A Conversation for The Sokal Affair

Criticism of Sokal's tactic

Post 1

Jim Lane

As I remember the reports at the time, someone connected with the magazine said that they wouldn't have published the article if it had been submitted by someone in the humanities, but that Sokal's status as a physicist made the difference. Part of the reason, alluded to in the entry, is that most or all scientists rejected this viewpoint, so the fact of a "turncoat" scientist accepting it was important. In addition, the editor being quoted said that they wanted to encourage a new author in the field who was bravely venturing out of his own academic discipline.

Whatever the reasons, the point is that Sokal represented to them that he, a physicist, agreed with the views in the article, and that representation was critical in getting it published. In other words, the piece would otherwise have been rejected, but Sokal got it published by knowingly misrepresenting a crucial fact. I think someone raised the argument that this was simple fraud. If Sokal had gotten a bogus article published in a physics journal by misstating the results of an experiment, everyone would agree in condemning him. There's a legitimate issue as to whether what he actually did should be treated the same way.

My personal bias is that this kind of writing is virtually unreadable and, even if struggled through, worthless. Nevertheless, I think some legitimate question can be raised about Sokal's tactics. The entry might usefully give a bit more attention to that point of view.

The device of beginning with the three quotations is brilliant, by the way.

Criticism of Sokal's tactic

Post 2

Felonious Monk - h2g2s very own Bogeyman

An interesting and well-argued point. My counter-argument is that Sokal *wouldn't* have got the article published if it didn't pander to the prejudices of the board. He was only encouraged because he was saying what they wanted to hear.

Moreover, another criticism levelled at the hoax is that he deliberately chose a journal with a lax editorial policy (that is , *no* peer review) simply so he could get it published. But this begs the question as to whether the editorial policy is in itself a symptom of the intellectual sloppiness that seems to characterise this kind of thinking, and therefore all part of the same target.

Criticism of Sokal's tactic

Post 3

intelligent moose (the one true H2G2 Moose)

I think that's a fantastic entry and thank you for bringing the story to my attention.

It's hilarious!

smiley - ok

Criticism of Sokal's tactic

Post 4

Fragilis - h2g2 Cured My Tabular Obsession

Yes, it's a marvelous entry.

Personally, I think it's a valid experiment. Some facets of the humanities seemed to have strayed too far away from the original goal of describing humanity as a whole into the murky realm of descriptive individualism spinning its collective wheels out of sync.

While it's important to recognize the flexibility of truth depending on one's viewpoint and personal history, we must nevertheless choose to agree on some basics of reality in order to function cooperatively. The alternative is a bunch of people nodding blankly at one another, accomplishing nothing. While being heard is certainly a step forward from the old supression of ideas, I imagine that being understood after speaking also has its benefits.

If the goals of a discipline shift towards expressing the most interesting or forceful new opinion regardless of any outside reference point, the field will tend to quickly degenerate into people vehemently spouting increasingly arcane and incomprehensible arguments in order to gain attention and/or tenure. This gives intelligent but socially inept people a reassuring out from cooperative work, but at the sacrifice academia's strong history of providing society with helpful information that helps us solve real problems.

Sokal was attempting to give a reality check to a group that was on the brink of losing its last handholds on reality altogether. I suspect that, though they grumbled defensively, some people did listen.

They're trying to decide what to call post-postmodernists now, referring the people who reject both the viability of a single viewpoint and the efficacy of infinite ones. Whatever it is, count me in.

Criticism of Sokal's tactic

Post 5


>the people who reject . . . the viability of a single viewpoint

Count me out. In the words of Scott Fitzgerald, the world is best looked at through one window.

Lovely entry, FM!

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