scientists. The work is cited more than any other 20th-century book in the Arts and Humanities Citation index from 1976 to 1983.) Initially, Kuhn’s core claim doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary. Most scientific work, he argues, takes place under shared paradigms. Prior to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, for example, the paradigm for biology held that God created life in all its diversity in a brief burst of creation. Scientists generally aren’t trying to challenge such paradigms, Kuhn says, but rather to fill in the gaps within them. A pre-Darwinian naturalist might have spent a lifetime happily cataloguing, say, the multiplicity of beetles the Lord saw fit to create. Kuhn calls such gap-filling research “normal science.”
But sometimes the paradigm starts breaking down. For example, in the years before the Copernican Revolution, astronomers struggled to accurately predict the movements of the planets. (And no wonder, since their paradigm held that the sun and planets all orbited the earth.) When scientists find that their observations aren’t fitting the paradigm, their field enters a period of “crisis,” Kuhn says. Finally, after a few years or decades of confusion, along comes a Copernicus or a Darwin to offer a radically new model that better explains the data. At first, many researchers resist such “scientific revolutions,” but eventually they fall in line. The field has now undergone a “paradigm shift” (yes, you can blame Kuhn for popularizing that idea), and the scientists all go back to work filling in the gaps in the new paradigm.
As with Heisenberg, you might say that Kuhn offers both a moderate and a radical version of his theory. The moderate version—that outdated scientific frameworks often get discarded in favor of models that better fit the data—is more or less how most of us now believe scientific advances happen. Science isn’t always a steady slog; sometimes ideas move in giant leaps. The problems emerge in the radical version of Kuhn’s theory: It holds that since a given paradigm determines what kinds of evidence scientists see as valid, paradigms are “incommensurable.” In other words, there is no underlying standard by which we can judge whether one paradigm is better than another. “Does it really help to imagine there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?” Kuhn asked in 1970. At times he vacillated on this point, but more often than not Kuhn’s answer was no.1
Much the way Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle influenced nonscientists, dumbed-down versions of Kuhn eventually filtered into other arenas, especially education. “He appeared to give intellectual underpinning to individual and cultural relativism,” writes the Australian education professor Michael Matthews. “After Kuhn, many more people felt comfortable in saying ‘what’s true for you, need not be true for me.’” Some educators embraced a particularly extreme version of Kuhn’s outlook. In an influential 1985 book, the American education professors Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba wrote, “Since all theories and other leading ideas of scientific history have, so far, been shown to be false and unacceptable, so surely will any theories that we expound today.” This is a stunningly nihilistic stance on the possibility of scientific knowledge, and one that goes far beyond anything Kuhn actually claimed. Nonetheless, such pessimistic views have deeply influenced the American education establishment. Teachers are often told that “teaching children to learn” is more important than teaching any particular set of facts; those facts are so likely to change that they’re hardly worth bothering with in the first place.
By starting off his Social Text essay with references to both Heisenberg and Kuhn, Sokal gave the impression that his hoax article was merely building on widely accepted ideas from two of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Of course, Sokal wasn’t referencing the mainstream version of either man’s views. He was recruiting the radical versions of Heisenberg and Kuhn and, even then, pushing their ideas into a zone of absurdity that neither thinker would have countenanced. Sokal also made sure to stuff his essay “with as many citations to the editors of that journal as possible,” he later said. Stanley Aronowitz alone gets more than a dozen unctuous references. Sokal’s combination of shameless flattery and artful confirmation of the editors’ biases did the trick. Despite containing what one fellow scientist called numerous scientific “howlers” that would have been detected by any undergraduate physics major who was paying attention, the essay was published largely as written.
When the truth came out, the postmodernist elite was outraged. The controversy reached the front pages of the New York Times and Le Monde. The Science Wars were hotter than ever. Some prominent academics accused Sokal of having constructed a “straw man,” saying his article presented a wildly exaggerated version of postmodern concepts in order to poke fun at them. No legitimate postmodernist would take such silly ideas seriously, they said. That argument stumbled, though, on two points. First, some of the biggest names in the field had taken Sokal’s versions of postmodern ideas seriously—seriously enough to publish them in a prestigious journal. Second, the most absurd parts of Sokal’s article were not his deliberate misstatements of scientific concept; they were direct quotations from leading postmodern thinkers.
Looking back 25 years later, some might see Sokal’s hoax as an exercise in shooting some inconsequential fish in a very small barrel. Did it really matter if some Marxist professors were advancing ridiculous ideas in a few elite universities? Sure, postmodernism, critical studies, and various related schools of thought were challenging core elements of the Enlightenment tradition: the aspiration toward objectivity, the dedication to rationalism, the primacy of the individual. But haven’t universities always been places where young people are exposed to a range of ideas? What’s the harm in learning about some radical views? Won’t most students leave all this behind when they graduate and start making their way in the real world? Thus did many on the mainstream left shrug off the warning that Sokal had delivered.
A radical mindset was chipping at the pillars of rational inquiry and democratic values. Yet those ideas received surprisingly little in the way of vigorous academic counterargument. (I’m not discounting the importance of thinkers such as Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb in the last century, or Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt in this one. But such voices are at best a fringe element on most campuses.)
Today, critics of academic anti-rationalism—or, for that matter, political correctness, woke-ism, cancel culture, and the like—are even more likely to be dismissed as worrywarts, or worse. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recently devoted a column to pooh-poohing concerns about the erosion of free speech on college campuses. Defenders of open dialogue are being “histrionic,” she says. After all, she could find only a few hundred cases in which academics have been “targeted for sanction by ideological adversaries.” Those complaining about the loss of academic freedom, she concludes, must be aging, closet bigots who “resent new social mores that demand outsized sensitivity to causing harm.” What do 400-odd cases matter, after all?
The postmodernist bubble that Sokal tried to lance is not so clearly defined today, at least not in its 1990s form. Foucault and Derrida don’t loom over campus discussions as they once did. Nonetheless, Sokal recently noted, “postmodernist ideas have come back more and more front and center, albeit in an evolved way.” Over the decades these ideas filtered into related intellectual movements, including various types of “critical” studies and today’s proliferating identity-based disciplines, gender studies, queer studies, fat studies (yes, that’s a thing), and the like. These movements might not describe themselves as postmodern, but they all share the postmodern distrust of objectivity. To them, facts are relative, and truth is determined by one’s “lived experience”—especially if one is a member of some marginalized group.
In 2017, James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian—three academics who describe themselves as “left-wing liberal skeptics”—decided to repeat Sokal’s hoax. Their target was what they call “grievance studies,” leftist academic disciplines including postcolonial studies, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, and related fields. Because the postmodern movement ridiculed by Sokal had by now splintered into dozens of overlapping channels, the trio would need to perpetrate the hoax on a much larger scale. Political scientist Yascha Mounk dubbed it “Sokal Squared.” The group produced some 20 parody articles and sent them off to a wide range of journals. One article argued that the male penis is “a social construct.” Another was a version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, rewritten in feminist jargon. A paper that explored “rape culture” among canines at a Portland dog park was so outlandish that it attracted mainstream ridicule. Reporters started asking questions, and the hoax was blown. By the time the Sokal Squared conspirators were forced to go public, four of their papers had been published, nine had been accepted or were under review, and only six had been rejected. Clearly not that much had changed since the days of Sokal’s original hoax.
After the Sokal Squared stunt was revealed, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker asked, “Is there any idea so outlandish that it won’t be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/‘Theory’ journal?” The answer, apparently, is no. It doesn’t seem that any amount of ridicule can slow the left’s ideological juggernaut. And, unlike in the days of the Sokal Hoax, the main arena for anti-rationalist thinking is no longer just the elite academy. The anti-Enlightenment ideas cooked up over the decades in trendy journals and in departments of literature and sociology have now escaped the lab. They are self-replicating and circulating freely in our society.
“There is no objective, neutral reality,” Robin DiAngelo writes in her bestselling White Fragility. In fact, she sees that claim as so self-evident that it doesn’t even require an explanation or defense. The New York Times’ “1619 Project” treats American history not as a set of facts to be weighed, but as a text, one whose true meaning is open to radical reinterpretation in the hands of critical theorists. “Anti-racist” training materials urge us to reject the culture of white supremacy, which includes dangerous ideas such as “the belief that there is such a thing as being ‘objective,’” or the notion that “linear thinking” and “logic” are desirable ways to understand the world. And on and on.
When we look at the collapse of rationality all around us, it seems that while Alan Sokal might have won his battle with postmodern lunacy, he ultimately lost the war. Sokal wrapped up his 1996 hoax essay with a resounding call to action, a campaign that “must start with the younger generation.” One hears a faint echo of China’s Cultural Revolution in his urgent admonition: “The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of feminist, queer, multiculturalist, and ecological critiques.” Sokal meant his essay as a parodic warning. Twenty-five years later, it appears that the Sokal Hoax was actually an instruction manual.
1 I attended a lecture by Kuhn around 1980, when I was an undergraduate. The lecture hall was packed with comparative-literature majors. I remember being disappointed that Kuhn’s answers to the deepest questions seemed to amount to little more than apologetic shrugs.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.