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"Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"

This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the classic academic hoax, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," a parody written by a physicist named Allan Sokal and published (unwittingly) by the academic journal Social Text. Sokal identified himself as a member of the Old Left, peeved that the New Left argued that external reality is a mere cultural construct. His piece was a mish-mash of jargon, silliness and stuff that sounded kind of scientific. Basically it's a marvelous Pack of Lies:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics; in Ross' discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science; in Irigaray's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics; and in Harding's comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.

That's the premise. By the end of the exhaustively footnoted text, Sokal has argued that ``a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory, but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations."

Sokal, writing in Lingua Franca, gleefully said of his parody, "Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions."

But Social Text co-founder Stanley Aronowitz took Sokal to task for the hoax, saying that Social Text had never been in the reality-is-a-construct camp. He argued that Sokal had dismissed (via parody) the extent to which culture and politics permeates the enterprise of science. Even physics is subject to the values and beliefs of the scientists making observations and conducting experiments:

'Beyond immediate issues concerning the relation between science and politics lie important metatheoretical questions. How do cultural influences -- worldviews, for instance -- bear on science? It was not deconstruction but the Frankfurt School that pointed to a dialectic of the Enlightenment, arguing that the modern cultural ideology of the scientific-technical domination of nature has direct political parallels. It was not deconstructionists but many historians of science who demonstrated that Newton's Principia is rooted in the mechanical worldview that was widely shared by scientists and laypersons in his time. Newton made true discoveries but, needless to say, they were overturned by "better" truths -- relativity and quantum mechanics.'

If you can stand it, you can find more on this matter, including debates and rebuttals, at Sokal's NYU faculty page, or at the Skeptic's Dictionary.

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 1, 2006; 2:54 PM ET
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