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Sokal Affair

The Sokal Affair refers to an incident in 1996 when Professor Alan Sokal[?], a physicist at New York University, submitted a deliberately pseudoscientific paper for publication in an academic journal of cultural studies. The paper, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," (published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text[?]) was submitted to see if an academic journal would (according to Sokal) "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."

On the precise day of publication in Social Text, Sokal announced in another journal that the article had, in fact, been a hoax. This caused an academic scandal, both at Duke University (where Social Text is published) and for Sokal himself, as charges of unethical behaviour were levelled.

The article contains a number of statements that Sokal stated were "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense." At one stage he asserts that "physical reality is at bottom nothing more than a social and linguistic construct," and at another he proposes that the New Age concept of the morphogenetic field actually constitutes a "cutting edge theory of quantum gravity." As further evidence of deliberate fabrications, Sokal also cited his proposition that "the axiom of equality in mathematical set theory is analogous to the homonymous concept in feminist politics."

By his use of parody in statements like 'mathematics has "nineteenth-century liberal origins"' and 'the gravitational constant of Newton is mired in "ineluctable historicity"', Sokal claimed to be demonstrating that some academics will gladly trade intellectual rigour for "what sounds good". He observed that the editors of Social Text "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject."

In their defense, the editors of Social Text stated that they believed that the article "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." They also examined the controversy in the context of academic editorial policies. Most academic journals submit prospective articles to a blind peer-review. This review is meant to ensure quality, but some critics have argued that it has stifled creativity, inhibited diversity, and led to mediocrity. Social Text was founded in part to provide an alternative to this system, by dispensing with peer-review. They hope that this will promote more original and less conventional research, and trust the authors of prospective articles to guarantee the academic integrity of their work. Social Texts editors held that, in this context, Sokal's work constituted a deliberate fraud and betrayal of trust.

The concluding sentences of their rebuttal, "Should non-experts have anything to say about scientific methodology and epistemology? After centuries of scientific racism, scientific sexism, and scientific domination of nature one might have thought this was a pertinent question to ask," may go far to illuminate the concerns which inform the postmodernist attitude.


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