Thursday June 5, 2003
Talk about bad science
We’ve been focusing on the negative for too long: it’s time I introduced you to my hero. Alan Sokal is an icon for bad science hunters the world over, the man who pulled off the greatest academic scam of our times, and gave post-modernist commentators on science the public slapping they’ve always deserved.
A physics professor in New York, in the 1980s Sokal went to teach in Nicaragua because he approved of the Sandinista government. When he returned to America, the liberal left agenda seemed to have been hijacked by hip intellectuals and postmodernist literary theorists teaching that reality is a socially constructed text, about which you can say anything, as long as you say it murkily.
A political pragmatist, Sokal doubted they had much to offer. More than that, he was horrified that they were rubbishing science. Suspecting they didn’t know their scientific arse from their elbow, he decided to attack. He wrote and submitted a spoof article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to Social Text, a trendy academic journal. By flattering the editors’ ideological preconceptions, he hoped his meaningless waffle might just get published.
The article is a masterpiece of foggy prose. In it, Sokal claimed Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations had been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory. He suggested that the axiom of equality in mathematical set theory was analogous to the homonymous concept in feminist politics. He employed scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that even an A-level student should have spotted as rubbish, but crammed the article with nonsensical – but authentic – quotes about physics and mathematics, by prominent French and American postmodern intellectuals.
Of course the article was published: they couldn’t resist a physicist switching sides. But did the journal subject the article to peer review by a scientist before publishing? No. Did the article say anything meaningful at all? The author certainly didn’t think so.
The day that Social Text came out, Sokal began deriding the editors in the media. They attacked him for dishonesty and some post-modernist commentators suggested he needed psychiatric treatment. Sokal emerged a hero. He wrote a book, attacking them, in French. Go Sokal! So visit the website (www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/ ), read the article (www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html), tell your friends and buy his book, out now in English (ISBN: 1861976313). And one day, these intellectual fraudsters could be out of a job.