Author of hoax article defends his decision

Andrew Donohue

A year ago, Alan Sokal was an obscure physics professor. But a controversial article, filled with false and misleading information, has vaulted him to the forefront of academic debate.
Sokal spoke Friday at the University as part of a colloquium offered by the School of Physics. In front of about 100 people in Murphy Hall, Sokal explained how he became a controversial figure in the natural science-vs.-social science debate.
Sokal, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University and has taught physics at New York University for the last 16 years, published a parody article last May mocking post-modernism.
“Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was published in Social Text, a post-modern academic journal at Duke University. Shortly after it appeared, Sokal revealed that the article was a hoax submitted to show that ideology, not quality, was the major force behind acceptance of an article for publication. The piece quoted many experts in physics, philosophy and sociology, yet Sokal’s conclusions were purposely absurd.
“I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof,” Sokal wrote in an article explaining the hoax.
Sokal’s contention has caused a major uproar in academic circles.
Though Friday’s event was not a debate, Steven Keller, a philosophy professor from Hamline University, spoke on behalf of post-modernists in response to Sokol.
As part of the colloquium format, each professor was allotted 45 minutes to defend his side of the argument and attempt to disprove the other.
Post-modernists view “reality as only a social concept,” Keller said. He added that many in the field believe that all of science is just a theory and that answers to all of the world’s questions cannot be found in science.
Keller stressed these views were not meant to belittle physicists, but rather to “engage imagination” and “loosen up thoughts.”
Sokal, who showed his satiric tendencies by joking with the audience, insisted his article’s purpose was not to engage in “humanities-bashing.” Rather, he said, it was used to target those post-modernists whose statements are too ridiculous and unfounded to warrant acceptance by serious scholars.
Sokal said his article was “an annotated bibliography of nonsense and sloppy thinking.” He did not write the article to defend natural scientific thought, he said, but out of his concern for the leftist-side of social sciences.
Following the two speeches, the colloquium became an open forum of questions and comments from the crowd.
Sokal defended himself against a few members of the crowd who attacked his ethics and apologized for any embarrassment the article might have caused the academic community.
Sokal thought that the word of his hoax might make a few academic journals, but he never dreamed that it would land him on the front page of the New York Times — making him the third mathematician to hold this honor.