Sokal 2.0: Hoaxing Cultural Studies

In the 1990s, NYU physicist Alan D. Sokal did the groves of academy a sterling service that should have earned him plaudits etched in gold.  It began with the meaningless yet teasing “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Theory,” published in Social Text. It is a ribbing article that still reads with appropriate cheek today: a velvet gloved challenge to the claims of science to a higher objectivity.  (The clue here should have always been the insertion of Quantum Theory into the discomforting embrace of hermeneutics.)

There were a few teasing gems that should have alerted reviewers to Sokal’s play, given the author’s physics pedigree. “The Einsteintinian constant is not a constant, is not a centre.  It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game.  In other words, it is not the concept of something – of a centre staring from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game.”  These were, fittingly, not Sokal’s words but those of Jacques Derrida, master of deconstruction and sceptic of all matters objective.

In Lingua Franca, a journal whose editors’ eyewash was evidently a touch stronger, Sokal explained his Social Text foray with grim satisfaction.  The article opened with the ominous observation of Larry Laudan’s Science and Relativism (1990): “The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is – second only to American political campaigns – the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.”  The article published in Social Texthad been “liberally salted with nonsense”.  It had been accepted by the editors because “it sounded good” and “flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

He was subsequently accompanied by fellow stone thrower Jean Bricmont, and, as co-conspirators, Intellectual Impostures, also titled as Fashionable Nonsense, became more than the barbarian at the gates for the poststructuralist, and postmodernist fraternity.  The integrity of science, and the value of factual verification, was being reclaimed. Postmodernism, according to Richard Dawkins, had been disrobed.

The authors dynamited a certain number of frauds – or at the very least a certain number of fraudulent ideas – and attempted to confine them to the ashes of their deserved ruin.  (Not that ruins don’t have a habit of being stubbornly persistent and revisited.)  Jean Baurdillard played loose with Euclidean and non-Euclidian geometrics; Jacques Lacan made nonsensical claims misusing topology and logic.  The famed, impenetrable psychoanalyst “uses quite a few key words from mathematical theory of compactness, he mixes them up arbitrarily and without the slightest regard for their meaning.  His ‘definition’ of compactness is not just false: it is gibberish.”

This was codswallop bathed in hogwash, a scandal of tenured, remunerated intellectuals who had simply taken the show too far.  (A certain degree of tolerance is offered the charlatan in the academy, notably in the social sciences, but even there, the joke has legs that go only so far.) There were Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who tend to hang around academic departments, often as misrecognised creatures.  Their texts, suggest Sokal and Bricmont, “contain a handful of intelligible sentences – sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous – and we have commented on some of them in the footnotes. For the rest, we leave it to the reader to judge.”

The star of this grand show of debunking was Luce Irigaray, who argued with unnerving daftness that science was conceptually sexist.  A physics equation such as E=Mc2 was a “sexed equation”. The dastardly equation supposedly privileged the speed of light “over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.  What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its use by nuclear weapons, rather its having privileged what goes fastest”.

Such exposures will always produce defenders. On relativised ground, where the foundations have eased, all is possible, except when tenure and standing are in question.  The post-modern infatuation generated a cadre of pseudo-intellectual foot soldiers, and the need to justify job, position and standing.  While Sokal and Bricmont may have landed well-aimed blows, the beast of academic fatuity continued to ride.

Last year, a second effort was made that came to be known as Sokal 2.0 or Sokal Squared.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Helen Pluckrose, student of medieval religious writing on women; James A. Lindsay, mathematician; and Peter Boghossian, assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, had written 20 hoax papers over 10 months in the parodied field of “grievance studies”. Their success rate was impressive: seven acceptances, of which four were published online, with three in the pipeline “without having had time see publication through.”  There were also seven “papers still in play when we had to call a halt.”

As the authors explained in Areo, something had “gone wrong in the university,” notably in the humanities. “Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields”.  The cognoscenti of such studies “increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview.”

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker approved of the exercise and despaired at the findings. “Is there any idea so outlandish that it won’t be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/‘Theory’ journal?” Bryan Caplan likened it to an Ideological Turing Test, namely “to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents”. But the defenders and apologists were not far behind.

How, then, was Sokal 2.0 to be rebutted?  One was the oldest trick in the dog-eared book of academic defence: avoid the troubling results, and go for the character of the scholar.  Debunk the scholar; debunk the data.  Karen Gregory, a sociologist of University of Edinburgh did just that, or at least tried to, claiming that “the chain of thought and action that encourages you to spend 10 months ‘pulling a fast one’ on academic journals disqualifies you from a community of scholarship.  It only proves you are a bad-faith actor.”  A neat inversion takes place: The author with laughable methods more in place in a book of superstitions, questionable presumptions and dogmatic outlook, is permitted to stay in the academic grove; those who challenge it, are refused admission.

The hoax flew high and far, at least within the corridors of academe and the tutored outlets.  It totally convinced and deceived Daniel Soar, an editor at the London Review of Books.  Soar, who missed every single matter connected with the deception, wrote in sneering contentment that the ploy did not quite work. What was produced was good, laboured over and decent. How could it really be dismissed out of hand?  “This argument only holds… if what they wrote was actually ridiculous.  It’s worth noting how extraordinarily hard they worked to make their papers suit the journals they we are aiming to get published in.”  Perhaps it is just as well: an editor is bound to be cautious, defensive and, ultimately, apologetic for those choices that lead to published shams.

The premise, in short, had not been proven in its entirety.  “So I’m not persuaded that these hoaxers have proved, through their writing, that cultural studies are a sham.  One of the papers that got accepted by that hadn’t yet been published before the story of the hoaxing broke was entitled ‘When the Joke Is On Your’. I think the joke’s on them: the only way the could get away with what they did was obediently produce exactly the kind of work that the field requires.”  And that is precisely the point: to have obediently replicated the criteria of vacuity, fictive endurance and nonsense, thereby falling for the very mockery intended.  Soar duly succumbs.

An underlying note exists to the limp attacks against Sokal 2.0.  They betray desperation on the part of the attackers, showing that self-interest is the enemy of fair thinking.  Think lazy disposition in the face of needing to publish; think spineless will before the bean counting tyrants of university administration.  Academics need to publish, and, just as a writer for a thankless despot needs to fill the pages to an approved narrative to survive, an academic in an institution, to get tenure, needs to become a Stakhanovite production machine.  If so, the situation must be seen as a tragedy.

Amidst this crisis, the old problem of scholastic merit and obfuscation never goes away.  As Dawkins rightly asks: How to we tell the difference? “What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes?”  To sort the bounding, careerist charlatan from the profound, well-expressed idea remains a great challenge. But was it ever different?

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: