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The 'Sokal Affair' Takes Transatlantic Turn

David Dickson

           Dickson, David.  "The 'Sokal Affair' Takes
          Transatlantic Turn,"  Nature 385 (30 January 1997) ,
          p. 381.
          [LONDON] A dispute that has been simmering since last
          summer in the United State,, over the validity of
          'postmodernist' idea,, about the nature of scientific
          knowledge ha@ finally reached the point where many
          such ideas originated - the banks of the river Seine in

               Over the past month, the newspaper Le Monde has
          been running a series of articles triggered by an
          account of the widely publicized hoax perpetrated last
          year by Alan Sokal, a theoretical physicist at New
          York University, on the journal Social Text.

               The hoax took the form of an article submitted to
          and accepted by the journal.  It purported to
          demonstrate the social and political origins of ideas
          in quantum mechanics - but in fact was fabricated out
          of miscellaneous (but accurate) quotations from
          prominent postmodern writers and dubious statements of
          scientific 'fact'.

               Sokal's article has added fuel to a conflict that
          has been growing in recent years between scientists
          who argue that science is based on empirical fact,
          and sociologists of science who argue that much of
          scientific knowledge is 'constructed' out of debates
          between researchers (see, for example, Nature 375,439;

               In the United States, the hoax article and its
          implications - namely that sociologists of science
          have little regard for empirical truth and are more
          interested in intellectual fashions - has set off a
          wide debate on university campuses.  "The reaction has
          been a factor of ten bigger than I expected," says
          Sokal.  "And it is not letting up."

               Until now, the response in Europe has been
          relatively muted, even though many of the writers
          quoted tend to be European, usually either British or
          French.  The main reaction has been a defence of
          European academics whose work and US colleagues have
          come under attack.

          Positions, postmadernism and politics.
          Last October, for example, many of those attending a
          joint meeting of the US-based Society for Social
          Studies in Science and the European Association for
          Studies of Science and Technology, held in Bielefeld
          in Germany, signed a petition protesting that some of
          the recent US criticism of work by sociologists of
          science could, in Europe, be regarded as potentially

               But the recent series of articles in Le Monde,
          widely regarded as the main public forum for both
          intellectual and political debate in France, as well
          as coverage in French publications Liberation and
          Le Nouvel Observateur, indicate that the issue is
          now hotting up in Europe too.

               Further evidence comes from the fact that an
          article by Paul Boghassian, a philosopher also at New
          York University, attacking postmodernist views of
          science, which appeared in the Times Literary
          Supplement in December, has already been published in
          Die Zeit, one of Germany's leading newspapers.

               One of Sokal's strongest supporters is Jean
          Bricmont,a theoretical physicist at the University of
          Louvain in Belgium.  He is writing a book with Sokal
          on what both argue is the frequent misuse of scientific
          concepts by prominent - and mainly French intellectual
          figures ranging from the psychoanalyst Lacan to Bruno
          Latour, an influential sociologist of science.

          When is a fact is not fact?
          Bricmont wrote in his contribution to the debate in Le
          Monde that such allusions tended to be "at best
          totally arbitrary and at worse erroneous".  He says
          he is keen  to see a reinstatement of ideas
          about science based on empiricism and the
          analytical philosophy of individuals
          such as the mathematician Bertrand Russell, rather
          than those of German idealists such as the philosopher
          Martin Heidegger.

               He says he is concerned at a growing tendency to
          see ideas in socially relative terms, criticizing, for
          example, official guidelines on epistemology used by
          highschool teachers in Belgium for stating that a fact
          is not an empirical truth, but "something that
          everyone agrees upon".

               Like Sokal, Bricmont says that he has been
          surprised by the level of interest he has stirred up.
          "I seem to have put my finger on something bigger than
          I realized," he says.

               But some of those under attack, having initially
          held back from the fray on the grounds that the debate
          was primarily based on issues internal to the United
          States, are now fighting back, arguing that it is
          their critics who have an idealistic - and increasingly
          outdated - vision of science and its role in contempo-
          rary culture.

               Last week, for example, Latour, who teaches the
          sociology of innovation at the Ecole Supericure des
          Mines in Paris, one of France's so-called 'grandes
          ecoles, complained in Le Monde that he and fellow
          sociologists were being treated as "drug peddlers" who
          were corrupting the minds of American youth.

               In fact, says Latour, one of his main concerns
          has been to demonstrate how modern society - as
          reflected in the public response to concerns about
          bovine spongiform encephalopathy ('mad cow
          disease') is transforming itself from a culture "based
          on Science, with a capital S", to one based on
          research more broadly, including the social sciences.

               He writes: 'In place of an autonomous and
          detached science, whose absolute knowledge
          allows us to extinguish the fires of political
          passions and subjectivity, we are entering a new
          era in which scientific controversy becomes part of political

               The latest salvo in the French debate comes from
          Sokal himself.  In a response due to be published this
          week, Sokal repeats his claim that every scientist is
          aware that, although scientific knowledge is always
          partial and subject to revision, "that does not
          prevent it from being objective."

               Sokal eschews charges of chauvinism, saying that
          his target is not   as some have suggested - French
          intellectuals as such,
          but "certain intellectuals who happen to live in
          France."  He also dismisses the criticism that his
          concern about the growing influence of group of
          'constructivist' ideas about science reflects worries
          about a decline in both funding for physics and the
          social status with the end of the Cold War.

          Differences in culture and education
          But Latour, too, who makes both claims, has his
          supporters - and anot just in France.  Simon Shaffer,
          a lecturer in istory and philosophy of science at the
          University of Cambridge, points to the irony that
          Latour and others are trying to develop the public
          understanding of science that, in other contexts,
          Sokal and others argue is essential if they are to
          retain respect.

               Shaffer also points to the different cultural
          environments, partly a product of different
          educational traditions, in which French and
          American scientists operate.  "In France,
          everyone believes that the
          sciences are self-validating, and that the social
          science refer to a world that exists outside
          themselves," he says.

               In contrast, he argues, the empircism that tends
          to dominate the Anglo-American approach to science
          means that "no one in the scientific community sees
          themselves as an epistemologist or a constructivist."

               With Europe facing important issues concerning
          the relationship between science and politics -
          ranging from the likely science policy of the British
          Labour party if it wins the imminent general election,
          to the squeeze by Germany on international
          spending on particle physics - the public debate
          set alight by Sokal appears unlikely to die down

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