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Response to Sokal in THES - 6.6.96

Andrew Ross

Times Higher Education
Supplement.  17 - 22 June 1996.

Many readers of Alan Sokal's article (THES, June 6) may be unaware of the vast amount of U.S. media interest generated by his prank upon the journal Social Text. As the spin doctors say, the story had legs. Lingua Franca's decision to run Sokal's claims without any response from the editors of Social Text loaded the dice from the start. (Readers are urged to read our full editorial response, at http://www.designsys.com/socialtext). Subsequently, the story travelled from the front page of the New York Times to provincial op-ed pages and overseas dailies, and from National Public Radio to the cantankerous regions of right-wing TV opinion shows like Rush Limbaugh and Capitol Gang; and then worked its way through weeklies as diverse as Newsweek, The Nation, and In These Times. What accounted for this uncommon attention to a marginal scholarly item? Above all, the Sokal affair offered two choice media ingredients; a scientist hoax, and political correctness in the academy. The first ingredient speaks to the growing public concern about scientists' lack of accountability. The second ingredient continues to provide good camouflage for the sweeping abdication of support for public education. Both of these elements have become media fixtures in recent years, and the Sokal affair was a dynamite combination. In all respects, it was a story waiting to happen. Ever since Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's controversial Higher Superstition, conservative groups like the National Academy of Scholars have been hell-bent on dragging their crusade against science studies into the Culture Wars by commanding the op-ed pages of the national press. Many scholars, both inside and outside the natural sciences, are agreed about the reasons for this holy war. The erosion of the Cold War funding contract with the state, combined with the decrease in public respect for scientific authority, has created a demand for scapegoats in the demonic form of politically motivated scholars in science studies. Accordingly, Gross, Levitt, Sokal and others are simply recycling all of the usual suspect ideas from the Culture Wars in order to persuade scientists (who haven't been sorely vexed by curricular displacements of T. S. Eliot by Toni Morrison) to get involved in the academic P.C. wars. After all, half a century of critical science studies has had negligible impact upon the course of establishment science, and even less impact on funding. Why all the fuss now?

I edited a double issue of Social Text to gather together responses to this scapegoating crusade from many different scholars--natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists. Sokal's own unsolicited article had been accepted for the journal earlier, not without a good deal of hesitation, as the work of a progressive physicist committed to the critique of science. We decided the Science Wars issue of the journal might be an appropriate context for his article and that readers would see it as a contribution from someone unknown to the field whose views, however offbeat, might still be thought relevant to the debate. Even so, his article bears little resemblance, in style or substance, to the other articles in the issue (written by some of the most prominent names in science studies), nor indeed to most of what is published in Social Text, a collectively-edited forum, which publishes a broad spectrum of writings and ideas. Obviously, now we regret having published the article, and recognize it was a mistake to do so. Any publication can fall for a well- crafted hoax, but interdisciplinary journals of opinion like ours are not peer- reviewed and are especially vulnerable to deceptions like Sokal's. Innovative, open-minded publishing depends upon the good faith of authors, and breaches of this faith are damaging for everyone in the scholarly community. Many fear that Sokal's fraudulent actions--like scientific fraud generally-- may have a chilling effect on the climate of journal publishing.

The publication of Sokal's article was an anomaly, and yet grossly inflated claims have been made on its behalf. Serious and mature minds have declared that it proves everything from the bankruptcy of cultural studies (or was it the social sciences?) to the reaffirmation of the Enlightenment and the restoration of the true gospel of the left. Accounting for these grandiose fantasies is more difficult than explaining the prurient media interest in the affair, and, for the most part, I am at a loss to do so. There was one new factor, however, which may have had a bearing. For the first time, perhaps, the communities of opinion on the Internet played a significant role in the reception of a scholarly event. The Sokal affair induced an explosion of postings and discussions on academic Internet lists in almost every discipline. In the U.S., academics were coming down off their teaching schedules for the year, and they suddenly had time to burn on the Net. Each media report was analyzed daily, and the press, in turn, fed upon Net postings. Snap judgements were made about whole fields of scholarship and intellectual tendencies, and stray tensions were corralled into that head-butting form which disagreements often take in the virtual public sphere. All sorts of rumors (about Sokal's leftist collaborators, for example) circulated. I even learned of one group that had discussed at great length whether or not our Social Text editorial response was itself a spoof, since its "balance of condescension and dogma" was thought too good to be true. 98% of the discussion seemed to be between men, few of whom seemed to have read Sokal's article, let alone the special issue of the journal. One of the results of this outpouring was an inundation of raw research material for scholars who study the behavior of scientists and those who talk about science. Another was to elevate speculations of the hour and day into claims that carried the weight of consensus. All in all, those conditions which lend distinction to the Internet as a medium of communication served to condense and accelerate the process of opinion-making in ways that stretched the reality of these claims.

Regrettably, many of the real issues in the science studies debates have been neglected, and Sokal's hoax has perpetuated the climate of caricature in which the Science Wars were initiated. Critical science studies is much less about skirmishes over academic turf (involving pranks played by academics with too much time on their hands) than it is about the gulf of power between experts and lay voices, and the lack of any democratic decision-making involved in the scientific process. All the fine talk about reclaiming the Enlightenment against obscurantism should remind us that the Enlightenment was, in part, a revolt against the closed circle of civility that was forming, even then, within the scientific community. The legacy of that closed circle is very much with us today, when science's specialized jargon, professional expertise, and value-free ideology are explicitly used to keep public criticism at bay. Indeed, public technoscepticism of the sort that is habitually labelled "anti-science" is often little more than an extension of the Enlightenment temper--the true Enlightenment, some would say.

Andrew Ross
Co-Editor, Social Text

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