It has been more than twenty years since New York University physics professor Alan Sokal succeeded in getting a parody article published in the journal, Social Text. Sokal sought to expose humanists and sociologists who, knowing little about science, challenged science’s claim to reveal truths about the natural world.
His article was meant to be nonsensical. Here is a representative passage:
[D]ifferential topology has traditionally privileged the study of what are known technically as “manifolds without boundary.” However, in the past decade, under the impetus of the feminist critique, some mathematicians have given renewed attention to the theory of “manifolds with boundary” [Fr. variétés à bord]. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is precisely these manifolds that arise in the new physics of conformal field theory, superstring theory and quantum gravity.
The editors of Social Text, including two sociologists who had written extensively on science, accepted and published Sokal’s article. Shortly thereafter, Lingua Franca published a piece by Sokal revealing the hoax and explaining his motive, to draw attention to “a particular kind of nonsense” that “denies the existence of objective realities,” thereby undermining the “already fragile prospects for progressive social critique.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education just published an oral history of the hoax, which became, for a time, a national media spectacle. But what’s striking about the oral history is how little some of the humanists interviewed seem to have learned.
George Yudice, a professor of language and literature at Miami University, and one of four Social Text editors who signed off on Sokal’s hoax insists that he did not think the article was very good. That is also a line taken by the editors at the time. The article would have been regarded as “somewhat outdated if it had come from a humanist or a social scientist.” But the editors chose to relax their exacting editorial standards because Sokal’s article was an interesting exhibition of a scientist “awkwardly but assertively trying to capture the ‘feel’ of the professional language of [postmodern philosophy], while relying upon an armada of footnotes to ease his sense of vulnerability.”
As Sokal said in reply, this explanation was arguably “more damning than the incident itself.” The editors absurdly pretended then, and Yudice absurdly pretends now, that their fault was accepting a piece that fell a notch below their editorial standards. Of course, they actually accepted a piece that was and was meant to be idiotic.
But what most of the parties now seem to agree on is that Sokal, whatever his left-leaning intentions, inadvertently gave aid and comfort to the enemy, the anti-intellectuals. Ellen Schrecker, professor emerita of history at Yeshiva University complains that Sokal “didn’t look around him and see that academic expertise was already under attack.” And today, several interviewees agree, we see “the culmination of 40 years of attacks on academic expertise.” That is, Alan Sokal helped set in motion the forces that produced the victory of Donald Trump.
Michael Bérubé, professor of literature at Penn State says that the “echo chamber that publishes Sokal’s essay is so much less pernicious than the echo chamber that believes Hillary Clinton was running a sex-ring out of a pizza parlor.” Bérubé, to his credit, recognizes that the assault on the foundations of science to which Sokal was responding really was dangerous and really did do its part to discredit academic expertise. But the upshot of the oral history is that people like Sokal and the humanists he criticized can find common ground in causes like criticizing Israel, unionizing graduate students, and battling climate change. It seems lost on all concerned that this resolve involves them in almost precisely the problem that Sokal exposed, that of humanists and social scientists discrediting themselves by writing as scholars about matters they do not know much about.
Meanwhile, if you believe Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment of Humanities from 2001 to 2009, the humanities has reformed little since the Sokal affair. Coles, who read “thousands of applications” for humanities grants, found that “huge numbers of applications were written, and written badly, in fashionable and impenetrable jargon.” He also found that “many of the applications were also heavily weighted toward the advocacy of one cause or another,” reflecting “the weaponization of the academic humanities for the promotion of social or political agendas.” Not only were the humanities little changed since the nineties, when the Sokal hoax occurred, but, according to Cole “large numbers of applications stuck to the deeply grooved paths first trod by the postmodern humanities of the sixties and seventies.”
It is nice to see that people are still reflecting on the Sokal affair, but it would be still nicer to think anything had been learned from it.