This post in the thirteenth in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post in the series is here, and the next one is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
Nobody is a social constructionist at 10,000 feet. –Richard Dawkins
In order to ridicule the claims of humanist upstarts, Sokal and his allies… must reject the physical theories of some of the founders of their own fields. –Val Dusek
In 1996, a physicist named Alan Sokal decided he had had enough of sociology, relativism, postmodernism, and science studies in general. It had been about 30 years since Thomas Kuhn had opened the floodgates, and at times the criticism had become quite intense—often to the point, Sokal thought, of absurdity. Science is useful and it gets things right. By comparison, what is postmodernism good for? No sensible person will try to explain away the useful in terms of the useless. To paraphrase: "If you don't believe that gravity is socially constructed, try walking off a tall building. Otherwise, shut up."
In order to make his point, Sokal wrote an article called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutic of Quantum Gravity," which he submitted to a literary journal called Social Text. The article was long on postmodernist jargon and abysmal misunderstandings of science, but deliberately short on coherent and meaningful content. It was, as the positivists liked to say, "cognitively empty." Social Text published the article (apparently without reading it, or at any rate, understanding it), and shortly after, Sokal revealed the hoax. "Look at these idiots," his critique went. "They'll publish anything." Defenders of science cheered. Critics seethed. The public laughed. The "Science Wars" had begun.
The realist defense of science is often expressed in terms of morality. Science is, by this account, the characteristic and most valuable product of the Enlightenment. Its explanatory success fully vindicates its position as the preeminent intellectual activity of our time, and provides an example of rationality that every person can aspire to. Science keeps us honest when we feel tempted to cheat; that's why its critics don't like it. To understand it as anything other than the rational and correct approach to nature, or to regard its products as descriptive of anything other than objective facts, is foolish at best, dishonest at worst. It corrodes the foundations of civilization.
The postmodernist attack, too, is often expressed in moral terms: Far from being the characteristic blessing of the Enlightenment, science is its characteristic problem. Science has long been associated with sexism, racism, imperialism, and in general, with the domination of the weak by the strong. Its universal aspirations to explain, and ultimately control, all phenomena, amounts to a war of mankind against nature. Its characteristic attitude is both unnatural and foolish. We are meant to live with nature and with each other in some kind of harmony. To spend all this effort to classify, homogenize, and denature everything human and spontaneous is wrong. Beneath Science's awesome display of methodical precision lurks the sinister and all-too-human lust for power—not to do anything with, but only for its own sake.
Postmodernists have generally located scientific realism on the right of the political spectrum, and themselves on the left. During the Vietnam era, when it was taking shape, this may have been accurate. However, since the '60s, the pendulum has swung. Today it is not liberals, but conservatives, who are feeling the heat. Science is now firmly on the side of gender and race equality, while global warming and evolution threaten traditional conservative goals like keeping taxes and regulations low, and maintaining a religious basis for morals and education. The criticisms of Science that were once heard from the left—that it is a front for sinister interests, that the peer-review process is broken, that scientists privilege ideology over evidence, etc.—are now increasingly the property of the right.
The editors of Social Text, writing from the older leftist position, seem to have fallen out of step with the times. The affair is, indeed, best seen as an intra-liberal conflict. Sokal, like Chomsky and (an older) Latour, felt that postmodernism impaired the ability of liberals to mount a rational defense of their values, and paved the way for conservatives to mount an irrational defense of theirs. The time had come, in other words, for leftists to rehabilitate science and deploy it in the struggle against conservatives. That, in turn, meant attacking postmodernism, which had traditionally worked to undermine confidence in science.
Under blistering criticism from scientists and the public alike (scholars in the humanities were unimpressed by the hoax), the editors of Social Text justified their decision to publish Sokal's nonsense article on several grounds. First, it was not their business to censor other scholars. When a scholar publishes an article, he or she puts their credibility on the line. If they want to make a fool of themselves, that's their decision. Second, they were not physicists, and could not reasonably be expected to understand how postmodernism should apply to an obscure and difficult (even for physicists) theory like quantum gravity. It was not their job to understand physics—it was Sokal's. Third, by deceiving them, he damaged his own credibility and that of his colleagues. Mistakes can be overlooked, but bad faith cannot. His article and later comments made it clear that he knew about as much about postmodernism as they did about physics. If it spoke poorly of the editors that they published Sokal's article, what did it say about Sokal that he wrote it? They might have been dupes, but he was a liar.
Spending some time with the Science Wars offers the advantage of seeing the political and moral dimensions of the subject on full display. However, it does so at the risk of caricaturing thoughtful and serious positions. As I've tried to show throughout the series, there are a tremendous variety of perspectives on science; we do not have to choose between simplistic, reductionist narratives. Sokal's hoax certainly embarrassed the editors of Social Text, but it was not a serious criticism of Science, Technology, and Society Studies. Similarly, postmodernism is not a theory about society or science, but about literature. While the "Science Wars" were fought largely on the terrain of STS, the debate was not about STS as such, but rather about morality and reason in science. It does demonstrate, however, how central science is to our society, and how thinking about the nature of science can help us better understand our world.
Sokal Interview: https://m.youtube.com/?#/watch?v=kuKmMyhnG94
Response to Sokal: https://m.youtube.com/?#/watch?v=WR7raJMRxGk
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
Wayne Schroeder says
You too can generate a bogus science article, as has already been done, simply using the following site: http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/
Alan Cook says
Here’s a link to the paper in which Sokal revealed the hoax, and explains why he did it:
In it, Sokal makes two distinct charges (I’ve added the enumeration):
To my mind, the second of these is the far more serious, and well-justified, charge.
Will Parke says
Social Text’s justifications are pretty pathetic however you slice them though. For one, “it was not their business to censor other scholars”? No, but as publishers it’s their business to curate submitted material and present what they feel best represents their intent. From their own current self description, “Social Text seeks provocative interviews and challenging articles from emerging critical voices. Each issue breaks new ground in the debates about postcolonialism, postmodernism, and popular culture.” Ironically Sokal’s piece did just that, provocatively breaking new ground in the debate over what postmodernism actually is or accomplishes. The fact that they disapproved of this after the fact suggests that they were simply lazy curators, adding things that looked provocative without bothering to analyze or understand the material they were publishing.
That also fundamentally undercuts their third justification, that “[Sokal’s] article and later comments made it clear that he knew about as much about postmodernism as they did about physics.” That presents three possibilities: They could be admitting to intentionally publishing a paper that was utter gibberish even before attempting to analyze the scientific aspects. They’re admitting to publishing something that looked sensational without bothering to critically examine it. Or they could be saying that Sokal (despite his ignorance of postmodernism) was somehow able to generate a high quality philosophical paper, again analyzed on the structure of its argument alone.
All three of those possibilities are still sharp indictments at least of Social Text and fundamentally argue for Sokal’s general point that there is some current of postmodern thought that is sensational for its own sake without regard to reason or fact. It’s hardly a proof that all of postmodernism is useless but Social Text’s rebuttal did very little to counter Sokal’s point.
Lydia Fillingham says
I remember the Sokal incident and that era of social construction in the humanities well, and think Daniel Halverson has written a quite balanced remembrance and response.
I wanted to take a moment to explore the one point that got my goat up, and gets to what seems to me at stake from the humanities side. (By 1996 I was already an ex-literature professor, so that is my side of things.)
Postmodernism, you say, “is not a theory about society or science, but about literature.” Postmodernism is many things, literary theory among them, and saying it is not a theory about society (let’s leave science aside for a sec), I believe is just incorrect. But it is also a category so broad and so fuzzily defined that I’m not sure it is useful.
What is at stake here is social construction theory, which was not particularly a theory about literature, but a theory of human perception and knowledge that was of great interest to literary critics. Properly speaking, social construction theory can’t be a literary theory, because no one doubts that fictional and artistic worlds are constructed.
I believe in social construction theory to a large degree — some idea that, perhaps, there is no knowledge or point of view that is pre-social or pre-political. No place to stand where we can be sure we are objective.
I also think that social constructivist thought in the ’80s and ’90s got silly among the true believers. I remember being at a literary conference in the 80’s where a scientist I knew was for some reason present also. (I wish I could remember what the hell the conference was about, or who was involved.) Talking to some literary theorists, I realized they were true believing social constructionists who denied the existence of any objective reality. I tried to press them on science, along the lines that Dawkins takes about gravity, but they wouldn’t budge. Then I later saw my scientist friend and told him of the conversation, and he had a great deal of trouble believing what I said. He knew people in the humanities said things like that, but he thought they were only being metaphorical. (Myself I believe that we cannot be rigorous social constructivists in every day life. Useful tool, but I have to live life also.)
So I do see why Sokal would get annoyed and pull his stunt. I also don’t think any scientist should be annoyed by social construction, because as I imagine science, scientists should be open to the idea that they themselves are making unexamined assumptions.
Social constructionism suggest that there is a category of one’s unexamined assumptions that one cannot examine, because part of the assumption is that it is not an assumption. Like Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns, they are the deeper ones, more likely to get you. That also seems something scientists should agree with.
Social construction would say that you have unexaminable assumptions because your world has been constructed within society based on core assumptions of a society. (Society here can also mean the society of science, or of a particular discipline.)
For example, it was a core assumption in the 19th century U.S. that people from Africa were inferior to people from Europe, such that many people, including most abolitionists, could not see that it was an assumption. It was an assumption key to the founding and economic system of the States, and much biologic and social science was built on it, including Social Darwinism. (And have we ever rid ourselves of it?)
Certainly there is a difficulty that climate deniers and anti-evolutionists can seize on arguments about assumptions and use them in a way that the left does not like. But the anti-science Right should not define the terms of a discussion of the possibility of, or the limits on, objective truth.
Daniel Halverson says
Lydia, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’ve learned a great deal about postmodernism since I wrote this article and I’ve come to see that it was indeed much more than a theory about literature. I fully agree with your comments on that.
With respect to constructionism, and indeed postmodernism, I think it’s fair to say that, like any good idea, it got taken to extremes by some of its more enthusiastic proponents. I understand constructionism as arguing that the equations we use to describe gravity, or our habit of thinking about it in terms of a legal metaphor, our division of reality into mass and energy, and things like that, are culturally conditioned, but that the unverbalized stuff of nature, whatever it is, is not. So I agree with Ian Hacking on this, though I most emphatically do not agree with him that it’s a banal thing to say. Indeed I think that while most people would be willing to agree that these concepts are culturally mediated, very few understand the implications of this, viz. the relationship between science, politics, values, history, and so on. They’re quite destabilizing for the “science is truth” picture of the world.
So while I too find the more extreme constructionists more than a little unreasonable, I think the more persistent danger comes from naive realists who project their values onto science, then receive them back from science as objective fact, and go out on a mission to force the entire world to submit in the name of truth, reason, justice, and so on.
Anyway those are just some thoughts. Thanks again for your comments.
June Bug says
Try this on for size: