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No. 1126:
An Academic Hoax

Today, a disturbing parable about clarity and falsehood. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Two pieces in Saturday's New York Times make odd commentary on our times. One is about a panel of art critics discussing the state of art criticism. The other's about a physics professor who perpetrated a hoax. First the physics professor:

Alan Sokal submitted a paper to a cultural studies journal. His title was Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. After the journal published it, he announced the paper was a hoax. None of its impossible English made any sense. The Times quotes part of one sentence:

... the Pi of Euclid and the G of Newton ... are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point ...

First Sokal studied the phraseology of modern social criticism. Then he stirred in a more familiar language -- equally hard to understand -- that of quantum physics. Editors (who couldn't've understood the paper because there was nothing there to understand) published it.

The other Times article tells how a panel of art critics met to talk about art criticism in America. Donald Kuspit described the problem by saying that art criticism takes two forms: searching but impenetrable, and readable but stupid. Another critic shot back that original ideas have to be expressed in new and difficult language. Another simply said that most of us find joy in jargon.

Taken together, these two articles lay out the emperor's-new-clothes question that surrounds post-modern, deconstructionist thinking. Behind it all stalks the idea that reality is meaningless until we process it subjectively. That much I agree with.

But what I find abhorrent is the notion that plain English isn't up to the task of treating art, literature, or social change. It's usually a safe bet that writing you can't understand was written by someone whose thinking was unclear in the first place.

Sokal made that point dramatically when he conned editors into publishing his bogus article. And his trick wasn't original. Years ago, a friend published a fairly useless article on heat transfer. He'd used a computer to sum over 700 terms in a mathematical series. When I asked him about it, he said, Oh, that was just a joke. I was poking fun at overblown mathematical analysis.

Three days after the story about Sokal's hoax, a four-column op-ed article showed up in the Times. A post-modern scholar tore into Sokal for soiling the nest. The definition of fraud, he reminded us, is to go beyond error to erode the foundation of trust on which science is built.

But he was skating on hopelessly thin ice. Editors who publish what they don't understand become complicit in deception. So do scholars who put up with it. In the end, the most insidious deception is pretending to understand what we do not understand.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Scott, J., Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly. The New York Times, Saturday, May 18, 1996.

2. Grimes, W., Art Critics Meet to Criticize Each Other's Criticism. The New York Times, May 18, 1996 For a retrospective look at Sokal's article, see:

See the Wikipedia discussion of the "Sokal Affair."