Academia might be be­yond satire

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - COMMENTARY - Ge­orge Will’s syn­di­cated col­umn ap­pears Thurs­days and Sun­days in the Tri­bune Her­ald. His email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­

WASHINGTON — The Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, which is a win­dow on the some­times weird world of academia, re­cently re­vis­ited a hi­lar­i­ous in­tel­lec­tual hoax from 20 years ago. Read­ing the rec­ol­lec­tions of the per­pe­tra­tor and of some who swal­lowed his gib­ber­ish is sobering.

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a New York Univer­sity physi­cist and self-de­scribed “aca­demic left­ist,” com­posed an es­say that was a word salad of solemn aca­demic jar­gon. He said he strove to be “es­pe­cially egre­gious,” by maun­der­ing on about “the di­alec­ti­cal em­phases” of “catas­tro­phe the­ory” be­com­ing a “con­crete tool of pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal praxis.” His es­say’s gaudy ti­tle was: “Trans­gress­ing the Bound­aries: To­ward a Trans­for­ma­tive Hermeneu­tics of Quan­tum Grav­ity.”

He sent it to the left-lean­ing “cul­tural stud­ies” jour­nal So­cial Text, which swooned, per­haps in part be­cause Sokal larded his nonsense with po­lit­i­cal tropes that are cat­nip to let­tered left­ists — “eman­ci­pa­tory math­e­mat­ics,” “de­mys­tify and de­moc­ra­tize the pro­duc­tion of sci­en­tific knowl­edge,” “the cri­sis of late-cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion re­la­tions.” Soon after So­cial Text pub­lished his faux schol­ar­ship, Sokal re­vealed in an­other jour­nal, Lin­gua Franca, that it was a par­ody.

This would have been ob­vi­ous to any­one whose in­tel­li­gence had not been anes­thetized by the pa­tois of “de­con­struc­tion­ist” and “post­struc­tural­ist” pro­fes­sors. They move on to Ni­et­zsche’s as­ser­tion that there are no facts, only in­ter­pre­ta­tions, which he wrote shortly be­fore go­ing mad at age 44. They be­gin with a few ba­nal­i­ties: Sci­ence is in­flu­enced by po­lit­i­cal and so­cial forces; lit­er­a­ture is con­di­tioned by the writ­ers’ con­texts. And they ar­rive at the doc­trine that ev­ery­thing from sci­ence to sex­u­al­ity is a “so­cial con­struct” re­flec­tive of so­ci­ety’s power re­la­tions, and there­fore ev­ery­thing is ar­bi­trary and po­lit­i­cal.

In Lin­gua Franca, Sokal wrote: “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.)” The is­sue of So­cial Text con­tain­ing Sokal’s prank in­cluded earnestly in­tended es­says such as “Gen­der and Gen­i­tals: Con­structs of Sex and Gen­der,” which said the “West­ern as­sump­tion that there are only two sexes” is be­ing re­futed by “a rain­bow of gen­der” purged of “the bi­nary male/fe­male model.” Sokal’s par­ody blended in.

To­day, Bruce Robbins, a Columbia Univer­sity hu­man­i­ties pro­fes­sor who was a co-ed­i­tor of So­cial Text, tells The Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion that Sokal’s es­say ap­pealed be­cause he seemed to be a sci­en­tist “kind of on ‘our side.’” Robbins and an­other So­cial Text ed­i­tor promptly claimed vic­tim sta­tus, say­ing that “the de­cep­tive means by which Sokal chose to make his point” will in­jure “the open­ness of in­tel­lec­tual in­quiry.”

Sokal’s point, how­ever, was that in­tel­lec­tual in­quiry in the hu­man­i­ties of­ten is not open. The hu­man­i­ties, he to­day tells the Chron­i­cle, had be­come a “sub­cul­ture” that was “in­grained and self-ref­er­en­tial and mostly dis­dained cri­tiques from out­siders, so that an or­di­nary type of in­tel­lec­tual cri­tique was pre­cluded.”

To­day, Robbins says Sokal was not un­eth­i­cal, but he should not have re­garded those whom So­cial Text spoke for as “en­e­mies.” Says Robbins, “I mean, there were epis­te­mo­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences, but so what?”

So what? Epis­te­mol­ogy is the field of phi­los­o­phy con­cern­ing the the­ory of knowl­edge, of the meth­ods of ar­riv­ing at cer­tainty. It con­cerns the dis­tinc­tion be­tween mere un­founded opin­ion and well-grounded be­lief. Their “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences” were not sim­ply whole­some “di­ver­sity.” The epis­te­mol­ogy Sokal at­tacked pre­cludes se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of know­able re­al­i­ties. What Sokal ex­posed was — and re­mains — rad­i­cal rel­a­tivism that as­serts the im­pos­si­bil­ity of se­ri­ous sci­ence and schol­ar­ship.

As Steven Wein­berg, a No­bel Prize-win­ning physi­cist at the Univer­sity of Texas, sen­si­bly tells the Chron­i­cle: “We in sci­ence are not so naive that we think that sci­ence is done in a vac­uum … with­out be­ing af­fected by the sur­round­ing cul­ture. We just think the fi­nal re­sults that we’re aim­ing to­ward are cul­ture-free.”

To­day, Sokal, who seems ea­ger to make amends for his good deed, claims “a small amount of credit” for what he says is di­min­ished ar­dor for rad­i­cal epis­te­mo­log­i­cal rel­a­tivism. But he says “the main credit” be­longs to — wait for it — Ge­orge W. Bush, who dis­cred­ited “sci­ence bash­ing.” Sokal and kin­dred spir­its — he seems to be safely back in the bub­ble — tell the Chron­i­cle that the real prob­lem is “anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism” off cam­pus: “aca­demic ex­per­tise” is un­der at­tack, “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal skep­ti­cism” by “the right” is abet­ting cli­mate change, etc.

Twenty years on, one les­son of Sokal’s hoax is that many ed­u­ca­tors are un­e­d­u­ca­ble. An­other is that al­though won­der­ful sendups have been writ­ten about academia (e.g., Ran­dall Jar­rell’s “Pic­tures from an In­sti­tu­tion”), it now might be be­yond satire.

Ge­orge Will

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