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The Reformation: Can Social Scientists Save Themselves?

April 18, 2014

Academic hoaxes have a way of crystallizing, and then shattering, the intellectual pretensions of an era. It was almost 20 years ago, for instance, that a physicist named Alan Sokal laid siege to postmodern theory with a Trojan horse. You may remember the details: Sokal wrote a deliberately preposterous academic paper called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” He filled it with the then trendy jargon of “critical theory,” and submitted it to a prominent journal of cultural studies called Social Text. Amid worshipful citations of postmodern theorists and half-baked references to complex scientific work, the paper advanced a succession of glib, sweeping assertions (“Physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct”). Social Text published it without demanding any significant editorial changes.

When Sokal revealed that his paper was a practical joke, the media went wild—or as wild, at least, as the media has ever gone over an academic prank. By successfully aping the methods and conventions of postmodern cultural analysis, and using them to serve intentionally ridiculous ends, Sokal had, for many in the public, exposed once and for all how unsound those methods and conventions were.

Continue this article at Pacific Standard.

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