10.0539 Sokal's hoax

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Fri, 20 Dec 1996 08:36:25 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 539.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Roger Brisson <rob1@psu.edu> (39)
Subject: Sokal's hoax

[2] From: Matt Kirschenbaum (28)
Subject: Re: 10.0533 Sokal's hoax & human beings

[3] From: Bornstein <georgeb@umich.edu> (120)
Subject: Re: 10.0533 Sokal's hoax & human beings

Date: Thu, 19 Dec 1996 08:56:17 -0500
From: Roger Brisson <rob1@psu.edu>
Subject: Sokal's hoax

For Humanist:

unless I misunderstand you, I'm not sure who, except the strongest
critics of postmodernism, would accept your contention that postmodernists
would deny that such objective truths as you mention are possible. Like
that other mud-slinging epithet 'liberalism,' critics have dumped just about
every intellectual evil imaginable on postmodernism, so that, just like
Zelig in that classic Woody Allen film, postmodernism can take on a
bewildering variety of forms. The computational model you postulate-- that
data, artefacts, or conclusions we come up with can be assessed based on
criteria (the model) that we ourselves devise-- is a simple construct of
'objectivity' that even the slave in Plato's Meno would have little problem
accepting as valid.

In truth, Sokal's hoax ought to teach us that all is not well in the world
of scholarly communication. Clearly, what failed and failed miserably with
the Sokal article is critical peer and editorial review. Anyone who has
read his article, anyone reasonably grounded in the humanities and the
social sciences, should have little problem recognizing the humorously silly
intent of much of what he writes. In our assembly line,
crank-those-articles-out mentality to contemporary scholarship, the
standards of good journal editing and review have fallen to dangerous
levels. I don't know what kind of critical review submitted manuscripts
receive for the journal that published the Sokal article, but it is evident
the reviewers did not carefully read the Sokal text. Because of the lack
of time to carefully read submitted manuscripts, editors-in-chief typically
rely heavily on the reputations of authors in assessing the quality of a
work. In reality, a significant amount of trust forms the basis for keeping
the edifice of contemporary scholarly publishing erect. In my opinion, it
was Sokal's breach of this trust that should deserve much more public
scrutiny than it has received, certainly more than his belittling
postmodernism (again, I would argue that current fashion is the reason for
this). Sokal's essay was published in great part because of his reputation.
I'm convinced that if, say, a Carl Sagan published a carefully written
'hoax' essay for an astronomy or physics journal, filled with bogus
conclusions and questionable data, the potential for it 'slipping' through
and being published would be very high. Unlike Sokal, however, if Sagan
were to do this astronomy or physics would not be taken to task, but rather
Sagan's academic integrity.

Roger Brisson
Penn State University

Date: Thu, 19 Dec 1996 00:35:44 -0500 (EST)
From: Matt Kirschenbaum <mgk3k@faraday.clas.virginia.edu>
Subject: Re: 10.0533 Sokal's hoax & human beings

Well there are two sides to every story, and while I haven't
seen the Boghossian piece, these brief quotations from Willard:

> "not the mere
> existence of incompetence within the academy, but rather that specific
> form of it that arises from allowing ideological criteria to displace
> standards of scholarship so completely that not even considerations of
> intelligibility are seen as relevant to an argument's acceptability."


> "simple-minded relativistic views about truth and
> evidence that are commonly identified as 'postmodernist'" lead, he argues,
> to a state of mind, exemplified by the editors of ST, for which scholarly
> standards become irrelevant, and thus deliberate nonsense acceptable.

basically restate Sokal's own position and polemic.

The best thing I've read on the whole mess is Joe Amato's
"sokal text: another funny thing happened on the way to the
forum" in the _electronic book review_, which argues that the
exchange between Sokal and the editors of _Social Text_ should
have been on-line from the outset (as was much of its fallout).
I'd add though that the "effectiveness" of Sokal's actions
depended precisely on the publishing conventions associated
with the material properties of print media.

Amato's article is at:



Matthew G. Kirschenbaum University of Virginia
mgk3k@virginia.edu Department of English
http://faraday.clas.virginia.edu/~mgk3k/ Electronic Text Center

Date: Wed, 18 Dec 1996 18:00:48 -0500 (EST)
From: Bornstein <georgeb@umich.edu>
Subject: Re: 10.0533 Sokal's hoax & human beings

Hi, Willard
I agree that the Sokal Affair raises interesting questions for all
humanists, and perhaps especially so for those of us interested
in computing in the humanities. You and the list members might want
to know that Sokal maintains his own website, with the original
articles and lots of related info. Here's the address:

Best wishes to all for the holidays. --George

George Bornstein Department of English
C.A. Patrides Professor of Literature University of Michigan
email: georgeb@umich.edu Ann Arbor, Mich. 48109-1045
office phone: (313) 764-6330 office fax: (313) 763-3128