The Sokal hoax, revisited

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Gloriously missing the point, physicist Alan Sokal’s infamous send-up of what he believed to be postmodernist excesses appeared in Social Text in 1996. What, precisely, did he think he had proven?

He had his defenders, certainly: sober scientists who dislike critical scrutiny of the culture of the scientific enterprise are quick to cherry-pick instances of muddle-headedness and error on the postmodernist side of things, and there’s certainly no lack of examples. But as Stanley Fish pointed out at the time, the issue is not the scientific procedure itself, nor its unquestionable successes. His response to Sokal is a must-read for anyone interested in what the postmodern critique of scientific practice actually does.

In personal correspondence with Sokal some years ago, it became obvious that there would not be a meeting of the minds. My own position on scientific endeavour is instrumentalist (thanks for that, Dad). Just as surely, Sokal believes in something called “objective reality,” which he thinks science is in the process of uncovering. (Surely that irritating notion, in which one’s intimate connection to the Ding an sich merely replaces the prophet’s privileged access to God, was done to death by Immanuel Kant.) He also, interestingly enough, identifies with the Left. But that’s neither here nor there. A suitable antidote for that paper, by the way, would be Donna Haraway’s lucid piece on situated knowledges.

But Fish’s critique of Sokal’s little joke, in which he essentially accuses the latter of fraud, acquires a certain salience at the moment. If Sokal stands for a certain sub-group within the scientific community, the biter, it seems, has been bit—and more than once. It seems that some grad students developed a computer program that generates fake, science-y sounding papers that have been gobbled up by peer-reviewed science journals. Even TED has been hoaxed by a merry prankster.

It’s hard not to laugh at scientists being hoist by this profusion of exploding petards. But we shouldn’t. At issue here, as Fish pointed out, is a question of trust. It’s relatively easy to punk people if they trust you in the first place. Good faith is assumed when academic papers are submitted to peers: even the rigours of peer review may fail to uncover an elaborate ruse, simply because no such thing is expected. That’s true, as it now turns out, for scientific disciplines as well as social science and literary ones.*

In any case, such cheap tricks are merely an elaborate form of lying, now seemingly on its way to becoming culturally institutionalized. Whatever happened to honest, forceful critique? Instead, we are being exposed to lovingly constructed ad hominem japery, based upon the assumption that those in this discipline or that are themselves guilty of bad faith or, at best, unprofessional credulity. This is great fun for jeering bystanders in the bleachers who imagine that any intellectual activity beyond their limited ken must be false and dangerous—the anti-intellectualism of the Harper government, for example, is well-known, and seems in fact to be a hallmark of the Right. But it’s hard to see how defrauding the public, or any portion of it, can have beneficially results in the long run. The generation of various knowledges is a social activity, after all: how can we see the the deliberate violation of trust between people as anything other than harmful and disruptive to it?

* It’s true to some degree in the arts as well, although I’d argue that there can be meaning in the brush-strokes of a chimpanzee, meaning that we ourselves compose in complicity with intermediaries, as in the case of “found objects.” (Note that “Pierre Brasseau” created a number of works, but the four “best” were selected by a real human being, just as “found objects” are selected by the artist.)

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on March 1, 2014 9:39 AM.

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