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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

The Sokal Hoax

edited by
the editors of Lingua Franca

general information | our review | links

To purchase The Sokal Hoax

Title: The Sokal Hoax
Author: various
Genre: Science
Written: (2000)
Length: 265 pages
Availability: The Sokal Hoax - US
The Sokal Hoax - UK
The Sokal Hoax - Canada
  • The Sham that Shook the Academy
  • Edited by the (unnamed) editors of Lingua Franca
  • Includes Alan Sokal's notorious article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity (published in Social Text Spring-Summer, 1996) and many responses, reactions, general press coverage, essays, and colloquies.
  • Includes pieces by Stanley Fish, George F. Will, Bruno Latour, A.N.Wilson, and Steven Weinberg.
  • Most of the pieces included here (and a great many others) can be found at Alan Sokal's extremely useful site

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Our Assessment:

B : useful though numbing overview of a fascinating case

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In 1996 Social Text published Alan Sokal's article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, apparently not realizing that it was actually a send up of much of the writing -- ideologically based, relativistic, jargon-laden -- that had become popular in certain academic circles. The article is almost unreadable and certainly nonsensical and though Social Text's editors later professed they had not been all that enthusiastic about it they embraced and published it without questioning it. Glory to the unreal world of academia !
       Almost simultaneously with its publication in Social Text Sokal published an article in Lingua Franca, explaining what he had done. Well, the excrement hit the fan and boy did it make an ugly mess.
       Social Text is an "influential" journal that nobody reads (not a good sign, we would think -- not so much that no one reads it (many of the articles in it are, like Sokal's, literally unreadable) but that it is (or was, for a while) influential). In one of the pieces included in The Sokal Hoax one of those responsible for publishing Sokal's parody, editor Andrew Ross, notes (proudly ?) that "in the six months that bookstores stocked the special Science Wars issue of Social Text, under eight hundred copies were sold" -- a number even he acknowledges is "modest". (Erstwhile respected academic Andrew Ross is apparently not only a terrible editor but also a bad salesman, unable to make hay with this huge controversy which should have had the journal flying off the shelves.)
       Almost nobody bought the journal, and few read the article, but after Sokal revealed what he had done it did make a mighty splash: front page news in The New York Times and in-depth coverage around the world. Gleefully the journalists related Sokal's triumph over the misguided and ideologically suspect academics.
       Together with Jean Bricmont Alan Sokal wrote a book that elaborated on the type of writing, thinking, and theorizing that he was criticizing with his piece, published as Intellectual Impostures in Great Britain and as Fashionable Nonsense in the United States (see our review). Now, in The Sokal Hoax, the editors of Lingua Franca present a book dealing specifically with the article, the hoax, and the reactions to these. The original article is included in this compilation, as is Sokal's Lingua Franca article, various responses from the editors of Social Text, numerous newspaper articles from the US and abroad, numerous longer articles, letters to the editors, and even some colloquies.
       The repetition can be wearying as the hoax is described again and again (though in strikingly different ways, and variously interpreted), but there is some fun stuff here, and even a few thoughtful comments. Among the contributions is the first defensive response from the Social Text folk (making them look even more foolish than one had possibly thought they might be). Then there is Stanley Fish's notorious editorial in The New York Times, in which he compares the rules of science and the rules of baseball (pitching way out of the strikezone, if you ask us). Among the other authors having their say are A.N.Wilson, a gleeful George Will, Steven Weinberg, and Stanley Aronowitz.
       The Sokal hoax is a complicated affair because it muddles two very different issues. The first is the academic rigour (or lack thereof) displayed by many mindless and irresponsible academics who hide behind their jargon and pseudo-ideology and thrive in academia based on publishing in (or editing) "prestigious" journals such as Social Text (which, apparently, essentially no one reads). The men of Social Text published Sokal's article without getting it peer-reviewed -- a curious decision, but one that can be found to be acceptable. One might think that they would want a scientist to take a look and give them some idea of how all of this sounded to someone familiar with the scientific concepts discussed in the work, but that's not how they operate and that is certainly fair enough. Where the editors of Social Text failed was in not reviewing the article themselves. Sokal's article literally does not make sense. It is jargon-laden gobbledygook that does not add up. It is writing that any college professor would throw back in a student's face (and probably lead to a suggestion that the student re-enroll in "Writing and Composition 101") -- unless, of course, one is in a seminar presided over by Professors Ross 'n' Robbins. Sokal's article is without meaning, without style, and utterly incomprehensible. Oh -- but it does quote the right names: Derrida, Irigaray, Lacan, Latour, Lyotard, Aronowitz, and a host of others. Based on such authority, apparently, the editors of Social Text decided the fact that the article did not make any sense was irrelevant.
       The editors of Social Text have few defenders with regard to their slip -- though surprisingly many authors are fairly generous towards them, as are their employers. Apparently nobody got fired over this incident (which we find absolutely incomprehensible) and none of those responsible chose the honourable way out, admitting that they were not competent at their job. (We know that mistakes happen, and, as some contributors to this volume mention, other prominent publications have been hoaxed (though heads have generally rolled afterwards), but surely this is no way to run any sort of publication, much less an academic one. We know there are no honourable men left, but how about at least pretending to maintain some minimal standards ?)
       The focus of the Sokal hoax has been on how the Social Text editors were duped. By pretending they weren't (they are self-deluded on top of it all) they focussed attention on this aspect of the debate, rather than the truly important one, the content of Sokal's article. In part Sokal's criticism is implicit in the hoax itself -- acceptance of the article is symptomatic of the mindless, shallow, personality-obsessed ideology that exemplifies the type of thought and writing that Sokal sought to expose. Nevertheless, the success of the hoax makes it too easy for critics to toss the baby out with the bathwater. The discussions of the science wars in Social Text are not all nonsense. There are valid points for debate -- but Sokal's grand success makes debate impossible. And that is a shame. The academics of Ross 'n' Robbins' ilk are too easily dismissed as second-rate thinkers, supporting third-rate ideologically hidebound pomo (post-modern) lefty ideas that subvert the hearts and minds of ivy-league students. Ross 'n' Robbins may, in fact, just be lazy and incompetent editors who are, in fact, first rate minds with some first rate ideas (though admittedly they managed to present themselves and their ideas in the least flattering light here).
       In Intellectual Impostures/Fashionable Nonsense Sokal manages to cover this territory -- questions of science and the humanities, relativisim, scholarship -- in far greater depth, but unfortunately this does not have the debate (i.e. two-sided) character that the hoax itself occasioned. A few of the articles in The Sokal Hoax-collection also discuss these important issues, and so it does serve as a useful (if somewhat misleading, since its focus is largely elsewhere) introduction to these questions.
       The pieces collected here make for an enjoyable survey, showing how journalists regard academia, how "left" and "right" attack each other, and how everyone twisted and turned this case to their own ends. From simplistic newspaper versions to politicized editorializing it is a merry look at how academia and ideology can still inflame.
       Most of the points about the debate have, of course, already been made and can be found in this collection, as well as in many other pieces (many of which Sokal has posted on his excellent page devoted to the whole affair). We add only a few more observations. One point worth emphasizing is the reliance on authority -- on authority figures and especially titles of authority. As a number of writers point out, Sokal's title (professor of physics) lent him credibility (indeed, it apparently thrilled the Social Text folk to get a hard scientist from a real university (NYU) in their camp). Similarly, Sokal's extensive (though meaningless) quotes from authority figures blindly venerated by the Social Text gang obviously helped him land on the pages of their journal. Similarly, Ross 'n' Robbins demand to be taken seriously (and, amazingly, are) because they are academics -- i.e. have the stamp of approval from some university (NYU, ironically, and Rutgers). This is, in and of itself, not surprising, though it is disappointing: ideas are what should count, not titles (and Ross 'n' Robbins' Social Text slip should count more heavily against them than any academic degree and title ever could count in their favour). What is unfortunate, however, is that The Sokal Hoax itself plays the same game. Each letter to the editor re-printed here ridiculously includes the author's title and/or position, as if being a professor of X or a director of a Center for the Studies of Y should lend any credibility to the author's words (sorry, people, that credibility went way by the wayside long before the Social Text guys goofed). Since The Sokal Hoax just collects these previously published letters it is understandable that they are printed with this (superfluous) information. Curious (and, to our minds, offensive), however, is the ridiculous list at the end of the book, "Among our Academic Contributors", which describes where the professorial demi-gods who contributed to the volume are currently institutionalized. Again, the academics are raised above the commoners, as there is no corresponding information about the affiliations of the non-academics -- including such people as A.N.Wilson, George Will, and Katha Pollitt, not to mention all the foreign journalists, etc. Of course, the commoners don't count (even though they are the ones that actually reach an audience) -- all that counts are the titles, the stamp of approval from an academic institution. Bad form !
       Another difficulty we have with much of the debate is the consistent division into camps of "left" and "right". Concepts of "left" in the US have long bordered on the bizarre, certainly since McCarthy killed the last remnants of a true left in the 1950s. Sokal (apparently proudly) proclaims his own credentials when he writes "I'm a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua)." Admirable though this may be (the teaching, that is) we have no idea what this has to do with being "leftist". It is a curious sort of way of defining one's political (if that's what it is) allegiance or inclination, or proving what one supports. Aiding and abetting the Nicaraguan people under the Sandinistas is an act with a lot of baggage, as easily seen as an act in opposition of Reaganite policy as anything else. For someone as concerned with precise meaning and correspondence to reality Sokal (and his supporters) are pretty lax in this ideological regard. But then that's never been an American strength.
       Many of the contributors to this volume also give Sokal his leftist badge on the basis of his Nicaraguan experience. Similarly, the Social Text folk are considered leftist -- though it is never explained what makes them leftist. Maybe they taught Comp. Lit. in Ho Chi Minh's Viet Nam ? (And, admittedly, a number of the journalists simply use the term "leftist" as a euphemism for the term "nuts".) Sokal also hopes the debate around his parody might have helped a bit "to provoke a much-needed debate on the American Left". These vacuous labels only draw imaginary battlelines and take away from the true issues. Concerns about pomo (post-modern -- another marvelous term of insensibility) lefties don't help much either. But name calling and labelling seem much simpler than actually considering the subjects at hand. Note that someone is a professor, and note whether s/he is of the "left" or "right" and there's all the information you apparently need.
       There is undeniably a lot that is foul in academia, in America and elsewhere, and Sokal's hoax was an inspired and (sadly) resounding success. As this collection shows, however, little seems to have been learnt. Journalistic ("popular") responses tend to be simplistic, too easily dismissing the issues at hand (though entertainingly laughing at and dismissing the incompetent editors). Many of the academics are terribly defensive, defending their little patches of territory and expertise without considering the larger picture. There are a few enlightened responses that might lead to better understanding, and a few that move the debate along (Meera Nanda's on The Science Wars in India is one such perspective). On the whole, however, it is difficult to be too optimistic. The editors have succeeded in presenting a fairly balanced account, with many shades of opinion and approach, but the underlying tension between the "sides" remains. The fact that there are sides here at all is, of course, what is most disappointing.
       The Sokal hoax remains a defining event in late-20th century American academia, and this collection, along with Sokal's Fashionable Nonsense, is part of the essential documentation of this sad and sorry affair. Anyone interested in the culture wars, the science wars, or American academia should be familiar with this material. Often fun, sometimes thoughtful, often sad it is, unfortunately, an invaluable collection.

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The Sokal Hoax: Reviews: The Sokal Hoax:
  • Alan Sokal's very informative page, which includes the original text of the notorious article, as well as many, many responses to it. Highly recommended
  • The Science Wars Redux by Michael Bérubé in Democracy
Social Text: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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© 2000-2011 the complete review

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