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The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy Paperback – September, 2000
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In 1995, a New York University physicist named Alan Sokal, frustrated by what he considered the misuse of science by academic philosophers and literary critics, decided to play a meaningful prank. After studying the arcane jargon of postmodernism, he cooked up a superficially au courant but patently ill-founded paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" and submitted it to the journal Social Text, edited by a collective of academic celebrities. Wooed by the article's apparent endorsement of their approach and evidently unschooled in basic science, the editors accepted and published the paper.
The Sokal Hoax gathers Sokal's paper; the Social Text editors' arch, wounded reply when it was revealed, in the pages of the academic journal Lingua Franca, that the paper was a transparent scam; and a selection of journalistic accounts, letters to the editor, and accusations and counteraccusations surrounding what came to be called "the Sokal hoax." Some of these documents are thoughtful, addressing ways in which it might be possible to bridge the wide gap between the sciences and the humanities. Many, however, are defensive and polemical, almost embarrassing to read. They compound Sokal's charge that faddishness has overcome common sense in the halls of academe, and that the postmodern emperor has no clothes.
In its modest way, the collection is an entertainment, serving as an anthology of ivy-covered silliness. More seriously, it adds depth to Sokal's collaboration with physicist Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, and other books about the hoax and its implications, which continue to excite discussion. --Gregory McNamee
"Readers who struggle through Sokal's essay will be relieved to find the rest of the book lucid, readable, and positively stimulating."--Kirkus Review
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Top Customer Reviews
The book starts by printing the hoax article and Sokal's revelation. It then captures some of the immediate response, mostly by Social Text supporters. Then you see some newspaper articles from around the world, and finally some longer essays. Since each article originally came from a separate publication, each one starts with two paragraphs or so of synopsis, explaining the background of the hoax. That gets tedious, but if you read beyond the first couple of paragraphs, each article has something interesting to say.
Kudos to the editors of Lingua Franca for making such excellent choices.
In this book, the editors of Lingua Franca have assembled all the documents you need to understand what really happened. You can read the hoax paper in its entirety. You can read the article that revealed it as a hoax. You can read the response by the editors of Social Text. You can read what the press had to say, what intellectuals on both sides of the issue have said about the hoax, and what people writing in other countries have made of the whole thing.
Lately, the Sokal hoax has been on my mind a lot, and I find that I need to explain it to people who never heard of it, before I can talk about it. This book is the perfect answer to the question "where can I read more about it?" What I like about this book is that it represents all sides of the debate with their own words, and leaves it to the reader to make her own decision where she stands on the issues raised by the prank.
Early in 1994, Alan Sokal, a physicist from NYU, read a book called "Higher Superstitions." This book by Gross & Levitt brought to a head Sokal's irritation at a certain postmodern faction within the academic community that he saw as challenging standards of logic, truth and intellectual inquiry. Could he possibly write an article bad enough to be obvious nonsense to any undergraduate physics student, yet good enough to get published in a leading pomo periodical? Unfortunately for the members of the screening committee for "Social Text," the answer was "yes."
The article itself is presented in chapter I. It caters to agendas of pomo authorities rather then relying on logic, drips with unreadable prose, and has mistaken claims about scientific theories. It includes an illogical train of thought but offers lots of apple-polishing to the gurus it parodies. Sokal says, "The fundamental silliness in my article lies in the dubiousness of its central thesis and in the 'reasoning' adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity has profound political implications." When Sokal realized his article was going to be published, he began writing his expose of the hoax. They were published in different magazines on the same day.
Ideally, perhaps "Social Text" would have admitted their error, issued a congratulatory statement to Sokal, and notified the public that they were immediately tightening up their article evaluation process. Instead, they whined about being sabotaged and called Sokal "poorly educated, too male, too nerdy, and naughty." They did the best they could but this turd was hard to polish.
After the publication of the "hoax of the decade," the press had a field day. The book continues with editorials from over 40 United States contributors and 9 from Europe and Brazil. The very first respondent was Alan Sokal, followed by Robbins and Ross, representing "Social Text." In the process of reading the reviews, I got an education on postmodernism and cultural studies, many of whose advocates roasted Sokal. The Scientist community, by and large, roasted "Social Text" and postmodernists. Physicist Steven Weinberg wrote a great essay where he discussed in detail each item of erroneous physics served up in Sokal's article.
For a nice read and a chance to see both sides presented on an important issue, I can highly recommend this excellent book.
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