Alan Sokal, author of ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ (a hoax article that exposed some of the more bizarre influences of postmodern philosophy on contemporary scholarship), in conversation with Péter Krekó.
Péter Krekó: In 1996 you famously published a deliberately nonsensical article in a postmodern cultural studies journal, which claimed that quantum gravity is no more than a social and linguistic construct. Who were the main subjects of the hoax and of your critique as a scientist, and why?
Alan Sokal: The social sciences are a huge, heterogeneous collection of disciplines, practices, frameworks and people. My hoax targeted particular corners of the social sciences and humanities – including currents in the sociology of science, anthropology, literary theory and cultural studies. These were the areas of academic study in which postmodern and relativist ideas had become most fashionable. They also included ‘women’s studies’ – a subject now called ‘gender studies’.
I should stress that postmodernist approaches were not hegemonic in any of these fields. They were popular but not universally accepted. In feminist studies, for example, there was a range of different approaches: postmodern, liberal, radical and socialist. Even in the sociology of science, the social constructivist view was influential but by no means dominant.
Péter Krekó: Do you feel that representatives of constructionist social sciences have learned their lesson from the Sokal hoax and subsequent efforts at its ‘replication’, such as Peter Boghossian’s paper on the ‘conceptual penis’? Did your hoax make any positive impact? Or did it just give more ammunition to both sides in the ‘science wars’?
Alan Sokal: My impression is that some targets of the hoax – including editors at the journal that accepted my bogus paper – were embarrassed. They stopped writing about science and started doing other things. Andrew Ross from New York University (whose office was 50 metres away from mine) took up writing on issues such as international labour, doing excellent investigations on the exploitation of foreign workers in the construction of NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. On the other hand, in many cases, our targets simply ignored the critique and carried on as before.
Nevertheless, the hoax resonated well with students. From the start, our goal was to demystify some of this supposedly profound writing and reveal that the emperor is naked. We received a lot of positive feedback from students. One wrote, for example, that he’d thought he was stupid because he couldn’t understand Jacques Derrida. But, after the hoax, he realized that maybe there was nothing to understand – just some banal statements dressed up in fancy language. I think my hoax, and the subsequent book Intellectual Impostures, co-authored with Jean Bricmont, positively impacted that generation of students.
The evolution of post-modernism over the last 25 years is a complicated story. I didn’t follow it very much as it was happening, and only learned about it from a recent book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay Cynical Theories, which analyses it in detail. It was my privilege to write the preface to the French translation.
Pluckrose and Lindsay explore the intersection between some philosophical ideas and identity politics. They argue that the first, classical phase of postmodernism in the 1960s and 1970s was explicitly relativist and aimed at deconstructing any claim to objective knowledge. But this kind of extreme relativism was not politically very useful. Anyone who is politically committed wants to advocate for something, rather than suggest that all concepts are equally valid. So relativist ideas came to be used in a selective and convoluted way to support specific social and political positions. This approach subsequently gave rise to postcolonial theory, postmodernist versions of critical race theory and feminist theory, and queer theory.
Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book illustrates how these postmodernist ideas coalesced into a new ‘applied postmodernism’. It shows that the postmodernist knowledge principle (the view that there is no such thing as objective knowledge of natural and social reality) merged with the postmodern political principle (the idea that society is structured by forms of domination that control and reproduce certain ways of thought, and that any claim to objective knowledge is no more than an assertion of power). By 2010 these principles had taken on the status of unquestionable truths: a phase that Pluckrose and Lindsay call ‘reified postmodernism’. Consequently – and ironically – relativist ideas come to be employed in the service of dogmatic absolutism when issues such as social oppression, and how to combat it, are addressed.
Reified postmodernism has become the dominant philosophy behind movements associated with Critical Social Justice, or ‘woke’. The Pluckrose-Lindsay book challenges this mindset. It argues that social justice is better served by an epistemology founded on evidence and reason, alongside a social philosophy based on classical liberalism that emphasizes universal human rights, the protection of individual liberty, and respect for free expression and open debate.
Péter Krekó: How does all this affect the political environment?
Alan Sokal: A relativism metamorphosed into dogmatic absolutism is obviously logically incoherent, but the most significant danger is that anyone can play the game, including the pseudo-populist extreme right. Postmodernism is no longer the domain of the left. That wonderful phrase ‘alternative facts’ was after all invented for political purposes by Donald Trump’s press secretary.
To challenge this appalling state of affairs, Pluckrose, Lindsay and I are seeking to defend two main ideas. First, that there is such a thing as objective reality in society and the natural world. Second, that human beings can obtain reasonably reliable objective knowledge about natural and social reality by using observation, evidence and reason.
Obtaining reasonably reliable objective knowledge is, of course, much more difficult in the social sciences than the natural sciences. But it is nevertheless extremely important to strive for it.
At the same time, we want to defend fundamental liberal values from attacks coming from the so-called woke ‘left’ as well as from the pseudo-populist ‘right’. I say ‘so-called’ because a lot of what I see on the woke ‘left’ is very far from what I meant by the left 25-30 years ago, when I considered myself a leftist – as I still do.
The same is true of the right, however. Pseudo-populist right-wing politicians in the US or Hungary have very little in common with classical right-wingers like the American politician Barry Goldwater, for example. Although Goldwater was considered a right-wing radical, and suffered a huge defeat when he stood in the 1964 presidential election, he had his principles. He believed in defending American Constitutionalism and individual rights, and would have been horrified to see what ‘conservatism’ has become today. Anyone allied with the traditional principles of left or right today is likely to feel completely alienated from much that the so-called left and so-called right now represent.
Hand-stitched artwork after Magritte. Image by HunterHunted via Flickr
Péter Krekó: How do you think COVID has changed the relationship of liberal democratic societies to science? Have we observed a triumph of science as vaccines were developed and taken up by the majority in most Western societies? Or is suspicion towards scientists rising, as their impact on our lives increases, and are they becoming scapegoats as a consequence? Should we be worrying about a pseudo-scientific revolution?
Alan Sokal: These things are happening at the same time. I haven’t studied international public opinion polls in detail, but the fast and efficient creation of vaccines was a huge scientific triumph. On the other hand, many mistakes were made as well – in part by politicians who ignored what scientists were saying (as we saw in the US under Trump). But obviously science agencies were also responsible for errors. For many months the WHO was opposed to mask-wearing, for instance, as was the American health protection agency CDC. The reason why remains unclear – maybe they were lying to people because there was a shortage of masks and they wanted to hold them back for use by health workers. Or perhaps they failed to understand, at first, how coronavirus is transmitted.
This confusion in communication did little to enhance the image of science in general and governmental science agencies in particular. As regards vaccination, there was a big push initially to convince people of its benefits – which was absolutely the right policy. But now it turns out that existing vaccines – developed to target the original Wuhan coronavirus – do not do a very good job of protecting against the Omicron variant, even though they still do an outstanding job in defending you from severe disease.
But because of unclear communication about what vaccines can do, some people are now throwing up their hands, saying that vaccination is useless and maybe even that government lied about its benefits. That is the wrong conclusion to draw. It is also very unfortunate. Public-health agencies are partly responsible for the miscommunication, although I’d be reluctant to criticize them too much. I’m not sure I or anyone else could have done better.
Nevertheless, my intuition as a mathematician is that you should tell people the truth about probabilities. You need to make it clear that the goal of vaccination is not perfect protection from infection: vaccination reduces but does not eliminate your chance of being infected. It does however very significantly reduce your chances of getting seriously ill.
It seems to me that the key is to be straight and transparent about probabilities, and to be honest with the people about uncertainties. Reading the news, I get the impression that academic and research scientists have been clearer in explaining what’s going on than public agencies. If you are a professor of epidemiology at a university, you tend to say what you think. But if you are the head of a health agency, you have to navigate through all kinds of political minefields. Even so, they should have communicated better that the tools we have are far from perfect. Vaccines and masks cannot protect you fully, but it’s far better to use them than not.
Another source of complication is that the public often fails to differentiate between three players: the independent scientific community; official public health agencies; and politicians. People do not necessarily understand that scientists outside government can act and think differently from scientists within government. In the public mind, all three players tend to be intertwined.
Take one example: In February of this year, Boris Johnson’s government in the UK abolished all COVID-related restrictions, including even the requirement to self-isolate when infected.
According to press reports, many scientists in his scientific advisory committee disagreed with this policy, but none have expressed this publicly by resigning, for example. Scientists in and around the government want to keep their bridges open. They want to be listened to by government and they prefer to be half-listened to than not to be listened to at all. But at a certain point, as a scientist, you have to realize that you may be serving as a fig leaf for the government, which will do what it wants even though it may pretend to follow scientific recommendations. That is when you must speak out. That is the point when you have to publicly say ‘no’.
This is an edited transcript of Péter Krekó and Alan Sokal’s Zoom conversation in April 2022.