The readers of Lingua Franca, an American journal reporting and discussing events of the academic life, found a surprising article by NYU Physics Professor Alan Sokal that started as follows:
For some years I've been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I'm a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.
So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try an (admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would the leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article consisting of utter nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Interested readers can find my article, ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity'' (!), in the spring 1996 issue of Social Text. It appears in a special number of the magazine devoted to ``The Science Wars".
What's going on here? Could the editors really not have realized that my article was a parody? (Sokal, 1996b)
I shall quote below some parts of the paper, so that the reader will be able to answer by himself or herself this last question. Here is a typical example:
Thus, general relativity forces upon us radically new and counterintuitive notions of space, time and causality; so it is not surprising that it has had a profound impact not only on the natural sciences but also on philosophy, literary criticism, and the human sciences. For example, in a celebrated symposium three decades ago on Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l'Homme, Jean Hyppolite raised an incisive question about Jacques Derrida's theory of structure and sign in scientific discourse:
When I take, for example, the structure of certain algebraic constructions [ensembles], where is the center? Is the center the knowledge of general rules which, after a fashion, allow us to understand the interplay of the elements? Or is the center certain elements which enjoy a particular privilege within the ensemble? ...With Einstein, for example, we see the end of a kind of privilege of empiric evidence. And in that connection we see a constant appear, a constant which is a combination of space-time, which does not belong to any of the experimenters who live the experience, but which, in a way, dominates the whole construct; and this notion of the constant - is this the center?
Derrida's perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity:The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability - it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something - of a center starting from which an observer could master the field - but the very concept of the game ...
In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group ``acts transitively'': this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone. (Sokal, 1996a)
As pointed out by Steven Weinberg in his review of Sokal's parody, ``this is absurd -- the meaning of a mathematically defined quantity like cannot be affected by discoveries in physics, and in any case both and G continue to appear as universal constants in the equations of general relativity." (Weinberg, 1996a) The rest of the quote puts together good-sounding words like ``de-centered", ``disconnected from any epistemic link", but is basically meaningless. There are other glaring absurdities: how could general relativity possibly have a ``profound impact" on literary criticism?
Why did they publish it? Here is, I think, the main ``trick" used by Sokal: the ``argument" given above is a comment on some (rather meaningless) quote from Derrida. And the entire paper is essentially a ``cement" glueing together, without any logic, quotes from several famous French and American intellectuals who make quite ignorant statements about physics or mathematics, with, however, great self-confidence. Independently of the parody, Sokal assembled several lengthier quotes from famous intellectuals who ``abuse" physics and mathematics, which he started to circulate among his scientific colleagues. Most scientists found the quotes either amusing or shocking; however, non-scientist friends suggested that one explain what exactly is wrong with the quotes. Indeed, these quotes are sufficiently well made so that non-scientists may not notice their fraudulent character. The authors must have assumed that no scientist would ever read their prose, so that nobody would say openly that the emperor has no clothes (this shows indirectly how much contempt they have for their readers). From then on, we have collaborated to write a book which would say just that. The purpose of this article is to give and discuss some examples of this ``postmodern" academic discourse. I shall also quote some other people who praise the works that we criticize. Indeed, it seems that the problem is not only that a few individuals go out of their way when they talk about science, but that their cultural environment (commentators and journalists) tolerates and even encourages this sloppy way of thinking. This is particularly true in the French (Parisian) subculture, but obviously, given the success of these authors in the United States, Finland and elsewhere, the problem is much broader.
We distinguish, roughly, two types of abuses:
1. One ``imports'' concepts from the exact sciences into psychoanalysis, semiotics, sociology, without giving any conceptual or empirical justification: this corresponds to the (post-)structuralist period, and will be illustrated by texts of Lacan and Kristeva.
Display of false erudition, name-dropping, play on words: this is more the post-modern attitude: all attempts to ``do science" have been given up. I shall illustrate it through quotes of Virilio, Deleuze-Guattari and Baudrillard.
Another target of Sokal's satire is the epistemic relativism which is rather prevalent nowadays among educated people: science is increasingly considered as a ``narrative" or a ``myth" among others, with no privileged claim to objectivity. Much sloppy thinking is also done along those lines, and I shall illustrate this by discussing some statements of Latour and of Irigaray.