Experimenting with Cultural
Alan Sokal, a physicist at New
York University, submitted an article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries:
Toward a Transformatlve Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" for publication in the
Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text, a prominent cultural studies
journal. This issue focussed on science and cultural studies, and Sokal's article
was published in it.
At the same time that this issue
was circulated, another article by Sokal hit the stands. This article, "A
Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies," was published in the May/June 1996
Lingua Franca, a magazine that covers higher education. In this article,
Sokal announced that his article in Social Text was a hoax and that it was
filled with nonsensical mathematics and physics, faulty reasoning, and
ridiculously-applied cultural studies theory. He claimed that the article was an
experiment to test whether the Social Text editors would publish an
article "liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it
flattered the editors' [liberal] ideological preconceptions." Sokal denounced the
"intellectual arrogance" of postmodernist literary theory and the relatvism and
questioning of reality by scholars. In response to the questionlng of reality,
Sokal stated, "Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social
conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of
my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)"
The news of the hoax spread
quickly over the Internet and through countless publications, including The
New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. The editors of
Social Text expressed regret at having published the article. Sokal wrote
a third article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword," which was
published in the Fall 1996 issue of Dissent. In academia, scholars had
varying responses to Sokal's hoax. Some welcomed the attack on intellectual
sloppiness; others defended the field of cultural studies; and still others
denounced the hoax as an attack on academic integrity.
At the Robert Penn Warren Center
for the Humanities, professors in Vanderbilt's College Program on Science,
Technology and Humanities met to discuss the Sokal episode. Three of these
faculty members, Mark L. Schoenfield, Assistant Professor of English, Arleen M.
Tuchman, Associate Professor of History, and David A. Weintraub, Assistant
Professor of Physics and Astronomy, reconvened to share with Letters their
ideas about the Sokal episode and, more generally, the interaction between
scholars in the humanities and sciences.
LETTERS: What do you think
the most important element of the Sokal episode is?
TUCHMAN: For me, it is the way in
which it creates a picture in the public's eye of a war between the sciences and
the humanities that misses the mark. I am concerned about this public image.
There is a lot of serious work that has been going on in the cultural studies of
science, the history of science, the philosophy of science, and the sociology of
science. This is work that has commanded respect even within the scientific
WEINTRAUB: I think the bigger
issue is mentioned not in either of Sokal's articles, but in some of the
responses to Sokal, and that is the question of who should speak for the sciences
outside of the academy. There are so many issues, political and economic, in
which science is an intimate player. The question is: can only scientists speak
about issues concerning science? I think the answer is no.
SCHOENFIELD: I lean towards
seeing the episode as sad rather than funny, because I know how difficult
interdisciplinary work is.
WEINTRAUB: What we all seem to
agree on is that social scientists have a role to play in studying, critiquing,
and trying to understand how science operates and how scientists, as human
beings, engage in the activity of doing science. The problem with reduced funding
for science as well as the humanities is not just that politicians are trying to
reduce the deficit, but also the fact that for a generation or more, research has
been emphasized and money for research has been easily available. As a result, we
be came lousy educators. We have produced an entire generation of very
sloppily-educated people who now make decisions about what they do not
understand. Our job now is to try to correct our teaching problem, and it may
take a generation, after an awful lot of damage may have been done.
TUCHMAN: A number of sci entists
have told me that they would love to throw out that introductory chapter in every
introductory science book that talks about the scientific method. First of all,
many of the sciences have different methods. Secondly, the introductory chapter
does not capture what actually happens in the laboratory. So what I wonder is why
there is so much invested in continually reproducing this picture of "the"
WEINTRAUB: It is a cartoon
sketch of how science works that emphasizes that, in science, we engage in
rational thinking and try to design experiments that are testable.
TUCHMAN: So do most of the
social sciences and many of the humanities.
WEINTRAUB: So there is no
difference. But in the debate over Sokal's hoax, there is a place for academic
communities to engage each other. But we have not done a really good job of
engaging with each other. The language is a barrier, and all we have are words.
But the fancier the words get, the higher the barrier between academlc
SCHOENFIELD: It is interesting
that all of the articles in the issue of Social Text except Sokal's
article are clear and have carefully-chosen vocabularies that allow an
interdisciplinary engagement. This issue shows exactly what you would hope would
happen in interdisciplinary work, and yet one article—Sokal's article—ends up
TUCHMAN: I am actually of two
minds when I hear and occasionally voice complaints about the impenetrability of
some of the work that has been coming out of the humanities. Because, on the one
hand, I do find myself wishing that scholars writing on postmodern theory would
take greater care to express their ideas in ways that would be easier to
understand. But I also find myself thinking that great philosophers like Immanuel
Kant or G.W.F. Hegel have rarely written in ways that have been easy to read.
WEINTRAUB: Clearly it is a
question of who your audience is.
SCHOENFIELD: Part of the issue,
though, is the assumption that a scientist always writes for scientists, whereas
a humanist somehow writes for human beings. You cannot write in the humanities
and control your audience in the same way that a scientist can. There is an
assumption that someone can pull out a humanities journal and easily read an
article on Emma. We can all read Emma, so therefore it would
follow that we can all understand what someone would say about Emma. We
cannot all open up a body and sew it up so someone can live, and therefore we do
not all assume that we can understand what a scientist would say once that body
was opened up.
LETTERS: How are
scientists responding to the Sokal episode?
TUCHMAN: A great part of the
scientific community is very concerned about cultural studies because this is
what inspired Paul R. Gross and Norman Leavitt's work, Higher
Superstition, in which they accuse the academic left of conflating science
and superstition. This book, which has received a lot of public acclaim, led
Sokal to devise the hoax.
WEINTRAUB: Maybe there are too
many of us scientists who have never heard of Gross and Leavitt's book. We spend
all of our time trying to do our science, and do not look very far beyond that.
But because of the threat to funding, a lot of the national scientific societies
try to engage their individual members to lobby their local political
representatives. What the national organizations find is that no one gets
SCHOENFIELD: It does come down
to resources being stretched very thin.
TUCHMAN: Sokal and others like
him believe that scientists are losing their funding because too many people in
the academy are claiming that there is no such thing as truth and that any
position is as good as any other. They blame the humanities for what they hold to
be a growing relativlsm.
WEINTRAUB: Certainly an awful
lot that has come and gone with science in the last several centuries has been
very, very positive for all of mankind. But certainly a lot has come out of
science that has not been. There is room for the entire community that supports
science to participate in deciding what science should and should not be
TUCHMAN: The debate should
involve not simply the products of science, but also how science is done and
discussed. In light of my interest in gender and science, I think about how we
still discuss the "doing" of science in terms that are more closely linked with
what our culture con siders to be masculine traits, such as rationality or logic.
In contrast, the role of intuition, which most scientists admit plays a part in
scientific endeavors, and which is more closely associated with the feminine, is
largely ignored. You do not find scientists emphasizing the importance of
intuition when they are in front of the classroom or writing introductory text
books. The way the sciences are taught has a clear impact on who decides to go
into the sciences today.
SCHOENFIELD: I do not think
scientists insist on reason in exactly the way Sokal seems to think one needs to.
Anyone who wants to hang onto reason as the only way of thinking through a
problem, and as the great heritage of the Enlightenment, simply does not
understand the historv of the Enlightenment. Even the people who one could
associate with reason would, in Sokal's view, be avowed irrationalists. Sokal's
notion that if one does not believe in objective reality, one should try jumping
out of a window is profoundly irrational. There is no rational connection between
one's sensations and an outside world; that is a question of belief.
WEINTRAUB: The belief system of
science is devotion to reason and rationality.
SCHOENFIELD: Right. That is a
perfect sentence. It has belief and devotion on one side, and reason and
rationality on the other side. In order for that sentence to make sense, these
terms had to be hooked together.
TUCHMAN: But reason and
rationality in opposition to what? Who would stand up and say, "I am devoted to
SCHOENFIELD: I think I
WEINTRAUB: Scientists are in
terested in cause and effect. Did something make something else happen? If you
can figure that out, then you can manipulate the system to make it happen
TUCHMAN: But you often do a lot
of manipulations without re ally knowing what the ultimate cause is.
WEINTRAUB: We do not know what
ultimate causes are. We can only know what the immediate causes and effects are
and every cause has more fundamental causes, which have more fundamental causes.
You can hope to dig deeper and deeper, but you know you will never get
TUCHMAN: But we got away too
quickly from the question I posed of who would say that they were devoted to
irrationality. What discipline would present itself as being dedicated to
irrationality? Almost all contemporary scholarly work is structured around
reasoned arguments. There is nothing peculiar about the natural sciences in their
desire to understand and come up with reasoned explanations of what they
WEINTRAUB: Within the natural
sciences, there is more opportunity to provide empirical tests.
TUCHMAN: You can define your
system to control what you study.
WEINTRAUB: Whereas, in the sort
of work that Mark engages in, there may be lots of people out there who may agree
with what he sets forth, and lots of people who disagree, but there probably is
not anybody, including Mark, who would agree that there is a right or wrong
answer to what he puts forth, and this is quite reasonable.
SCHOENFIELD: Some people would
go so far as to say there are right and wrong answers. There are, as it were,
devout rationalists about this, and people who would take more relativistic
positions. I want to cling to the irrationalists, recognizing that my discipline
does not make that claim and dare not make that claim. I do not mean by that that
I do not believe reason exists, or that I do not believe it is very powerful, but
that what will constitute the reasonable is itself al ways being negotiated.
WEINTRAUB: That is true within
certain disciplines, but either the airplane flies or it does not fly.
TUCHMAN: But different
explanations for why the airplane flies might be held to be more rational at
WEINTRAUB: But in some sense it
does not matter whether we are right about whether the pressure of the air going
over and under a wing actually applies to an appropriate landing, or to the lift
that makes the plane take off. What matters is that our ability to manipulate the
environment has made it happen.
TUCHMAN: That is right. But
scientists and people in general often confuse instrumentality with truth. There
is no question that our ability to manipulate and control certain systems has
increased tremendously through time. This is one of the reasons why science has
so much power in our society. But that does not mean that we know or are some
times even interested in the ultimate cause.
WEINTRAUB: But what we are
interested in is getting better at what we do, which is manipulating the
SCHOENFIELD: Instrumentality is
clearly not the only standard scientlsts use.
WEINTRAUB: It is the obvious one
that is accessible to everybody.
SCHOENFTELD: Right, and
therefore it is the one that has been most often trotted out. Imagine someone
like you, David, who works on the origins of planets, and this person comes up
with a theory based on various evidence about how planets are formed, which will
have no instrumental use, because for the existence of humankind no one will ever
be around to have a planet formed. Suppose that someone claims that planets can
form after seventeen conditions are met. The standard of measurement for that
claim would not be empirical. No one could ride a motorcycle off to a star system
and see whether that happens. The claim would be tested according to how
persuasively it could be rhetorically put. That could be called a more rational
test than the mere empirical test of whether it really happened. "Empirical" and
"rational" are not the same thing.
WEINTRAUB: There are certainly
areas of science in which empirical tests are hard or impossible to come by. Then
the influence of authority is very important. Science is not divorced from
concerns about politics and money. There are human concerns in science that
strongly influence what science is done. There are major players in every area of
science who control the playing field.
SCHOENFIELD: Sokal's approach
plays into another model in which instrumental science, getting the airplane to
fly, is the ultimate, purest, most canonical science. That does a disservice to a
lot of what strikes me as the most interesting kind of scientific questions.
WEINTRAUB: But the ultimate
scientific questions have to be put to the empirical test, which ultimately
becomes the instrumental test. For example, string theory in modern physics is
wonderful, but if it remains simply intellectual speculation, it really has no
value. But when that speculation finally gets to the point at which scientists
can make testable predictions, then either string theory will fail or not.
TUCHMAN: But, of course, a lot
of the historical sciences such as evolution and geology thrive, and yet they
cannot, for the most part, deal with those kinds of empirical tests. At least it
is a very different picture of empirical testing.
WEINTRAUB: There are certainly
empirical tests involved in geology and anthropology. They may be based on
physics, on radioactive dating of the rocks. Either that rock from Mars is 3 1/2
billion years old, or it is not. There are whole geological regions which do not
fit geologically into South America. They do fit into North America. We actually
think we understand why, and we understand plate tectonics because we can measure
the spreading under the ocean ridges, and the uplift and erosion of continents.
They are subject to em pirical tests.
TUCHMAN: Reasoned argument.
WEINTRAUB: But they still rest
SCHOENFIELD: That particular
example does not seem to me to rest on reasoned argument so much as a connection
between this empirical evidence and a persuasive narrative, that is, telling a
story in a particular kind of way so that it meets our assumptions about
coherence and continuity. I do not know why you would want to reserve the word
"reason' for describing how that works.
TUCHMAN: Well, what makes a
SCHOENFIELD: That is a good
WEINTRAUB: It is reason.
TUCHMAN: The way you just
described this particular geological example is really no different from what
historians do, especially historians who work in archives. They are constantly
confronted with documents, and what they do is come up with a persuasive
narratlve or a reasoned argument as to how we can best make sense of these
documents, which to me is very different from a classical empirical test.
WEINTRAUB: Let me give another
example. In 1916 Alfred Wegener offered the idea of continental drift. He said,
"Look at the shape of the continents—you can fit them together. They must have
fit together at some time and have drifted apart." For over fifty years, everyone
thought that was the most ridiculous thing, be cause lt was JUSt reasoned argu
ment without any empirical backing, other than the jigsaw puzzle observation.
But in the 196Os, we were able to
begin mapping the bottom of the ocean floor. We now have empirical evidence which
really shows that the sea floor spreads out and pushes the continents apart.
Suddenly it was called plate tectonics instead of continental drift, because
there was a physical mechanism to make it happen. It became believable, because
there was a process behind it.
TUCHMAN: Although that paints a
picture of how scientific ideas compete with each other and replace each other,
that, for my taste, is a little too smooth. Probably Wegener's problem was that
all he had was a reasoned argument, but people believed it was an unreasonable
WEINTRAUB: They had no reason to
TUCHMAN: They had no reason to
believe it, and that usually involves more than simply not having empirical
facts, but also involves other theories that, having sway at the time, were so
convincing that what he said did not seem to make sense.
WEINTRAUB: You have to have a
better argument than the old theory.
TUCHMAN: But people also have to
be able to hear you. What you say has to make sense within the context of what
SCHOENFIELD: There must have been
some people in addition to Wegener who "knew" (and this word is problematic) that
the evidence of the shape of the continents was "good enough." He reasoned from
evidence. If the continents had not been together, they would not look as though
they did fit together. The shape of the continents is adequate empirical evidence
for this conclusion.
WEINTRAUB: But his insight was
that there must be a process that makes that happen, even though he had no clue
what that process is.
SCHOENFIELD: It is very
interesting to pose the question, though, of who was "smarter" at that moment. He
deduced properly from evidence that he could see as properly deducible some thing
which fifty years later on the basis of other evidence now other people agree
with. In the world of chess, he was the genius. That is, he was able to go on
less evidence and still get to the right conclusion.
WEINTRAUB: But you cannot present
it that way, because it is out of historical context. You have to look at the
world in 1916, and ask what the weight of evidence was that he would displace.
Before there was any evidence supporting his theory, the geophysical community
could not say that he had more insight.
TUCHMAN: It made sense to reject
him at the time.
SCHOENFIELD: Right. It simply
shows, in fact, that the former reasoning was not strong. The statlc contment
narratlve was based on no evidence. Logically, as a strict rational argument, it
is impossible for there to have been any evidence at all for their position,
since their position has no empirical existence.
WEINTRAUB: Yes, there can be no
evidence for a phenomenon that does not exist.
TUCHMAN: This supports Mark's
earlier claim that what is considered reasonable changes in different contexts.
In order to understand why the majority of geologists at the time rejected this
theory, we need to look at what was necessary at the time to credit it.
SCHOENFIELD: It reminds me of
that scientist who cannot understand why people thought the sun went around the
earth, and his friend says to him, "Well, they went outside and looked, and it
looked like the sun went around the earth." The scientist paused for a minute and
said, "How would it look if the earth went around the sun?"
WEINTRAUB: We know the difference
because if the earth spins around the sun, a lot morethings have to happen, like
the earth spinning to make it day and night.
Then you can say, "Well if the earth spins, then I am moving a thousand miles an
hour, simply because the earth is spinning." You have to have a whole day of
physics to under stand how I can move a thousand miles an hour and not fly off
TUCHMAN: But I do not have any
problem imagining that it was possible to interpret the evidence at the time to
support the theory that the sun revolved around the earth.
SCHOENFIELD: Oh, I do not either. But none of
the evidence that could have been found for the sun going around the earth could
exclude the possibility of the earth going around the sun. So between those two
models, there was no evidence one way or the other.
WEINTRAUB: That is correct.
TUCHMAN: Right, there were long periods of time in which communities debated
over the two models.
WEINTRAUB: There were tests that go back as far as
Aristotle, who said if the earth goes around the sun, we should be able to
measure what is called the parallax, the apparent change in the position of
stars. The great astronomers in antiquity tried to measure it and got zero.
Therefore, that apparently provided a test that said the earth stands still, and
the sun goes around the earth.
SCHOENFIELD: But it is still the case that they
could have obtained those results even if the earth went around the sun be
cause, in fact, they did get those results with the earth going around the sun.
So even there, it was a matter of their rhetorical argument.
TUCHMAN: No, it
was the empirical evidence.
SCHOENFIELD: No, it was the rhetorical argument,
because the empirical evidence was. . .
WEINTRAUB: . . . prefaced on an
TUCHMAN: Assumptions are always embedded in
WEINTRAUB: You just have to know what
the assumptions are.
TUCHMAN: The facts supported a stationary earth.
understood that the test failed if the stars were extremely far away. But the
scientists felt that they had other measurements that showed what the scale of
the universe was, and that the stars were not that far away.
way you put it is really helpful, because it points out that facts themselves are
embedded in theories and produced by theories.
WEINTRAUB: They are embedded in
assumptions and actions.
SCHOENFIELD: Can we push that into the hardest of the
SCHOENFIELD: What I find troubling is
the moment when people who work within sets of assumptions encounter someone who
does not work within those sets of assumptions and call him or her "irrational,"
using "ratio nal" as the good term.
LETTERS: How do you see science and the
humanities as work ing together?
TUCHMAN: I was just thinking about how
wonderful a conversation this has been, and how much more sophisticated this
discussion has been than anything you would get from the Sokal af fair. This is the
kind of discussion we need to have across the disciplines. What Sokal represents
to me is everything I want to make sure that we do not do. David mentioned
earlier that discussions about where we want to go with science and technology
need to be carried on by all educated people. Clearly what we are trying to do
in the College Program on Science, Technology, and Humanities is provide the
scientific and humanistic literacy that will allow people to engage in these
discussions, understand each other, and make decisions together.
is more than literacy. There is an interconnectedness between fields;
developments in science inform other areas. They help shape the ideas that develop in
philosophy and religion, and our views in religion shape how we do our science,
how we may view assumptions we will make in our science, and therefore how we
will interpret our facts. One of the things that we can do is help people see how
connected these fields are.
SCHOENFIELD: This discussion
has been tremendously helpful in making me see the way in which it is possible to propose a whole
bunch of different articulations for the way in which as sumptions get made.
This discussion makes me feel much better about the universe, frankly, than
Sokal. With Sokal it just seems that what he is all about is shutting down the
kind of con versation that we have just had.
TUCHMAN: I do not think that was
his goal. But unfortunately, he has drawn attention away from these discussions.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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