[ Top : Articles : "Hoax article yanks academics' legs" : Other Articles ]
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
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
What Sokal did was absolutely
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
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
``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
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
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
Anyone interested in truth should be applauding
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.