sokal stuff from an editor of social text

Arthur V. Chadwick (
Wed, 03 Dec 1997 21:43:36 -0800

This text is a response of the editor of Social Text who accepted Alan
Sokal's bogus text on Superstring Theory for publication. Notice
particularly the conclusion.... Antipathy towards creationism makes strange

Science, Imperialism, and Love

Well-meaning friends have tried to dissuade me from being
here. They have said that this debate is over before it gets
started; from the moment Social Text accepted Alan's article, we
had made ourselves so ridiculous that nothing further we might
add would make any difference. Needless to say, I hope this
isn't true. But I'm not going to take any of the little time I
have trying to undo the damage. If anyone is interested in the
story of how Alan's article got accepted, I'm happy to talk about
it afterwards. Well, maybe not happy, but willing.

So-- a few quick words first about epistemology, before I go
on to suggest that epistemology is not really the issue.

Very schematically, Alan's side wants to insist on an
absolute distinction between truth itself and our representations
of truth. My side wants to insist that no such distinction can
be absolute. But my side also wants to say that in most cases it
won't matter much, practically speaking, since there are better
representations and worse ones, and the better ones will do most
of the work that Alan's side wants out of "the truth" perfectly

In search of further common ground, my side should admit not
only that the objective world exists but also that it intrudes
forcibly if complexly into the conclusions we draw about the
world. (I have no trouble accepting Lee Smolin's amendment: it's
not so much a construction of as a negotiation with the world.)
For example, if all European knowledge about the Third World was
nothing but racist stereotype and/or projections from the
European unconscious, as some critics assume, then imperialism
would never have worked as well as it did in dividing and
conquering its subjects, keeping them down and plundering them
with efficient brutality. More or less reliable information was
necessary. I myself have never been satisfied with a simple
social constructivist paradigm, and neither for that matter has
Social Text.

On the other hand, Alan's side should admit that sometimes
there are serious problems in getting from the existence of the
objective world to the conclusions people draw about it. They
should admit that in the social world, especially, some very ugly
stuff continues to hide behind the mask of supposed scientific
objectivity, and that it's therefore not totally irrational to
want to pull that mask off.

To our side, the extra investment in an abstract notion of
"the" truth, which is something entirely separable from science's
practical needs, looks like displaced theology. That is, it
looks like an unwarranted claim to social authority. And that
claim, I think, is the real heart of the matter.

The new book that Alan and Jean Bricmont have published in
French, Impostures Intellectuelles, suggests that the big
difference between scientists and humanists is their attitude
toward authority. Humanists supposedly worship authority; that's
why a fake article that quoted all the right authorities could
get accepted. Scientists on the other hand question authority;
each one is a Galileo confronting the medieval church, a pure
skeptic standing outside and against all social constraints. The
image that carries this message through the book, and that has
also appeared whenever media commentators wanted to sum up this
affair, is out of the famous folk tale of the emperor's new
clothes. The scientist, in this case Alan, is the innocent child
who simply speaks the truth that he sees, declaring the
postmodern emperor to be naked.

It will not surprise you if I suggest that there are some
things wrong with this picture. Is science really like a
juvenile commoner, utterly lacking any hostile intentions toward
the mighty sovereign, and all the more effective in exposing the
mighty sovereign because he is both so weak and so clearly
innocent in his intentions? Does this image of realist
epistemology realistically represent the power relations between,
say, science and the humanities in society as we know it? My own
view is that it is as demonstrably misleading as any metaphor can
be. But don't take my word for it. Consider Alan's own
alternative. Another analogy the book uses over and over again
is scientific methodology as a police investigation. No problem
with the literal point about not needing absolute certainty, only
to overcome reasonable doubt. But as always, analogies and
metaphors carry extra baggage. Here the extra implication is
precisely the reverse of the emperor-with-no-clothes: suddenly
science is no longer a child looking up at an emperor, but on the
contrary the state apparatus looking down from on high at the
street, imposing a certain brand of law-and-order.

This second metaphor may not reveal the truth, but it
certainly reveals a truth about Alan's argument. His stone-
kicking epistemology is less like a child, I would suggest--if it
were a child, it would be a rather imperious, even an obnoxious
child, willing to say that most every philosopher since Kant has
been talking nonsense-- and more like the police: the police as
represented by Mark Fuhrman and the Abner Louima case, let's say,
the police that (as I heard on the radio yesterday) people in
Brooklyn find less polite to them than the drug-dealers are. In
short, this is an unconscious identification with a disciplinary
apparatus that many ordinary citizens have good, rational reasons
not to accept at its word.

In Alan's book, which I must say is not a very good showcase
for the unambiguous clarity it purports to believe in, this
identification with the police also appears in the following
nebulous ambiguity: sometimes the book merely defends science
against attacks from without, arguing innocently enough that
every discipline should stay on its own territory, and sometimes
it suggests something much more ambitious-- that scientific
method can and should do the work of the humanities, that science
should be the leader, guide, and authority for all the

Alan is not alone in making this sort of claim. An article
last year in the journal Academe declares in a familiar vein that
"scientists find themselves under siege from postmodern
academics, romantic environmentalists, and religious
fundamentalists" ((Robert Park and Ursula Goodenough, "The
Unmaking of American Science Policy: The End of the Scientific
Era?" Academe (Jan-Feb 1996), 13). Complaining about large cuts
in science funding, the neglect of science in the National
History Standards, and the negative depiction of science in a
Smithsonian exhibition on "Science in American Life," the authors
then ask what a scientifically literate public ought to know.
They answer as follows: "it would be enough for people to
understand that we live in an orderly universe, a universe
governed by physical laws that cannot be circumvented by any
amount of piety or cleverness --laws that dictate everything from
the birth of stars to falling in love" (15).

If the last phrase passed you by without setting off any
alarm bells, if you felt no shred of doubt that the implacable
physical laws of the universe do extend to falling in love, then
you will not understand why non-scientists often feel like the
objects of scientific aggression, aggression by a voice that
insists calmly, objectively, as if it were simply self-evident,
that ever larger domains of human and social experience can and
must be brought under the supervision of physical laws that
"cannot be circumvented by any amount of piety or cleverness." I
don't say that people's erotic choices are totally undetermined
by anything outside their will. But when you tell them that
their choices are "dictated" by the physical laws of an "orderly
universe," they are going to answer that you don't know that
universe nearly as well as you think you do, and they are going
to ask some searching questions about what you mean by "orderly"
and whether you aren't presupposing in advance an orderliness
that properly remains to be investigated and proved. In other
words, this is not science as it is practiced, but science as
ideology. Practicing scientists don't need it.

It is arguable that all of the objects studied by the
humanities and social sciences resemble falling in love in this
respect. How they are felt, experienced, and interpreted is an
irreducible and inextricable part of what they are, as is some
always debatable margin of freedom dismissed in the quotation
above as "piety or cleverness." This line of argument would seem
to lead toward a compromise position in which each side would
agree to keep to its own distinctive brand of objects, its own

This would mean a retreat for both sides. Alan has said
that we need good science against bad science: against the sort
of science that (these are my examples, not Alan's) reinvents
Original Sin in terms of genetics and seems intent on destroying
projects of social amelioration in the name of hypothetical Bell
Curves and "neuroticism" genes. But I can't eliminate the
theoretical possibility that even what some scientists would call
good science-- genetic explanations of falling in love, say--
should be fought, and fought on the grounds that no science, good
or bad, deserves jurisdiction over topics like this. On the
other hand, the movements of thought roughly identified as
cultural studies or science studies or postmodernism have been
equally imperialistic; they too have staked claims to territory
that science had considered its own. The only difference between
the two imperialisms is perhaps that the postmodern version is
ready to concede that there is no natural division between the
two territories, no single truth that can adjudicate once and for
all between the competing imperial claims.

I haven't left myself enough time for further description of
this so-called "postmodernism"--not a banner I happen to march
under, but one I'll accept for the occasion since it's what Alan
says he's attacking. But one shorthand account would be to say
that it is a mode that, in resisting certain sorts of single and
authoritative interpretation, also (for better or worse) gives up
the right of making any authoritative critique. The postmodern
project of de-naturalizing, or the making conscious of
unconscious assumptions, might want to show, for example, how the
"fact" that a cathedral was built in 1612 (Terry Eagleton's
example) includes assumptions about the value of knowing and
example) includes assumptions about the value of knowing and
dating origins, as opposed to knowing something else about the
cathedral. But as this example suggests, it would not
necessarily mean critiquing such assumptions in the strong sense,
or throwing them out: "no more dates!". In the same way, showing
that science draws on "sources" from its culture, as Darwin for
example drew on political economy for his theory of natural
selection, does not necessarily take anything away from the power
of what science does with those sources.

I say this because many scientists seem to believe, along
with the author of another article in Academe, that our way of
thinking [quote] "considers science to be wholly fraudulent"
(19). That is just what it does not do.

John Horgan, a science writer for Scientific American, wrote
an Op-Ed piece about the hoax in the NY Times saying that (I
quote) "Professor Sokal later announced that his article [which
had "proposed that superstring theory might liberate science from
'dependence on the concept of objective truth'"] had been a hoax
intended to expose the hollowness of postmodernism. In fact,
however, superstring theory is exactly the kind of science that
subverts conventional notions of truth" (end of quote--July 16,
1996). Alan responded to this in a letter which began by saying
that Horgan "errs in attacking superstring theory" and ended by
saying that "we shouldn't reject superstring theory prematurely
on spurious philosophical grounds" (July 22, 1996).

I hope you will notice that Alan has totally misunderstood
the point. Horgan is not attacking or rejecting superstring
theory in his piece. Whatever he may have said about it
elsewhere, he seems quite enthusiastic about superstring theory
here. He is very clearly doing only what Alan himself claimed to
be doing in his Social Text article: drawing philosophical
conclusions from superstring theory.

Whether or not you agree with Horgan that science resembles
other creative uses of human intelligence more than it differs
from them (maybe Lee will say something on this point), it's
clear that Alan has simply misrepresented what he was saying.
But the postmodern or literary-critical response here would not
be to shout "false" and stop; it would be to analyze the mistake
in its context. Its most pertinent context, I would suggest, is
the series of genuine attacks that physicists have suffered from
various quarters. There have been some very dumb attacks from
humanists who know very little about science and are simply using
it as a straw man. And there have been some more consequential
attacks: with the end of the Cold War, cutbacks in federal
support for "pure" or long-term research, an increasing
dependence on corporate funding and "bottom line" thinking, and
thus a visible weakening of science's rationale for
disinterested, objective research. Faced with a disaster of this
magnitude, any form of self-defense, even publicity stunts that
betray the principles of their own discipline, have to be
considered fair play.

I will conclude by saying that we may not agree on a common
epistemology, but I think we have a better chance at a common
politics. If and when we have to argue with people who want
creationism given equal time in science class, we are going to be
on the same side, and we should perhaps remember that when we
talk to each other. Another important thing that scientists and
humanists have to say to each other is that we share an urgent
short-term interest in securing support for society's long-term
interests, which include proper funding both for pure or long-
term scientific research and for the proper teaching and study of
the humanities.