Alan Sokal pulled a prank on the humanities by publishing a fake postmodernist article called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the humanities journal Social Text.

The fake journal article was supposed to be peer-reviewed and vetted for accuracy. Since this was a humanities article, that means they spell-checked it. Sokal makes wild speculations that twists theories like General Relativity into lunatic ideas. Humanities has no empirical foundation, so it turned into art and pseudoscience.

Sokal’s first paragraph starts off like this:

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

It gets better. Or worse, depending on how much you like science.

His quotations and citations are all real. Sokal filled the article with gems like this:

Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, “neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination’ of the social.” And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: “mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.”

Math oppresses women in the humanities. I bet it does.

Gary Kamiya describes how Sokal pulled it off.
[quote]Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for ‘advanced’ thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords (‘hermeneutics,’ ‘transgressive,’ ‘Lacanian,’ ‘hegemony,’ to name but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an au courant journal, and have it accepted . . . Sokal’s piece uses all the right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white men, the ‘real world’), applauds the virtuous (women, general metaphysical lunacy) . . . And it is complete, unadulterated bull*** – a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered editors of Social Text, who must now be experiencing that queasy sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled that nice big gift horse into their city. [/quote]

Sokal explains why he pranked an academic journal:

I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them….

But my main concern isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you). Rather, my concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse — and more generally a penchant for subjectivism — which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the Left.

He makes a good point when it comes to politics. There are Two Lefts (or 50 Lefts, depending). There is a greater divide between subjectivists and objectivists than there is between the Left and Right. The Left and Right often attempt to reach the same goals but through different ways. They can consider each other’s method if both are objectivists – perhaps they can compromise or find the most efficient policy. Subjectivists are insane. There is no nice way of putting it.

All this should be embarassing to the Arts and Humanities, but it probably isn’t. They are so deeply detached from reality that they don’t care.

Sokal quotes Larry Laudan, whose book Science and Relativism defends science from the insane attacks by the Humanities:

I did not write this work merely with the aim of setting the exegetical record straight. My larger target is those contemporaries who — in repeated acts of wish-fulfillment — have appropriated conclusions from the philosophy of science and put them to work in aid of a variety of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted. Feminists, religious apologists (including “creation scientists”), counterculturalists, neoconservatives, and a host of other curious fellow-travelers have claimed to find crucial grist for their mills in, for instance, the avowed incommensurability and underdetermination of scientific theories. 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.
— (1990, p. x)

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