Burden of spoof

June 21, 1996

Andrew Ross takes Alan Sokal, writer of a hoax cultural studies article, to task. The American media extensively covered the story of a physicist who published a spoof article in a leading cultural studies journal, and then argued that its publication confirmed the sorry state of that discipline. But what accounted for this uncommon attention to a marginal scholarly item?

The affair (THES, June 7) offered the American media two choice ingredients; a scientist's hoax, and political correctness in the academy. The first speaks to the growing public concern about scientists' lack of accountability. The second provides camouflage for the sweeping abdication of support for public education. Both these elements have become media fixtures in recent years - this story was a dynamite combination.

In all respects, it was a story waiting to happen. Conservative groups like the National Academy of Scholars have been hell-bent on dragging their crusade against science studies into the culture wars by commanding the op-ed pages of the national press. Many scholars are agreed about the reasons for this holy war. The erosion of the cold war funding contract with the state, combined with the decrease in public respect for scientific authority, has created a demand for scapegoats in the demonic form of politically motivated scholars in science studies. Alan Sokal, the author of the spoof article, is simply recycling all of the usual suspect ideas from the culture wars in order to persuade scientists to get involved in the academic PC wars. After all, half a century of critical science studies has had negligible impact upon the course of establishment science, and even less impact on funding. Why all the fuss now?

I edited a double issue of Social Text, the journal in which Sokal's article appeared, to gather together responses to this scapegoating crusade from natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists. Sokal's unsolicited article had been accepted for the journal earlier, not without a good deal of hesitation, as the work of a progressive physicist committed to the critique of science. We decided the science wars issue of the journal might be an appropriate context for his article and that readers would see it as a contribution from someone unknown to the field whose views, however offbeat, might still be thought relevant to the debate.

Even so, his article bears little resemblance, in style or substance, to the other articles in the issue (written by some of the most prominent names in science studies), nor indeed to most of what is published in Social Text, a collectively-edited forum. Obviously, now we regret having published the article, and recognise it was a mistake to do so. Any publication can fall for a well-crafted hoax, but interdisciplinary journals of opinion like ours are not peer-reviewed and are especially vulnerable to deceptions like Sokal's. Innovative, open-minded publishing depends on the good faith of authors. Many fear that Sokal's actions may have a chilling effect on the climate of journal publishing.

The publication of Sokal's article was an anomaly, and yet grossly inflated claims have been made on its behalf. Serious minds have declared that it proves everything from the bankruptcy of cultural studies (or was it the social sciences?) to the reaffirmation of the Enlightenment and the restoration of the true gospel of the left. There was one new factor, however. For the first time, perhaps, the communities of opinion on the Internet played a significant role in the reception of a scholarly event.

The Sokal affair induced an explosion of postings on academic Internet lists in almost every discipline. Each media report was analysed daily, and the press, in turn, fed on Net postings. Snap judgements were made about whole fields of scholarship, and stray tensions corralled into that head-butting form which disagreements often take in the virtual public sphere. I even learned of one group that discussed whether our Social Text editorial response was itself a spoof, since its "balance of condescension and dogma" was thought too good to be true. Ninety-eight per cent of the discussion seemed to be between men, few of whom seemed to have read Sokal's article. One of the results of this outpouring was an inundation of raw research material for scholars who study the behaviour of those who talk about science. Another was to elevate speculations of the hour into claims that carried the weight of consensus.

Regrettably, many of the real issues in the science studies debates have been neglected, and Sokal's hoax has perpetuated the climate of caricature in which the science wars were initiated. Critical science studies is much less about skirmishes over academic turf (involving pranks played by academics) than it is about the gulf of power between experts and lay voices, and the lack of any democratic decision-making within the scientific process. All the fine talk about reclaiming the Enlightenment against obscurantism should remind us that the Enlightenment was, in part, a revolt against the closed circle of civility that was forming, even then, within the scientific community. The legacy of that closed circle is very much with us today, when science's specialised jargon, professional expertise, and value-free ideology are explicitly used to keep public criticism at bay. Indeed, public technoscepticism of the sort that is habitually labelled "anti-science" is often little more than an extension of the Enlightenment temper - the true Enlightenment, some would say.

Andrew Ross is co-editor, Social Text

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