An academic trade hournal’s account of a publishing hoax that shook the academy.
Hoaxes are fun to read about, especially those that harm no one. It’s a bonus if they embarrass pompous institutions whose opinions we dislike. The Sokal hoax seems to have these qualities. Physicist Alan Sokal had grown increasingly annoyed at critiques of science emanating from postmodern scholars working in multicultural studies (i.e., in fields that view reality as something “constructed” by an observer’s class, culture, politics, and gender). Many scholars maintain that observer bias is not only significant to our perceptions of reality but even more significant than the reality itself. Applied to literary texts, this “deconstructionist” analysis has produced heated controversies—though not ones likely to make the evening news. Applied to science, it has led to odd interpretations of natural laws. Thus, some claim that Einstein’s theory of relativity describes space and time accurately, but only from the point of view of a Eurocentric, male-dominated, post-Enlightenment, capitalist culture. They are quick to add that Navaho cosmology (which explains that objects move and time passes because the universe forms a single living spirit) is equally accurate. Upset at what he considered absurd relativism, Sokal composed a long essay written in turgid academic prose, full of politically correct nonsense backed by pages of quotes from heroes of postmodernism—and the trendy journal Social Text found it valuable enough to publish. The editors of Lingua Franca, which first revealed the hoax, here reprint Sokal’s essay and assemble the responses. There are sections devoted to the popular press, academic press, and foreign contributions, and, as with all good intellectual controversies, the issues are more complicated than they seem at first. Although plenty of wacky multicultural and feminist academics exist, most of Sokal’s targets take less extreme positions and complain that he caricatures them. Worse, the glee with which the popular media took up the controversy reveals an unpleasant, anti-intellectual side of American culture.
Readers who struggle through Sokal’s essay will be relieved to find the rest of the book lucid, readable, and positively stimulating.