The Emperor’s New Clothes Redux: The Sokal Hoax

Making way in a new area of scholarship can be challenging for many reasons, no matter how welcoming the community. One of the reasons for this is that there are points in our life where we are allowed to make larger mistakes, or be ignorant, but it is rarer for adults, especially those who are already employed within a job, to be allowed the latitude to say “I have no idea”. As I discussed yesterday, the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes explains this dilemma well, because children have more licence to be honest to the point of tactlessness where an adult is always weighing up the implications of admitting that they cannot quite see what everyone else is talking about.

Some of you will be familiar with the Sokal Hoax, where Professor Alan Sokal, from physics at NYU, submitted an article to a journal of postmodern cultural studies. The work, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, was accepted by the journal Social Text, which was (at the time) not practising academic peer review. Sokal did not intend for this article to be taken seriously or even expect it to published, although he did produce an article that he described it (in a follow-up article) as:

“a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations … he could find about mathematics and physics”

The entire affair is worth reading and you can find the Wikipedia summary here and a good critique about some of Sokal’s less intended consequences here (transcript of a New York Review of Books article). Regrettably, what is less clear is whether Sokal actually achieved very much, in real terms, by carrying out this action. Yes, Social Text moved to an academic peer review system and that’s generally better for all concerned. For those who don’t know, peer review is the process by which submitted articles go to a number of other people in the field and they review the work to see if it is fit to publish. This reduces the load on the editors and allows for more, and more specific, areas of expertise to be involved. It is not, however, faultless as a poor combination of peers can still lead to substandard, or plain wrong, work getting through, especially if reviewers farm the work out to their grad students or review under time constraints. It is, therefore, not all that surprising that Sokal’s deliberately targeted paper, which identified how to get a paper published by these editors in this journal, succeeded, and less surprising when you hear the editors’ account that they thought the paper needed revisions (removing much of the handwaving and contradictory footnotes) and were concerned about the article but, as the journal at the time was one of opinion, they published it anyway.

Such generosity on the part of the editors does not forgive the publication of some of the deliberate misuse of terminology and physics that Sokal uses to highlight the lack of rigour in the journal and the editorial review process. However, one of the problems I have with this is that, as a Computer Scientist speaking to Educational researchers, people often take what I say as a true account of my field, especially given that they do not have the expertise in my discipline to know (or care) about things like computability or algorithmic performance. If I were to submit a scholarly paper to a journal of education, am I doing anyone any favours by deliberately misrepresenting the aspects of my field, given that I am identified by discipline and school on submission?

Yes, people should use terms correctly and there is a great deal of misuse of science for uninformed or nefarious purposes, with some of the writings coming from post-modernist inspired writers being completely wrong. However, when one is not a physicist, one depends upon the knowledge gained from other people as to what physics is. There is a part of me that thinks that Sokal wasted an opportunity to actually fix a number of misunderstandings – for example, making a clear distinction between linear in strict mathematical and physical terms and linear, in post-Derridan terms, where the meaning is (quite deliberately) less well-defined and often pejorative. Words change. Terms change. Knowledge can still exist and continue to connect terms if we make the effort to bridge, rather than to mock or deride.

The post-modernists, especially Derrida, have attracted a great deal of negative interest, often for what appear to be semi-religious objects to their approach, although I would be the first to say that Derrida’s obsession with repurposing words, redefining concepts when it suits him, and providing grammatical constructions that further, rather than reduce, ambiguity do make him a valid target for at least a raised eyebrow on many occasions. I do not have a strong opinion as to whether the Emperor, in this case, is clothed or not, but I must be honest and say that I do not believe that the outputs and constants of science are a purely cultural construction, although I do agree that the mechanism of the scientific academy is very much a cultural artefact and if anything deserves to be reduced to its components for inspection, it is an institution that almost systematically seems to avoid recognising the contribution of women and non-western people except where unavoidable. I mention Derrida here, mostly because Derrida was the first point of media attack when Sokal’s hoax was revealed. This speaks volumes for the bravery of Sokal’s attack – when the media will leap up and put a face on a stick to wave it about because “philosophy X is all mumbo-jumbo and here is the head witch doctor” you really have to wonder what a non-peer reviewed opinion piece in a journal dedicated to same is actually achieving. Derrida thought that the major problem with the piece was that it would make a later, serious, attempt to discuss such issues impossible to achieve.

Of course, although Sokal’s Hoax is a triumph of exposing the publication of works based on their source. authority and obscurity, this is most certainly not restricted to post-modernist journals of opinion. A friend of mine called me in once to read through a paper that used such unusual terminology, for him, that he was unsure as to whether it was good or bad. Fortunately, it was in my discipline and, because I know and can use the word ontology without dying, I was able to identify it as a low-level rehash of some basic work in the field. It was sound work, using the correct terminology, but it certainly wasn’t at the level of the conference it had been sent to – to my friend, however, it was as meaningless as anything that Sokal mocked from Derrida. I am well aware that some of my areas, including knowledge management and educational research, are seen by others to be exactly the same as the post-modernist repurposing of scientific terminology that Sokal attacks.

The point is not who is lying to whom, or whether there is anything behind some of the more obscure utterings of the Post-Modernists, but it is whether deliberately winding people up with a hoax would achieve more than a genuine attempt to reach out to and correct a community, using your expertise and developing a voice in the other discipline to provide a sound translation. Epistemology, theory of knowledge, is important and I’m really not sure that hoaxing and mockery really achieves all that much, especially as, like any extrinsic punishment approach, it tells you not to do something but not how not to do it.

4 Comments on “The Emperor’s New Clothes Redux: The Sokal Hoax”

  1. Darakhshan Mir says:

    Terrific post! Thanks, I qute enjoy reading this blog. Coincidentally, I have recently been thinking about how we make fools of ourselves by criticizing something we don’t understand as mumbo-jumbo! We have to be really careful about what we dismiss as mumbo-jumbo, we may just be ignorant about it. It is easier to dismiss something than do the hard work to understand the framework. Especially, if the model threatens our deep-held beliefs and hopes, then even more so! Very recently, I got to witness this as people who have no or little or unsound knowledge of probability/statistics thought that using such a framework to model social events is just mumbo-jumbo.


    • nickfalkner says:

      Thanks, Darakhshan, yes it’s easy to dismiss something rather than investing the time in actually understanding it! I’m reading some interesting commentary at the moment on the false dichotomy caused by us believing that we have to understand something or that either we are stupid or it is. There appears to be little room for “Well, I don’t understand it yet but maybe I will in time.”

      As mentioned above, sorry for the delay in approving but I’ve been travelling.



  2. David Karger says:

    Such hoaxes can also be carried out in CS, making clear that the issue is one of (review) process not the field:


    • nickfalkner says:

      I completely agree, David. It’s often easier for people to find egregious behaviour outside of their own discipline than to reflect on the same problem within.

      Apologies for the delay in approving, I’ve been on the road.



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