Magazine article Insight on the News

Hoax Unveils the Arrogance of Academia

Magazine article Insight on the News

Hoax Unveils the Arrogance of Academia

Article excerpt

Sometimes a parody can accomplish what dozens of rigorous articles cannot--namely, expose the hollowness at the core of much that passes for cutting-edge thought.

Such was the case when Alan D. Sokal, a physicist at New York University, wrote an article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." With a wink, he submitted it to the editors of Social Texts, a journal that specializes in post-modernist theorizing in the sort of jawbreaking language that Sokal packed into his title. However, when they accepted the piece the editors didn't realize Sokal had sent them a spoof, a parody, rather than the real thing. But, then again, how could they tell the difference? Sokal had the fashionable lingo down pat. At bottom, he argued for a "libertary science" (whatever that may be), and in an intellectual climate when virtually anything on the side of "liberation" is automatically on the side of the angels, the outside referees (three of them, no less) were suitably impressed.

Moreover, the artful professor knew how to throw in the right phrases ("privileged epistemological status," "oppositional discourse") and to name-drop all the right names, including Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray. Granted, neither the jargon nor the academic superstars are household words, but inside the hothouse of the contemporary academy this is the stuff that makes certain academic hearts beat faster.

Poor Andrew Ross, special editor of Social Texts' "Science Wars" issue, learned of the hoax when Sokal broke the story in the May/June issue of Lingua Franca, a magazine that takes a particular delight in holding feet like Ross' to the fire. Not surprisingly, the wire services picked up the story and, soon, all sorts of nonacademic types were chortling over their morning coffee.

But the government agencies that foot the bill for exactly the sort of nonsense that Sokal so deftly ridicules probably were not amused. Nor were those who quit laughing long enough to realize that their taxpayer dollars were what made this cobbling at post-modernist theory and bad science possible in the first place. Meanwhile, genuine scientists such as Sokal often get the bum's rush because they continue to believe in the scientific method, in experiments with results that can be duplicated in the laboratory and, perhaps most of all, in something objectively observable called physical reality.

In short, Sokal numbers himself among those scientists who continue to believe in the old-fashioned idea of pursuing the truth. …

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