Thoughts on the Sokal Squared Academic Hoax

Three academics looking to emulate scholars in the fields they describe as “grievance studies” (gender studies, critical race studies, fat studies) pulled off a stunning hoax.  These academics managed to publish several papers in serious academic journals even though the papers made absurd claims based on unsound methodologies.  One published article, for example, was about rape culture in dog parks, and another – which was ultimately not published but received favorable reviews – suggested chaining up and silencing white students in order for the white students to “experience reparations.”   What the papers had in common was that they confirmed the worldviews and aims of the journals – in particular, the papers sought to elevate the voices of those with less power in order to dismantle power structures.

 

The academics who pulled off the hoax were, in many ways, recalling the stunt completed in the 1990s by physics professor Alan Sokal, who submitted a grandiose, postmodern, feminist take on how physics was subjective and Western-centric.  Sokal sought to demonstrate how, in certain fields, there is no way to distinguish between expert scholarship and easily fabricated nonsense theory.  Indeed, so long as one “flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions,” journal editors will ignore grossly flawed work.

Sokal was fighting against the growing postmodern belief that there is no objective truth, and that all of our truths are socially constructed – an anti-science, anti-objectivity view that promotes the identity of the speaker over the universality of the evidence (thus regressing us to thinking of knowledge as a form of religion rather than a form of truth production).  The view that truth is simply socially and linguistically constructed, argue the three scholars responsible for the reboot, Sokal Squared, allows scholars to ignore clear evidence and obvious interpretations if they do not serve the “common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.”

I encourage you to draw your own conclusions from the Sokal Squared academic hoax.  Read the project, and read the mixed responses to it.  There are limitations to the conclusions we can draw, because a journalist (not a journal editor) voiced concern about one of the papers, and the authors had to reveal the hoax.  There is one compelling view that this hoax is damning to certain disciplines within academia, but others question the methodologies of the hoax and therefore the scope of the conclusions we can draw.

Here is my conclusion.  ideology perverts intellectual rigor, both in academia and throughout culture (especially on social media).   In particular, here, the ideology of “dismantling power structures” allows both academics and those interested in social justice to attend only to evidence that supports their conclusions and ignore evidence that does not.   It is too easy to decide on a worldview that is good and righteous (and is easily meme-able) and abandon rigorous thinking.  Your worldview then becomes increasingly solidified, but increasingly radicalized, and you eventually become a caricature to those who disagree with you (who are also on their way to becoming caricatures based on their own self-confirming thinking).

With an increase in one’s own sense of moral righteousness, or a belief in the correctness of one’s aim, comes a loosening of process and methodology.  This is true for all ideologies, not exclusively social justice ideologies.  However, academia’s particular ideological aims mean the problem is exacerbated with respect to certain social justice aims.   Disciplines that promote a particular normative aim, especially a politicized normative aim that excludes others who have different values, need to be especially critical of the conclusions they draw.  Academia should be inherently suspect of disciplines that promote particular political aims over rigorous inquiry that may lead in unknown directions.  This does not mean there is not good work to be done, or we should not consider justice, but that we should be ever vigilant.

A normative discipline like law can, thankfully, absorb scholars who share many different worldviews, and even different methodological values.  Our academic discipline would be stronger if we allowed more diversity in process and in ultimate aim, without abandoning analytical rigor, intellectual honesty, and the pursuit of truth as the primary process-based values we must all share.

Of course, I already believed those conclusions to be true, so my conclusions may be based on my own ideological worldview (thus paradoxically making my conclusions more suspect in ultimate truth the truer my conclusion about ideology perverting truth is).

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