Science: Parody fashion

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The Independent Culture
ABOUT 10 years ago a young theoretical physicist at New York University became aware of some weird goings on in the literary and sociological worlds. He heard from a variety from friends about post-modernist thinking and what can be called cognitive relativism, in which the very idea of objective truth, let alone scientific understanding, is rejected. Weird, he thought, but that in itself is nothing to worry about as there are plenty of weird ideas in physics, like 10-dimensional string theory.

Then he started to look into these ideas more closely and found very sloppy thinking in articles dealing with subjects such as anthropology and literary criticism which insisted that the truth or falsity of statements, including those made by science, are culturally determined. He was particularly concerned as many of the authors, like him, were from the left, and such views would further undermine the fragile status of the left in the US. It was essential for the left to base its policies on reliable objective evidence. While his unease increased he did not feel competent to comment on fields outside his own.

Then Alan Sokal came across Gross and Levitt's book The Higher Superstition: the Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Initially he expected this to be another attack from the right, but was horrified to find that the academic left did indeed hold post-modernist relativist views about science. Incredulous, he went and read the primary sources to see if that was really the case - it was. He quickly assembled a dossier of even worse examples such as an article by a professor of English from Yale which claimed that quantum mechanics supported the views of the influential philosopher Derrida.

What should he do? To write another critical article would be to consign it down a black hole of indifference - the response would be hostility from some of the left and praise from the right. So instead he decided to write an article as a physicist that praised this approach. It would, however, be a parody and as an experiment, he hoped to publish it in a post-modernist journal.

He entered into the writing with zest. He only gave accurate quotes from the leaders of the movement like psychoanalyst Lacan, and his claims that topology (a branch of mathematics) supported his ideas, and linked them all together with quantum gravity. It was easy, as neither logic nor evidence were required. But he revised it repeatedly, to get the right level of unclarity and absurdity. He concluded that quantum gravity could be used to support a progressive political line. He sent the paper, "Transgressing the boundaries; towards a quantitative hermeneutics of quantum gravity", 35 pages long, to the journal Social Text as it was trendy with a post- modernist slant. He declined the request to cut out the footnotes and it was accepted without comment in May 1995.

Some 50 friends and associates, sworn to secrecy, knew what was about to happen. But the secrecy was not perfect, a journalist got wind of it and Sokal revealed what he had done within a few weeks of the article's publication. It was ignored for a month or two, and then there was an explosion of interest from all the leading papers, and television networks. Overnight he became famous and in his aim to attract critical debate on these issues, he had succeeded brilliantly.

He has also used his large dossier of material to co-author Impostures Intellectuelles in France. Hopefully an English translation is on the way. We are in his debt.

Alan Sokal's website is at http:/www.physics.nyu. edu./faculty/sokal/