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The Sokal hoax (April 4, 3014)

Some years ago my friend Alan Sokal created a hoax to expose the emptyness of some post-modern philosoply and cultural studies' view on science. He wrote a sham article of well crafted gibberish, which was published by a prestigious journal. His wanted to show that the proud luminaries who ran that journal could not tell their stuff from gibberish.

He showed, at least, that there were holes in the Social Text article screening process. Anyone familiar with the supposed subject of Sokal's article would have known that the axiom of choice is not about abortion. The journal's editors and referees did not flag that or any of Sokal's other comedic lines. But let's give the benefit of the doubt. A referee with human weakness might prefer to spend time with her/his family rather than struggling with an outrageously obsure and pompous manuscript. Acceptance is the easiest way to get such a chore off your desk. Ask any academic; he/she has been there. Publishing Sokal's unfriendly bomb could have left the journal embarrassed but not discredited.

The journal was discredited, together with the field it represents, by its reaction. The editors denied having rubber-stamped nonsense. Some claimed Sokal had failed, perhaps subconsciously, to avoid making sense -- a sort of de-de-deconstruction. These responses vindicated Sokal's point brilliantly, and a good time was had by all, at least by most of my colleagues in STEM fields.

Years later, I feel a mix of dislike and jealosy toward the Social Text hoaxees. Research is a weary slog towards truth, yet they spew effortless bullshit about stuff they haven't bothered to study or are unable to comprehend. I feel like a clean athlete competing against a bunch of gleeful dopers. It irritates more when it is on topics I am obsessed with. As an example, I read that male scientists understand linear elasticity better than nonlinear fluid mechanics because of anatomic differences between men and women.

What really gets me is that the Social Text crowd tells me that math and science is authoritarian. Sokal's hoax article was supposedly on the "Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Hermeneutics is the interpretation of religious texts. There is no holy text of quantum gravity, only a bunch of brilliant ideas that don't fit together yet. Stanley Fish wrote an Op/Ed in the New York Times comparing physical law to the rules of baseball -- not facts of nature but conventions. Fish didn't know, or possibly didn't care, about the difference: you could play baseball with four outs per inning, but you could not predict the Higgs boson with four kinds of quarks. Well, you could predict, but the Higgs would not be there.

Scientists are not dispassionate saints. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras is supposed to have killed the guy who proved one of his ideas wrong. Isaac Newton kept the wave theory of light out of Britain for a century. But walls of authority cannot keep out truths backed by reason and evidence. Euclid's ancient geometry text contains that theorem Pythagoras (may have) killed to suppress, the square root of two is not a fraction of integers. Cambridge (England) scientist James Clerk Maxwell, in 1871, published a book explaining light as a wave related to electircity and magnetism.