Schrödinger’s Troll

Note – post updated 9/21/2016.  It now includes a response from Professor Sokal at the bottom.

We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers. 

– Neil Newhouse, Mitt Romney campaign pollster, Aug. 28, 2012

Just over twenty years ago NYU physics professor Alan Sokal played a prank on the journal Social Text, a publication that the New York Times described at the time as having “helped invent the trendy, sometimes baffling field of cultural studies.”  Sokal works in the field of quantum field theory, which (as I understand it) addresses the nature and behavior of subatomic particles. This area of science exists at a point of overlap between physics, mathematics, and probability, and is an area of inquiry that can be confusing even to well-educated outsiders. Sokal is also a committed leftist of an “old left” flavor; he spent summers during the 1980s teaching mathematics at the National Autonomous University in Sandinista-led Nicaragua.

Cultural studies, as the New York Times claimed in 1996, can also be confusing to outsiders like me. My own definition of the field would be that it is defined by a push for “radical awareness” – awareness of, for example, the ways in which understandings of human society and experience are products of the observer’s position within society. There is a great deal of overlap between cultural studies and, for example, philosophy, feminist studies, queer studies, post-colonial studies, and African diaspora studies. Cultural studies is a field with an activist orientation: participants in the field generally want to not just identify and study power imbalances but also to ameliorate them.  Fredric Jameson makes this point in his 1993 Social Text article “On Cultural Studies“, which he begins by noting that “The desire called cultural studies is perhaps best approached politically and socially, as the project to constitute a “historic bloc,” rather than theoretically, as the floor plan of a new discipline.”

Although it is our newspaper of record, the claim by the New York Times that Social Text helped to invent the field of cultural studies should be balanced with careful study of how the field actually emerged. Carnegie-Mellon University professor Jeffrey J. Williams, in his 2009 article “The Rise of the Theory Journal“, places Social Text into its larger context: an explosion of journals focusing on cultural and literary commentary – including Semiotext(e), diacritics, and New Literary History – that were founded between 1969 and 1979.

As Francois Cusset describes in his 2008 book French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, these developments in North American academia were informed by literature and philosophy emerging from French scholars, in particular Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. These postmodernist scholars have often been willing to use language from the “hard sciences” in discussing social phenomena.  For example, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was famous for using language that is also used in mathematics.  Although Lacan’s work has been influential, his use of the language of science has struck many mathematicians and physicists as nonsensical.

Scholars in the cultural studies field have also been open to exploring the way in which what is conceived within a culture as “truth” can be determined by the characteristics and power relations of the culture. From my position as an outsider I consider this exploration useful. As an outsider, it is not clear to me the extent to which researchers in this diverse field believe that our conception of “truth” can be culturally determined versus the extent to which the underlying “truth” itself can be culturally determined.

This distinction is important. As an example, consider the situation in 1897, when the Indiana state legislature contemplated a law intended to govern the geometric relationship between squares and circles. This proposed law has been called the “Indiana Pi Bill”, and has been described (somewhat imperfectly) as the bill that would have legislated a value of four for the mathematical constant known as “pi”, rather than its true value of approximately 3.1415. To its credit, the Indiana legislature rejected the bill when it came up for a vote.

A mathematical constant like the ratio of a perfect circle’s circumference to its diameter is indifferent to Indiana and its legislators. This is not to claim that a state – or even a world – in which a value of this ratio was universally believed to be four would not be an interesting phenomenon, worthy of careful study. But the views of the society on the value of this mathematical constant do not affect its true value.

Although I don’t know for sure, my strong suspicion is that most participants in the field of cultural studies are focused more on the extent to which society’s conception of what is “truth” can be culturally determined, and not whether or not the actual physical constant pi is open to cultural control. The peripatetic postmodernist professor Stanley Fish, who is now visiting at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, makes exactly this point in a recent article in the Financial Review titled “Don’t blame the postmodernists for Donald Trump.” In this article he says: “What postmodernism says is that while the material world certainly exists and is prior to our descriptions of it, we only have access to it through those descriptions. That is, we do not know the world directly, as a matter of simple and unmediated perception; rather we know it as the vocabularies at our disposal deliver it to us.”  In spite of (or perhaps causing) this defense, individual postmodernists and postmodernism as a movement have sometimes been accused of treating physically-determined laws of physics, nature, and mathematics as matters of social convention.

These developments in the humanities triggered backlash and became part of a general struggle within academia over postmodernism, “political correctness”, and the role of the Western canon within a humanities curriculum and more generally within a university.  Allan Bloom’s 1987 best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind treated postmodernism and relativism as not just an academic threat but as a threat to democracy itself.  Against that backdrop, in 1994 the physicist Sokal submitted a paper to Social Text bearing the title “Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity“.The paper was a prank intended as parody. I will quote one section of the text of the paper:

“Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, “neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination’ of the social.” And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: “mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.” Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis. Finally, chaos theory — which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity — will be central to all future mathematics. And yet, these images of the future mathematics must remain but the haziest glimmer: for, alongside these three young branches in the tree of science, there will arise new trunks and branches — entire new theoretical frameworks — of which we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive.”

The editors of Social Text, which at the time did not employ peer review in their publication process, claim that they struggled with Sokal’s submission. They asked Sokal for some revisions, but Sokal rejected their request and the journal published the article as part of a 1996 special edition that was devoted to “Science Wars”.

Sokal then revealed his hoax and his intentions. Here is what he said in the journal Lingua Franca in 1996, in his article “A physicist experiments with cultural studies“:

“For some years I’ve been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I’m a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Interested readers can find my article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text. It appears in a special number of the magazine devoted to the “Science Wars.”

What’s going on here? Could the editors really not have realized that my article was written as a parody?”

Debate followed about Sokal’s hoax and what might be learned from his exercise. Professor Sokal’s website has links to this debate, which occupied the pages of publications as diverse as Lingua Franca, Dissent, Tikkun, Physics World, the New York Times, and the Economist. Sokal wrote two separate books related to the hoax, one coauthored with Jean Bricmont, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain, in Belgium.

The Sokal hoax was championed (in a way that Sokal claims was unwelcome) by conservatives hoping to discredit the entire enterprise of cultural studies.  The hoax had its articulate critics, for example the French philosopher of science Bruno Latour and the aforementioned Stanley Fish (now of Yeshiva, then of Duke) who said this in 1996:

“What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed — fashioned by human beings — which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing….. Alan Sokal put forward his own undertakings as reliable, and he took care, as he boasts, to surround his deception with all the marks of authenticity, including dozens of “real” footnotes and an introductory section that enlists a roster of the century’s greatest scientists in support of a line of argument he says he never believed in. He carefully packaged his deception so as not to be detected except by someone who began with a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion that may now be in full flower in the offices of learned journals because of what he has done.”

We can now look back on these events with twenty years of additional history to frame them and their impact. I think that the additional history is extremely important because of the rise of right-wing movements whose participants are also willing to question the nature of reality with explicitly political aims. For what it’s worth, I believe that we were never going to elect the (then French and now dead) philosopher Jacques Derrida to the Presidency of the United States of America.  But George W. Bush, coming from the right, could be conceptualized in some ways as a right-wing postmodernist president, unmoored from the constraints of reality and logic.

Here is Ron Suskind in the New York Times quoting an unnamed aide to President George W. Bush (later revealed to be Karl Rove):

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ … ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”

The political right has waged war on objective reality in other ways, notably with attacks on climate science and the teaching of theories of evolution. I believe that exposure to this kind of right-wing postmodernism and its impact has affected at least some perspectives on the left.

For example, in 2004, Bruno Latour, in his article “Why has the critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern,” made a remarkable statement, which I believe would have surprised most observers in 1996:

“What I am going to argue is that the critical mind, if it is to renew itself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude – to speak like William James – but a realism dealing with what I will call matters of concern, not matters of fact. The mistake we made, the mistake I made, was to believe that there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible.”

Exceeding even what we saw in 2008 and 2012, the truly threatening right-wing postmodernism of our day finds an apotheosis in the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. His sneering detachment from and dismissal of objective reality has been terrifying for members of Karl Rove’s “reality-based community.”

But I am still not perfectly comfortable with the Sokal exercise, as interesting as it was. There are a number of reasons for my discomfort. First of all, the rise of Trump reminds us of the importance of careful consideration of the role of mockery in society. If Sokal’s goal was to educate, it makes sense to ask the question “is this mockery the most effective way to teach?”  My own view is that people who perceived that they are being mocked, dismissed, or belittled often don’t listen to you, which makes further communication difficult.  I see value in communication across disciplines – speaking selfishly, for example, in communication between economics and cultural studies and between economics and physics.  I suspect that communication, especially across cultural and disciplinary divides, might be more robust and productive if it happens in a context that is as free of mockery as can be arranged.

Second, as a social scientist, I am uncomfortable drawing general conclusions from single events. Sokal himself is appropriately humble on this point as well – but the same cannot be said of everyone who has used his hoax as justification for a particular point of view. The publication of one hoax paper in one refereed journal one time does not invalidate the conclusions of an entire field of research (see, for example, the affairs of Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff). And I am not comfortable with submitting a hoax paper, either as a prank or as matter of serious research. As a hoax, it seems like a violation of an important social norm of good-faith that governs academic conduct, as Stanley Fish and others noted at the time. I am enough of a utilitarian to view considered norm-violation as something other than an absolute wrong, but this offense still concerns me. As serious research, the exercise does not seem like a well-conceived research design for testing anything other than whether or not the hypothesis “nothing weird ever happens” can be rejected.

I am also not absolutely unsympathetic to the editors’ decision to publish the article in Social Text, as strange as that may seem. If the Social Text community can be viewed as a community wrestling with the vital question ‘what are people doing?’ then the finding that a member-in-good-standing of the scientific establishment was hoaxing the Social Text community is, itself, an interesting and revealing finding. In that sense, although the editors of Social Text may not view things this way, I think that the exercise demonstrates, on some level, the value of the (non-peer reviewed) journal for our society.

I was curious to get Sokal’s take on l’affaire Sokal, 20 years later, so I reached out to him with four quick questions. My questions, and his answers, are below:

What would you do differently, if you were to conduct a similar exercise today?

I’m not sure.  The experiment could certainly have been made more scientific by submitting the manuscript to many journals rather than to one, and possibly also with variations in the text — but there were probably not enough journals in this specialized subfield to make such an experiment possible.

Very recently, two separate groups of French researchers pulled off similar hoaxes (much more hilarious than mine, in fact) against the sociologist Michel Maffesoli
and the philosopher Alain Badiou
using pseudonymous authors (much easier now than 20 years ago, thanks to Google Mail).  But the success of my own article relied in part on the fact that I used my own name and academic affiliation.

Do you think that your exercise changed the world in a meaningful way? Are you happy with the result?

Well, I don’t think that my exercise had any major effect on the world (few of us are fortunate enough to be able to do that, in any realm). But it does seem to have had a positive effect on certain sectors of academia, in quite a few countries.  Even now I get e-mails from students (who must have been children in 1996) who stumbled on my article on the Internet and thank me for helping them to realize that their failure to understand author X or Y (assigned in one of their courses) does not necessarily mean that *they* are intellectually inadequate.

How did this exercise change your life?

Hugely, by broadening my circle of colleagues and friends. Before 1996, my intellectual circle was (like that of most academics) mostly limited to people in my own subfields of physics and mathematics. Since then, I have become friends with philosophers, historians
and sociologists, both by e-mail and in person.  In fact, one of these people was Social Text editor Bruce Robbins, who became a personal friend after we collaborated in 2002 on the Open Letter from American Jews to Our Government on Peace in the Middle East

The rise of Trump and Trump-ism has been (creatively?) blamed on dogmatic political correctness in academia and elsewhere.  Do you think that there is anything to this assignment of blame?

Well, I think that this is a *minor* cause, but not a completely imaginary one.  The principal cause is of course the fact that both major political parties — the Republicans most obviously, but also the Democrats — have for the past 30 years pursued economic policies that favored the rich and exacerbated the already precarious situation of the working class;  and the Democrats distinguished themselves from the Republicans primarily by pursuing liberal social policies that are popular in the upper-middle class but alienate many white working-class social conservatives.  In this context, so-called “political correctness” can be viewed as just one more example of upper-middle class liberal snobbery towards working-class social conservatives.  It has of course been greatly exaggerated by the right-wing media (who are anxious to direct working-class anger against social liberals, all the better to avoid examination of their own economic policies), but it hasn’t been invented out of whole cloth.

(September 21, 2016 email from Professor Sokal):

Dear Dan,

Many thanks for your blog post, and my apologies for taking so long to respond!

I appreciate your nuanced point of view.  My only criticism would be that you took Fish’s statement:

“What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real  and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed — fashioned by human beings — which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing…..”

at face value, without observing that it is a clever misrepresentation of the “new” sociology of science that renders it utterly banal:  Who could possibly disagree that “accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc.”?  Certainly not me!  Or anyone else I know!

As I wrote in response to a similar tactic by Bruno Latour,

“But Latour’s main tactic, in presenting his vision of the sociology of science, is to empty it of all its content by retreating into platitudes that no one would question. The social history of science “proposes a realistic view of scientific activity” and “studies with excitement the innumerable links between the objects of science and those of culture” — who could fail to applaud? But where is the much-vaunted rupture with the traditional sociology of science à la Merton? This tactic hides everything that is radical, original and _false_ in the “new” sociology of science: notably, its claim that one can (and should) explain the history of science without taking into account the truth or falsity of the scientific theories in question. Which means, if one is honest, that one must explain the acceptance of Newton’s or Darwin’s theories without ever invoking the empirical evidence supporting them. To pass from this attitude to the idea that there is no such thing as empirical evidence, or that such evidence is in any case unimportant, is a step that is too often taken (by Feyerabend, for example) and that leads straight to irrationalism.”

And two paragraphs later, after a careful analysis of Latour’s Third Rule of Method:

“Latour frequently presents himself as a philosopher, and this rule is one of his seven Rules of Method. It is difficult to believe that its ambiguity arises solely from the author’s carelessness. Indeed, this type of ambiguity is very useful in debates: the radical interpretation can be used to attract the attention of readers inexperienced in philosophy; and the innocuous interpretation can be used as a point of retreat when the obvious falsity of the radical interpretation is exposed (“but I never said that …”).

Many thanks again, and best wishes,



(Artwork: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) The Tower of Babel 1563)

One comment

  1. Really interesting! As an anthropologist studying climate finance and trying to make my research understandable to both people in finance and anthropology, I care a lot about communicating across disciplines as well as to outside of academia. I like your framing of the activist impetus behind cultural studies and how the Science Wars incident in a way shows the value of the non-peer reviewed journal!

    I’ve really enjoyed reading the writings of Bruno Latour, I understand Professor Sokol’s argument that “Who could possibly disagree that “accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc.”? Certainly not me! Or anyone else I know!”. However, this perspective does seem to be lost frequently in the communication of scientific research to the wider public, such as when metrics are used to push public policy without a more nuanced reflection, eg. GDP to the chagrin of Stanley Kuznets!

    Also Jon Oliver’s recent take on science studies:

    Liked by 1 person

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