Michael Rectenwald on the Sokal Hoax

I’m reading Springtime for Snowflakes: ‘Social Justice’ and its Postmodern Parentage (2018) by Michael Rectenwald and it contains many good things, including this summary of the Sokal Hoax:

In the October 2, 1995 issue of the Nation, NYU Critical Theory professor Andrew Ross reported on the science advocacy conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences called ‘The Flight from Science and Reason.’ Ross dismissed the conference speakers’ attacks on Science Studies. He demeaned the science boosters by calling them “Science Warriors,” mere carnival barkers of science conservativism. According to Ross, the Science Warriors mischaracterized Science Studies as “anti-Enlightenment irrationalism” and caricatured Science Studies scholars as “boffo nihilists who deny outright the existence of natural phenomena like recessive genes or subatomic particles or even the law of gravity.” Ross’s remark about Science Studies scholars denying the law of gravity inadvertently portended one of the most remarkable cases of eating crow in modern academic history: the Sokal Hoax.

When NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted a parody to Social Text, a respected Critical Theory and Cultural Studies periodical, the editors, including Ross and City University of New York (CUNY) professor Stanley Aronowitz, ran the piece in a special ‘Science Wars’ spring/ summer issue in 1996. Sokal’s ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ was the final article in the issue. It followed chapters from a star-studded cast of Science Studies scholars. Sokal demonstrated as possible exactly what Ross had dismissed as preposterous – that Science Studies might go so far as to deny the reality of gravity. Sokal managed to put the hoax past Ross himself, who had so recently denied the prospect as outrageous.

‘Transgressing the Boundaries’ suggested that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct and that one could understand quantum mechanics with postmodern theory. Sokal satirically criticized his fellow scientists, because they accepted “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole.” In quantum gravity, “the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality” and “existence itself become[s] problematized and relativized” (my emphasis). Littered with jargon and excessive citations of postmodern theorists and signaling radical relativism and extreme skepticism with every turn of phrase, Sokal’s essay mimicked Science Studies so successfully that even given the knowledge of the hoax, I wasn’t sure just where it merely strained credulity as opposed to being patently ridiculous. Sokal had seamlessly blended the patently ridiculous with the semi-plausible. The preposterous, satirical claims in Sokal’s parody bear an unmistakable likeness to social justice statements, especially in transgender theory. The non-existence, disappearance, or insignificance of physical reality or the external world in Sokal’s piece anticipates the transgender belief that the facts of biology have nothing to do with the ‘reality’ of gender identity.

In a subsequent issue of Lingua Franca devoted to the Science Wars, Sokal triumphantly spilled the beans. He announced that he had duped the editors of Social Text and therefore the entire field of Science Studies. In response, Ross and Columbia University professor of literature Bruce Robbins insisted that Sokal’s deception was a serious breach of ethics (as if postmodern Science Studies itself wasn’t already an ethical breach). In an attempt to save face, Ross and Robbins suggested that the editorial board had not been utterly bamboozled. They knew the article represented a bad case of mimicry. “From the first, we considered Sokal’s unsolicited article to be a little hokey,” they wrote. Yet the title of the article crystalized the significance of the hoax. Postmodern Science Studies had transgressed the boundaries of evidence and rationality and Sokal transgressed the otherwise secure boundaries of Science Studies’ hallowed nonsense.

Are identitarian academics motivated by resentment?

There’s an interesting passage in Michael Richtenwald’s Springtime For Snowflakes in which he engages in a Marxist analysis of advocates for socialism:

Applying the Marxist class analysis, it is important to note that those who advocate socialism are generally not working-class per se. Most are disaffected intellectuals drawn from the petty bourgeoisie. In other words, their political allegiance is rooted in envy and resentment for those who have more power and resources, rather than in the purity of idealism or good will toward the working masses.

You can imagine a similar point being made by engaging in a neo-Marxist, postmodern critique of neo-Marxist postmodernists, i.e. the reason they want to invert the hierarchies they’ve identified as being characteristic of bourgeois society, in which your status is defined by the various different identitarian categories you occupy, is because that would mean an elevation of their own wealth and status and not because they’re animated by a sense of social injustice. However, the difficulty with making that point, tempting though it is, is that it involves accepting the central premise of their critique of bourgeois society, namely, that our interests and ideas – our very identities – are dictated by the status of our particular tribe relative to that of the other tribes.

Objectivity does not have a white skin

A thought provoked by reading ‘Objectivity does not have a white skin‘ by Alexander Blum:

If there is no such thing as objective truth and the validity of a statement is solely determined by the social status of the group the person making it belongs to – the lower the status, the more valid the statement – then if white males are eventually marginalised, as progressives hope to make them, statements made by, say, me, will become valid in virtue of the low status enjoyed by white males.

Post-modernism v the Po-moid cluster

Interesting essay in Aero Magazine by John Nerst entitled ‘Post-modernism v the Po-moid cluster‘. Nerst distinguishes between post-modernism proper, which he thinks of as quite a respectable philosophical/sociological tradition, and the ‘po-moid cluster’, which is often labelled ‘post-modernism’ or ‘neo-Marxist postmodernism’, but which isn’t.

In my experience, the list of what is being referred to under the name “post-modernism” looks something like this:

  • Activist scholarship that’s more concerned with advocacy than knowledge.

  • The idea that it’s okay to be as political and biased as you want because everything is political anyway.

  • Public debate is a war of ideas and non-rational means are acceptable. Indeed, insisting on rational rules and objective standards is nothing but an attempt to gain the upper hand.

  • The attitude that science, rationality, and logic hold no special status as means of inquiry, often backed up by describing them as male, white, and western, in contradiction to their professed universality.

  • Identity politics as defined here: i.e. the idea that oppressed groups are owed agreement with their views due to past and present injustices, backed by the notion that effective communication and rational discussion across identity lines are impossible.

  • Favoring subjectivity and intuition over objectivity and evidence.

  • Favoring ideas over the physical when thinking about what constitutes reality.

  • Everything is about power. For example, scientific facts are the outcome of social processes and reflects the biases of the winners, not actual truth.

  • The structure of society is not a given and arguments justifying the status quo are simply the ruling groups’ attempts to justify their privileges.

  • Things are “socially constructed,” which can mean many things, but usually implies that the categorization/conceptualization of people, events, or contexts creates corresponding behaviors, rather than those behaviors being innate.

  • Cultural and ideological forces, not material limitations or human nature, cause social problems.

  • There is no “human nature” worth considering.

  • Individual wants are mediated by culture to such an extent that they can be viewed as untrustworthy.

  • A focus on relationships as more fundamental than entities.

  • An unwillingness to pass judgment on cultural practices, often inconsistently applied only to cultures considered oppressed.

  • Rigid labeling, especially of people, is illegitimate. It’s desirable to disrupt and destabilize categories, boundaries and roles.

  • Subjective interpretations of experiences and communication are always correct. Intent does not determine meaning.

  • People’s own view of themselves is more important than their objective characteristics.

  • The political and social implications of ideas are more important and interesting than their accuracy or parsimony.

  • Image and appearances are more important than substance.

  • It’s valid to criticize scientific ideas ideologically, even if you have no particular scientific objections to offer.

  • No culture is better than any other. This often includes the hypocritical exception of western civilization, which is bad.