Sokal Affair

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The Sokal Affair was the central and most highly publicized episode of the "Science Wars," a fracas that roiled the academic atmosphere throughout the 1990s. The main point at issue in these conflicts was the accuracy and indeed the legitimacy of critiques of science and technology propounded by scholars committed to or influenced by postmodern thought and identity politics. The hoax itself, as well as the volume of Social Text (no. 46/47, Spring/Summer 1996) in which it appeared, arose chiefly in response to an earlier science wars salvo, the book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt (1994), which aggressively criticized the "science studies" movement that had emerged from poststructuralist and social-constructivist doctrines.

The squabbles ignited by Higher Superstition alerted Alan Sokal, a mathematical physicist at New York University, to the controversy. Further research nullified his initial suspicions that the book might merely be yet another "culture wars" diatribe from the right. He concluded, despite his own leftist sympathies, that postmodern and relativistic views of science epitomized the weaknesses he had already discerned in some versions of contemporary left-wing thought. It struck him that a parody article satirizing the pretensions of science studies might provoke useful debate around this issue. The resulting essay, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, mischievously combined references to arcane physics and mathematics with laudatory citations of major postmodern theorists, ostensibly to support the thesis that postmodern dogma accords with advanced ideas in foundational physics.

The essay was submitted to Social Text just as that journal was planning its own rejoinder to Higher Superstition. Editor Andrew Ross, himself a prominent target of Gross and Levitt, had recruited a number of well-known proponents of science studies as contributors. When Sokal's Trojan-horse manuscript arrived, its Swiftian character escaped detection and the piece was promptly accepted because of the author's physicist credentials, as well as his authentic leftist pedigree and his feigned detestation of the enemy camp.

The "Science Wars" number of Social Text appeared in May 1996. Within days, Sokal unmasked his own hoax in the magazine Lingua Franca, and the episode quickly made its way into the mass media. Subsequent denunciations of Sokal by Social Text's editors and supporters did little to staunch the widespread glee that erupted from some quarters.

The greatest significance of the affair lies, indeed, in the very fact that it became so widely known and evoked such intense responses. In itself, Sokal's piece was intentionally sophomoric, a transparently silly joke. It "proved" little more than that a handful of academics had been overeager to recruit a "real" scientist to their side of an acrimonious dispute. Why, then, the enormous uproar?

The answer lies in the hostility that had been building for a decade or more in response to the pretensions and what many saw as the monopolistic ambitions of the postmodern left. Such resentment was hardly limited to scholars of conservative bent: It was widely shared by liberals and leftists who had come to view postmodern academic culture as bizarre and overbearing. Consequently, the Sokal Hoax became the symbolic center of an intellectual firestorm whose stakes extended well beyond anything directly connected to the prank itself. It brought into the open long-brewing anxieties over scholarly priorities and their effect on the academic pecking order. The myopia of Social Text came to stand, rightly or wrongly, for the pretensions of postmodern scholarship per se. Sokal's success emboldened many long-suffering professors to decry at last the impostures of a subculture that had long cowed them with its self-ascribed sophistication. Most scientists were understandably amused by the spectacle, but in regard to what was really at issue, they were bystanders. This was, at heart, a battle fought by non-scientists.

In the early twenty-first century, the postmodern left seems to have declined, at least as the hegemonic trendsetter of the academy. For good or ill, many of its social precepts remain central to university culture, but with diminished stridency. "Theory," as postmodernists were wont to use the term, has lost much of its power to intimidate. At the same time, many humanist scholars who once employed the vaunted insights of science studies to disparage science now affect to admire it deeply. Postmodernism and the political style linked to it certainly endure, but in a more subdued mode. The Sokal Affair was by no means the sole or even the most important catalyst for these changes, but it was timely and amazingly effective.


SEE ALSO Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


Editors of Lingua Franca. (2000). The Sokal Hoax: The Sham that Shook the Academy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Reprints Sokal's "confessional" piece, along with a wide array of comments and observations about the Hoax.

Koertge, Noretta, ed. (1998). A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodern Myths About Science. New York: Oxford University Press. A collection of essays sharply critical of some of the best-known work in postmodern science studies.

Levitt, Norman. (2000). "Confessions of a Disagreeable Man." Skeptic 8(3): 93–97. An insider account of the genesis of the Hoax, with some opinions on its significance.

Ross, Andrew, ed. (1996). The Science Wars. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. A book version of Social Text 46/47, with some additional pieces included, but with the Sokal hoax article itself deleted.

Sokal, Alan. (1996a). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Social Text 46/47 (Spring/Summer): 217–252. The Sokal Hoax article.

Sokal, Alan. (1996b). "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies." Lingua Franca 6(4): 62–64. Sokal's "confession" of the hoax.

Sokal, Alan, and Jean Bricmont. (1998). Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. New York: Picador. A critique by Sokal and another physicist of the misuse of scientific notions by a number of postmodern theorists.

Segerstrale, Ullica, ed. (2000). Beyond the Science Wars: The Missing Discourse about Science and Society. Albany: State University of New York Press. Essays on the significance of the "science wars" and the hopes for replacing those squabbles with a less recriminatory dialog.