The Sokal affair

In 1996, Alan Sokal gained notoriety for getting his (intentionally) bullshit paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” published in the cultural studies journal Social Text. This has become known as the ‘Sokal affair‘. In “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science” (1997), physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont explain why Sokal’s parody paper is bullshit and identify the (probably undesirable) conditions of (mostly French) postmodernist thinking that (probably) made it possible for the parody paper to get accepted in a journal. Excellent book. The affair demonstrated unwarranted disqualification of scientific methods as a result of overly relativistic “anything goes”-thinking and unjustified and often improper use of concepts from mathematics, physics and logic.

Lessons that are suggested to be drawn (page 185-189):

  1. It’s a good idea to know what one is talking about (don’t apply concepts you don’t understand);
  2. Not all that is obscure is necessarily profound (strive for easy-to-understand language);
  3. Science is not a “text” and can’t be analyzed in a purely verbal manner;
  4. Don’t ape the natural sciences or its “paradigm shifts” (e.g. between probabilist and determinist theories);
  5. Be wary of argument from authority (this can’t be repeated enough);
  6. Specific skepticism should not be confused with radical skepticism (“scientific theory X is bogus” versus “all scientific theories are bogus”);
  7. Be aware that ambiguity may be (ab)used as subterfuge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *