_1_) SCIENCE WARS: NYU physicist Alan Sokal's clever article--"Transgressing the Boundaries: toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"--that the editors of Social Text (circulation 800) included in their most recent edition on the "science wars," has been making news far beyond the pages of the May/June Lingua Franca in which the parody was initially exposed. Last Friday, 17 May 1996, the hoax was released as an Associate Press Story; on Saturday it was front page news in The New York Times; and just yesterday, Stanley Fish, the Duke University English professor and executive director of Duke University Press (publisher of Social Text) had a four-column op-ed in the NYT.
In another turn, Roger Kimball, in "'Diversity,' 'cultural studies' and other mistakes--a story written for the May New Criterion (before the release of Sokal's parody in Lingua Franca)--takes special note of Social Text and comments:
Professor [Andrew] Ross, who recently announced that he had given up books for television and pop culture, was the perfect choice to edit this chrestomathy of animus against science and rationality: His own book on the subject, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits, was dedicated to 'all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.'
Interestingly, Kimball (unaware of the parody) zeros in on Sokal's article and notes: "All the contributions to this volume of Social Text are bad; but without doubt the most egregious effort is the concluding essay, 'Transgressing Boundaries . . . by NYU physicist Alan Sokal . . . anyone wanting a compact illustration of what's wrong with science studies will want to savor it." Indeed, one can easily image Andrew Ross and his cohorts relishing Sokal's article for inclusion because it is the epitome of every thing they imagine science studies should be.
Below, for NASSNL readers that do not have ready access to The New York Times, is their 18 May 1996 front page article, "Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly" by Janny Scott. The original text is accompanied by a picture of the cover Social Text on the first page; with a photo of the smiling Alan Sokal--in front of an equation-filled blackboard--on page 22. The text is from http://www.nytimes.com.
> 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 Trans-
> formative 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 truth.
> 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
> 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 ends.
> "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
> 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 satisfaction."
> "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, counter-
> hegemonic 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
> 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."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
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_2_) SCIENCE WARS, PART II: As mentioned above, Stanley Fish came out with an unusually lengthy op-ed essay in defense of Social Text and the social construction of science called, "Professor Sokal's Bad Joke." Published but one business day after the front page exposÝ detailed above, the piece is reproduced below, in its entirety, from the pages of The New York Times, 21 May 1996, A23.
Durham, N.C. When the editors of Social Text accepted an essay purporting to link developments in quantum mechanics with the formulations of postmodern thought, they could not have anticipated that on the day of its publication the author, Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, would be announcing in the pages of another journal, Lingua Franca, that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax.
He had made it all up, he said, an gloated that his "prank" proved that sociologists and humanists who spoke of science as a "social construction" didn't know what they were talking about. Acknowledging the ethical issues raised by his deception, Professor Sokal declare it justified by the importance of the truths he was defending from postmodernist attack: "There is a world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise?"
Exactly! Professor Sokal's question should alert us to the improbability of the scenario he conjures up: Scholars with impeccable credentials making statement no sane person could credit. The truth is that none of his targets would ever make such statements.
What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are social constructed--fashioned by human beings--which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing.
Distinguishing fact from fiction is surely the business of science, but the means of doing so are not perspicuous in nature--for if they were, there would be no work to be done. Consequently, the history of science is a record of controversies about what counts as evidence and how facts are to be established.
Those who concern themselves with this history neither dispute the accomplishments of science nor deny the existence of power of scientific procedure. They just maintain and demonstrate that the nature of scientific procedure is a question continually debated in its own precincts. What results is an incredibly complex and rich story, full of honor for scientists, and this is the story sociologists of science are trying to tell and get right.
Why then does Professor Sokal attack them? The answer lies in two misunderstandings. First, Professor takes "socially constructed" to mean "not real," whereas for workers in the field "socially constructed" is a compliment paid to a fact or a procedure that has emerged from the welter of disciplinary competition into a real and productive life where it can be cited, invoked and perhaps challenged. It is no contradiction to say that something is socially constructed and also real.
Perhaps a humble example from the world of baseball will help make the point. Consider the following little catechism:
Are there balls and strikes in the world? Yes.
Are there balls and strikes in nature (if by nature you understand physical reality independent of human actors)? No.
Are balls and strikes socially constructed? Yes.
Are balls and strikes real? Yes.
Do some people get $3.5 million either for producing balls and strikes or for preventing their production? Yes.
So balls and strikes are both socially constructed and real, socially constructed and consequential. The facts about ball and strikes are also real but they can change, as they would, for example, if baseball's rule makers were to vote tomorrow that from now on it's four strikes and you're out.
But that's just the point, someone might object "Sure the facts of baseball, a human institution that didn't exist until the 19th century, are socially constructed. But scientists are concerned with facts that were there before anyone looked through a microscope. And besides, even if scientific accounts of facts can change, they don't change by majority vote."
This appears to make sense, but the distinction between baseball and science is not finally so firm. On the baseball side, the social construction of the game assumes and depends on a set of established scientific facts. That is why the pitcher's mound is not 400 feet from the plate. Both the shape in which we have the game and the shapes in which we couldn't have it are strongly related to the world's properties.
On the science side, although scientists don't take formal votes to decide what facts will be considered credible, neither do they present their competing accounts to nature and receive from her an immediate and legible verdict. Rather they hazard hypotheses that are then tested by other workers in the field in the context of evidentiary rules, which may themselves be altered in the process. Verdicts are then given by publication and research centers who judgments and monies will determine which way the game goes for a while.
Both science and baseball then are mixtures of adventuresome inventiveness and reliance on established norms and mechanisms of validation, and the facts yielded by both will be social constructions and be real.
Baseball and science may be both social constructions, but not all social constructions are the same. First, there is the difference in purpose--to refine physical skills and entertain, on the one hand, and to solve problems of a theoretical and practical kind, on the other. From this difference flow all the other differences, in the nature of the skills involved, the quality of the attention required, the measurements of accomplishment, the system of reward, and on and on.
Even if two activities are alike social constructions, if you want to take the measure of either, it is the differences you must keep in mind.
This is what Professor Sokal does not do, and this is his second mistake. He thinks that the sociology of science is in competition with mainstream science--wants either to replace it or debunk it--and he doesn't understand that it is a distinct enterprise, with objects of study, criteria, procedures and goals all of its own.
Sociologists of science aren't trying to do science; they are trying to come up with a rich and powerful explanation of what it means to do it. Their question is, "What are the conditions that make scientific accomplishments possible?" and answers to that question are not intended to be either substitutes for scientific work or arguments against it.
When Professor Sokal declares that "theorizing about 'the social construction of reality' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS," he is at once right and wrong. He is right that sociologists will never do the job assigned properly to scientists. He is wrong to imply that the failure of the sociology of science to do something it never set out to do is a mark against it.
My point is finally a simple one: A research project that takes the practice of science as an object of study is not a threat to that practice because, committed as it is to its own goals and protocols, it doesn't reach into, and therefore doesn't pose a danger to, the goals and protocols it studies. Just as the criteria of an enterprise will be internal to its own history, so will the threat to its integrity be internal, posed not by presumptuous outsiders buy by insiders who decide not to play by the rules or to put the rules in the service of a devious purpose.
This means that it is Alan Sokal, not his targets, who threatens to undermine the intellectual standards he vows to protect. Remember, science is above all a communal effort. No scientist (and for that matter, no sociologist or literary critic) begins his task by inventing anew the facts he will assume, the models he will regard as exemplary and the standards he tries to be faithful to.
They are all given by the tradition of inquiry he has joined, and for the most part he must take them on faith. And he must take on faith, too, the reports offered to him by colleagues, all of whom are in the same position, unable to start from scratch and therefore dependent on the information they receive from fellow researchers (indeed, some professional physicists who take Professor Sokal on faith report finding his arguments plausible.)
The large work for all this is "trust," and in his "A Social History of Truth," Steven Shapin poses the relevant (rhetorical) question: "How could coordinated activity of any kind be possible if people could not rely upon others' undertakings?
Alan Sokal put forward his own undertakings as reliable, and he took care, as he boasts, to surround his deception with all the marks of authenticity, including dozens of "real" footnotes and an introductory section that enlists a roster of the century's greatest scientists in support of a line of argument he says he never believed in. He carefully packaged his deception so as not to be detected except by someone who began with a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion that may now be in full flower in the offices of learned journals because of what he has done.
In a 1989 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, fraud is said to go "beyond error to erode the foundation of trust on which science is built." That is Professor Sokal's legacy, one likely to be longer lasting that the brief fame he now enjoys for having successfully pretended to be himself.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
Note: The actual text in the paper is accompanied by drawings of a deconstructing man and a test tube--flanked by a military and civilian figure, all encircled by an atom--sprouting a brain and a fingerprint that emerge from a double helix. The illustrations are by Istvan Banyai.