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Hoax article yanks academics' legs

John Omicinski

Gannett News Service,
06-22-1996, pp arc.

WASHINGTON -- The academic world won't soon recover from the literary hoax perpetrated by New York University physicist Alan Sokal.

Sokal unmasked the foolishness that masquerades as higher education in many ivy-covered corners of America by submitting a bogus article that sounded like the real thing to an influential academic magazine called ``Social Text.''

What Sokal did was absolutely delicious.

Sokal camouflaged his essay with purposely ponderous, pompous, tendentious, and prolix prose, lushly footnoted and elaborately bibliographed. He made it look like any other tangled testament to tenure, and the editors became his unwilling prey.

His complicated paragraphs, wandering through ess-curves of commas and parentheses, are difficult to read, like much of that slow water flowing through the stagnant academic swamp of the 1990s.

Its priceless title -- ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity'' -- is appropriately soporific, even monastic, so elegant that it must be true, right?

His article posed the central thesis that there is no such thing as physical or social ``reality.'' In other words, the real world isn' t really real.

Many natural scientists, wrote Sokal, ``cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the western intellectual outlook ... that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in `eternal' physical laws.''

But cool academics in the know, he said, are aware that these things we see and touch and feel around us every day are ``at bottom a social and linguistic construct.'' There is a ``gender ideology underlying the natural sciences,'' he declared. There are no real and absolute laws of science, he suggested, just those that some old male tyrants made up to subjugate succeeding generations.

What is needed, he said, is a ``liberatory postmodern science'' to ``liberate human beings from the tyranny of `absolute truth' and `objective reality.' ''

Despite a jumble of footnotes and backup quotes (all accurate), Sokal offered no real proof for his declaration that science is errant tyranny, that there is no provable real world, no essential truth. What's real is in our imagination.

While he didn't believe a word of what he was writing, he knew it would ring true with academics seeking to release themselves from the rigors of study and free themselves to make up their own stuff as they go along.

And he was oh so right. The editors, needless to say, ate it up.

``Social Text'' printed Sokal's essay without question, not bothering to check it back with Sokal or to run it past physics authorities or those familiar with the history of science.

Sokal's baloney sailed proudly into print. His article was sheer gobbledygook, but it was a big hit with the ``Social Text'' staff.

A little later, Sokal revealed the hoax in ``Lingua Franca,'' an academic news magazine. His observations are enlightening.

``I offered the `Social Text' editors an opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual rigor,'' he wrote. ``Did they meet the test? I don't think so.''

Sokal proved that post-modern American academia is a banana republic, pledging allegiance to an ever-changing panoply of trendy ideas that make little sense except that they require little previous knowledge or study. The only requirement seems to be that they attack the thousand- year heritage of scholarship that is the modern world's foundation.

People who couldn't pass Physics 101 now want to set the agenda for science on many campuses. People who don't know Kant or Spinoza or Aquinas are writing philosophy curricula. People who can't do long division denounce the tyranny of mathematics.

We are threatened with the triumph of the dodo on college campuses in the name of political correctness and the dangerous postmodern view that no one knows the real truth, and Sokal knows it.

``Nowhere in all of this,'' wrote Sokal in `Lingua Franca,' ``is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.''

What's more surprising, says Sokal, ``is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article' s overall illogic.''

Anyone interested in truth should be applauding Sokal.

He is a real academic guerrilla who won a crucial battle without firing a shot. Indeed, he is still inflicting casualties. Being an editor at an academic magazine is going to be a real nightmare for a while.


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Last Modified: 24 November, 1997