Alan Sokal, NYU physics professor, is now one of my new heroes. I guess this story slipped under my radar in ’97 when it happened. Professor Sokal published a ridiculous pseudointellectual article in a journal called “Social Text” to expose this purveyor of gobbedldygook criticism for the farce that it is. He tells his tale, and defends his academic graffiti here:
Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore — questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.
In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths — the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.
One nice thing about scientists is that when they do approach disciplines like the law and humanities, their rigor and concern for real understanding often carries over. Folks that talk about “postmodern gender hegemonic hermeneutics” don’t know the difference between mere words and understanding. They simply cover up their own contorted thinking with a thicket of impressive-sounding, though utterly imprecise, vocabulary. The quicker the world of humanities learns that “inventing a term” is not the same as actually discovering a law of nature or saying something useful and interesting about the human condition, the better off we will all be.