Philosophical spat mocks academia

A recent controversy in the academic community has confirmed that fashionable political sentiments wrapped in trendy jargon sometimes speak louder than reason.
The controversy erupted in the pages of the current issue of Social Text, a prominent cultural studies journal. In an article, the author ostensibly proves that science has no more validity than any other attempt to conceive reality. The following excerpt is from “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” written by New York University physicist Alan Sokal.
“It has 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 counterhegemonic narratives emanating from the dissident or marginalized communities.”
By and large, people are rational. Most would therefore balk at the excerpt’s first clause which says, in essence, “There is no physical reality.”
Not the folks at Social Text.
No matter how preposterous a thesis is, if it claims to challenge the hegemony of dominant ideologies, they can’t spoon it down fast enough. This time, though, they found themselves choking on a heaping helping of “counterdissidence.” The recently prolific professor Sokal also published an article in the current issue of the journal Lingua Franca, in which he claims that “Transgressing the Boundaries” is a parody. He said he wrote it to test the declining intellectual standards evident in much of the academic humanities. He asks, “Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?” You bet it would.
Predictably, the spoof chafed sincere pedagogues of such bogus scholarship. Professor Stanley Fish, executive director of the Duke University Press, which publishes Social Text, wrote a lengthy denunciation for The New York Times. In it, he claimed that Sokal “carefully packaged his deception so as not to be detected except by someone who began with a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion.”
In fact, Sokal wrote the article so that any competent undergraduate physics or math major would realize that it was a spoof. “Throughout the article,” he explains in Lingua Franca, “I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously.” The piece is so saturated with New Age banalities and New Left gibberish that its deception could not be missed except by someone who began with a deep and corrosive gullibility.
Sokal carefully omits any evidence for the outlandish claims that form the very foundation of his satirical thesis. Rational arguments are conspicuously absent. The article literally makes no sense.
Otherwise, Fish would have had a case when he turned the tables by saying, “It is Alan Sokal, not his targets, who threatens to undermine the intellectual standards he vows to protect.” Putting a sinister spin on the spoof, Fish points a hypocritical finger at Sokal and says in tones as grave as a straight face would allow, “Fraud is said to go beyond error to erode the foundation of trust on which science is built. That is Sokal’s legacy.”
But, as Sokal points out in Lingua Franca, it is the editors’ duty as scholars to judge the validity of what they publish. Sokal did not invent or falsify data. He produced an immense pile of irrational doo-doo and political jargon. “I offered Social Text editors an opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual rigor,” he writes. “Did they meet the test? I don’t think so.”
Fish complains that the deception is too well-camouflaged by a veneer of authenticity, “including dozens of ‘real’ footnotes.” It’s doubtful that an abundance of footnotes would dupe editors of a “real” scholarly journal. Still, Fish probably never read them anyway. Otherwise, he might have gotten the gag since they contain some of the choicest bits in the whole piece — such as when Sokal condemns the word “seminal” as sexist. The notes section begins with a short acknowledgement in which Sokal thanks various people — “for enjoyable discussions which have contributed greatly to this essay.” Enjoyable indeed. One imagines tears of laughter streaming down their cheeks at the side-splitting realization that Sokal simply must include the quote from Barbara Johnson’s book “A World of Difference.” The quote explains, “Instead of a simple either/or structure, deconstruction attempts to elaborate a discourse that says neither ‘either/or,’ nor ‘both/and’ nor even ‘neither/nor’ while at the same time not totally abandoning these logics either.”
“Needless to say,” the acknowledgement continues, “these people should not be assumed to be in total agreement with the scientific and political views expressed here.” This understatement summarizes the entire point of Sokal’s satire — which is about more than mere sloppy thinking and low intellectual standards. Ultimately, it is the politics the article pretends to champion that inspired its publication. When Sokal advocates the notion of a “liberatory science” to “liberate human beings from the tyranny of absolute truth and objective reality,” he employs a pun so painfully bad that it is hard to believe anyone could take the rest of the Social Text article seriously.
“What’s surprising,” Sokal wrote in Lingua Franca, “is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to be a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article’s overall illogic.”
Nobody who spends a lot of time on college campuses should be surprised at shallow attempts on the part of many in academia to politicize everything, and the irrational things they’ll say to make their point. The next time you find yourself sitting three days a week in front of an instructor that seems bent on turning everyone in class into political Stepford wives and ideological zombies, remember Alan Sokal. He has shown us that the philosophical musings of some of our more zealous professors might very well be as meaningless as we suspect.

Charles Foster’s column will appear in the Daily every other Monday.