Letters Archive
Spring 1997, Vol. 5, No. 2
  • Experimenting with Cultural Studies
  • Erudition and Specialization
  • Tracing "Culture" in Modernist America
  • Experimenting with Cultural Studies

    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 community.
    What has come out of the whole Sokal affair is a picture that, first of all, pits humanists and scientists against one another. It creates caricatures of people doing cultural studies, and contributes to a caricature of scientists as people who are so naive that it takes your breath away. One of the consequences of this is a picture of what goes on within the academy that can only feed into the hands of people who are already antagonistic toward the academy and wish to decrease funding across the disciplines.

    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.
    But when a nonscientist enters a debate in which science is an important part of the debate, that person needs to be fairly well educated about science. It is not clear that the people whom Sokal attacks are sufficiently knowledgeable about the sciences which they critique for their critiques to be listened to. If nonscientists were more knowledgeable about science, perhaps the article would not have been published, because the science in the article was so laughable. That is why, sitting on the scientific side of the aisle, I find the whole episode very sad, but also somewhat amusing.

    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" scientific method.

    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 communities gets.

    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 articleÑSokal's articleÑends up trumping it.

    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.
    Moreover, within the sciences, there is a consensus that there are terms that people outside the discipline simply will not understand, and there is no debate about whether these terms should be used or not. Part of what the socialization in a particular field is about is learning that terminology, learning, for example, what "organic" means for a chemist, or learning what "atom" means for a chemlst versus a physicist.

    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 involved.

    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.
    It concerns me that part of Sokal's agenda seems to be a desire to reclaim for science the role of arguing that there are absolute values, that science will be the savior. Yet much good work that has been coming out of the social sciences and humanities, and has looked at the activity of scientists, has been asking, "Do scientists working in their communities and on their projects always live up to the ideal that has become so intimately linked with our picture of science and the scientific method?" One could see these critical projects as almost more committed to Enlightenment ideals. Scientists have contended that their work is objective, ratio nal, and value-free.

    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 done.
    For example, some of the research on radioactivity would lead to the production of certain isotopes that are used in medicine. But some of those isotopes are a bit of a problem. We need to weigh the good and the bad and decide which way we want to go in spending our research dollars. Up until now there have been sufficient funding and insufficient interest or activity outside of the ivory tower, and scientists have just done what they wanted to do. In a lot of science, we do not know whether the results will be good or bad. Scientists have tried to step out of that debate and say that there is no good or bad in doing science, and that there is just science.

    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.
    Sokal uses reason as a term that is supposed to define or constitute the right way of thinking. It is constructed in exactly the way that would enable teachers to associate students with temperaments, and tell students that reasonable thinkers should go into particular fields, and artistic thinkers should go into other fields. These clearly have gender components. It cannot be accidental that the vast majority of mathematicians are male.

    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 irrationality?"

    SCHOENFIELD: I think I would.

    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 again.

    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 there.

    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 study.

    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.
    Suppose I have a comma in the middle of a line of poetry that causes a certain pause, and I am going to tell you why this is sig nificant. My argument will be reasonable to the extent that you accept it. You may say, "I believe this because it is reasonable," but the reverse is true. It is reasonable because you believe it. That is, it is that belief system that has produced my argument as reasonable. It is not that it is inconceivable to me that there are some areas ln which only reason as it is currently defined operates. But what will constitute a reasonable argument is itself always historically shifting.

    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 different times.

    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 environment.

    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 on testability.

    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 narrative persuasive?

    SCHOENFIELD: That is a good question.

    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 continentsÑyou 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 argument.

    WEINTRAUB: They had no reason to believe it.

    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 they believe.

    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.


    WEINTRAUB: 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 the earth.

    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 assumption.

    SCHOENFIELD: Exactly.

    TUCHMAN: Assumptions are always embedded in our hypotheses.

    WEINTRAUB: You just have to know what the assumptions are.

    TUCHMAN: The facts supported a stationary earth.

    WEINTRAUB: Aristotle 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.

    SCHOENFIELD: The 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 hard sciences?

    WEINTRAUB: Absolutely.

    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.

    WEINTRAUB: It 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.

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