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The Two Cultures: A Flame War

Over at  Slashdot a  thread regarding the submission of a junk science fiction novel to a vanity publisher  winds its way to the Sokal Affair, the Spring/Summer 1996 publication by  Social Text  of Alan Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”

This debate comes up frequently enough (especially among the science types over at Slashdot) that I composed a response to speak within what I believe to be some of the silences that persist in this debate, especially in popular media characterizations of the Sokal Affair on the Web. The following is a slightly modified version of  my Slashdot post regarding the Sokal Affair .

Flame War is About Right

Sokal’s hoodwinking of the editors and readers of Social Text is more complicated than the real split between what C. P. Snow termed “The Two Cultures” of humanites and science. The issue is in fact complicated enough that it does not compress into anything nearly attractive as the sensational claim that postmodern intellectuals don't know their anuses from a hole in the ground. Still, I’m going to try to point out ways that the popular reading of the Sokal Affair ignores some important features of the events which led to the publication of Sokal’s article as well as some important questions regarding the final signficance of the debate.

To start, one of the features regarding Sokal’s hoax and also glaringly absent* from the  wikipedia entry regarding the Sokal Affair  is the initial efforts by Social Text’s editorial board to have Sokal revise his article. Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins respond to Sokal’s hoax in a subsequent issue of Lingua Franca (news of Sokal’s hoax was published in May/June 1996 and Ross and Robbins’ response in July/August 1996). That response does not seem to be available on the web, but from what I remember it details the dodgy back-and-forth of Sokal and Social Text’s editors about publishing the article. Sokal refused to conduct any of the revisions and so the editors of Social Text—perhaps a touch too eager to have a scientist speak on matters normally of interest only to postmodern humanities scholars—published the article without revisions. As Jack Slater would say: “ Big mistake .”

In other words, the editors of Social Text smelled that the fish was bad, but ate it anyway. It wasn't so much that the article was considered a good one as much as the editors wanted the prestige of publishing a credentialed scientist’s views regarding postmodernism, even if those views were a bit cranky.

The issue becomes much more complicated than Sokal’s cheer of “egg on your face” circulated by the popular media (especially the web). For one, the editors of Social Text to this day maintain that Sokal’s article does in fact have some good points, especially to the extent that it raises problems of authority and validity regarding how disciplines like science produce what is taken as knowledge and fact.

Some of Robbins’ articles regarding the aftermath are available on the web, such as his “ On Being Hoaxed ” and a later article entitled “ Anatomy of a Hoax ”. Both were originally published in Tikkun, an online journal.

The real points of this Sokal affair, in my opinion, are 1) a bad editorial decision was made by editors of a humanities journal, 2) Sokal’s unethical trick is now enshrined and will probably be his greatest claim to fame as a "physicist," and 3) the primary tenets of postmodernism remain unchanged because it is too easy to see how culture and dogma shape what people perceive as truth, something that is true not only in religion, philosophy, and cultural studies, but also to some extent in the sciences.

A final real question which tends to get ignored is what would have happened if Sokal had waited a year or two before revealing his hoax. Would a humanities academic have given the lie to the nonsense? I’m guessing the answer is yes, but given the tendency to cull a quick headline from a very complicated series of events, such a question and many others simply get ignored.

*A  reply by pilkul  points out that I was just plain wrong about the “glaringly absent” part.