Jewish World Review July 6, 2010 / 24 Tamuz 5770

He Can't Fool Me

By Paul Greenberg | It had been years since I'd thought of him, and I probably wouldn't have if a letter to the editor hadn't had his fingerprints all over it. It took me a while to remember his first name, then it came to me: Alan Sokal.

Remember him? As in Sokal's Hoax? You might not unless you teach science or philosophy, or are just interested in literary hoaxes. And who isn't? Everybody loves a mystery. And a good joke. One that tells us something about our times, or at least its craziness.

Dr. Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, was getting a little tired of all the oh-so-advanced, postmodernist, deconstructionist cant that was popping up everywhere in academia a decade or so ago -- like a crop of weeds threatening to overrun anything in our universities that might resemble actual thought.

Even by then the rage to deconstruct was infecting the arts and sciences and everything in between with pretensions of being a scholarly discipline -- journalism, education, film criticism, interior decoration ... you name it. A French import, the stuff was everywhere, like some bad beaujolais nouveau that had just been released. Like a pox.

So the professor submitted a dense paper -- dense in every way -- to one of those little academic journals that exist not to be read, for the prose in them tends to be unreadable, but to be written for. So profs can get another item for the publish-or-perish section of their resumes. This journal was called Social Text and may still be published out of some place like Duke or Yale where they go all-out for the latest in politically correct inanity.

The full title of the professor's article ("Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Social Text, Spring/Summer 1996) was itself a little masterpiece of satire. And the text that accompanied it was a perfect parody of the whole genre, complete with its indecipherable prose, layer upon layer of ideological rectitude, masses of arcane references, sociological gibberish, and the usual yard of footnotes that gradually swallows the text -- like a pet boa constrictor that's grown out of control. Vladimir Nabokov used the same trick in his "Pale Fire," which is to academia what his Lolita was to motels.

Dr. Sokal's oh-so-serious treatise was almost pure educanto, and so naturally was accepted for publication. Its thesis, if it had one, was that gravity has no objective reality but is only an historical construct, like all the rest of scientific knowledge, which has been foisted on the innocent by a rapacious ruling class. Call it Marxism for the culturally inclined.

As the professor himself would describe his article, it was a "pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense ... structured around the silliest quotations [he] could find about mathematics and physics."

Here's just one slice of the article, thick as halvah with delicious parody: "Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step farther, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science -- among them, existence itself -- become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science...."

This oh-so-serious paper was splattered with references to Jacques Derrida, Stanley Aronowitz and all the usual suspects. Professor Sokal seems to have consulted all the icons of deconstructionism and probably made up a few more. "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative, etc." remains a small work of genius -- a status immediately confirmed by the howls of protest from the humorless when he revealed it was a hoax. What fun.

All this came back to me the other day on reading the letters column of the simple daily newspaper I write for, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which is much too workaday to be confused with a highfalutin academic journal. This letter, too, seemed to view reality, facts, and all that objective folderol as a mere historical construct that needs to be brushed away so the young can be properly educated/indoctrinated. Or as the writer explained:

"Indeed, science is not an objective enterprise. It is greatly influenced by power, culture, race, gender and ethnicity. Biologist Ruth Hubbard says that facts are invented, not discovered; facts are not necessarily facts forever, as shown by the constant change in dogma in biology as new data are obtained."

Beautiful. This guff is still widespread, apparently, having spread far beyond the ivory tower, like so much smog. Two plus two equals four only because we're told so. The germ theory of disease is but a philosophical construct. It all depends on what we're taught, and since there are fashions in science as in all human endeavors, then science itself is only fashion -- a culturally agreed-upon illusion, a bourgeois plot, as ever changeable as mere fact.

Ri-i-ght. Just don't try to build a bridge that way, with an airy disregard for gravity, and expect it to hold up. Nor would I recommend stepping off a lookout point in the Rockies in the blithe expectation that gravity is but a scholarly conceit. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as objective reality, and it can be unforgiving.

This kind of philosophical debate is scarcely new. It was the venerable Dr. Johnson, that old Tory and well of common sense, who, when asked how he would refute the learned Bishop Berkeley's theory that the world exists only in our imagination, replied: "I refute him thus!" and kicked a stone in the road. Facts are stubborn things. Like a stone in the road.

I read that letter to the editor with great interest and even greater suspicion. It had a familiar sound to it. I wasn't deceived by the signature at the bottom. Oh, no, Alan Sokal can't fool me. He's back! And writing letters to the editor under a pen name.

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