Sokal Affair

Fashionable Nonsense

The Sokal affair was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the magazine’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to learn if such a journal would ‘publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.’

The article ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,’ published in the ‘Social Text’ Spring/Summer 1996 ‘Science Wars’ issue, proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the Journal did not practice peer review fact-checking and did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. On its date of publication Sokal revealed in literary magazine, ‘Lingua Franca,’ that the article was a hoax, identifying it as ‘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.’

The resultant academic and public quarrels concerned the scholarly merit, or lack thereof, of sociologic commentary about the physical sciences; the social disciplines influenced by postmodern philosophy, in general; academic ethics—including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether the journal had exercised the appropriate intellectual rigor before publishing the pseudoscientific article.

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