Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, had a theory. In the spring/summer 1996 he tested that theory with an article he had submitted to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The article was “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.
In that article he theorised that quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct. The article contained such gems as….
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
However, in the past decade, under the impetus of the feminist critique, some mathematicians have given renewed attention to the theory of “manifolds with boundary” [Fr. variétés à bord].70 Perhaps not coincidentally, it is precisely these manifolds that arise in the new physics of conformal field theory, superstring theory and quantum gravity.
The dialogical move towards redefining systems, of seeing the world not only as an ecological whole but as a set of competing systems — a world held together by the tensions among various natural and human interests — offers the possibility of redefining what science is and what it does, of restructuring deterministic schemes of scientific education in favor of ongoing dialogues about how we intervene in our environment.
At the time Social Text did not peer-review submissions, so no physicist ever reviewed the article before publication. The article lavishly referenced leading post-modern academics, mathematicians and physicists.
On the day of publication Sokal revealed in Ligua Franca, that the whole article was a hoax. Inspired by the book Higher Superstition, he had speculated that as long as the publishers agreed with his conclusions and he liberally quoted well-known academic thinkers, he could successfully publish a totally bogus article. He was right.
Why did he do it?
To quote Sokal’s own words..
Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance.
What can we learn from this?
- In the struggle to understand, we can assign profundity to nonsense
- Peer review is an essential weapon in uncovering nonsense. To quote Sokal “In sum, I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject.”
- When faced with jargon and complexity we must demand clear definitions, context and language
It is not just academics who can fall into this trap, and these three weapon are just as applicable to corporate environment as academic ones. How many times have you heard a peer spout utter nonsense, backed up by some spurious facts and figures, and seen them go unchallenged?