Sokal affair

From New World Encyclopedia
Sokal in 2011

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax, refers to an article by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The article used popular jargon to suggest that a scientific theory about the effects of quantum mechanics on gravitation was socially constructed. The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor. The article was published. Sokal later admitted that the article was a hoax. The hoax caused controversy about the scholarly merit of commentary on the physical sciences by those in the humanities; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; and academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors or readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had abided by proper scientific ethics.

In 2008, Sokal published Beyond the Hoax, which revisited the history of the hoax and discussed its lasting implications.


In an interview on the U.S. radio program All Things Considered, Sokal said he was inspired to submit the bogus article after reading Higher Superstition (1994), in which authors Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt claim that some humanities journals will publish anything as long as it has "the proper leftist thought" and quoted (or was written by) well-known leftist thinkers.[1][2]

Postmodern theories like those of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida questioned the universality of the scientific method and the Enlightenment tradition in general. Many postmoderists believed that knowledge was socially-constructed. Gross and Levitt were defenders of the philosophy of scientific realism, opposing postmodernist academics who questioned scientific objectivity. They asserted that anti-intellectual sentiment in liberal arts departments (especially English departments) caused the increase of deconstructionist thought, which eventually resulted in a deconstructionist critique of science. They saw the critique as a "repertoire of rationalizations" for avoiding the study of science.[3]

The article

The article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,"[4] was published in the journal's spring/summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue of Social Text. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. [5] The purpose of the hoax was to investigate whether "a leading North American journal of cultural studies—whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross—[would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."[6]

At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.[4][7] Three weeks after its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in the magazine Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.

Content of the article

"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"[4] proposed that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, and that the "morphogenetic field" could be a valid theory of quantum gravity. (A morphogenetic field is a concept adapted by Rupert Sheldrake in a way that Sokal characterized in the affair's aftermath as "a bizarre New Age idea.")[6] Sokal wrote that the concept of "an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being" was "dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook."

After referring skeptically to the "so-called scientific method," the article declared that "it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical "reality" is fundamentally "a social and linguistic construct." It went on to state that because scientific research is "inherently theory-laden and self-referential." It "cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities," and that therefore a "liberatory science" and an "emancipatory mathematics," spurning "the elite caste canon of 'high science'", needed to be established for a "postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project."

Moreover, the article's footnotes conflate academic terms with sociopolitical rhetoric, e.g.:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and "pro-choice," so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo–Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

Intent of the Article

Sokal reasoned that if the presumption of editorial laziness was correct, the nonsensical content of his article would be irrelevant to whether the editors would publish it. What would matter would be ideological obsequiousness, fawning references to deconstructionist writers, and sufficient quantities of the appropriate jargon. After the article was published and the hoax revealed, he wrote:

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that "the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project" [sec. 6]. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.[6]


Sokal submitted the article to Social Text, whose editors were collecting articles for the "Science Wars" issue. "Transgressing the Boundaries" was notable as an article by a natural scientist; biologist Ruth Hubbard also had an article in the issue.[8] Later, after Sokal revealed the hoax in Lingua Franca, Social Text's editors wrote that they had requested editorial changes that Sokal refused to make, and had some concerns about the quality of the writing: "We requested him (a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and (b) to excise most of his footnotes."[7] Still, despite calling Sokal a "difficult, uncooperative author," and noting that such writers were "well known to journal editors," Social Text published the article in the May 1996 Spring/Summer "Science Wars" issue because of his credentials.[7] The editors did not seek peer review of the article by physicists or otherwise; they later defended this decision on the basis that Social Text was a journal of open intellectual inquiry and the article was not offered as a contribution to physics.


Follow-up between Sokal and the editors

In the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, in the article "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies", Sokal revealed that "Transgressing the Boundaries" was a hoax and concluded that Social Text "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject" because of its ideological proclivities and editorial bias.[6]

In their defense, Social Text's editors said they believed that Sokal's essay "was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field" and that "its status as parody does not alter, substantially, our interest in the piece, itself, as a symptomatic document."[9] In addition to criticizing his writing style, Social Text's editors accused Sokal of behaving unethically in deceiving them.[10]

Sokal said the editors' response demonstrated the problem that he sought to identify. Social Text, as an academic journal, published the article not because it was faithful, true, and accurate to its subject, but because an "academic authority" had written it and because of the appearance of the obscure writing. The editors said they considered it poorly written but published it because they felt Sokal was an academic seeking their intellectual affirmation. Sokal remarked:

My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. ... There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counterproductive.[7]

Social Text's response revealed that none of the editors had suspected Sokal's piece was a parody. Instead, they speculated Sokal's admission "represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve." Sokal found further humor in the idea that the article's absurdity was hard to spot:

In the second paragraph I declare without the slightest evidence or argument, that "physical 'reality' (note the scare quotes) [...] is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough. Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. I live on the twenty-first floor.[11]

Book by Sokal and Bricmont

In 1997, Sokal and Jean Bricmont co-wrote Impostures intellectuelles[12] (US: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science; UK: Intellectual Impostures, 1998).[13] The book featured analysis of extracts from established intellectuals' writings that Sokal and Bricmont claimed misused scientific terminology. It closed with a critical summary of postmodernism and criticism of the strong program of social constructionism in the sociology of scientific knowledge.[14]

In 2008, Sokal published a followup book, Beyond the Hoax, which revisited the history of the hoax and discussed its lasting implications.[15]

Jacques Derrida

As Sokal revealed the hoax, French philosopher Jacques Derrida was initially one of the discredited targets in the United States, particularly in newspaper coverage. A U.S. weekly magazine used two images of him, a photo and a caricature, to illustrate a "dossier" on the Sokal article. Derrida responded to the hoax in "Sokal et Bricmont ne sont pas sérieux" ("Sokal and Bricmont Aren't Serious"), first published on November 20, 1997 in Le Monde.[16] He called Sokal's action "sad" for having trivialized Sokal's mathematical work and "ruining the chance to carefully examine controversies" about scientific objectivity.[17]

Derrida then faulted him and Bricmont for what he considered "an act of intellectual bad faith" in their follow-up book, Impostures intellectuelles: they had published two articles almost simultaneously, one in English in The Times Literary Supplement on October 17, 1997[18] and one in French in Libération on October 18-19, 1997.[19] While the two articles were almost identical, they differed in how they treated Derrida. The English-language article had a list of French intellectuals who were not included in Sokal's and Bricmont's book: "Such well-known thinkers as Althusser, Barthes, and Foucault—who, as readers of the TLS will be well aware, have always had their supporters and detractors on both sides of the Channel—appear in our book only in a minor role, as cheerleaders for the texts we criticize." The French-language list, however, included Derrida: "Des penseurs célèbres tels qu'Althusser, Barthes, Derrida et Foucault sont essentiellement absents de notre livre" ("Famous thinkers such as Althusser, Barthes, Derrida and Foucault are essentially absent from our book").

Derrida may also have been sensitive to another difference between the French and English versions of Impostures intellectuelles. In the French, his citation from the original hoax article is said to be an "isolated" instance of abuse,[12] whereas the English text adds a parenthetical remark that Derrida's work contained "no systematic misuse (or indeed attention to) science."[20][21] Derrida cried foul, but Sokal and Bricmont insisted that the difference between the articles was "banal."[22] Nevertheless, Derrida concluded that Sokal was not serious in his method, but had used the spectacle of a "quick practical joke" to displace the scholarship Derrida believed the public deserved.[17]

Social science criticism

Sociologist Stephen Hilgartner, chairman of Cornell University's science and technology studies department, wrote "The Sokal Affair in Context" (1997),[23] comparing Sokal's hoax to "Confirmational Response: Bias Among Social Work Journals" (1990), an article by William M. Epstein published in Science, Technology, & Human Values.[24] Epstein used a similar method to Sokal's, submitting fictitious articles to real academic journals to measure their response. Though much more systematic than Sokal's work, it received scant media attention. Hilgartner argued that the "asymmetric" effect of the successful Sokal hoax compared with Epstein's experiment cannot be attributed to its quality, but that "[t]hrough a mechanism that resembles confirmatory bias, audiences may apply less stringent standards of evidence and ethics to attacks on targets that they are predisposed to regard unfavorably."[23] As a result, according to Hilgartner, though competent in terms of method, Epstein's experiment was largely muted by the more socially accepted social work discipline he critiqued, while Sokal's attack on cultural studies, despite lacking experimental rigor, was accepted. Hilgartner also argued that Sokal's hoax reinforced the views of well-known pundits such as George Will and Rush Limbaugh, so that his opinions were amplified by media outlets predisposed to agree with his argument.

The Sokal Affair extended from academia to the public press. Anthropologist Bruno Latour, criticized in Fashionable Nonsense, described the scandal as a "tempest in a teacup." Retired Northeastern University mathematician-turned social scientist Gabriel Stolzenberg wrote essays meant to discredit the statements of Sokal and his allies,[25] arguing that they insufficiently grasped the philosophy they criticized, rendering their criticism meaningless. In Social Studies of Science, Bricmont and Sokal responded to Stolzenberg,[26] denouncing his representations of their work and criticizing his commentary about the "strong programme" of the sociology of science. Stolzenberg replied in the same issue that their critique and allegations of misrepresentation were based on misreadings. He advised readers to slowly and skeptically examine the arguments of each party, bearing in mind that "the obvious is sometimes the enemy of the true."[27]


Sociological follow-up study

In 2009, Cornell sociologist Robb Willer performed an experiment in which undergraduate students read Sokal's paper and were told either that it was written by another student or that it was by a famous academic. He found that students who believed the paper's author was a high-status intellectual rated it better in quality and intelligibility.[28]

The "Sokal Squared" scandal

In 2017, James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose initiated "The Grievance Studies affair," a project to create bogus academic papers on cultural, queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studies and submit them to academic journals. Their intent was to expose problems in "grievance studies," a term they apply to a subcategory of these academic topics in which "poor science is undermining the real and important work being done elsewhere."

The hoax began in 2017 and continued into 2019, when it was halted after one of the papers caught the attention of journalists, who quickly found its purported author, Helen Wilson, to be nonexistent. By that time, four of the 20 papers had been published, three had been accepted but not yet published, six had been rejected, and seven were still under review.[29]

Sokal III

In October 2021, the scholarly journal Higher Education Quarterly published a bogus article "authored" by "Sage Owens" and "Kal Avers-Lynde III". The initials stand for "Sokal III".[30] The Quarterly retracted the article.[31]


  1. Alan D. Sokal and Robert Siegel, "Parody," All Things Considered, National Public Radio, May 15, 1996. Retrieved April 19, 2022.
  2. David Demers, The Ivory Tower of Babel: Why the Social Sciences are Failing to Live Up to Their Promises (New York, NY: Algora Publishing, 2011, ISBN 0875868800), 15.
  3. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, ISBN 0801847664), 6.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Alan D. Sokal, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Social Text 46/47, Spring/Summer 1996, 217–252. Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  5. "The Sokal Hoax: A Forum," Lingua Franca, July/August 1996. Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Alan D. Sokal, "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies," Lingua Franca, June 5, 1996. Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, "Mystery Science Theater," Lingua Franca, July 1996. Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  8. Ruth Hubbard, "Gender and Genitals: Constructs of Sex and Gender" Social Text 46/47, 1996, 157–65.
  9. Andrew Ross, "A discussion of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction," May 24, 1996. Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  10. Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, "Editorial response to Sokal hoax by editors of Social Text,", 1996. Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  11. John Gross, The Oxford Book of Parodies (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0199548828), 307.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Alan D. Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Impostures Intellectuelles (Paris, France: Odile Jacob, 1997, ISBN 2738105033).
  13. Alan D. Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (New York: NY: Picador USA, 1998, ISBN 0312195451), xii.
  14. Barbara Epstein, "Postmodernism and the Left," New Politics 6(2) (Winter 1997). Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  15. Robert Matthews, "The Book of the Week: Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture," Times Higher Education, 2008. Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  16. Jacques Derrida, "Sokal et Bricmont ne sont pas sérieux," Le Monde, November 20, 1997, 17. Retrieved April 19, 2022.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine "Sokal and Bricmont Aren't Serious" (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0804746206), 70-72.
  18. Alan D. Sokal and Jean Bricmont, "The Furor Over Impostures intellectuelles: What Is All the Fuss About?" The Times Literary Supplement October 17, 1997, 17. Retrieved April 19, 2022.
  19. Alan D. Sokal and Jean Bricmont, "Que se passe-t-il ?" Libération October 18-19, 1997, 5–6.
  20. Sokal and Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, 8.
  21. Brian J. Reilly, "Hopkins Impromptu: Following Jacques Derrida Through Theory's Empire," MLN, 121(4), 2006, 919-24.
  22. Alan D. Sokal and Jean Bricmont, "Réponse à Jacques Derrida et Max Dorra,"Le Monde, December 12, 1997, 23.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Stephen Hilgartner, "The Sokal Affair in Context," Science, Technology, & Human Values 22(4) (Autumn 1997}: 506–522. Retrieved April 19, 2022.
  24. William M. Epstein, "Confirmational response bias among social work journals," Science, Technology, & Human Values 15(1), 1990, 9–38.
  25. Gabriel Stolzenberg, "Debunk: Expose as a Sham or False," Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  26. Jean Bricmont and Alan D. Sokal, "Reply to Gabriel Stolzenberg," Social Studies of Science,, June 20, 2003. Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  27. Gabriel Stolzenberg, "Reply to Bricmont and Sokal," Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  28. Robb Willer, Ko Kuwabara, and Michael Macy, "The False Enforcement of Unpopular Norms," American Journal of Sociology 115(2), September 2009, 451–90. Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  29. Gabriel Rossman, "The Highlight of the ‘Sokal Squared’ Hoax? The Satire," The Weekly Standard, October 12, 2018. Retrieved April 19, 2022.
  30. Eric Kelderman, "Another 'Sokal' Hoax? The Latest Imitation Calls an Academic Journal's Integrity Into Question," The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 2021. Retrieved April 5, 2022. "The authors are listed as “Sage Owens” and “Kal Avers-Lynde III” — initials that spell out SOKAL III. It didn’t take long for online sleuths to out it as a hoax. The Higher Ed Quarterly paper appears to be the latest imitation of Sokal’s infamous 1996 prank.
  31. "Retracted : Donor money and the academy: Perceptions of undue donor pressure in political science, economics, and philosophy," Higher Education Quarterly, 2021. Retrieved April 5, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Demers, David. The Ivory Tower of Babel: Why the Social Sciences are Failing to Live Up to Their Promises. New York, NY: Algora Publishing, 2011. ISBN 0875868800
  • Derrida, Jacques. Paper Machine. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0804746206
  • Editors of Lingua Franca (magazine). The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. ISBN 0803279957
  • Gross, John. The Oxford Book of Parodies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0199548828
  • Gross, Paul R., and Norman Levitt. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 0801847664
  • Sokal, Alan. Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010 (original 2008). ISBN 978-0199561834
  • Sokal, Alan, and Jean Bricmont. Impostures Intellectuelles. Paris, France: Odile Jacob, 1997. ISBN 2738105033
  • Sokal, Alan, and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. New York: NY: Picador USA, 1998. ISBN 0312195451

Further reading

  • Bouveresse, Jacques. Prodiges et vertiges de l'analogie. De l'abus des belles-lettres dans la pensée. Paris, France: Éditions Liber-Raisons d'Agir, 1999. ISBN 978-2912107084
  • Brown, James Robert. Who Rules in Science? An Opinionated Guide to the Wars Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004 (original 2001). ISBN 978-0674013643
  • Callon, Michel, "Whose Impostures? Physicists at War with the Third Person," Social Studies of Science 29(2) (1999): 261–286.
  • Eagleton, Terry. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996. ISBN 0631203230
  • Englefield, F.R.H. Critique of Pure Verbiage: Essays on Abuses of Language in Literary, Religious, & Philosophical Writings. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2002 (original 1990). ISBN 0812691083
  • Reilly, Ian. "Public Deception as Ideological and Institutional Critique: On the Limits and Possibilities of Academic Hoaxing," Canadian Journal of Communication 45(2) (2020).
  • Ross, Andrew (ed.). Science Wars Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996, ISBN 0822318814
  • Sokal, Alan D. and Jean Bricmont. "Réponse à Jacques Derrida et Max Dorra," Le Monde, December 12, 1997, 23. Retrieved April 19, 2022.

External links

Links retrieved February 2, 2023.


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