Philosophy:Sokal affair

From HandWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax,[1] was a demonstrative scholarly hoax performed by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor, and specifically to investigate whether "a leading North American journal of cultural studies—whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross—[would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions".[2]

The article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity",[3] was published in the magazine Social Text spring/summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.[4][5] Three weeks after its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in the magazine Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.[2]

The hoax caused controversy about the scholarly merit of commentary on the physical sciences by those in the humanities; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.


In an interview on the U.S. radio program All Things Considered, Sokal said he was inspired to submit the bogus article after reading Higher Superstition (1994), in which authors Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt claim that some humanities journals would publish anything as long as it had "the proper leftist thought" and quoted (or was written by) well-known leftist thinkers.[6][lower-alpha 1]

Gross and Levitt had been defenders of the philosophy of scientific realism, opposing postmodernist academics who questioned scientific objectivity. They asserted that anti-intellectual sentiment in liberal arts departments (and especially in English departments) caused the increase of deconstructionist thought, which eventually resulted in a deconstructionist critique of science.[citation needed] They saw the critique as a "repertoire of rationalizations" for avoiding the study of science.[7]


Sokal reasoned that if the presumption of editorial laziness was correct, the nonsensical content of his article would be irrelevant to whether the editors would publish it. What would matter would be ideologic obsequiousness, fawning references to deconstructionist writers, and sufficient quantities of the appropriate jargon. Writing after the article was published and the hoax revealed, he stated:

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that "the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project" [sec. 6]. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.[8]

Content of the article

"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" proposed that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, and that the "morphogenetic field" could be a valid theory of quantum gravity (a morphogenetic field is a concept adapted by Rupert Sheldrake in a way that Sokal characterized in the affair's aftermath as "a bizarre New Age idea").[2] Sokal wrote that the concept of "an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being" was "dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook".

After referring skeptically to the "so-called scientific method", the article declared that "it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical 'reality'" is fundamentally "a social and linguistic construct". It went on to state that because scientific research is "inherently theory-laden and self-referential", it "cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities" and that therefore a "liberatory science" and an "emancipatory mathematics", spurning "the elite caste canon of 'high science'", needed to be established for a "postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project".

Moreover, the article's footnotes conflate academic terms with sociopolitical rhetoric, e.g.:

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.


Sokal submitted the article to Social Text, whose editors were collecting articles for the "Science Wars" issue. "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" was notable as an article by a natural scientist. The biologist Ruth Hubbard also had an article in the issue.[9] Later, after Sokal's self-exposure of his pseudoscientific hoax article in the journal Lingua Franca, the Social Text editors said in a published essay that they had requested editorial changes that Sokal refused to make,[5] and had had concerns about the quality of the writing, stating "We requested him (a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and (b) to excise most of his footnotes".[10] Nonetheless, despite designating the physicist subsequently as having been a "difficult, uncooperative author", and noting that such writers were "well known to journal editors", Social Text published the article in acknowledgment of the author's credentials in the May 1996 Spring/Summer "Science Wars" issue.[5] The editors did not seek peer review of the article by physicists or otherwise; they later defended this decision on the basis that Social Text was a journal for open intellectual inquiry and the article was not offered as a contribution to the physics discipline.[5]


Follow-up between Sokal and the editors

In the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, in the article "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies", Sokal revealed that "Transgressing the Boundaries" was a hoax and concluded that Social Text "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject" because of its ideological proclivities and editorial bias.[2] In their defense, the Social Text editors said they believed that "Transgressing the Boundaries" "was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field" and that "its status as parody does not alter, substantially, our interest in the piece, itself, as a symptomatic document".[11] Besides criticizing his writing style, the Social Text editors accused Sokal of behaving unethically in deceiving them.[12]

Sokal said the editors' response demonstrated the problem he claimed. Social Text, as an academic journal, published the article not because it was faithful, true and accurate to its subject but because an "academic authority" had written it and because of the appearance of the obscure writing. The editors said they considered it poorly written but published it because they felt Sokal was an academic seeking their intellectual affirmation. Sokal remarked:

My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. ... There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counterproductive.[5]

Social Text's response revealed that none of the editors had suspected Sokal's piece was a parody. Instead, they speculated Sokal's admission "represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve". Sokal found further humor in the idea that the article's absurdity was hard to spot:

In the second paragraph I declare without the slightest evidence or argument, that "physical 'reality' (note the scare quotes) [...] is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough. Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. I live on the twenty-first floor.[13]

Book by Sokal and Bricmont

In 1997, Sokal and Jean Bricmont co-wrote Impostures intellectuelles (U.S.: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, U.K.: Intellectual Impostures, 1998).[14] The book featured analysis of extracts from established intellectuals' writings that Sokal and Bricmont claimed misused scientific terminology.[15] It closed with a critical summary of postmodernism and criticism of the strong programme of social constructionism in the sociology of scientific knowledge.[16]

Media coverage and Jacques Derrida

As Sokal revealed the hoax, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida was initially one of the objects of discredit in the United States, particularly in newspaper coverage.[1] A U.S. weekly magazine used two images of Derrida, a photo and a caricature, to illustrate a "dossier" on the Sokal article.[1] Derrida responded to the hoax in "Sokal et Bricmont ne sont pas sérieux" ("Sokal and Bricmont Aren't Serious"), first published on 20 November 1997 in Le Monde. He called Sokal's action sad (triste) for having trivialized Sokal's mathematical work and ruining the chance to carefully examine controversies about scientific objectivity. Derrida then faulted him and coauthor Jean Bricmont for what he considered an act of intellectual bad faith in describing their follow-up book, Impostures intellectuelles (UK: Intellectual Impostures; US: Fashionable Nonsense): they had published two articles almost simultaneously, one in English in The Times Literary Supplement on 17 October 1997[17] and one in French in Libération on 18–19 October 1997,[18] but while the two articles were almost identical, they differed in how they treated Derrida. The English-language article had a list of French intellectuals who were not included in Sokal and Bricmont's book: "Such well-known thinkers as Althusser, Barthes, and Foucault—-who, as readers of the TLS will be well aware, have always had their supporters and detractors on both sides of the Channel—-appear in our book only in a minor role, as cheerleaders for the texts we criticize." The French-language list, however, included Derrida: "Des penseurs célèbres tels qu'Althusser, Barthes, Derrida et Foucault sont essentiellement absents de notre livre." Derrida may also have been sensitive to a slight difference between the French and English versions of Impostures intellectuelles. In the French, his citation from the original hoax article is said to be an "isolated" instance of abuse,[19] whereas the English text adds a parenthetical remark that Derrida's work contained "no systematic misuse (or indeed attention to) science."[20][21] Derrida cried foul, but Sokal and Bricmont insisted that the difference between the articles was "banal."[22] Nevertheless, Derrida concluded, as the title of his article indicates, that Sokal was not serious in his method, but had used the spectacle of a "quick practical joke" to displace the scholarship Derrida believed the public deserved.[23]

Social science criticism

Sociologist Stephen Hilgartner, the Cornell University science and technology studies department chairman, wrote "The Sokal Affair in Context" (1997),[24] comparing Sokal's hoax to "Confirmational Response: Bias Among Social Work Journals" (1990), an article by William M. Epstein published in Science, Technology & Human Values.[25] Epstein used a similar method to Sokal's, submitting fictitious articles to real academic journals to measure their response. Though much more systematic than Sokal's work, it received scant media attention. Hilgartner argued that the "asymmetric" effect of the successful Sokal hoax compared with Epstein's experiment cannot be attributed to its quality, but that "Through a mechanism that resembles confirmatory bias, audiences may apply less stringent standards of evidence and ethics to attacks on targets that they are predisposed to regard unfavorably."[26] As a result, according to Hilgartner, though competent in terms of method, Epstein's experiment was largely muted by the more socially accepted social work discipline he critiqued, while Sokal's attack on cultural studies, despite his lack of experimental rigor, was accepted. Hilgartner also argued that Sokal's hoax reinforced the presuppositions of various well-known media people such as George Will and Rush Limbaugh, so that his opinions were amplified by media outlets predisposed to agree with his argument.[27]

The Sokal Affair scandal extended from academia to the public press. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, criticized in Fashionable Nonsense, described the scandal as a "tempest in a tea cup". Retired Northeastern University mathematician turned social scientist Gabriel Stolzenberg wrote essays meant to discredit the statements of Sokal and his allies,[28] arguing that they insufficiently grasped the philosophy they criticized, rendering their criticism meaningless. In Social Studies of Science, Bricmont and Sokal responded to Stolzenberg,[29] denouncing his "tendentious misrepresentations" of their work and criticizing Stolzenberg's commentary about the "strong programme" of the sociology of science. In the same issue, Stolzenberg replied, arguing that their critique and allegations of misrepresentation were based on misreadings. He advised readers to slowly and skeptically examine the arguments proposed by each party, bearing in mind that "the obvious is sometimes the enemy of the true".[30]

Sociological follow-up study

In 2009, Cornell sociologist Robb Willer performed an experiment in which undergraduate students read Sokal's paper and were told either that it was written by another student or that it was by a famous academic. He found that students who believed the paper's author was a high-status intellectual rated it better in quality and intelligibility.[31]

The "Sokal Squared" scandal

In 2017, James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose initiated "The Grievance Studies affair", a project to create bogus academic papers on cultural, queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studies and submit them to academic journals. The authors' intent was to expose problems in "grievance studies", a term they apply to a subcategory of these academic topics in which "poor science is undermining the real and important work being done elsewhere".

The hoax began in 2017 and continued into 2019, when it was halted after one of the papers caught the attention of journalists, who quickly found its purported author, Helen Wilson, to be nonexistent. By that time, four of the 20 papers had been published, three had been accepted but not yet published, six had been rejected, and seven were still under review. One of the published papers had won special recognition.

See also

  • Biography:Bogdanov affair – French academic dispute
  • Social:Dr. Fox effect – In educational psychology, named after the identity Dr. Myron L. Fox, an actor gave a lecture to a group of experts with almost no content but was praised
  • Grievance studies affair, also known as "Sokal Squared", a similar project undertaken in 2017 and 2018.
  • List of scholarly publishing stings – List of links to Wikipedia articles on nonsense papers that were accepted by an academic journal or conference
  • Philosophy:Not even wrong – Based on invalid reasoning or premises that cannot be proved or disproved, an argument or explanation that purports to be scientific but is based on invalid reasoning or speculative premises that can neither be proven correct nor falsified.
  • Paper generator
  • Philosophy:Physics envy
  • Postmodernism Generator, a program that produces imitations of postmodernist writing
  • Software:SCIgen – Random text generating software, a program whose random machine-generated content-free papers helped expose WMSCI as a for-profit conference.



  1. Sokal got the idea for his "experiment" after reading Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). Gross and Levitt argued that the success of getting published in postmodern journals was based not on the quality of the work but rather on its "academic leanings – papers displaying the proper leftist thought, especially if written by or quoting well known authors, were being published in spite of their low quality. (Demers 2011)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 (Derrida 1997)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Sokal, Alan D. (5 June 1996), "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies", Lingua Franca, 
  3. Sokal, Alan D. (1996), "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", Social Text 46–47: 217–252, doi:10.2307/466856,, retrieved March 15, 2008 
  4. Sokal, Alan D. (November 28, 1994), "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", Social Text (Duke University Press) (#46/47 (spring/summer 1996)): 217–252,, retrieved April 3, 2007 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Bruce Robbins; Andrew Ross (July 1996). "Mystery science theater". Lingua Franca. Retrieved May 3, 2009. . Reply by Alan Sokal.
  6. Sokal, Alan (15 May 1996). "Parody". All Things Considered (Interview). Interviewed by Robert Siegel. National Public Radio. Archived from the original on July 12, 2018. Retrieved April 5, 2018. Cite uses deprecated parameter |subjectlink= (help)
  7. (Gross Levitt)
  8. Sokal, Alan., Revelation: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies, . in (Editors of Lingua Franca 2000).
  10. "Lingua Franca". Retrieved September 15, 2014. 
  11. Andrew Ross, "A discussion of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction", May 24, 1996
  12. Robbins, Bruce; Ross, Andrew (1996). "Editorial response to Sokal hoax by editors of Social Text" (PDF). 
  13. (Gross 2010)
  14. (Sokal Bricmont)
  15. Sokal, Alan (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. Retrieved March 5, 2008. 
  16. Epstein, Barbara (Winter 1997). "Postmodernism and the Left". New Politics. Archived from the original on May 12, 2008. Retrieved March 5, 2008. 
  17. Sokal, Allan and Jean Bricmont. "The Furor Over Impostures intellectuelles: What Is All the Fuss About?" The Times Literary Supplement 17 October 1997, p. 17.
  18. Sokal, Allan and Jean Bricmont. "Que se passe-t-il ?" Libération 18–19 October 1997. pp. 5–6.
  19. (Sokal Bricmont)
  20. (Sokal Bricmont)
  21. Reilly, Brian J. (2006). Hopkins Impromptu: Following Jacques Derrida Through Theory's Empire. MLN, 121(4), pp. 919-24.
  22. Sokal, Allan and Jean Bricmont. "Réponse à Jacques Derrida et Max Dorra." Le Monde, 12 December 1997. p. 23.
  23. (Derrida 2005)
  24. Hilgartner, Stephen (Autumn 1997), "The Sokal Affair in Context", Science, Technology & Human Values 22 (4): 506–522, doi:10.1177/016224399702200404 
  25. Epstein, William M. (1990), "Confirmational response bias among social work journals", Science, Technology & Human Values 15 (1): 9–38, doi:10.1177/016224399001500102 
  26. Hilgartner, Stephen (Autumn 1997), "The Sokal Affair in Context", Science, Technology & Human Values 22 (4): 506–522, doi:10.1177/016224399702200404 
  27. Hilgartner, Stephen (Autumn 1997), "The Sokal Affair in Context", Science, Technology & Human Values 22 (4): 506–522, doi:10.1177/016224399702200404 
  28. Stolzenberg, Gabriel. "Debunk: Expose as a Sham or False". 
  29. "Reply to Gabriel Stolzenberg" (PDF). Social Studies of Science. 
  30. Stolzenberg, Gabriel. "Reply to Bricmont and Sokal". Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  31. Willer, Robb; Kuwabara, Ko; Macy, Michael (September 2009). "The False Enforcement of Unpopular Norms". American Journal of Sociology 115 (2): 451–90. doi:10.1086/599250. Retrieved 21 February 2015. 


Further reading

  • Brown, James Robert (2004-03-30) [2001], Who Rules in Science? An Opinionated Guide to the Wars (Paperback ed.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-01364-3 
  • Bouveresse, Jacques (1999-10-20) (in fr), Prodiges et vertiges de l'analogie. De l'abus des belles-lettres dans la pensée, Éditions Liber-Raisons d'agir, ISBN 978-2-912107-08-4 
  • Callon, Michel (1999), "Whose Impostures? Physicists at War with the Third Person", Social Studies of Science 29 (2): 261–86, doi:10.1177/030631299029002011 
  • Eagleton, Terry (1996-12-23), The Illusions of Postmodernism (Paperback ed.), Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-0-631-20323-0 
  • Englefield, F.R.H. ("Ronald") (March 26, 2002) [1990], Critique of Pure Verbiage, Essays on Abuses of Language in Literary, Religious, & Philosophical Writings (Paperback ed.), Chicago, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8126-9108-3 
  • Sokal, Alan D.; Bricmont, Jean (December 12, 1997), "Réponse à Jacques Derrida et Max Dorra" (in fr), Le Monde: 23, 

External links

Grammarly Check RTextDoc LaTeX editor HandWiki ads