Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Sokal Hoax Twenty Years Out

History of Science
by Edward Hessler

Have you ever heard of a paper with the tongue-curling title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"?

It was published some twenty years ago in a left-leaning, heavily cultural studies freighted journal. Social Text is an academic journal that was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for Literature "for eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless and which claimed that reality does not exist." The link to the Wikipedia entry (Social Text above) describes its subsequent publishing history and interests.

You may view the 1996 Ig Nobel ceremony here. Winners have "done something that makes people LAUGH and then makes them THINK."

Alan Sokal [Wikimedia]
The paper was written by a real scientist, a physicist at New York University by the name of Alan Sokal.  He larded the paper with all the jargon he could find from the opaque literature of the cultural studies crowd, indeed came close to going overboard that he wondered whether it would be published. Social Text loved it.

Shortly after Sokal revealed to the world that it was all a hoax which created quite a stir in some circles of the academy. Science remained and last I looked still thrives.

The Science Wars and Science Denial

Jennifer Ruark wrote a relatively short oral history, Bait and Switch, for The Chronicle of Higher Education which tells the story of how it (the Science Wars) all happened, the aftermath and whether it had any long lasting effect.  Most of the major players are quoted. Ruark chose a style of presentation that is very effective and easy to read while not getting lost or becoming frustrated by the jargon common in Social Text publications.

In this era of post-truth, truthiness, etc. one wonders about lasting effects or whether similar effects are on the rise. Science bashing is not uncommon (think climate science and global climate change).

 As usual, I strongly recommend you read the comments following Ruark's essay.

With respect to scientific facts, as one of the commenters on Ruark's essay notes "it is a bad thing to fall from a very high place."  He was not writing about science but about pre-scientific cultures learning this from experience. No science was necessary. What he neglects to mention is that with the development of science, this force now has some basis in understanding based on investigation using empirical data.

Gravity is far from being understood and integrated with the other forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force are described in a language different from gravity (these three are described in the maths of quantum physics; gravity in the maths of a continuous classical physics). A viable theory of quantum gravity would mean that all four forces could be united under a common theoretical frame work, a goal of theoretical physics.

It is not known whether nature has the same goal but it seems fair to say it is likely. I'm way, way, way out of any depth or width here.

The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote a definition for facts in science and mathematics that I think is a very useful way of thinking about them.

Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there ain't no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. ... In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

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