An Academic Lampoons Academia

Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University concerned about the declining quality of our colleges, decided to conduct his own little "controlled" experiment to see how far academic standards had deteriorated. His purpose was to see whether a "leading North American journal of cultural studies ... would publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions." "The answer," reported Sokal in an article for Lingua Franca, "unfortunately, is yes." He was incredulous that the editors of Social Text, who published his piece, didn't realize it was a parody. In the second paragraph of the article he asserted, "without the slightest evidence or argument," that "physical reality... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." Sokal later emphasized the absurdity of his claim by pointing out that he wasn't saying that our theories of physical reality were a social and linguistic construct, but that reality itself was. "Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions," quipped Sokal, "is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)" Sokal says that as ridiculous as many of his article's statements were, its "fundamental silliness" was the "dubiousness" of its central thesis. His thesis was that quantum gravity-the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter-has profound political implications.

Sokal's explanation for his experiment is fascinating and bears on the postmodern relativism run amok on our campuses, which holds that there is no such thing as objective truth. He said that what concerned him was the "proliferation ... of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking ... that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their relevance." He confessed that he is angered because "most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left." In a scathing denunciation of relativism, he concluded with this sobering observation: "Theorizing about the 'social construction of reality' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics, and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.

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