Confessions of a Disagreeable Man

By Levitt, Norman | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2000 | Go to article overview
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Confessions of a Disagreeable Man

Levitt, Norman, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

A review of The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy Edited by the Editors of Lingua Franca, Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press.

If you give me your attention I will tell you what I am: I'm a genuine philanthropist all other kinds are sham. Each little fault of temper and each social defect In my erring fellow-creatures I endeavor to correct. To all their little weaknesses I open people's eyes; And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise; I love my fellow creatures I do all the good I can--Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man! And I can't think why!

W.S. Gilbert, King Gama's song from Princess Ida

I SEEM TO HAVE FALLEN INTO the role of professional Diagreeable Man during the past few years; perhaps I have a natural affinity for it. At any rate, many of the commentators to the volume under consideration vigorously argue that I, along with various "science wars" allies, am a nasty piece of work, intent on defaming worthy scholarship and discrediting noble political aims. For my own part, hearing from one such critic that "the book [Higher Superstition] by Gross and Levitt, did an unbelieveable amount of damage," brightens up my day and puts a spring in my step. Alas, however, The Sokal Hoaxis only incidentally about me, as the title clearly indicates. The chief target of all the praise and blame is Alan Sokal, whose well known prank at the expense of the journal Social Text in 1996 brought the science wars out of the dim corridors of academia and thrust them onto the front page of the New York Times.


A few days after the now-celebrated (or reviled) hoax article appeared in the "Science Wars" issue (double no. 46/47) of Social Text; Sokal blew the whistle on himself in the magazine Lingua Franca, which might best be described as a high-class gossip sheet for academics, especially young and trendy types in the humanities and social sciences. From there, the story took off and made a considerable media splash, both in the U.S. and abroad. Comments proliferated in newspapers, and the Internet came alive with discussion and polemic. A good deal of the response came from academic bigwigs, for whom the Sokal affair brought to a head many of the contentious issues that had been seething just below the placid surface of university life.

The Sokal Hoax, edited (rather anonymously) by "the editors of Lingua Franca," is a modest but useful compendium concerning the hoax. The editors' terse introduction provides some chronology, but not much substantive commentary. The book gets going in earnest with a reprint of Sokal's mischievious article "Transgressing the Boundaries," followed by his Lingua Franca "confession," and the extensive correspondence published afterward. Various newspaper accounts come next, among them the New York Times story by Janny Scott. A miscellany of essays then provides a spectrum of academic views, pro-Sokal and con. These include a number of attempts by Social Text editors to get themselves off the hook, together with a few of Sokal's responses. The most substantial and valuable pieces, in my opinion, are lengthy analyses by Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg and New York University philosopher Paul Boghossian (originally published in the New York Review of Books and the London Times Literary Supplement respectiv ely.)

It's nice to have all these sources together in one binding, but most of them were already three years old when the book went to press, and have already been carefully scrutinized by Hoax aficionados. Much of this material was posted to various Internet sites long ago. I gather that the volume was more or less put together a couple of years back, and that publishing arrangements took some time to complete. The worst effect of this delay is that the most important development in the story since 1996, the publication of Sokal and Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense (Impostures Intellectuelles, in the original French edition), is completely ignored.

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