The Sokal affair

June 5th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, postmodernist bollocks, quantum physics, very basic science | 6 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 5, 2003
The Guardian

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.


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6 Responses



  1. L’affaire Sokal : Deleuze et Guattari, une imposture ? · L’anti-oedipe en question said,

    January 17, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    [...]  www.badscience.net/?p=39 [...]

  2. VJB said,

    January 26, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    In 1972, Naftulin, Ware and Donnelly investigated the effect of personality versus content in how lecturers are rated by even well-educated listeners. Naftulin et al. ‘invented’ a lecturer, Dr. Myron L. Fox, hired an actor to play him, trained the actor to deliver a plausible but purely nonsensical lecture on Game Theory in Physician Education, and had Dr Fox lecture to medical educators. The findings were students can form a positive view of a sufficiently impressive lecturer, and his lecture, in spite of the fact that they did not understand what was said.

    See “The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction,” published in 1973 in the Journal of Medical Education.
    The Université du Québec à Montréal has the paper on a website:
    www.er.uqam.ca/nobel/r30034/PSY4180/Pages/Naftulin.html.

  3. andrewwyld said,

    October 16, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    I read a quote from Sokal in Martin Gardner’s “Did Adam And Eve Have Navels?” in which he said he wasn’t so much worried about defending science against postmodernism–science being big and hairy enough to defend itself–but defending the left-wing from some particularly weird parts of itself.

    It is a bloody brilliant story, though. I especially loved the modesty (appropriate to a good scientist) with which Sokal pointed out that he had only proven one journal was lazy enough to allow this sort of thing ….

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  6. What’s the point of educational research? | Webs of Substance said,

    October 20, 2013 at 5:51 am

    […] both checks against bias. Postmodernist essayists, on the other hand, are under no such scrutiny. The Sokal affair represents a critical test for postmodernism; one that it failed because it’s own levels of […]

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