Sokal Affair: 20th Anniversary

It’s been 20 years since the infamous Sokal Affair, wherein Alan Sokal, an NYU physics professor, wrote a piece titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” that was published in the pomo socialist journal Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996). The piece was full of vacuous, postmodernist rhetoric such as:

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation… under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic).

Sokal then revealed his article was a hoax, a (successful) attempt to prove that postmodernist standards for rational argumentation were… how to put it… not all that rigorous, and the postmodernism itself can be collectively identified as ‘fashionable nonsense’ and hostile to science and the scientific method.

In “Bait and Switch:  How the physicist Alan Sokal hoodwinked a group of humanists and why, 20 years later, it still matters”, Jennifer Ruark provides reflective quotes from persons central to the affair.

At first, no one noticed. When the left-wing cultural-studies journal Social Text released a special issue on “The Science Wars” in April 1996, the last article stood out only because of its source: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was written by the sole scientist in the bunch, a New York University physicist named Alan Sokal.

Liberally citing work by feminist epistemologists, philosophers of science, and critical theorists — including two of Social Text’s editors, the NYU American-studies scholar Andrew Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at CUNY Graduate Center — Sokal endorsed the notion that scientists had no special claim to scientific knowledge. Just as postmodern theory revealed that so-called facts about the physical world were mere social or political constructs, he wrote, quantum gravity undermined the concept of existence itself, making way for a “liberatory science” and “emancipatory mathematics.”

A couple of weeks later, in the magazine Lingua Franca, Sokal revealed that he didn’t believe a word of what he’d written. It was all a big joke, but one motivated by a serious intention: to expose the sloppiness, absurd relativism, and intellectual arrogance of “certain precincts of the academic humanities.” His beef was political, too: He feared that by tossing aside their centuries-old promotion of scientific rationality, progressives were eroding their ability to speak truth to power.

Newspapers around the world lapped up the hoax. Conservatives exulted. “Deconstructionists read things like Social Text, which will never again be called a ‘learned journal,’” gloated George F. Will in The Washington Post. The success of the prank appeared to confirm all their suspicions about tenured radicals…

After reading the piece, I am struck at how virtually all the central characters, including the protagonist, are coastal Jews, most being (or originating from) NYC: Alan Sokal (himself a leftist); Barbara Epstein; Alex Star; Andrew Ross; Ellen Schrecker; Stanley Fish; Stanley Aaronowitz; Steven Weinberg;  Stephen Hilgartner; etc.

I never cease to marvel at the ethnic homogeneity of central Leftist, Marxist, and postmodernist figures.

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