Mystery Science Theater

Lingua Franca, July/August 1996

Editors' Introduction

This past May, Lingua Franca published an author's confession. In "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies", professor Alan Sokal of NYU revealed that he had written a deliberately absurd article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", submitted it to the journal Social Text, and witnessed the article's subsequent acceptance and publication. In Sokal's view, the publication of his piece indicated a "decline in the standards of rigor in certain precincts of the academic humanities."

Almost immediately, Sokal's stunt set off an avalanche of discussion about academic jargon, postmodern theory, and the propriety of hoaxes. The Internet was inflamed; articles linking quantum physics and Jacques Lacan appeared (for the first time?) in The New York Times and Newsweek. In this issue, Lingua Franca presents a series of considered responses to the whole affair: The editors of Social Text respond to Sokal in a full-length essay, which is followed by a rejoinder from Sokal, and letters from readers.

Essay by Social Text co-editors Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross

Alan Sokal replies

Letter from Evelyn Fox Keller

Alan Sokal's prank was a brilliant strategy for making an extremely important point, but what exactly is this point, and for whom is it important?

First, the point. Is it that the academy houses scholars who have the audacity to question the meaning of objectivity, or to challenge the immunity of science from social forces? Or that some literary scholars have begun to write about scientific texts wi thout first seeking the approval of scientists? Not only does Sokal seriously weaken his case with such suggestions, but he helps fuel the media's enthusiasm for the outlandish idea that a left anti-science conspiracy is perpetrating the claim that the world is not real. I wish he had let his ruse speak for itself, for its point is quite simple: The editors of Social Text have been shown to be unable to distinguish a hilarious jargon-ridden spoof from real argument. Or perhaps the editors were so eager to count a physicist as one of their own that they chose to publish an article they themselves regarded as "hokey".

Now, to whom should this matter? For many scientists, this episode will only bolster their fear that postmodernism (and science studies more generally) threatens the integrity and well-being of their own disciplines. But it is not science that is threaten ed by the hapless publication of gibberish; it is science studies itself. And the embarrassing defense offered by Ross and Robbins (not to mention the many counter-attacks) just makes the problem worse. Scholars in science studies who have turned to postm odernism have done so out of a real need: Truth and objectivity turn out to be vastly more problematic concepts than we used to think, and neither can be measured simply by the weight of scientific authority, nor even by demonstrations of efficacy. Yet surely, the ability to distinguish argument from parody is a prerequisite to any attempt at understanding the complexities of truth claims, in science or elsewhere. How can we claim credibility for responsible scholarship -- for the carefully reasoned and empirically founded research that makes up the bulk of science studies -- if we do not recognize a problem here?

It saddens me that my scientific colleagues so readily confuse the analysis of social influence on science with radical subjectivism, mistaking challenges to the autonomy of science with the "dogma" that there exists no external world. And it alarms me to see the politicization of legitimate intellectual argument as a "left anti-science" movement vs. a defense of traditional values mounted by the "right." But neither condones the failure of my colleagues in science studies to acknowledge so blatant a compromise to the integrity of their own discipline.

Evelyn Fox Keller, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, MIT

Letter from Steven Fuller

As one of the contributors to the Social Text volume, I must confess that I did not initially detect Sokal's ruse. Instead, I was struck by how misplaced was his vast erudition in cultural studies. I thought: If only this physicist knew something about the history of his own field, he would not have had to fall back on the jargon-ridden prose of postmodernism. Rather, he would have known that many of the points he raised about the crisis of representation, the illusory character of scientific truth, and -- yes -- an obdurate external reality, had been made by philosophically sophisticated scientists just prior to the revolutions in relativistic and quantum physics. Duhem, Poincari, Hertz, Mach, and Ostwald all contributed to these discussions, even while they were continuing to do respectable science. As Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin observed in Wittgenstein's Vienna (1973), the relativism and mysticism evident in Wittgenstein's Tractatus derived in large part from meditating on the metaphysical crisis into which the Newtonian worldview had fallen in the 1890-1910 period. And lest one think that the scientists saw this as a purely academic matter, a liberatory politics was frequently intimated in the popular works of Mach and Ostwald.

I therefore diagnosed Sokal as the victim of an ahistorical physics education who became overimpressed with the radicalness of cultural studies because he was unaware of similar sentiments in his own discipline. The tone of Sokal's "revelations" suggest that this diagnosis may not be so far off the mark, after all.

Steven Fuller, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Durham (UK)

Letter from Paul Boghossian and Thomas Nagel

The central issue raised by Alan Sokal's hoax is not the legitimacy of a philosophical, sociological or political study of science; it is rather the competence with which such studies are conducted nowadays by scholars loosely united under the banner of "cultural studies."

For many years now, academics from a variety of disciplines have been grumbling, mostly in private, about the appallingly low standards of argument and evidence that appear to characterize work in this area, and especially in that branch of it that has come to be known as "science studies." As philosophers, for example, we have often been struck by the sloppy and naive quality of what passes for philosophical argument in cultural studies, and at the central role that such argument has been made to play. Practitioners of cultural studies have not been impressed with the disapproval of their colleagues. They have insisted that their critics are moved merely by a self-interested sense of academic propriety and protection of turf. On occasion, they have gone so far as to question the very idea of expertise in a given subject, arguing that appeals to it are merely veiled attempts to silence unpopular views.

Alan Sokal's brilliant idea was to try to settle this dispute with a simple stratagem: Write a piece full of such transparent nonsense that no one -- not even the most committed proponent of cultural studies -- could hope to defend it. "Transgressing the Boundaries" succeeds brilliantly. Take, for example, the following delicious passage:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and "pro-choice," so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice. But this framework is grossly insufficient for a liberatory mathematics, as was proven long ago by Cohen 1966.

To anyone with even a passing acquaintance with, for example, the axiom of choice, this is pure foolishness. What this axiom says is that, given any set of mutually exclusive sets, there exists a set containing exactly one member from each of those mutually exclusive sets. This proposition clearly has nothing to do with the issue of choice in the abortion debate. Similarly, Paul Cohen's article is concerned with the purely mathematical claim that the continuum hypothesisa hypothesis about the number of cardinal numbers between two particular transfinite cardinalsis logically independent of the axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory. It has nothing to do with a "liberatory mathematics," whatever that means.

Catching such "errors" requires no subtle understanding of higher mathematics, physics or philosophy; they are elementary blunders and Sokal's article positively overflows with them. Only the complete scientific, mathematical and philosophical incompetence of the editors of Social Text can explain how they were able to accept for publication such a tissue of transparent nonsense.

Stanley Fish has argued in The New York Times that the fact that Sokal's experiment depended upon deception undercuts its probative value. The processes of inquiry and publication depend, says Fish, on our being able to trust the sincerity of the participants, a condition that was manifestly not met in the present case.

This means that it is Alan Sokal, not his targets, who threatens to undermine the intellectual standards he vows to protect. ... No scientist ... begins his task by inventing anew the facts he will assume. ... 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 of his colleagues. ... [Sokal] carefully packaged his deception so as not be detected except by someone who began with a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion. ...
Now, there is a limited sense in which the practice of journal review does depend on trust; but it is irrelevant to the case at hand. In the context of a paper reporting on the findings of an experimental study, the factual report detailing the methods used and the results obtained would have to be taken on trust by a putative referee, since those reports are, in general, impossible to verify.

But this is not relevant to the sort of article that Sokal submitted. His essay did not claim to have run some experiments and to report on their results. Rather, it offered a philosophical interpretation of certain theoretical claims within physics, interpretations that are so absurd that anyone with the least familiarity with their content would see right through them. Of course, Sokal sought to conceal his own disbelief in the nonsense he had so ingeniously cooked up; the experiment would not have worked otherwise. But that fact cannot be translated into an excuse for the editors of Social Text. In the context of a purely philosophical/theoretical paper, it is not the business of an editorial board to judge the sincerity of its authors, but only the cogency of their arguments. In the case of Sokal's paper, that cogency was fully open to view.

Fish also takes Sokal to task for misunderstanding the central claim of postmodernism. According to Fish, no one has ever asserted the radical thesis that reality is socially constructed, but only the far more innocuous thesis that scientific theories of reality are socially constructed. Here Fish is just being disingenuous, for he is presumably aware of the many texts in which it is precisely the radical thesis that is advocated.

In dismissing the idea that anyone in cultural studies would assert anything as foolish as the radical thesis, Fish writes, "Sokal's question should alert us to the improbability of the scenario he conjures up: Scholars with impeccable credentials making statements no sane person could credit. The truth is that none of his targets would ever make such statements."

The fact of the matter, however, is that in accepting Sokal's parody, these scholars have made it clear that, impeccable credentials or no, they are unable to tell the difference between a statement that no sane person could credit and its opposite.

Paul Boghossian, Professor of Philosophy and Chair, New York University

Thomas Nagel, Professor of Philosophy and Law, New York University

Letter from Franco Moretti

How did Alan Sokal fool the Social Text editorial collective? Simple: The members of that collective knew very little about physics (nothing wrong with that) and they didn't bother to ask an expert. They didn't do so, Ross and Robbins have told us, becaus e "professional" standards "are not finally relevant to us, at least not according to the criteria we employed." This is a rather opaque justification, and no wonder. Basically, it means that Social Text doesn't care whether Sokal's workor anybody else's is solid or not. Nice to know, in general. But still, why did Social Text publish this particular article?

Because, the editors say, "[we] concluded that this article was the earnest attempt by a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field." In plainer words: We publish Sokal not because he is interesting, but because he says we are. This a wonderful explanation, with a great hidden premise -- that people in the humanities have nothing to learn from a scientist. He may be exhibited as a curious convert to theory, but we don't have to take him seriously. The Social Text board read and reread the article, and didn't understand a thingyet they didn't care, because at bottom they believe that physics has nothing to teach them. In the Social Text cosmology, science is a socially aggressive but intellectually weak enterprise that seeks "affirmation" from postmodern philosophy. This is why they didn't check Sokal's claims out: whether the physics made sense or not made no difference, because its value had to be in the philosophy anyway. So why bother?

This disciplinary narcissism, so typical of recent literary cultural studies, is a mystery to me: after all, the natural sciences have been quite successful with their object of study, and we probably have a lot to learn from their methods. But no: for Stanley Aronowitz (quoted in The New York Times), Sokal is "ill-read and half-educated." Well, then, how does it feel being duped by the half-educated?

Towards the end of his reply, Ross states that "we must ask, again and again, wherever it is possible, or prudent, to isolate facts from values." I would respond that yes, it is possible (though difficult), and certainly very prudent, because it's the only way to learn anything. If facts cannot be isolated from values, then values can never be tested, never contradicted, never changed. Research, experiment, evidence, and discussion all become useless. Only values, everywhere. A nightmare: Cardinal Bellarmino and Stanley Aronowitz, forever together.

Why Ross likes this scenario, and what makes it "progressive," is another mystery. "Science trades in knowledge," wrote Brecht at the end of Galileo, "which is the product of doubt. And this new art of doubt has enchanted the public.... They snatched the telescopes out of our hands and had them trained on our their tormentors" prince, official, public moralist. Knowledge, doubt, enchantment, polemical unmasking: Here is the science we need; not prudence. But alas, much of the left has lost its passion for knowledge, and Social Text has proved it.

So far, Social Text has not offered arguments, but rather invoked all sorts of Victorian pieties ("deception," "breach of ethics," "irresponsible," "good faith," "confession") in the hope of exorcising the hoax. Come on. You are a polemical journal, with an issue entitled "Science Wars." Drop the pose, accept the facts, and another, more interesting discussion may begin.

Franco Moretti, Professor of Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Letter from Ellen Schrecker

I find Alan Sokal's "experiment" and the furor it has caused more than a little disturbing. I agree with much of what he said: There is no justification for intellectual sloth nor is opacity a virtue. Nonetheless, I am afraid that Sokal may not realize how potentially damaging his discursive booby trap may be.

Besides a real physical world, there is a real political one, a world in which conservative pundits and lawmakers are attacking not just the cultural studies departments but the entire academy. The battleground here is not a text but the bottom line. The right is fighting a broad-based campaign to demonize those sectors of the academic community that encourage critical thinking and offer an alternative perspective on the status quo. The Culture Wars have taken their casualties. Much of what we in the academy would consider mainstream scholarship is now under attack and continues to lose public support.

The onslaught against what academics do reinforces the efforts of the business-oriented Republicans and their allies to defund the public sector. So much the better if it turns out that much of the academy is not only economically irrelevant, but also wrong. The defenders of the good old flag and canon, despite their alleged reverence for the liberal arts, rarely if ever confront the damage that bottom-line thinking and forced vocationalism are doing to their cherished institutions.

Alan Sokal is certainly no enemy of the traditional academy and is, in his way, trying to strengthen it. His demand for intellectual rigor is both refreshing and long overdue. There is no reason why conservatives should claim a monopoly on high standards and scholarly merit; leftists can be tough graders, too. Even so, I worry that Sokal's merry prank may well backfire and provide further ammunition for the forces that have damaged the academic community far more than a few trendy theorists.

Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History, Yeshiva University

Letter from Peter Caws

Hoaxes don't rank high on the scale of cultural achievement, but a hoax as brilliant as the one Sokal has pulled off does provide some of the visceral satisfaction of great art or music. It has a kind of perfection; one stands in envious awe.

As to the moral Sokal wants to draw from it, the payoff is less clear. Sokal rightly reminds us that people ignorant of science have no business drawing portentous conclusions from its technical findings. He's right; it's an old story. Einstein's theory, Heisenberg's principle, G\ödel's proof, and Bell's theorem have been used to suggest that everything is relative, nothing is certain, language fails us, we don't know where we are. These conclusions don't follow; they are wild overinterpretations.

Yet relativism, uncertainty, linguistic inadequacy, and cultural vertigo are problematic. So it won't do to couch the issue, as Sokal does, in terms of "subjectivist thinking" against the "real world." All thinking is the thinking of some subject (Sokal himself is one). That truism has to be acknowledged -- so "subjectivist" shouldn't be used as an epithet -- and then it has to be pointed out how the subject in question gets to distinguish what is subjectively felt from what is objectively known. But on the latter point it won't do either to lay down the law with italics, as Sokal does ("there is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions"). That there is a real world is the best available hypothesis, but it's a hypothesis all the same; and the properties of that world aren't "merely" social constructions, but a lot of social constructing goes into agreeing what they are.

Sokal may have flushed bigger game than he intended. One of the things he has in his sights, though, I agree with completely: Those of us who care about the left have cause to worry. But we don't have to worry about its being discredited by pretentious academics, we have to worry about its failure to articulate its own position in a convincing way, given the recent history of the market and of public sensibility. Perhaps that is what Sokal will work on next.

Peter Caws, University Professor of Philosophy, George Washington University

Letter from Teri Reynolds

Somewhere in this whole affair a significant element has been lost: Sokal's article masqueraded not as straight cultural criticism, not as sociology of science, and not as science, but as an interdisciplinary study. In other words, we should separate what Sokal wanted to mock (cultural criticism) from what he imitated (interdisciplinary research). As someone who works on relativity, quantum mechanics, and literary culture, I spend a great deal of time wondering what such research should look like. Sokal's piece didn't even come close.

The point of interdisciplinary endeavor is that work done in one field may be used to elucidate material in another. This idea rests on two premises: first, that certain ideas and concepts can be useful across disciplinary boundaries; and second, that the ir development in different disciplines may not be perfectly symmetrical. Finding commonalties between science and the humanities, then, does not mean that they have the same thing to tell us, but that concepts from one can be used to help us see new things about the other. They function as cognitive metaphors: unexpected associations that reorganize a familiar conceptual field and allow us to behave differently within it.

Interdisciplinary work, then, is always translation from one specialized discourse into another. But a great deal of Sokal's article is incomprehensible, and he tells us now that its science is also wrong. Several respondents ask why Social Text didn't check the article's correctness. I also want to know why its opacity didn't bother them. Even if the physics of the article had been right, the editors should have refused it because it made no effort to be understood. The value of interdisciplinary work is precisely that it allows us to see something newand this rests on the premise that it allows us to see, period.

So far this debate has taken the form of mutual accusation: "Those critics hate science, but they still use their toasters." Or, "Scientists think culture and politics aren't important, but I'd like to see them work without language." The truth is, withou t science, we'd have no toasters. But without culture, we'd never want toast. Neither the don't-touch-it-if-you-don't-have-a-Ph.D. copout of territorial scientists, nor the no-one-really-understands-differential-equations-anyway copout of some cultural theorists should be allowed to undermine the possibility of a real interdisciplinary effort. I resent Sokal's piece because he used his command of a powerful and fascinating discourse to fortify the boundaries between disciplines, and I resent the editors of Social Text because they let him. Science (even quantum mechanics) can be made perfectly comprehensible to non-scientists, but it takes careful translation and a lot of work.

Teri Reynolds, Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Letter from David Layton

I am happy to see someone demonstrate the literary theory emperor has no clothes. It is a hard and bitter lesson which I, a relatively new literary scholar, have only recently accepted. I started on the theory bandwagon and began my dissertation excited about showing how postmodern fiction reveals the cultural constructedness of scientific "discourse." But the more I read, the more I realized that thinkers who attack scientific discourse were not thinking at all, just playing with ideas. What caused my turnaround was a suspicion shared by Alan Sokal -- that theorists use concepts of limited application as universals, that those who most vehemently oppose science know very little about it, that, like editors of tabloid newspapers, many theorists are unable to distinguish ideas from nonsense.

Sokal's political point also struck a personal chord. Like him, I believe in an active political Left which directly engages the all-too-real problems created by corporate capitalism: a growing split between rich and poor, festering race relations, exploding numbers of guns on the streets. To claim, as theorists like Linda Hutcheon do, that taking an ironical stance toward all discourse (including one's own) will somehow strike a blow against empire is to ignore that empire is winning without breaking a sweat. The critical Left has abandoned meaningful criticism to go out and "play" with language -- and thus has left nothing to carry on the fight.

This relativism-as-radical-chic has, alas, too far infested the humanities for anything but amputation to cure the patient. But that amputation is not coming. Instead, like gangrene, the theory rot breeds more theory rot. Grad students eager to get hired in a crammed labor "market" follow the lead of Lefty-talking people who, in Reaganite fashion, created the market in the first place. So the grads who get hired most often are those who mouth the theory platitudes, repeat the theory mantras, and turn a blind eye to real concerns about the place of academic studies in the world.

David Layton, Olympia, WA

Letter from Lee Smolin

If something useful is to come from the Social Text furor, scientists and humanists who study science need to talk with each other openly and frankly about what we disagree about as well as what views we share. I would thus like to urge a cease-fire in what has been called the "science wars." Here are some points on which I think common ground might be found.

1) Scholars in the humanities have a right, and a duty, to examine what scientists do, and vice versa. Certainly, anyone who has something new to contribute to the understanding of scientific methodology and epistemology must do so. But they should be warned that issues like quantum mechanics or molecular biology must be approached with care and subtlety.

2) The key issue is democracy and how it may work in a pluralistic, global society, in which everyone's future depends on decisions about scientific and technological issues. Anyone who wants to play a real role in this context must learn to communicate clearly and to listen to what people are actually saying. If academics, with special training in reading and writing, cannot communicate with each other, they have little hope of having genuine influence outside the academy.

3) Perhaps it is time to give it up the notion that knowledge is "constructed" and replace it with the more generous conception that the products of culture are the results of a negotiation with a natural world of which we are a part.

These are just a few issues whose resolution will require a dialogue between humanists and scientists. Our task, then, is not to argue further over the meaning of obscure texts; it is to invent a way of thinking about important political, philosophical and aesthetic issues that orient us toward the problems and promises of the future.

Lee Smolin, Professor of Physics, Pennsylvania State University

Letter from George Levine

There are a lot of different ways to respond to Sokal's "hoax." Perhaps the best way would be lightly, trading joke for joke. But I guess the stakes are a little too high for me to laugh a lot; my ultimate response to this prank is sadness.

In my essay in the Social Text volume that includes Sokal's article, I argue that for science studies to matter at all, its practitioners need to know something substantial about the scientific issues they address. One can't, for example, take a principle d position on what to do to prevent the decay of forests without knowing what would in fact prevent that decay. And I argue too that it's necessary to engage scientists in discussion of the cultural issues that inescapably link the activities of science with the life of non-scientists. The key -- and Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, authors of Higher Superstition, actually agree with Andrew Ross on this, if they would face what they have written -- is that the public should have a responsible and intelligent relationship to science. Sokal's crusade for reality demonstrates not the slightest understanding of the complexity of anti-realist arguments (with their millennia-long genealogy); it shows no awareness that a constructionist argument does not and cannot mean that "reality" can be changed just like that. The whole enterprise is rather only another move in a self-defeating crusade to keep people who are affected by science but don't "do" science from having anything to say about it.

Why are Sokal, Gross, and Levitt so threatened by people who are just about the only intellectuals in town really interested in a responsible public relation to science? Sokal should be aware that the real threat to the supercollider or to science funding is not coming from Andrew Ross or from Stanley Aronowitz. The threat comes from a culture profoundly anti-intellectual, and now overwhelmingly preoccupied with taxes and money.

Sokal says he is on the same side as the editors of Social Text. But he and his colleagues are dazzlingly unaware that the very imperial mode of their intellectual stance -- which they want to keep as a central aspect of the institution of science -- is part of the reason people at large have so little real sense of what science does, so little understanding of its workings, so painfully meager a recognition that what happens in scientific enterprises has something to do with what happens outside them. What Sok al's hoax reveals is his anxiety as a scientist about this empire of knowledge, as well as a rather ignorant and chortlingly condescending relation to complicated philosophical, sociological, and theoretical positions. Its effect will be to further divide those who ought to be working together against the anti-intellectualism of the culture at large. It will reduce to sneering condescension what ought to be a serious debate about how, precisely, the work of science reflects upon, influences, and is influenced by social, cultural, and political forces.

George Levine, Director, Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture, Rutgers University

Adapted 23 April 1997 from