Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sokal's hoax

From Richard John Neuhaus in First Things...

Alan Sokal, a physicist and mathematician at New York University, published an article in 1996 called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in Social Text-- what Neuhaus calls "a journal of postmodernist chic".

Neuhaus revisits the infamous hoax to talk about the wilder fringes of post-modernism. He could have also described Sokal's effort as a corrective which helped shave off post-modernism's crazier perspectives while retaining its important critique of modernism.

Academic fashions come and go, with some rushing to get in step and more-sensible people fleeing from the grave embarrassment of being fashionable....In its heyday, postmodernism depicted science as a relativistic game in which European white males exercised hermeneutical hegemony by marginalizing the masses through the control of a reductionist dialectical scientism and technocracy. You may remember the jargon....

[Sokal's article] included eruditely intimidating passages such as this: “It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ‘knowledge,’ far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.”

No sooner had the article been published than
Sokal wrote an essay in Dissent revealing that the entire thing was a hoax and the editors of Social Text had fallen for it with all the enthusiasm fired by being on the cutting edge of deconstructive theory. There ensued much guffawing in the media and a fine time was had by all, except for the editors and other votaries of postmodernism.

Now Prof.
Sokal has published a book, Beyond the Hoax, in which he explains what he did and why. It is an instructive, and frequently amusing, cautionary tale....


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