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What Good Is an Academic Hoax in the Age of Post-Truth?

To relegate academic projects that seek to untangle the complexities of human systems to the realm of grievances is a farce—one that misses the point of the academic project in the first place.

In 1996, New York University physics professor Alan Sokal pulled an elaborate and effective prank on the insular world of academia. Frustrated by the perceived lack of peer review and intellectual rigor in the ecosystem of publications devoted to postmodern cultural studies, Sokal submitted a palette of pseudo-intellectual word salad—a nu-philosophical look at quantum gravity as a "social construct"—to the journal Social Text. The submission was, much to Sokal's chagrin, accepted. "Basically, I claim that quantum gravity ... has profound political implications," Sokal wrote in the magazine Lingua Franca of his experiment. "Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject." Sokal's point was clear: There are declining standards of peer review in academic journals, and it's become all too easy to will faulty research into reality.

There have been several academic sting operations in the intervening decades. In most cases, the resulting conclusions—that open-access sources of information are not necessarily reliable—show that academia, like every other institution, is not exempt from the Peter Principle. But the so-called Sokal affair was unique among these stings for the political implications it wrought. What truly concerned Sokal was the proliferation of postmodern relativism—that is, the embrace of subjectivism and the rejection of any one universal truth—in academic research. This academic lens, in Sokal's view, "consists precisely of attempts to blur ... obvious truths—the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language," as he wrote in Lingua Franca.

This challenge to postmodernism in academia is what makes the latest academic sting, detailed in the online journal Aero and in the New York Times, so appealing: It's a blow against the perceived nonsense of academia and the intellectual excesses of postmodern relativism. The authors published seven papers, planting them in journals over the span of a year on topics like "human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity" at Oregon dog parks. Their explanation for their hoax is pure Sokal: To show that "Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields."*

To be fair, over-theorizing has, for decades, been the scourge of academics who emphasize empirical analysis; the old joke was that B.S. stands for "bullshit," M.S. for "more of the same," and Ph.D. for "piled higher and deeper." Both the Sokal affair and this latest high-profile sting are departures from other hoaxes in that these two are fundamentally political critiques of peer review, ones that treat the discussion over the standard of academia as a proxy war for the unhealthy American fixation on conservative vs. liberal.

Indeed, the focus on "social grievances" in the new sting's language is particular telling. After all, the foundation of most 19th-century critical theory is that the work of the mind is not just to describe the world, but to fundamentally change the way the world works. To relegate academic projects that seek to untangle the complexities of human systems to the realm of "grievances" is, on its face, a farce that misses the point of the academic project in the first place.

But this doesn't make both hoaxes equal in their political bent. The Sokal affair went down in 1996, at the ostensible height of political liberalism in the United States. Bill Clinton was poised to become the first two-term Democratic president in decades, and the economic boom of the 1990s made the exercise of batting around a few overzealous humanities professors an easy skirmish in the culture wars. By contrast, the current heist comes at a time when trust in all public institutions, including academia, is at an all-time low. The Sokal affair landed with thoughtfulness and timidity two decades ago; to what degree will this newest sting become fodder for further epistemic skepticism?

The irony of the two hoaxes is that they both prove themselves wrong. Physics and chemistry may be objective realities that require a certain set of facts and figures, but they become intelligible to us through the unique political and social contexts of our time. Sokal got this, writing in Lingua Franca that poorly peer-reviewed journals "[raise] important questions that no scientist should ignore—questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work." But to condemn institutional failures as the result of systemic social and political bias is to ignore the fact that all human existence is fraught with social and political bias.

*Update—October 9th, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the authors behind the academic sting published seven papers, not nearly two dozen, as we had originally reported.