PRINT October 1996


The Sokal Text Scandal

HISTORICAL COINCIDENCES CAN HARDLY compare with the strange synchronies Nature sometimes throws up. Think back to last spring and summer, try to take a binational view, and wonder aloud why, suddenly, on both sides of the Atlantic the air is heavy with the unpronounceable words and mystifying acronyms of the Science Wars. March in London, and even the crocuses are going crazy. There is something rotten in the beef of Olde England (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE, more prosaically known as Mad Cow Disease), and while the politicians are desperately hiding behind the latest scientific “evidence” and the media are going for broke busily stoking instant panic, the scientists themselves are quite undecided about the links between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, known to rot the human brain. Now, look across the water. . . . May in New York, the early blossom barely breaking out, and the killing fields of academe are already rife with shepherd’s blight. Serious outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease rage around Washington Square, where the Commissars of Scientific Rationality (CSR) are busy bum-rapping the Concerned Comradely Collective of Cultural Studies (CCCCS). All the wee “little magazines” are in a state of high excitement, and all because of that infamous Sokal Text—the parodic “deconstruction” of the “canon of mathematics” that N.Y.U. physicist Alan Sokal managed to slip by the editors of the leading cultural studies journal Social Text. Roger Kimball of The New Criterion has once again displayed his zeal for the “ideal of objectivity [sic]” with the furious enthusiasm of a Genghis Khan; while Social Text has got its Red diapers in a twist. More is involved in running these two stories together than Nature’s prescience “red in tooth and claw.”

Differences of scale and political urgency should prevent us from drawing easy analogies. The largely parochial, academic context of the Sokal hoax, with its almost paranoiac fixation on academic “culture,” a continuation of the culture wars by other means, bears little initial resemblance to the national and international implications of the BSE scare (e.g., 12,000 estimated job losses in the first week of the scare, the proposed culling of 11.8 million heads of cattle, the prospect of killing off a £500,000,000 export industry).

Is it worth pursuing a comparison between Sokal’s epistemological hoax and the British agricultural scare? At the level of content and implication the exercise seems most unpromising. But I find it intriguing that these latest eruptions over the public status of scientific “truth” should emerge, on both sides of the Atlantic, as events set apart from “ordinary life” and described in the affective language of hoax and scare. “Hoaxes” and “scares” are not simply forms of experience: they emerge through print and the visual, virtual media as social narratives whose efficaciousness lies in the disturbance, even distortion, of “rationality”; their relation to “external reality” is necessarily displaced, diversionary, and inescapably figurative. Put it down to my innate distrust of “literal meaning,” blame it on my belief in the significant role played by “social and linguistic constructs” in the designation of physical reality (apologies in advance to Messrs. Kimball and Sokal), but I remain convinced that these forms of address are obviously more than merely rhetorical gestures (in the case of the hoax) or the manifestations of the media (in the case of the scare).

Sokal’s hoax purports to adopt the language of “epistemic relativism” and post-Modern literary theory—“allusions, metaphors, and puns substitu[ting] for evidence and logic,” as he put it in the May/June Lingua Franca item that revealed his scam—as a way to “prove” the opposite case, in support of scientific “truth”: “There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise.” Precisely. Methinks the laddie doth protest too much—and with nothing positive to show for it. If the scientist’s new metacritical clothes leave him so hopelessly bereft of ideas, then no wonder he needs to pass in post-Modern “drag.” It’s these banal and naive “epistemic” conclusions Sokal arrives at in the name of Science that lead me to believe that his hoax is not simply “hokey,” nor is its worst sin the betrayal of the “good practice” of academic trust and integrity. Sokal’s hoax is a form of “acting out”: an ingenious, labile play with post-Modern or post-Structuralist building blocks in order to produce a primary pastiche that he readily acknowledges is without “reasoned argument” or “a logical sequence of thought.” To condemn the terms of his parody too readily, or acquiesce with it too easily, is to collude with Sokal’s simplistic fantasy of a pure polarity between science’s reasoned arguments and the inherent illogic and obfuscation of cultural languages of allusions, metaphors, puns, and rhetorical strategies. We must not allow Sokal to force upon us his banal version of the binarism of science (as the ready reference of external reality) and literary studies (as the hocus-pocus of cultural hermeneutics), not because we literary and cultural analysts are so fragile in our knowledge, but because his confreres, the most thoughtful members of the scientific community itself, will not have it either. The point has been beautifully made in the July/August Lingua Franca by Evelyn Fox Keller, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at MIT, in what remains by far the pithiest and wisest comment on the whole affair:

Scholars in science studies who have turned to postmodernism have done so out of a real need: Truth and objectivity turn out to be vastly more problematic concepts than we used to think, and neither can be measured simply by the weight of scientific authority, nor even by demonstrations of efficacy. Yet surely the ability to distinguish argument from parody is a prerequisite to any attempt at understanding the complexities of truth claims, in science or elsewhere. . . .

On the other side, Keller continues, “It saddens me that my scientific colleagues so readily confuse the analysis of social influence on science with radical subjectivism, mistaking challenges to the autonomy of science with the ‘dogma’ that there exists no external world.”

There is no easy comfort here for anybody—Right or Left, scientist or cultural critic—but it does provide the occasion for a completely different reading of the Sokal hoax. While the received wisdom is that Sokal wanted to expose the post-Modern flakes—and subsequent events have played right into his hands—may I suggest that Sokal’s perverse pleasure probably lay elsewhere. It was as a committed leftist, Sokal claimed, desperate to protect the lunatic left from itself, that he resorted to his little scam. I believe in his sincerity, but distrust his ready gift of providing such glowing comfort to the forsworn enemies of the left (e.g., Kimball et al.). Sokal’s gloating at his own gibberish, his bloomers that any “undergraduate physics or math major” would have readily detected, his repeated reproach that the spoof he “intentionally wrote” was not sent out for evaluation by a scientist—all this convinces me that Sokal’s real desire (in that way in which something unconscious can also be quite real), was to have been found out himself.

I would be the last person to argue in that “subjectivist” mode so roundly damned by our scientific “objectivists”: I am therefore not suggesting that Sokal did not intend to dupe the editors of Social Text. Rather, apart from (or alongside) his petulant mischief, I detect in Sokal’s essay—in his rhetorical strategies, in his linguistic constructions—a displaced anxiety about the contested “autonomy” of science, an anxiety that works, as Keller suggests, by distancing “science” from its own epistemic uncertainties and contingencies. This process involves the defenders of Science representing their own anxiety as an aggressive attack upon scientific truth from the perceived “post-Modern” dogma “that there exists no external world.” All is “social construction-ism.” To echo Sokal’s words: What sane post-Modernist would believe this? Did he check the facts with a literature or philosophy major?

But my perverse reading of scientific anxiety goes beyond the controversy around epistemological claims—whether relativist or rationalist—to the question of the status of science as public authority. The contingency and uncertainty that afflicts scientific authority when its “autonomy” is most eagerly sought in the public domain demonstrate the inadequacy of scientific rationality and social constructionism as concepts that describe the role of science in performing and deforming social reality. I return fleetingly to hoaxes and scares in the public theater of science, in order that deluded professors may finally learn something from mad cows.

Now a hoax is not a scare. Hoaxes, though they may get out of hand, are deliberate ruses for premeditated ends, inverting the assumptions and priorities of the object of parodic attention. Scares, though they may be manipulative and strategic, are often moments that confound direction and intention; they are fraught with uncertainty, risk, anxiety, panic. But what the Sokal hoax and the BSE beef scare share is what they reveal about the “risky” place that science occupies in the public world. The concept of the “risk society” is Ulrich Beck’s contribution to the discussion around the science wars. Beck is our tangible link between the Sokal hoax and the BSE scare, having been cited liberally in both discussions. In his introduction to the infamous “Science Wars” issue of Social Text, Andrew Ross invokes Beck’s concept of “reflexive modernity”: to wit, late, “technoscientific” modernity performs a reflexive turn upon itself, a revision of its assumptions, when it questions the scientific rationality on which industrial capitalism was historically founded. Once there is a breach of faith in the ameliorative and progressive nature of scientific systems, and the loss of confidence in the “neutrality” of science’s rationalist methodology, there emerges what Beck calls a “risk society”: As he put it in the Independent on March 26:

At the heart of the politics of this risk society is the relationship of politics and science.... If you ask who is responsible for creating and managing risks, the reply is “nobody.” We live in a state of organized irresponsibility.... In case of risk conflicts, politicians can no longer rely on experts to adjudicate.

The concept of a risk society is central to our understanding of the public role of science. Where settled scientific opinion once calmed the nation’s nerves, now science is itself afflicted by the “risk” and contingency that inhere in the “causes” of those very scares to which science has to administer its salve. “In the risk society,” Beck writes, “politics and morality must be given priority over shifting scientific reasoning.” Science itself becomes involved in the process of the scare mechanism; it emphasizes the governmental disjunctions between decision making, knowledge production, and adjudicative activity in a social context that is fraught with “organized irresponsibility.” As such, the crisis of the public status of science is inseparable from the larger crisis of democratic accountability in late modernity. Despite the advantages of the decentralization of technoscientific production, there is a risk that forms of “local” authority and resistance are often considered to be obsolete; they are replaced by highly individuated and atomized concepts of communal representation and regulation.

It has been argued by John Gray, professor of politics at Oxford, that the organizational irresponsibility of BSE can be traced to the Thatcherite decade of deregulation, and its deadly success in “privatizing” environmental risk. “In such a climate,” he writes in the March 26 Guardian, “it was easy to confuse risks that are unquantifiable with risks that are insignificant. The risk to human health posed by the transmission of disease-bearing pathogens across animal species to the human species . . . is not exactly quantifiable; but given the enormity of the danger posed by . . . CJD [Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease], it is not at all insignificant.” The calculation of risk based on cost-benefit analyses—a favorite approach among the New Right that still exerts its influence—has other things to answer for: the large proportion of meat and bone meal (4 to 5 percent) in cattle feed in a country where there is a significant presence of the scrapie infection associated with BSE; the unusually low temperatures used in rendering carcasses—30-40 degrees lower than the comparable French and Italian regulations; the severe cuts in research funding and facilities related to cattle diseases right through the ’80s, when the BSE risk was brewing. But Gray’s observations notwithstanding, who will answer for all this?

And that is precisely the point: it is the very dispersal of causes and responsibilities that produces the state of “organized irresponsibility.” In her March 28 column in London’s Evening Standard, Anne Applebaum graphically illustrates this process as it played out in the British government’s obfuscation during the BSE scare: “How many believed that the Prime Minister wasn’t looking at opinion polls, that the Chancellor wasn’t looking at economic data, that the Agricultural Minister wasn’t thinking of his own political future?” Applebaum continues: “It is not the truth” that is at issue, “but rather belief in the truth which is needed now.” The critical distinction—and potential crisis—for the risk society today lies in attempting to articulate the distance between the “truth” and “belief in the truth.” The distinctions between fact and value, subjective and objective—the keywords of the science wars—will not save us now. After all a hoax acknowledges no distinction between fact and value—its “reality” lies not in what it says, but entirely in the parodic form in which it says it. A “scare” is neither rational nor irrational—it is a peculiar form of social panic that reminds us of the undecidability that defines our political rationality. In these times of risk, what we must acknowledge is our need for a kind of disorganized responsibility.

When the voice of authority speaks in the name of Science, as indeed the British health secretary Stephen Dorrell did (after repeatedly contradicting himself) in order to assure the British people, on the testimony of scientific opinion, that beef is “safe in the common usage of the term” (emphasis mine), I for one find my external world being fabricated from words, words, words. I have no option but to believe—against the best advice of my cherished Commissars of Scientific Reality—that physical reality may be significantly constituted through language and discourse. Who am I to argue with Mr. Dorrell? Especially since, having taken his own advice on the matter of the bloody morsel, on the best scientific authority I presume, he is now perhaps beyond the reach of “a logical sequence of thought” (pace Sokal), in a mental state where he can no more make a claim to having “a radical subjectivist position” (pace Kimball) than those poor cows who were never told the truth about what they were eating.