The storm is put back in its teacup

Intellectual Impostures
July 10, 1998

The hoax played by Alan Sokal on cultural relativists has been extended into a book, Intellectual Impostures. But, asks Jonathan Ree, by prolonging aparody into a prosecution is Sokal vulnerable to a counter-suit?

The one sure remedy for gloom in homo academicus is news of the humiliation of a colleague. Courses deserted by students or marks queried by external examiners are quite effective, and so are rebuffs from publishers and promotion panels. Poor or non-existent research ratings work even better, and picky reviews better still. But nothing brightens a don's brackish mood so well as seeing a friend lampooned in print, or suckered by a fraud. Who could fail to take heart when the Hitler Diaries were exposed as a forgery in 1983, leaving Hugh Trevor Roper in a very sticky pickle? Or when literary critics were taken in by Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish ("the Spectrist school") in 1916, or Ern Malley ("the well-wrought Ern") in 1944, or Araki Yasusada ("the Hiroshima poet") in 1996? But the coup of the century, surely, was Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", which was accepted at face value by the American cultural studies journal Social Text and published in its special issue on "Science Wars" in May 1996.

It is easy to understand the spoof's appeal to the unlucky editors. It wholeheartedly accepts the relevance of "social and cultural criticism" to science, calling for "a democratic approach to scientific work" in place of the "authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science". It endorses the idea that "20th-century science" has undermined the traditional metaphysics of "the Enlightenment", replacing it with "strong non-linearity, subjective space-time, inexorable flux, and a stress on the topology of interconnectedness". Moreover it is the work of a genuine scientist. And it is written in the kind of flat prose that requires no editorial attention, with an overwhelming armature of notes and references, citing (as academics will) Sokal's own publications as well as making flattering allusions to Stanley Aronowitz and Andrew Ross, who happen to be on the board of Social Text.

Most editors in cultural studies would have been pleased to receive such a submission, and few would have jibbed at the deliberate howlers that, in retrospect, make the hoax a toe-curling embarrassment for Social Text and a tonic for almost everyone else. There are citations of Jacques Derrida (a "perceptive" authority on general relativity) and Luce Irigaray (an "incisive" critic of traditional differential topology), and a bold assertion that "existence itself" is "problematised and relativised" by "recent developments in quantum gravity". There is the statement that "the p of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity". And, last but not least, a footnote on "liberatory mathematics" linking the axiom of equality with social egalitarianism, and the axiom of choice with abortion rights.

A few days after the publication of "Transgressing the Boundaries", Sokal confessed his deception to the journal Lingua Franca, hoping to start a debate about "shoddy scholarship" in cultural studies. He had found a flaw in the critical wits of the editors of Social Text, and he wanted to draw them into a conversation about their "science wars", and perhaps to make comparisons with the hullaballoo over C. P. Snow's 1959 lectures on "The Two Cultures" and F. R. Leavis's coruscating reply. For a start, it would have been interesting to note that what made the cultural theorists of the 1990s vulnerable to Sokal's hoax was not a lack of respect for natural science, but, on the contrary, a disproportionate awe of its authorityI.

But no such discussion took place. In the summer of 1996 the broadsheets in Britain and America made hay at the expense of an identikit "cultural left". The "Sokal hoax" appeared to confirm what right-thinking persons had known all along: that the only truths worth knowing are the commonplaces of the European intellectual tradition as codified by our Victorian grandparents and great grandparents, together with the latest discoveries of scientific experts. This led to the reassuring corollary that leftism is the delusion of a few ageing soixante-huitards, chuckle-headed gulls puffed up by flatulent philosophical confections a la mode de Paris.

The editors of Social Text could have taken a lesson from the humbled Falstaff after his midnight assignation at Herne's oak ("I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass ... ignorance is a-plummet o'er me; use me as you will"), but they chose instead to stand on their wounded dignities. They solemnly declared that they had published Sokal's article out of solidarity with an author they took to be "a progressive scientist, a physicist who was willing to be publicly critical of scientific orthodoxies". They resented the abuse of their hospitality, and anyway they never liked the article.

Sokal had a complaint as well. He regards himself as a far more embattled leftist (and a younger one) than the chic revolutionaries in cultural studies, but the media were making him out to be a champion of crusty cultural conservatism. His heroes are Orwell and Chomsky: "I'm a stodgy old scientist," he says with mock self-deprecation, "who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them." He once taught in Nicaragua to support the Sandinistas, but adds: "I'm an unabashed old leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class."

Sokal then decided to spell out the details of his joke at length. With the co-operation of a Belgian physicist, Jean Bricmont, he has worked it up into an extended denunciation of the "misuse of scientific concepts" by certain thinkers who share the misfortune of having cut a figure in France in the past 40 years. The resulting book, published in French under the self-righteous title Impostures Intellectuelles, and predictably ruffled some Parisian feathers. Now we have the English version, decorated with come-and-get-me pre-publication puffs: "disinformation" (Julia Kristeva); "le pauvre Sokal" (Jacques Derrida); and "C'est la guerre!" (Le Figaro).

Intellectual Impostures may not amount to incitement to anti-French hooliganism, but it is little more than a scrapbook of real or imagined Parisian intellectual atrocities. Anyone who has read the authors arraigned by Sokal and Bricmont will already be aware of their lapses into sophomoric pseudo-science and their ill-informed appeals to predicate calculus, quantum mechanics, relativity, Godel's theorem, and chaos theory. These faults have been noticed before, but in their original context they are merely irritating and slightly intimidating. Now that Sokal and Bricmont have excerpted them and laid them end to end, however, the effect is mesmerising, if wearisome. Jacques Lacan evidently did not know what he was talking about when he discoursed on propositional functions or topology, and neither did Julia Kristeva when she gestured towards the results of "modern logic from Frege and Peano through Lukasiewicz, Ackermann or Church," or Luce Irigaray when she compared splitting the ego with splitting the atom. It would be nice to think that Jean Baudrillard was joking when he spoke of "our non-Euclidean fin de si cle space" and how "modern science" shows that "chance is the floating of all laws", that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari had a giggle when they wrote that "a function is a slow-motion", and that it was a deliberate mistake when Paul Virilio confused acceleration with speed, or that Regis Debray was sending himself up when he suggested that Godel's theorem proves that "generalised workers' control" is a "political aporia". However, they were apparently in earnest.

Most of the evidence in Intellectual Impostures is presented in brisk quote-emote style. Sokal and Bricmont confine themselves to brief comments ("what exactly is she talking about? ... these paragraphs are meaningless ... but it gets even better") while coyly protesting their own horror of "obscure language", "intellectual confusion", "technical jargon", "dishonesty", and "lack of clarity".

By prolonging a sharp parody into a sustained prosecution, however, they have laid themselves open to a counter-suit. Their skill in sniffing out bull**** about natural science turns out not to be transferable, and they have no nose for what they are rolling in when it comes to philosophy. As far as they are concerned, there are just two sides in epistemology. There are the relativists, whom they also call "postmodernists", "subjectivists" and "sceptics", who rely on "argument from authority and reference to 'sacred' texts" and "extra-scientific beliefs such as sun worship". And then there are the scientists, who, like you and me, believe in the "real world", care for "facts" more than "words", reject "a priori or revealed truths", and toil to achieve an "objective view of the world".

But despite Sokal and Bricmont's hopeful hand-waving in the direction of a monolithic authority called "the philosophy of science", the conceptual situation cannot be so simple as they think. They bluffly affirm that "space-time" is as "objective" as tables and chairs, failing to note that items of furniture exist in specific places for specific periods, which space-time does not. On one page, they claim that "in order to be scientific, a theory must be tested empirically", but on another - perhaps recalling that mathematics grows through formal reasoning rather than accumulations of empirical evidence - they say it must be based on "empirical and rational arguments". They never miss a chance to express their loathing for "subjectivism", but that is exactly what they embrace when they pronounce that the world is only a "hypothesis", since "we have direct access only to our sensations".

Sokal and Bricmont can hardly be blamed for getting into these difficulties. But they might like to know that Immanuel Kant devoted his life to their diagnosis and cure, more than 200 years ago. Kant's solution was to broker a marriage between realism and idealism, and that is why many 20th-century philosophers have rejected not only "objectivism" (as Sokal and Bricmont know) but also "subjectivism" (as they do not). It may well be that something called "relativism" is the only way out; but in that case relativism expresses not hostility towards science, but care for the relationship between the historically specific vocabularies, techniques, metrics and formalisms used by scientists and the kinds of truth they are able to discover.

Sokal and Bricmont are so intoxicated by their fantasy victory over "the postmodernist Zeitgeist" that they forget how hard it is to live up to the intellectual standards they take themselves to embody. In particular, they evade any confrontation with the strongest exponents of the French tradition that they attack. But if they would laugh at anyone who tried to criticise modern physics without understanding Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg or Bohr, and indeed Newton, then we must surely weep as they overlook Pierre Duhem, Alexandre Koyre, Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, not to mention Kant. They do not even rise to the challenge of Michel Foucault, and their only comment on the biggest bogey of all is a wistful regret that "there is no systematic misuse of (or indeed attention to) science in Derrida's work" - as if he had sat on the ball just to spoil their sport.

The most telling joke in Sokal's original parody was its vanishingly low ratio of analysis to documentation: "evidence" was simply stockpiled in an elephantine bibliography and in scores of notes containing unanalysed citations, uncriticised opinions, and uncontrolled samplings of ambient intellectual atmospheres. At least I found it funny at the time. But Intellectual Impostures reveals Sokal proceeding with the same deadpan automatism when saying what he passionately believes. The article has won a special place for itself in the annals of hoaxology, but the book of the hoax only diminishes it. It puts the storm back in the teacup, where perhaps it always belonged.

Jonathan Ree teaches philosophy at Middlesex University.

Intellectual Impostures

Author - Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
ISBN - 1 8619 7074 9
Publisher - Profile
Price - £9.99
Pages - 4

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