Of fakery, trust and the pursuit of knowledge

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Dark matter.jpg

A few years back, Alan D. Sokal published a hilarious spoof article in Social Text that allegedly laid bare the hollow core of postmodernism.

Somehow his gibberish passed peer review—which was supposed to mean that postmodernism, and Science Studies in particular, was a crock.

Stanley Fish, amongst others, eloquently begged to differ. Sokal, he said, abused the trust of the academic world, and it’s hard to disagree:

[I]t is Alan Sokal, not his targets, who threatens to undermine the intellectual standards he vows to protect. Remember, science is above all a communal effort. No scientist (and for that matter, no sociologist or literary critic) begins his task by inventing anew the facts he will assume, the models he will regard as exemplary and the standards he tries to be faithful to.

They are all given by the tradition of inquiry he has joined, and for the most part he must take them on faith. And he must take on faith, too, the reports offered to him by colleagues, all of whom are in the same position, unable to start from scratch and therefore dependent on the information they receive from fellow researchers. (Indeed, some professional physicists who take Professor Sokal on faith report finding his arguments plausible.)

The large word for all this is “trust,” and in his “A Social History of Truth,” Steven Shapin poses the relevant (rhetorical) question: “How could coordinated activity of any kind be possible if people could not rely upon others’ undertakings?”

Alan Sokal put forward his own undertakings as reliable, and he took care, as he boasts, to surround his deception with all the marks of authenticity, including dozens of “real” footnotes and an introductory section that enlists a roster of the century’s greatest scientists in support of a line of argument he says he never believed in. He carefully packaged his deception so as not to be detected except by someone who began with a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion that may now be in full flower in the offices of learned journals because of what he has done.

In a 1989 report published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, fraud is said to go “beyond error to erode the foundation of trust on which science is built.” That is Professor Sokal’s legacy, one likely to be longer lasting than the brief fame he now enjoys for having successfully pretended to be himself.

The naysayers claim that postmodernism is all impermeable rhetoric, and Sokal’s “point” was that it is mostly fake scholarship. But his hard science crowd got a well-deserved kick a few years later. Fish’s point, it seems, was a sound one.

Now, with a hat tip to Big City Lib, we can see yet more evidence of how easily the unspoken trust of colleagues can be abused.

This stuff does have its funny side, to be sure:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Publisher, as the article contains no scientific content and was accepted because of an administrative error. Apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

And here’s a paper that questioned the Second Law of Thermodynamics, also retracted. And another, simply hilarious one, retracted as well.

The author of that last effort is M. Sivasubramanian, co-author of the first paper mentioned, who gets around. In this paper, Sivasubramanian proposes a dead-easy means of detecting “dark matter”:

Choose a convenient dark room whose roof is made up of tiles. Make an artificial hole by slightly rearranging a tile. If this dark room is facing north, the convenient time for doing this experiment is between 8.00 am to 9.00 am or 4.00 pm to 5.00 pm. during sun light. This test mainly depends on climatic conditions. Particularly the sun should be visible and bright to the naked eye. Choose an ideal time and lock the doors and windows of the above mentioned room. While the sun’s light rays moves from top to bottom in the dark room, along the light path countless number of very tiny particles can be easily seen. For this viewing, no sophisticated equipments/apparatus are required. What are the physical phenomena of this result?

In fairness, this appeared in a curious journal called Nature and Science. No, not Nature and Science, as a commenter at Retraction Watch pointed out. (Maybe I have a shot at publishing my recent discoveries about time travel there: I regularly communicate with a friend in Italy who is six hours in the future. I don’t even get rejection slips from Nature and Science any more.)

The bottom line? In the world of scholarship, Alan Sokal’s hoax turns out to be an easily-replicated cheap trick that works as well on physicists as it does on sociologists. It proves nothing other than the fact that academics tend to trust each other’s good faith. Once our amusement subsides, those of us interested in the common pursuit of knowledge realize, to our chagrin, that the joke was actually on us.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on April 19, 2012 10:46 AM.

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