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  • Truth Matters

Once in a while stunning new ideas that energize a scholarly discipline—or even wreck it altogether—come from the outside. The most influential philosopher of science in the last generation was not a philosopher at all, but an historian and physicist, Thomas Kuhn. Ernst Gombrich, an art historian, has deeply informed the philosophy of art, as the linguist Noam Chomsky has affected the philosophy of language. And Jacques Derrida continues to cast his stupefying spell over many a literature department, even if most philosophers remain unimpressed.

In a minor but spectacular way (how else to describe an event first encountered on the front page of the New York Times?), Alan Sokal has barged in on this honorable tradition. As a physicist, he successfully placed a barely-coherent, factually ludicrous, jargon-ridden article in a major journal of cultural studies.

When we caught up with Sokal’s hoax, our initial reaction was sympathy for the hapless editors of Social Text. They weren’t the first journal editors to be landed with a contribution that went sour (though the only other episodes we could recall were plagiarism, not parody). However, when one of these chaps, Stanley Aronowitz, reacted in the Times by calling Sokal “ill-read and half-educated” (May 18, 1996), editorial fellow-feeling began to evaporate. And when Stanley Fish, executive director of the Duke University Press, which publishes Social Text, launched a bitter counterattack on Sokal three days later, it was hard not to regard Fish’s indignation, as E. D. Hirsch described it in a subsequent letter to the Times, as “the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed.” [End Page 299]

After some tedious preliminaries, Fish accused Sokal of failing to understand that the sociology of science is an enterprise “distinct” from science, “with objects of study, criteria, and goals all its own.” Sokal knows this, naturally, as he had already made clear in his Lingua Franca article on the hoax, and as he explains again in his afterword in this issue of our journal. But Fish went on to a more sweeping generalization. Imagining Sokal believed that cultural studies threaten the stability or integrity of the sciences, Fish said not to worry: “A research project that takes the practice of science as an object of study is not a threat to that practice because, committed to its own goals and protocols, it doesn’t reach into, and therefore doesn’t pose a danger to, the goals and protocols it studies.”

With this account of a well-ordered academic world, Fish inadvertently reveals what some see as a serious failing of cultural studies and postmodern theory: it poses a threat to absolutely nothing. Leave science aside for a moment, and consider a sociology of, say, astrology, or medicine, or the fashion industry. Could we envision a proper sociology of astrology which posed no danger to “the goals and protocols” in using planetary/zodiacal patterns to predict the future or retrodict the characters of subjects? Hardly; it’s the business of the sociology of any human activity to identify and question the intellectual claims and practical ambitions of that enterprise. And that is exactly what Alan Sokal did: he invented a clever test of the intellectual rigor of cultural studies in general and its version of poststructuralist sociology of science in particular. He then subjected Social Text—and implicitly in many minds the intellectual standards of the field it represents—to the test. It failed.

Sokal’s methodology was not unique; it can be applied in different ways to many other disciplines. If you want to evaluate, for example, the intellectual pretensions of astrologers there is a fine way to do it; it essentially adapts the double-blind placebo procedure used in drug research, another celebrated testing methodology. Allow a group of astrologers to agree on a set of character readings based on accurate birth charts. Give these back, shuffled, with identifying information stripped off, to the subjects of the astrological readings. If the subjects can pick out their own readings from character descriptions alone (descriptions created by astrologers on the basis of birth information only, without meeting the subjects in question), then astrology must possess...

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pp. 299-304
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