The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing?

The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing? by by Mara Beller.

The philosophical pronouncements of Bohr, Born, Heisenberg and Pauli deserve some of the blame for the excesses of the postmodernist critique of science.

The hoax perpetrated by New York University theoretical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 on the editors of the journal Social Text quickly became widely known and hotly debated. (See Physics Today January 1997, page 61, and March 1997, page 73.) “Transgressing the Boundaries – Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was the title of the parody he slipped past the unsuspecting editors. [1]

Many readers of Sokal’s article characterized it as an ingenious exposure of the decline of the intellectual standards in contemporary academia, and as a brilliant parody of the postmodern nonsense rampant among the cultural studies of science. Sokal’s paper is variously, so we read, “a hilarious compilation of pomo gibberish”, “an imitation of academic babble”, and even “a transformative hermeneutics of total bullshit”. [2] Many scientists reported having “great fun” and “a great laugh” reading Sokal’s article. Yet whom, exactly, are we laughing at?

As telling examples of the views Sokal satirized, one might quote some other statements. Consider the following extrapolation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty and Bohr’s complementarity into the political realm:

“The thesis ‘light consists of particles’ and the antithesis ‘light consists of waves’ fought with one another until they were united in the synthesis of quantum mechanics. …Only why not apply it to the thesis Liberalism (or Capitalism), the antithesis Communism, and expect a synthesis, instead of a complete and permanent victory for the antithesis? There seems to be some inconsistency. But the idea of complementarity goes deeper. In fact, this thesis and antithesis represent two psychological motives and economic forces, both justified in themselves, but, in their extremes, mutually exclusive. …there must exist a relation between the latitudes of freedom df and of regulation dr, of the type df dr=p. …But what is the ‘political constant’ p? I must leave this to a future quantum theory of human affairs.”

Before you burst out laughing at such “absurdities,” let me disclose the author: Max Born, one of the venerated founding fathers of quantum theory [3]. Born’s words were not written tongue in cheek; he soberly declared that “epistemological lessons [from physics] may help towards a deeper understanding of social and political relations”. Such was Born’s enthusiasm to infer from the scientific to the political realm, that he devoted a whole book to the subject, unequivocally titled Physics and Politics [3].

A helpful illustration that poor or confused writing, accepted on the basis of “authority,” is not limited to the humanities.

The weakness of postmodernism does not lie exclusively in:

While publicly abstaining from criticizing Bohr, many of his contemporaries did not share his peculiar insistence on the impossibility of devising new nonclassical concepts – an insistence that put rigid strictures on the freedom to theorize. It is on this issue that the silence of other physicists had the most far-reaching consequences. This silence created and sustained the illusion that one needed no technical knowledge of quantum mechanics to fully comprehend its revolutionary epistemological lessons. Many postmodernist critics of science have fallen prey to this strategy of argumentation and freely proclaimed that physics itself irrevoably banished the notion of objective reality.

The question of “objective reality” can be answered only within some universe of discourse, such as quantum mechanics for example.

There are no reports of “objective reality” or “subjective reality” that do not originate from some human speaker situated in a cultural, social, espistemological, etc., context.

Postmodernists, Stanley Fish comes to mind, should have made strong epistemological move to say that all reports, of whatever nature, from literature to quantum mechanics, are reports situated in human context.

The rules for acceptable argument vary from one domain to another.

But there is no “out there” where anyone stands to judge between domains.

Should anyone lay claim to an “out there,” you should feel free to ask how they escaped the human condition of context?

And for what purpose do they claim an “out there?”

I suspect you will find they are trying to privilege some form of argumentation or to exclude other forms of argument.

That is a question of motive and not of some “out there.”

I first saw this at Pete Warden’s Five short links.

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