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Physicist Opens Fire in the Science Wars

McKenzie Wark

The Australian.
24 May 1996.

Professor Alan Sokal is a physicist who decided to "test the prevailing intellectual standards" in the humanities by sending what he claims is a spoof article to the journal Social Text. When he sent another article to Lingua Franca exposing his hoax, he became an instant media celebrity, with coverage in the New York Times and on National Public Radio.

Professor Alan Sokal's recent antics add more heat than light to the so-called "science wars" and "culture wars" in the United States. Sokal has added fuel to, not to a debate, but to a witch hunt. But the witch being burned at the stake is neither a postmodernist, a relativist or cultural studies. Its the ghost of a long dead philosopher named Bishop Berkeley. Its worth explaining a thing or two about this, before this particular craze gets out of hand.

Sokal's Social Text essay begins with an attack on "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; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the 'objective' procedures...".

He then proceeds, in his Lingua Franca expose that this Social Text piece was a hoax, to ask: "Is it now dogma in cultural studies that there does not exist an external world? Or that there exists an external world but science obtains no knowledge of it?" In short, what he proposes to do here is to use the disproof of one rather silly doctrine as the proof of another one. Which readers with any grasp of logic might begin to notice, at this point, is not a very sound method.

In Lingua Franca Sokal advances an old argument, made famous by Dr Johnson: "anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the window of my apartment." But we can dispense with this appeal to direct experience quite easily. What does it mean to say that jumping to one's death 'proves' the law of gravity? We have shown by this demonstration that the theory is not false. But we still only know the theory of gravity in the sense that we have an understanding in our minds. We have not become one with the thing called gravity. We have simply discovered that a theory is not false.

That may sound like hair splitting, but its a basic idea in the philosophy of science. Science advances by taking phenomena that have no explanation, forming a theory about them, and testing the theory. Sometimes, this will entail the overthrowing of existing theories. Advancing the new theory requires that we show those old theories to be false. Most usually, by showing that they don't account for all of the phenomena we can observe when we test the rival theories in a controlled way. To replace the old theory, the new theory must account for more of the observable phenomena, or at least account for the same phenomena in a simpler way. By which standard's Sokal's 'experiment' doesn't exactly qualify.

Sokal asserts that "there is a real world. Its properties are not social constructions. What sane person would contend otherwise?" No sane person. As Stanley Fish, the eminent literary critic has pointed out, Sokal is attacking a view that no-one holds. Except perhaps the late Bishop Berkeley. But one has to question whether the alternative view Sokal seems to want to propose makes all that much more sense. Is there a knowledge that we can have that is independent of any social construction what so ever? Can one imagine a knowledge, for example, that exists without language or controlled observation? The answer is no. All knowledge is socially constructed, in other words. So surely we are entitled to ask what limits to knowledge all the aspects of social construction impose. How do the properties of language affect it? How do the pressures of power and money intervene?

The joke on Sokal is that in trying to prove something about science he has proven himself to be a postmodernist. In cultural studies, Sokal says, "allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence." How does he prove it? This would be a telling point, if Sokal actually offered any evidence. Strangely enough he 'proves' it with, of all things, allusions, metaphors and puns -- his Social Text spoof article is an elaborate confection of them, as he delights in telling us. Sokal rests his case against Social Text not on any evidence of what its editors actually think, but on his own use of language. If he has provided evidence for any wider claim it is for the quixotic powers of language itself, which never quite seems to be a transparent lens through which to see into the world -- or into the intentions of the speaker.

Sokal seems to think he's the only one who has ever treated philosophy as a joke. The joke on Sokal is that Derrida and Deleuze, two of the writers he pretends to quote seriously as serious examples of 'cultural studies', are famous jokers. Derrida thinks not only that a philosopher might joke but that the joke may contain a philosophy. One about the strange properties of a very real and tangible part of the 'real world' -- language itself. The part, unfortunately, that we need to use in order to make knowledge about the rest of it.

Sokal may be a finer joker, but deciding whether a statement is a joke or not depends on the listener, not the speaker. Sokal finds Sokal very funny when Sokal is trying to be funny, but he also says, apparently with a straight face: "as a theoretical physicist, my profession is to study the real world." Which would get a good laugh from anyone who studies domestic violence, soil erosion or suicide.

Sokal asserts that the reductio ad absurdum of cultural studies is that, "If all is discourse and text, then knowledge of the real world is superfluous." But let's contemplate the absurd extreme of Sokal's position as well: if knowledge can exist independently of social construction, then science is superfluous. Science, after all, is a social construction. I don't mean that as some tricky language thing, I mean it as an observable fact. Science is made by people, commonly working in groups. It is social. It is put together according to certain principles. It is a construction. Why do we need it? Because its the best social construction anyone has devised for testing theories about the world, showing their limits, and coming up with better ones.

But does it always work perfectly? Unless one wants to treat it as a religion and worship scientists as priests, surely any thinking person has a right to ask. Particularly when, on the face of it, scientists don't always seem to be working for the common good. Sokal's examples of 'good science' are the search for a cure for AIDS and research on global warming. Good examples. But what of a scientist who isn't working on a cure for AIDS, but on a way to beat a rival drug company's patents? Or better bombs for the Pentagon? Many scientists question the priorities and purposes of particular branches of science. But many are beneficiaries of military and corporate funding that to others may appear questionable.

As part of a movement that has asserted the rights, not just of other scholars, but of ordinary citizens to ask such questions, Social Text co-editor Andrew Ross has copped a lot of flack from scientists. He is vilified in the book Higher Superstition that Sokal has quoted with approval. Sokal wants us to believe that his views as they appear in Social Text are a put on, but that he is being honest when he says that he too is critical of the excesses of science. But if we are to judge by the actions, not what the participant say about the actions -- a pretty sound procedure in social science -- then we have no evidence that Sokal is all that committed to reforming his own profession. He seems to want to join the ad hominen attack on the critics of science rather than face up to the notion that science may not be above public scrutiny.

Scientists often complain that their professions are not as respected by the public as they once were. That they are unfairly held to be responsible for ecological crises and uncontrollable technological change. Whatever harm Sokal does to the reputation of Social Text, it isn't a solution to the larger question of the crisis of the public's faith in science. Which is a great shame, for surely we need science just as much as we need to know the limitations of any particular institution that claims to uphold its finer principles.

McKenzie.Wark@mq.edu.au lectures in media studies at Macquarie University.

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