Alan Sokal's "Transgression"

by Stanley Aronowitz

[Published in Dissent, Winter 1997, pp. 107-110.]

Explaining his now famous parody in Social Text's "Science Wars" issue, Alan Sokal writes in Dissent ("Afterword", Fall 1996):

But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.

There is much to note in this "confession." Why choose a hoax on Social Text to make these points? Did Sokal believe its editors were unabashed deconstructionists who doubted the existence of an external world or that they were anti-science? If so, he has either misread the burden of its seventeen-year history or was capricious in his choice. If not, then he has perpetuated the saddest hoax of all: on himself. For the fact is that Social Text, of which I am a founder and in whose editorial collective I served until this year, has never been in the deconstructionist camp; nor do its editors or the preponderance of its contributors doubt the existence of a material world. What is at issue is whether our knowledge of it can possibly be free of social and cultural presuppositions.

Social Text was founded, and remains within, the Marxist project -- which, as everyone knows, is profoundly materialist. When Fredric Jameson, John Brenkman, and I started the journal we gave it the subtitle "Theory, Culture, Ideology." Our objective was to interrogate Marxists' habitual separation of political economy and culture and to make a contribution to their articulation, even reunification. We were appalled by the orthodox Marxist claim that culture had nothing to do with burning issues of economic justice and were equally opposed to a "culturalist" deconstruction of reality in which all that mattered was language. The use of the term "ideology" in our subtitle revealed our critical intent. For us ideology was not "false consciousness" but a form of "lived experience." This marked us decidedly as not "old leftist" because we questioned the naive old materialism that holds that knowledge simply reflects reality. We followed the contemporary Marxist view that all processes of knowledge, including science, are mediated by their practices; for us "practice" was not a mental, but a material category.

So the issue is not whether reality exists, but whether knowledge of it is "transparent." Herein lies Sokal's confusion. He believes that reason, logic, and truth are entirely unproblematic. He has an abiding faith that through the rigorous application of scientific method nature will yield its unmediated truth. According to this doctrine there are "objective truths" since the earth revolves around the sun, gravity exists and various other laws of nature are settled matters. So Sokal never interrogates the nature of evidence or facts, and simply accepts them if they have been adduced within certain algorithms that bear the stamp of "science."

Sokal cites Andrew Ross and Sandra Harding as representative deconstructionists. Neither fits this characterization. Harding, in her essay on "Why `Physics' is a Bad Model for Physics," argues that (a) facts do not speak for themselves but are subject to interpretations marked by the values and beliefs of scientists as well as the political imperatives of ruling groups who fund scientific work. Physics, like any other human activity, is subject to these influences; (b) there is no such thing as "pure description." She cites racial theories using scientific conventions, which have recurred through the modern era; (c) "we need critical social theory" to account adequately for causality and other scientific ideas.

At a recent forum on the so-called Sokal/Social Text Affair, Sokal readily agreed that facts must be interpreted, but maintained that proper scientific method filters out social and cultural influences in the process of discovery. This, it seems to me, is an article of faith akin to a religious belief. In the history of science it was invoked by scientists as a defense against the attacks of the Church and the state to which it was allied in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and became relevant again during the era of Nazi science and of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union.

But it is one thing to insist on the autonomy of science from the state -- the sort of battle leading scientific institutions have not really engaged since some atomic scientists sought to prevent further production of the bomb in the late 1940s -- and the flatfooted statement that the "objective truth" of science's postwar discoveries has nothing to do with its alliances with the military. The trajectory that Sokal presents -- quantum mechanics gave rise to solid state physics which, in turn, is the basis of the quantum electronics -- is indisputable. What it leaves out is what the influence military sponsorship has had on the selection of appropriate scientific objects and on the results of scientific work.

What did science not study because of its funding sources? What determines what it actually studies? Has not science increasingly directed its energies in biology as well as physics to technical applications? Is the emergence of bio-engineering, for instance, not subject to political, even economic interrogation? Harding acknowledges, as I do, both the liberatory as well as the questionable sides of the history of science. Bioengineering is a case in point. On the one hand its applications fight disease with salutary effects. On the other hand, it may be linked to a revival of eugenics; indeed, some molecular biologists have declared its relevance to "perfecting" our species.

So: are the uses made of such knowledge part of science? If interpretation and consequences of discovery are integral to the meaning of scientific knowledge, it takes more than the conventional procedure of repeatable experiments or calculations to "prove" that molecular biology is not a techno-science when most of its practitioners have eagerly sought alliances with drug companies and other commercial interests.

Beyond immediate issues concerning the relation between science and politics lie important metatheoretical questions. How do cultural influences -- worldviews, for instance -- bear on science? It was not deconstruction but the Frankfurt School that pointed to a dialectic of the Enlightenment, arguing that the modern cultural ideology of the scientific-technical domination of nature has direct political parallels. It was not deconstructionists but many historians of science who demonstrated that Newton's Principia is rooted in the mechanical worldview that was widely shared by scientists and laypersons in his time. Newton made true discoveries but, needless to say, they were overturned by "better" truths -- relativity and quantum mechanics.

If one acknowledges that the domination of nature is intimately linked to the domination of humans we can better grapple with racial "science" than by simply arguing that theories of racial and gender inferiority -- like those of Shockley, Herrnstein and Murray, or the ninteenth-century mainstream scientists who held women to be incapable of reason because of their biology -- are false. Of course they are false, but not only because one can adduce counterfactuals to refute them but because they violate the criterion of humanistic universalism according to which together humans have evolved into a unified species. I would conjecture that this underlying belief informs the widely-held judgement that what Murray and Herrnstein have asserted is bad science as much as the counterfactuals which may be offered in evidence.

Racial science reappears when society experiences a sense of economic and social crisis and needs scapegoats to explain its panic. But we cannot abstract the steady drumbeat of these pseudo-sciences from the degree to which the ideal of domination informs all scientific inquiry. To ignore the universal of domination is to fail to understand why, in the face of "definitive" refutations such as Stephen J. Gould's Mismeasure of Man, they come back to us like a stopped-up toilet and in each generation win new adherents, even among some reputable scientists. Nor can we fully grasp the ubiquity of artificial intelligence apart from its uses in the computerized workplace or the devolution of molecular biology into a commercially-configured technoscience.

However, I hold that an account of science that ascribes to it what Harding calls a "political agenda" is necessary but not sufficient to understand its tendencies. Among other questions a materialist science of sciences asks are: what is the role of laboratory life where, after all, much of science is still done, in the configuration of scientific knowledge?; what is the influence of the power relations within the scientific community on what counts as legitimate knowledge?; and what are the ideological frames within which science is done? These have been standard questions in the sociology of science since its emergence as a line of inquiry in the 1930s. The questions bear on how we understand how science is done, not whether what it does is a "distortion" of truth.

A few examples: Shapin and Schaeffer examined the debate between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle about the nature of knowledge. They put into question one of the underlying precepts of modern science: seeing is believing. Their point is not to deny the importance of observation but to show that its role in knowing is not free of presuppositions, that to show the social origins of observation as a foundation for scientific knowledge is at the very least worthy of inquiry. Latour and Woolgar and Sharon Traweek are among those who have investigated everyday life in the laboratory to figure out how science is produced. In their Laboratory Life, a study of the Salk laboratory in La Jolla, Latour and Woolgar discerned the relevance of conversation, inscriptions, and machine technologies for producing knowledge. In these and other cases ethnographic and historical studies proceed from Vico's idea that "making is knowing".

The point is not to debunk science or to "deconstruct" it in order to show it is merely a fiction. This may be the postmodern project, but it is not the project of science studies. The point is to show science as a social process, to bring it down to earth, to remove the halo from its head. Scientific truth cannot be absolute; otherwise we might agree with those who have proclaimed the "end" of science. If all knowledge, including natural science, is mediated by the social and cultural context within which it has developed, then its truths are inevitably relational to the means at hand for knowing. In fact, in much of micro-physics what is called observation is often the effects of machine technologies, a reading of effects. But the reading is theory-laden. Which means pure description based on observation is not possible. Scientists require other tools such as machines, mathematics, and infer what they see from what they believe.

To say that the increasing dependence of science on socially and economically permeated technology, the culture milieux within which science is done or that the political agendas of the funders invalidates results would be foolish. What it means is that scientific knowledge is not immune from broad cultural or narrow political influences and its methods cannot function as a filter. Cultural change, as much as internal debate among scientists, contributes to science -- social and natural -- as an evolving activity; what the scientific communities believe to be the case today may be revised, even refuted tomorrow. And, reasonably, logically, this must include the most accepted propositions. If this is so, and science reflects on the social and cultural influences, on its visions, revisions and its practices, and perhaps more to the point, on its commitments, then there is hope for a liberatory science.