Evaluating the Sokal Hoax Twenty Years Later
Twenty years ago, in May 1996 (okay, twenty years and four months—sue me), Alan Sokal, a physicist at with appointments at the University College London and New York University, published a ground-breaking paper in the respected critical theory journal Social Text. The paper has been highly influential. I learned about it both in undergrad and grad school, as I am sure many others did. However, it was the paper’s argument for a postmodern science allied to progressive politics that was so influential. It was influential because it was a hoax.
Sokal revealed his deception in an article in Lingua Franca, published the same day as the hoax article. He says that the fake piece was filled with nonsensical phrases pulled from pseudoscience, terminology from real science that was completely misused, and combined with quotations from and allusions to leftist critical theorists popular in the humanities and cultural studies. (Think Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Bruno Latour, Félix Guattari, and some people who aren’t French). His intention was to “flatter” the Social Text editors with ridiculous and unevidenced propositions that concurred with their progressive political beliefs to see if they would fall for it. They did, and Sokal concludes that postmodernist leftism suffers from a lack of “intellectual rigor.” “I say this not in glee but in sadness,” Sokal assures us. “After all, I’m a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua).” Sokal is not a conservative, he says, he just wants leftism to eschew postmodernism in favor of empiricism.
Now, I am a humanist who likes critical theory. Edward Said (a disciple of Michel Foucault), in particular, has been a huge influence on me, and I have presented a paper liberally salted with Slavoj Žižek quotations at a conference. All completely normal for someone in the humanities or cultural studies. That said, I have some sympathy for what Sokal did. He exposed a hole that critical theorists sometimes leave unfilled. To explain what it is, I am going to have to make a caricature out of a whole swathe of philosophy, so please bear with me. Basically, a major theme of critical theory (or “continental philosophy,” or what have you) is that much of what we believe and accept as totally true is, in fact, socially constructed. To use a non-controversial example, for years, people thought it was good and right that men were always the ones who worked and that women always stayed at home, and that this made sense morally and biologically. Now, that attitude is widely understood to have been a belief perpetrated by society to oppress women. So far, all reasonable people agree. The controversy comes when the critical theorists say that even science is socially-constructed, and that the facts (they would put scare quotes around “facts”) discovered by science are no truer than, say, any given religious belief. This attitude has the benefit of being highly democratic, but I myself see some problems with it, and I am sure many readers of the Skepchick network do too. This attitude is Sokal’s main target.
Sokal says in his exposé in Lingua Franca that the “sloppy thinking” of some humanities scholars only recognizes objective existence “when challenged.” He says of the hoax aricle:
In the second paragraph I declare, without the slightest evidence or argument, that “physical “reality” [note the scare quotes] … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough: anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)
The fact that the Social Text editors let this slide is indeed a problem. I am often uncomfortable with the uncritical and cavalier ways in which postmodern theory is used by critics. According to some readings of Foucault and Derrida (or Friedrich Nieztsche, or the Greek sophists, or any thinker emphasizing subjectivity over objectivity), these theories really do not provide any good reason not to jump out of Sokal’s twenty-first story apartment. Sokal uses this example flippantly, but I actually believe it to be quite an important one. If René Descartes says that consciousness is the best proof of personal existence, then the abrupt removal of consciousness through death is perhaps the strongest objection to anti-realist claims (indeed, perhaps it is the only possible objection). I wish that more writers took this objection seriously.
Sokal’s example is also useful because matters of life and death are precisely what should be most important to radical critics. The great and obvious value in radical criticism—including that of postmodernists and social constructionists—is that it offers tools and opportunities to dismantle the arguments of unjust regimes and systems and thus, potentially, rescue individuals from oppressive and life-threatening situations. Sokal’s criticism gives humanists an opportunity to refocus our efforts on the real world.
For all these reasons, I do not think that humanists should dismiss Sokal. But, without relitigating all the facets of this decades-old controversy, there are several objections to make to Sokal. First, imagine that you’re an editor of Social Text, and that you have just read Sokal’s silly-sounding paper. If it were me, I would likely be more enthusiastic than I would be put off by the apparent absurdity. I would want it to be a legitimate paper, because I want there to be dialogue between humanities and the sciences, and the hoax paper offers that through its purported correspondence between quantum physics and postmodern theory. In other words, the fact that the Social Text editors accepted the paper could be read as a sign of goodwill towards the sciences. Of course, they should still have had a physicist review Sokal’s paper—but at the time of the paper’s acceptance, Social Text was not a peer-reviewed journal. Other theory and philosophy journals were, and are, and these peer-reviewed sources are much better representatives of the discipline. Sokal can claim to have fooled some critical theorists, but not to have beguiled or exposed the entire discipline. (I do recommend reading the responses to the hoax from the Social Text editors. Sokal’s own website is a decent resource for the debate).
Second, Sokal is not an expert reader of philosophy. A few paragraphs ago, I said that I was making a caricature in stating the viewpoints of critical theorists. I had to do that because it is impossible to adequately summarize the views of dozens of theorists in one paragraph, or even one article. In many cases, they disagree with one another, and severely nuance Sokal’s claims against them. Take Lacan, a theorist Sokal cites with mock enthusiasm many times in his faux article. Lacan says that the most important part of a child’s development occurs when they look into the mirror and see that there is a world outside of themselves: that there is an objective reality, in other words. You would not know this from reading Sokal’s takedown in Lingua Franca. To properly understand continental philosophy, like any subject, you need to devote time to study it.
Speaking of objective reality, I have observed—not in a test environment, but with consistency and rigor over the years—that radical feminists and other leftists influenced by academic postmodernism still read the science section of the paper and believe in climate change and evolution. Indeed, they even believe that vaccines are safe and that AIDS is caused by a virus. To be sure, there are—very infamously!—leftists who deny the last two facts. But they do not seem to be so numerous as to be swaying opinion in academia. Perhaps Sokal and other empiricist critics can take some credit for this. However, I don’t think that there was an epidemic of people jumping out of windows twenty years ago, either. So it is important to keep all this in perspective. If you disagree with postmodernists, then disagree with postmodernists, using evidence.
There have also been positive developments since Sokal’s hoax. A new strain of critical theory has emerged that aims to mobilize literature readers against environmental injustices. Ecocriticism, as it is usually called, admits that it requires science in order to properly target its critiques. It has had to struggle with its relationship with other critical theories over the years—sometimes rejecting, sometimes embracing—and I believe that it is stronger for it. No doubt, other humanities disciplines engage with science in other productive ways, in part because of Sokal’s highlighting the issue. Academics of every discipline can get caught up in the Ivory Tower, and sometimes need a jolt to take them back to reality. Sokal provided such a jolt, and I respect him for that. Sometimes you need a critic, even a less-than-polite and reductionist critic, to push you to be the best you can.
Image credit: Social Text.