The Unfortunate Legacy of the Sokal Hoax

Continued from part 1:

The excesses and tortuous intellectual posturings of many postmodern philosophers created a backlash, both within the fields of philosophy and social science, and in the disciplines that were being targeted by the postmodernists and poststructuralists. In the “anything goes” atmosphere of postmodern thought, a lot of pretty loopy ideas gained ground and were supported in many cases by people wielding the twin weapons of faux intellectualism and truly awful writing.

In this explosion of chaotic ideas, bad writing, and uncareful thinking, a new narrative about science was created. This narrative was deeply conflicted, because it simultaneously labeled science as a human-created elite enterprise that was an integral creator of injustice, and it glorified certain sciences, especially quantum physics, as proof of the awesome truth of postmodern — and prescientific — ideas.  It got pretty damned wild up in there, I gotta say.

For instance, the idea that quantum physics proves the existence of things like ghosts, past lives, energy healing, and gods is something that arose from within the tumult of postmodern writings about science. As you can imagine, this made many actual physicists pretty angry, because the people writing about quantum physics had no training in physics whatsoever. One physicist did something to challenge the nonsense.

Some people called it the Sokal Affair, but since there was no sex or champagne, I call it a hoax instead

photo of Alan Sokal

Physicist Alan Sokal

In the famous Sokal Hoax, physicist Alan Sokal wrote a paper filled with well-constructed ideological flattery and long, tortuous sentences about the political implications of quantum gravity.  What?

The title of Alan Sokal’s paper was word salad: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. He sent this carefully crafted but incomprehensible jumble to the postmodern journal Social Text, and sadly (or hysterically, whichever way you want to look at it), the editor at Social Text, not a physicist himself, fell for the gibberish (coming as it did from a real physicist) and published Sokal’s paper — without peer review — in 1996.

The editors of Social Text didn’t use peer review because they wanted to welcome voices that might have been silenced in other journals.  Well, that was a good intention that backfired, wasn’t it?

In the paper, Sokal focused on quantum physics and wrote a lot of nonsense that slyly made fun of the left and its often unqualified critiques of science.  At that time, quantum physics was being used (badly and laughably) to explain pretty much everything that certain postmodernists wished could be true (it’s used for almost everything in the New Age, too), because you can seemingly bend it to support any viewpoint you like.

After Social Text published his hoax paper, Sokal then published a paper exposing the hoax in another journal, Lingua Franca, and voila! — the entire field of postmodern social critique was tarred and feathered.

Sokal’s hoax is both hilarious and tragic.  The postmodern writing style certainly needed to be deflated; it was absurd and indefensible.  And the nonsense about quantum gravity needed to be called on to the carpet by a real physicist. But that’s not all that happened. Sadly, among many people, this hoax snowballed into a refutation of the entire postmodern intellectual movement.

Making war on a movement that arose as a response to the horrors of war, hmmm…

Alan Sokal’s hoax was clever-if-meanspirited, but the results of it haven’t been supportive of true intellectual freedom and inquiry. Yes, many of the postmodernists took the Fast Train to Wrong Town — but this doesn’t erase the fact that many of the things the postmodernists were saying (or attempting to say) were amazingly perceptive and prescient.

Postmodernists weren’t just constructing horrible sentences and pretending to understand physics; they were also looking underneath the tablecloth of culture, behind the door, underneath the floorboards, and above the ceiling joists.  They were thinking outside every box you could put them in.

Many of them were questioning science and calling it a “narrative” instead of bowing down to it as the best darn truth humans ever created, and many of them went off the rails. But the postmodernists were also questioning scientism, or the misguided view that science can find, understand, explain, and fix everything.

photo of a person made of pillsThe postmodernists were also questioning the process of medicalization, wherein natural behaviors or processes (such as homosexuality, childbirth, and aging) were turned into highly lucrative medical or psychiatric conditions.  Clearly, these postmodern questions made many people – including scientists, psychiatrists, physicians, and plastic surgeons – excruciatingly uncomfortable.

The postmodernists were questioning all philosophies and the whole act of creating philosophies (including postmodernism, structuralism, Marxism, and anything else you can name).  They were looking at the power of influence, and at how people achieved and maintained influence.  They were looking at the power of discourse, and how the media twists information to support existing power structures. They were looking at subtle and overt silencing techniques that can be boiled down to this: The victor is the one who tells the story of the war — and the story of the vanquished.

The postmodernists challenged the fact that stories about unprivileged peoples such as the citizens of the third world were controlled by the privileged ones in the first world.  They were looking at prisons and how the concept of crime and punishment evolved, decayed, and became bureaucratized throughout history.  They were looking at the advertising and entertainment industries’ often unwitting support of hidden power structures (I agree – and I have renamed them the “advertainment industrial complex”).  The postmodernists were out there, and they were doing some magnificent things.

But sadly, since Sokal’s hoax, the entire field of postmodern social analysis and the concept of local critiques (which give a voice to local people instead of institutional powerbrokers) has been discredited and made into a laughing stock by certain members of rationalist cliques.  Not in sociology and anthropology, where deeper understanding still reigns, but among many people who consider themselves intellectuals, liberals, skeptics, scientists, and rationalists, the word postmodern and the phrase cultural relativism can be spat out as epithets meant to silence any thought or speech that is not deemed acceptably rational.

Many of these self-proclaimed rationalists have misrepresented postmodern critiques of scientism and the historically elitist structure of the scientific community as critiques of science itself.

Yet this is not what the postmodernists were saying, and any attempt to concretize their musings and questions into a solid form is to misunderstand the entire movement.  The postmodernists were questioning how we know what we know – how we become who we are – how socially-created structures like rules and morals become real – and how we break away from the injustices and the mundane, everyday oppressions of our socially created world.

When the postmodernists and cultural relativists were tarred and feathered in the Sokal hoax, we lost a great deal.  On one hand, we have millions of “spiritual” people hiding behind cultural relativism as they rifle through world cultures as if they were pick-and-pull lots of the soul, such that any ritual, religious tradition or philosophy can become true and useful if it fills a personal need at the time. My husband Tino and I call this “Rubber Tomahawk spirituality,” wherein middle-class white shamans run around having vision quest weekends for $550, plus meals and lodging.

On the other hand, because postmodern critiques of science have been trivialized, scientism has been glorified to the point where many so-called rationalists and skeptics state without irony that science will provide the final answers to the origin and meaning of life, that science is the best possible explainer of any area of inquiry, period, and that soon, religion will no longer be necessary. What?

Yes, some bastardized forms of cultural relativism are absurdist and indefensible

It’s true, and my skeptical walking companion was right to be angry (though not at me, thanks): In many areas (especially in the New Age and alternative medicine), cultural relativism has been bastardized into an “anything goes, anything is true if it feels true” kind of moral vacuum, where the deeper lessons of postmodernism have been completely erased.

Yet among many self-proclaimed rationalists, important postmodern inquiries into the abuses of scientific power and knowledge are often considered a sign of stubborn irrationality.  As a result, the squelching of the vital questions of postmodernism and the belittling of cultural relativity have created a social minefield full of fiery chasms and the earsplitting din of endless us groups shouting incomprehensibly at endless them groups.

And all the while, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the power structures that the postmodernists were trying to topple are doing just fine, thank you.

In the war over who gets to tell the story of science, postmodernism, and cultural relativity, so much has been lost to us.  Alan Sokal himself finds this outcome very troubling, and in the introduction to Fashionable Nonsense, his 1998 book about the hoax, Sokal writes:

Our aim is not to criticize the left, but to defend it against a trendy segment of itself.  Michael Albert, writing in Z Magazine, summarized this well: “There is nothing truthful, wise, humane, or strategic about confusing hostility to injustice and oppression, which is leftist, with hostility to science and rationality, which is nonsense.”  (Albert, 1996, p. 69. Science, Postmodernism, and the Left.  Z Magazine 9 (7/8): 64-69.) (Sokal, 1998, p xiii)

I agree with Albert’s statement, but as a postmodernist, I don’t agree that hostility about the underlying power structures of the scientific elite is the same as hostility to science itself.  I don’t see the two forms of hostility as similar — because for the sake of science, it’s vital to challenge the unacknowledged privilege and power structures upon which the social edifice of science has been built.

In fact, it was only after numerous boisterous and often hostile local critiques (of the kind Michel Foucault attempted to describe) that the scientific establishment finally admitted outsiders such as women, people of color, and the non-elite — though this process is in no way complete.

The scientific establishment didn’t reach out to make these changes because they were rational, obvious changes, no. The scientific establishment was forced — by strenuous, tumultuous decades of local critiques — to become more aware of the social barriers to and ethical implications of science, medicine, and technology.

Understanding the implications of your standpoint

These kinds of local critiques also helped social scientists become more aware of how they described cultures and social situations in relation to their own personal standpoints.  Standpoint theory is a feminist outgrowth of postmodernism that has helped social scientists become more adept at understanding their own confirmation biases, which are based on their class, gender, race, and social standing.

Some people get really steamed up about standpoint theory, because they don’t like to think of themselves as only partially aware observers of the social world. However, neurology and the behavioral sciences are continually showing us that humans are often screamingly imperfect and biased observers – of everything, but most particularly, of their own biases and failings.

It’s human nature to be imperfect and biased, and standpoint theory — which is a culturally relative postmodern advance — attempts to correct for that.  And it’s not a big deal to adhere to standpoint theory, really; when you do research, you simply state your standpoint so that the reader will be able to understand your position and your connection to the subject, and so that you will be able to observe yourself more objectively as you work and write.

To utilize standpoint theory, you tell the reader, for instance: I am a white college-educated female from a Northern California white collar family, and I worked for twenty years in the occupation I am observing.  There’s nothing to it.

It’s my feeling that standpoint theory is uncomfortable for many scientists because it does away with the privileged, elitist fantasy of the researcher as an indisputable, fully objective scientific machine.

When you do research and state your standpoint – whether you have conflicts of interest, whether you are a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, or whether you are a white middle-class professional male studying illiterate adolescent Hmong refugees – you humanize the process and come clean about your biases.

Standpoint theory is a great way to include cultural relativism in the actual work of your research, because it lets people know which standpoints you have and what your allegiances are.  In a very real way, standpoint theory reduces the distance between the researcher and the reader, and makes the process of science more accessible, more responsible … and more scientific.

cover of Contemporary Sociological TheorySo the next time you hear someone spit out cultural relativism or postmodernism as if it is an insult, you’ll have some idea of what’s behind all the posturing.  Perhaps you can ask if all cultural relativism is bad (for instance, isn’t behaving in a culturally appropriate way at church or in a foreign country a good idea?), or if the postmodern foreknowledge of the privatization of the prison system wasn’t a pretty cool educated guess?

And if you’re a person who spits out those phrases, maybe you’ll take some time to actually read the postmodernists (or read about them in George Ritzer’s books on sociology, which are much easier on the brain) instead of just throwing ill-considered buzz words around, n’est-ce pas?

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7 Comments

Filed under Cognitive Biases, Skepticism, Sociology

7 responses to “The Unfortunate Legacy of the Sokal Hoax

  1. I like this article, but I don’t think “science”-as-epistemological-and-methodological-framework gets a critical pass any more than “Science”-as-social-institution does; and while critique perhaps necessarily includes a kind of hostility (it’s hard to argue against something without a vested interested in seeing that something ideologically wounded), there are sounder and less reactionary modes of hostility.

    I’m in a Nietzsche mindset these days, having just done some detailed work on his Genealogy this last semester, but I think he’s a worthy voice in the critique of science-as-epistemology. In his Genealogy he rejects the possibility of taking a “disinterested” perspective on any object of study, and thus rejects the notion that ‘objectivity,’ defined on such terms, is either a desirable or possible position:

    “… there is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” (Third Essay, §12)

    The efficacy of science-as-epistemology is often invoked in its defense, but the science-as-epistemology undermines itself here, at least in some regard. The same observations can and are understood with multiple explanatory theories, and new observations often require us to go back and re-think explanatory theories for things that we thought were previously well-understood. The fact of parallel concurrent explanations, and the historical acknowledgement of continuous modification of scientific theories leaves open the possibility that modifying the scientific epistemology could render equally (or more) effective frameworks. To put it another way, we could be experimental with our epistemologies.

    And, really, we are. Physicist/historian of science Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston wrote a good book, Objectivity, which chronicles the move in science between three rather distinct epistemological understandings of what the project was all about. It’s a great read. So it’s a shame when science is presented as being simply equivalent to objectivity and rationalism. But being in my Nietzsche-mindset, I want to push critiques further, questioning whether our notions of science’s “efficacy” are as clear and simple as they are sometimes presented as being, and suggesting that as we continue to create our conceptions of science, we would do well to be attentive to the aesthetic component of our project. We should critique and construct science not simply on its own terms, but also based on its implications for our broader understanding of ourselves, the universe, and meaning.

  2. I should edit before I post. :P

    “I don’t think ‘science’-as-blah-blah-blah gets a pass any more than etc.”

  3. Excellent point, Luna. It’s one reason why I often try to encourage my students (or readers, for that matter) to consider science as a way of increasing our confidence in an idea’s merit. That merit can have two implications – it can be taken to reflect reality (an ontological argument) and/or it can be taken to be useful for making decisions (a pragmatic argument).

    I think it’s important in either sense to distinguish the values, principles and practices that lend us that confidence – or epistemology – and science as a cultural system with its innate biases, group think and political authorities. I presented a talk recently where I made the claim that science is philosophy and not philosophy. The former I argued was that science is not distinct from our desire to understand the universe, and as such can be viewed as an evolving system of philosophical tools. The latter I presented as science as it became useful to social authorities and economic powers, who facilitated the development of a system of knowledge and rules that were useful for making predictions that could be useful for economic or political weight – i.e., science following the scientific revolution.

    I believe there is a need for educators and science communicators to return their focus onto science as philosophy. Today we still present science predominantly as technology and discovery, which means we take for granted the processes behind them and leave the epistemology in the hands of a select social strata.

    • Growing up in public schools here in California, I learned year after year that science was an impermeable, inflexible monolith that had concrete answers. All of the testing in all of my classes in maths, biology, and chemistry were tests of my ability to memorize facts, take the precise steps to get the exact answer, and to show my work so that my thinking processes could be graded alongside my answer. I was good at this anemic, bowdlerized form of science, but I was bored out of my mind by it. It had no connection to real life, to fun, to wonder, or to beauty.

      It wasn’t until I got to community college that I learned about the rollicking, chaotic joy of experimentation, about competing theories and wars within the scientific community, about scientists who were silenced because they suggested things that went against the orthodoxy (Semmelweis comes to mind), and about scientific movements that were horribly wrong, yet were amazingly difficult to fix (the designation of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder comes to mind).

      I got to know about the wonders and horrors of science, and I got to see it as a human-led and human-limited enterprise. And even though humans are such amazing fuckups, we have created amazing things and discovered amazing ideas through the processes that science brings us.

      But why did I have to wait until college to learn what science is? As our friend Barbara Drescher points out, even IN college, many people don’t learn, and many remain scientifically illiterate. This culturally enforced illiteracy in our youth — and the elite nature of a real science education — means that we’ve got a population that cannot be effective thinkers or effective members of a democratic community, because they haven’t been given the tools they need to make good decisions and identify promising developments.

      Instead, we get intentional scientific illiteracy such as creationism and the New Age, both of which use scientific methods scandalously to promote their viewpoints — or we get the kind of uncritical science fanboy behaviors and transparent, culturally unrelative ideological biases that we see in many areas of atheism and skepticism.

      And in both areas, there is almost no awareness of the rollicking, roiling, jaw-dropping process of doing science — which can and should be a terrifying, out there, mistake-laden hero’s journey — in which the concept of the “right answer” is the wrong question.

      True intellectual mastery doesn’t have anything to do with being right, or knowing everything. It’s the capacity and the willingness to do theory even when it’s mad, even when it’s threatening, and even when it might well be precisely and exactly wrong. True intellectual mastery is the willingness to be vanquished by larger and larger ideas. Hah! I didn’t mean to pist on your emology!

  4. Thank you for this essay.

    I don’t have an ‘academic’ or ‘scientific’ background. I reckon I’m more of a layman in that regard, who reads books and articles of interest in the area of humanity, psychology, sociology. Your article made the subject matter understandable. :)

    I thought of Audubon’s statement: “When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.” Though I’ve adapted it to: “If the bird and the book disagree, I tend toward the bird.”

    Thanks again,
    ~carol

  5. Cultural relativism is not necessarily postmodern. World War One did more than just launch postmodernism. It also planted the seed of critical realism that has lain dormant until only a few years ago. The usual outcome of a war is that either one side wins or both sides make peace. World War One did it differently; there was a victor, but it wasn’t any nation; it was an idea. Nations would be defined no longer by the purvue of soldiers, but by shapes on a map. (A new meaning of “ending in a draw”! LOL)

    The significance of this paradigm, unfortunately unseen by the people of that time, is that it had become legitimate for a tenet that benefits all cultures with no strings attached to be severed from its provenance and become a tenet of global culture. The kind of cultural relativism you (and I too) support can be similarly promoted. It involves concepts of honesty and justice that can take many brands but need none.

    A postmodernist visiting a foreign culture surrenders herself and presumes to take the mantle of the foreigners’ thoughts. This has the unintended effect of strengthening her own prejudices while disarming the foreigners of the need to educate her about what their lifestyle actually means.

    But now, under critical realism, she is free to explore the foreigners without worrying about either raising or lowering herself, because she’s secure in the trust that the foreigners are exploring her the same way.

    This is a very important distinction.

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