Sokal Background Commentary

> [Ed. For those of us who have been residing under a cabbage-leaf,
> could we have some definition and background on the Sokal Affair/
> "hoax"?  I know the tune, but the words are unfamiliar. -MG]

The Spring/Summer 1996 issue of _Social Text_ was a special double
issue devoted to the "Science Wars."  One of the articles was
by a physicist, Alan D. Sokal.  After the issue was published,
Sokal revealed that the article had been a hoax.  He had been
disturbed by some things he had been reading in studies of
science written by people who came from various fields such as
post-modernist literary theory, sociology, philosophy, etc.
It seemed to Sokal that a lot of people ignorant of science were
publishing utter nonsense, and that it was being widely accepted
as serious and valid scholarship.

He decided to write an article of utter drivel, in which he put
enough different kinds of nonsense so that there would be little
excuse for any intelligent person, even a non-scientist, failing
to spot at least some of the blatant errors, and submit it to
a journal.  The ploy worked; the article, "Transgressing the
Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,"
was published in the Spring/Summer issue of _Social Text_ (vol. 14,
nos. 1-2), pp. 217-252.

He then revealed the hoax.  The best single place to look for the
debate that ensued is _Lingua Franca_; the May/June and July/August
issues have devoted considerable space to it, with long statements by
Sokal, the editors of _Social Text_, and various partisans of both

To my mind, the debate has made Sokal's case even more strongly
than the mere fact that the editors of _Social Text_ fell for his
hoax.  Publication of the article might have been only an act of
momentary carelessness on the part of the editors of _Social Text_.
Much of the criticism of Sokal's action indicates, however, that
it was not just an act of momentary carelessness.  See for example
the statement of Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, editors of _Social
Text_, that Sokal's hoax may have the baneful effect that "Less
well known authors who submit unsolicited articles to journals like
ours may now come under needless suspicion, and the openness of
intellectual inquiry that _Social Text_ has played its role in
fostering will be curtailed."  (_Lingua Franca_, July/August 1996,
p. 55.)

Apparently, the editors of _Social Text_ feel that an article that
is so filled with nonsense that a suspicion may arise, when they
see it, that it might be a hoax written to discredit the journal
that publishes it, should nonetheless be published if the
author is sincere.  They do not seem to see it as part of their
function to judge the intellectual validity of articles submitted
to them, when deciding which to publish.

Edwin Moise
History Department
Clemson University