The Hoax of the Hoax

I was bracing myself for a round of Sokal-ish denunciations of “theory” and its supposed empire after it was revealed that Slavoj Zizek had lifted some paragraphs from a white-supremacist publication in an article he published a few years ago in Critical Inquiry. But maybe it was summer (the equivalent of the weekend in national news) and nobody was noticing. Or maybe nobody cares enough to shout.

But here is what came to mind. As you probably know, about twenty years ago an NYU physicist, Alan Sokal, sent the journal Social Text an interdisciplinary article that was purposely constructed out of excited-sounding gibberish. Quantum relativity was invoked to ground cultural relativism, that kind of thing. When Social Text printed the piece, Sokal then revealed the hoax and embarked on a career of denouncing “intellectual impostures” such as postmodernism and deconstruction. He continues to be called up by journalists needing to fill up a paragraph in an article about cultural studies or the question whether young people should bother to go to college. I guess it might have inspired a number of similar later stings.

But what did the Sokal hoax prove?

You’ve heard the story about the physicist, the mathematician, the economist and the cow? No? Sometimes told as a story about an Irishman, an Englishman and a Scotsman? Well, let me send you to it if I can find a link.

To cut (tl;dr) to the chase, the Sokal hoax proved that one editor at one journal accepted, for whatever reason, one bad article. To take it as proving that entire fields of scholarship, entire populations of scholars, entire vocabularies and professions, are ignorant, gullible, stupid or corrupt (which has exactly been the lesson derived from the hoax, and waved like a bloody shirt every time somebody wants to muster a stampede and trample the “academic left”), is unscientific in the extreme. You would have to articulate a hell of a lot of causation in order to make Sokaldelia at all credible, but those for whom the denunciation is profitable are content to take it as a done deal, and those who are within its blast radius would rather let the subject drop.

And that’s the hoax of the hoax. If you fell for the second hoax, you’re a bigger goofball than if you fell for the first one, and also a member of a larger test group.

Now that September is here, maybe we’ll hear more about light-fingered Slovenians, but do go into those discussions armed with the story about the cow.