Science Wars: an interview with Alan Sokal

Dennis Healey once compared a verbal attack by one of his parliamentary
colleagues to "being savaged by a dead sheep." I was reminded
of this remark when I met the physicist Alan Sokal, the man who,
along with mathematician Jean Bricmont, has caused outrage and indignation
among the French intelligentsia first with his spoof post-modern
article published in the journal Social Text, and then for
his and Bricmont’s book Intellectual Impostures, which
combines a catalogue of misuses of scientific terms by predominantly
French thinkers with a stinging attack on what they call "sloppy

Given this history, you’d expect Sokal to be more lupine than lamb-like,
but in fact, he is a friendly, chatty, effusive figure more interested
in offering his guests his favourite blackcurrant tea from New York
than character assassinations. You would have thought he and Healey’s
sheep would be just about level in terms of terrifyingness, so how
did this gentle man come to be the scourge of the rive gauche?

"My original motivation had to do with epistemic relativism," explains
Sokal, "and what I saw as a rise in sloppily thought-out relativism,
being the kind of unexamined zeitgeist of large areas of
the American humanities and some parts of the social sciences. In
particular I had political motivations because I was worried about
the extent to which that relativism was identified with certain
parts of the academic left and I also consider myself on the left
and consider that to be a suicidal attitude for the American left."

Sokal’s intention was to write a parody of this kind of relativism and to
see if an academic journal would publish it. The end result was
"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics
of Quantum Gravity", which was published in the journal Social
in 1996. With extensive quotations from the thinkers Sokal
was targeting, such as Lacan, Irigaray and Baudrillard, the article
pulls off the powerful trick of constructing the parody almost entirely
out of the parodied (something which, ironically, some of the post-modernists
Sokal attacks would surely appreciate).

"It’s important not to exaggerate what the parody shows," stresses
Sokal. "As an experiment it doesn’t prove very much. It
just proves that one journal was very sloppy in its standards. I
don’t know what other journals would have done. I suspect that
a lot of other journals would have rejected it. As for the content
of the parody, in some ways it’s a lot worse than a lot of
stuff which is published, in some ways it’s a lot less bad.
Steve Weinberg in his article in the New York Review of Books
made, I think, a perceptive observation, that ‘contrary to
what some people have said, I don’t think that Sokal’s
article is incomprehensible. I find some of the views in it daffy.
But I think that most of the time he expresses himself clearly and
indeed I have the distinct impression that Sokal finds it difficult
to write unclearly,’ which is absolutely true. I had to go
through many revisions before the article reached the desired level
of unclarity.

"It was a parody, intended to be extreme. It comes out in the first
two paragraphs, and says, without any evidence or argument –
of course it says it in high-faluting language, but translated into
English it basically says – ‘Most western intellectuals
used to believe that there exists a real world, but now we know

By the time the parody had been published and Sokal had revealed the
hoax, provoking a storm that became big news in the quality press
in France, Britain and America, the original target had been extended.

"As I did the research for the parody, I came up against the other issue,
namely, the gross abuse of terminology from the natural sciences
in the writings of French, American and British authors, but
the French ones are the more prominent, they’re the big stars."

The parody was thus to spawn a book, Intellectual Impostures,
covering both relativism and the abuses of science. "It was
the second aspect that became the most sensational aspect of the
book, but it was the question of relativism that motivated me."

However, the coverage of the two themes in one book has perhaps back-fired,
in that readers have confused the two issues.

"One thing that I have to emphasise over and over and over again, and
which we emphasise in the preface to the English edition, but somehow
it doesn’t seem to sink in, is that there are really essentially
two books under one cover, which are only weakly related. There
is the critique of the gross abuses of scientific concepts by certain
French philosophical literary intellectuals – they’re
not all philosophers in the strict sense. Then, on the other hand,
there’s various versions of epistemic relativism which we criticise
and in that case the targets are mainly British and American, not
French, and the two debates are on very different planes. They have
to be evaluated completely separately, the targets are different.
We do not accuse the authors of the imposture of relativism. In
some cases it’s not clear what their philosophy is and we don’t
make any attempt to judge their philosophy. On the other hand the
authors of relativism, we don’t accuse them of imposture, we
accuse them of ambiguous writing or sloppy thinking, but certainly
not of trying to misrepresent things. So they’re completely
separate and the link between them is primarily sociological. There’s
only a very weak logical link between them."

Sokal’s frustration that people don’t notice this separation, when
it is so clearly stated in the preface, tells you all you need to
know about what motivates him: he just can’t stand it when
people fail to notice clear, logical distinctions, and having to
repeat them until people do get it just irritates him more. Critics
have claimed that this scientific insistence on clear, neat distinctions
just isn’t relevant to the texts he lampoons. Sokal is not
impressed by the objection, voiced most explicitly by John Sturrocks
in the London Review of Books. "Sokal and Bricmont,"
wrote Sturrocks, "apply criteria of rigour and univocity fundamental
to their own practice which are beside the point once transferred
to this alien context."

"What criteria of rigour are we talking about?" asks a frankly baffled
Sokal. "Are we talking about criteria that a sentence should
mean something relatively determinate; that the words in it should
mean something and have some relevance to the subject in hand; that
there ought to be a logical argument from one sentence to another;
that when you’re talking about some external phenomena, the
facts about those phenomena are relevant – I mean, we’re
upholding the minimal standards of evidence and logic that I would
have thought would be taken for granted by anybody in any field."

What of the idea that there’s a certain value to be had simply in
a kind of liberal attitude to ideas? Sturrocks goes on to say, "Far
better wild and contentious theses of this sort [Irigaray’s]
than the stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal
and Bricmont."

"But," retorts Sokal, "he doesn’t say what is stultifying about
the idea that the sentences should mean something and that there
should be some logical connection. If he thinks it is important
for crazy ideas to be out there and not suppressed, then fair enough.
But these crazy ideas are out there, so the question is, ‘should
they be out there and criticised, or out there and uncriticised?’
He seems to be saying that they should be out there and uncriticised,
that it’s unfair to point out that these wild and contentious
theses are in fact crazy."

What if we take an extreme defence and say that vagueness and ambiguity
are actually great virtues in writing because they open up possibilities,
which, again, Sturrocks suggests. Sokal will have none of it.

"Well in poetry it’s a great virtue, in novels it might be a great
virtue. But I do think that in analytical writing, whether it’s
about physics or biology or history or sociology, the goal should
be to remove ambiguity when possible. Of course, natural language
is unavoidably ambiguous, but we should do our best. If we’re
trying to talk about some external objects then we should try to
make as clear as possible what external objects we are talking about
and what we’re saying about them.

"When the book came out in France, Jean-François Lyotard agreed to be
on a television programme with Bricmont and me and we had a kind
of debate. Unfortunately it wasn’t a very serious programme.
Also, unfortunately the fifteen minute debate consisted of a ten-minute
monologue by Lyotard in very flowery French, in which, if I understood
him correctly, he was saying that physicists don’t understand
that words are used in a different way in poetry and novels than
they are in physics books. When we finally got to the floor, we
said, ‘Well, we know that, but to our knowledge the books of
Lacan and Deleuze are not sold in the poetry section of bookstores,
they are sold in psychology and philosophy, so they should be judge
by the standards of psychology and philosophy – those are cognitive
discourses, they are purporting to say something about something,
let’s judge them that way. If you want to re-classify them
as poetry, then we can judge them on whether they’re good poetry
or not.’ My personal feeling would be most of these people
don’t write good poetry either. Lacan, I don’t think writes
good poetry."

However, there were times reading the book when I felt a bit uncomfortable
in the sense that it felt like, in the first part of the book, we
were just having a laugh at these foolish people. Where was the
sincere attempt at trying to see what the interpretations are? I
read passage upon passage where I thought, "Well, someone,
presumably, would be able to come in and interpret this in a way
which might make sense."

"Let’s not leave this as an abstract question in the air," insists
Sokal. "This is an open challenge to defenders of all these
people. We would love for people to pick one or more passages in
the book where we criticise particular texts and explain first of
all what they mean, justify the references to mathematics and physics
and explain why it’s valid. So far, no-one has taken up our
challenge. There was one article in La Recherche where two
Lacanians tried – rather vainly I thought – to defend
Lacan’s square-root of minus-one and the erectile organ. But
aside from that, the whole debate has just been abstract defences
of the right to metaphor – which we grant, explicitly –
but without trying defend any specific one of the texts."

So in this whole affair no one has shed light on any of those passages?

"Not only shed light. Aside from that one article [in La Recherche],
I don’t know if anyone has even selected a passage from the
text that we’ve criticised and tried to explain what it means.
Not a single one. It’s all in some ethereal plane, the discussion.
Our goal is limited. We did not try to understand or to discuss
in the book the role of topology within Lacan’s psychoanalysis
– that would be far beyond our competence. We’d almost
certainly get it wrong, we’d certainly be accused of getting
it wrong. We’re already stepping far enough out of our field
to write the book. You can imagine if we’d tried to explain
how mathematics functions within Lacan’s psychoanalysis, within
Kristeva’s theory of poetic language and so on – we’d
have our heads cut off. That’s not the purpose of the book.
I think we’ve given good evidence that whatever Lacan may be
trying to do in psychoanalysis, the mathematical theory of compact
sets or imaginary numbers is irrelevant to it, or at the very least
that he hasn’t explained the relevance."

Although Sokal is not interested in attacking the Philosophy of Science in
general, in Intellectual Impostures, Sokal says, "Science
is a rational enterprise, but difficult to codify." This remark,
coupled with his repeated defence of the rationality of science
without reference to any overarching theory of science, made me
wonder if there were any philosophers of science with whom he could
find some agreement.

"I have respect for a lot of philosophers of science," says Sokal,
but admits "I don’t think I agree with the systems of
any of them. For example, we criticise Popper on various grounds,
although we respect him in other ways. We criticise some of the
more extreme formulations of Kuhn and so on, but agree with him in
other ways. The same with Feyerabend. Maybe our view is somewhat
closer to Lakatos, I don’t know.

"I don’t have anything against philosophers who try to specify
it [the scientific method], and I think John Worrall was critical
because he thought we had underestimated the extent to which it
can be codified, and to which some philosophers – he mentioned
Lakatos – had succeeded in codifying it. That’s a more
subtle question that I’d love to discus with him. But our dispute
is not primarily with philosophers of science. We’re more worried
about the gross abuses and gross exaggerations of these ideas which
originated in philosophy of science but which have trickled down
in vulgarised form to anthropology and cultural studies. People
just talk about the incommensurability of paradigms as if it were
an established fact."

Sokal tries to maintain a tricky equilibrium between his strongly-held
views about relativism and his avowed disinterest in getting drawn
into subtler philosophical debates. Whether this is tenable is unclear.
Very few people are crude relativists, as Sokal acknowledges. So
then doesn’t he have to get involved in the subtler philosophical
issues if he wants his case to stick?

This perhaps came out in a lengthy exchange I had with Sokal about the
differences between idealism, relativism and instrumentalism. Idealists
believe that there is no such thing as a mind-independent reality,
but it doesn’t follow from this that science is not objective.
Relativists believe that there is no one truth about reality. Instrumentalist
believe that science is not about discovering the nature of reality,
but a means of predicting and manipulating the world. These positions
can all be classified as non-realist, in that they deny either the
existence of a world independent of minds, or at least deny that
such a world can be known. Sokal, who sees himself as a moderate
realist, is strongly opposed to relativism and less stridently opposed
to instrumentalism. But if a broad idealism is behind a lot of the
thinkers he criticises, and that is distinct from instrumentalism
and relativism, then he’s not only missed his target, he’s
also not really in the right ball-park.

I say this, not to criticise the limits of Sokal’s philosophical
knowledge (it’s abundantly clear that Sokal is much clearer
in his understanding of philosophy than some of his targets are
about the science they appropriate), nor because I am sure that
idealism is behind a lot of what Sokal criticises, but rather
to illustrate the perils of Sokal’s enterprise. He wants to
avoid the subtle distinctions and stick to the gross errors. But
is it not possible that some of these only appear as gross errors
because of a lack of understanding of the subtler ideas underlying

Sokal insists that, "The debate I was trying to raise was much cruder.
We give the example of the anthropologist and two theories of the
origin of native American populations, One that they came from Asia,
which is the archaeological consensus, the other the traditional
native American creation myths, so that their ancestors always lived
in the Americas, and the anthropologists said, ‘Science is just
one of many ways of knowing the world. The Zuni world-view is just
as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is all
about.’ So we go through and try and disentangle what he means
by ‘just as valid’. There are certain interpretations
of that which are unobjectionable but don’t say much, there
are other versions that do say something significant which we think
are grossly false. Jean and I were in Brazil in April and there
was two-day seminar at the University of Sao Paolo about our book
and things related to it, and we had long discussions with anthropologists
who really refused to admit that a culture’s cosmology could
be objectively true or false. Their beliefs about the origin of
the universe, or the movements of the planets or whatever, could
only be judged true or false relative to a culture. Not just questions
of cosmology, questions of history. And we asked, ‘Does that
mean that the fact that millions of native Americans died in the
wake of the European invasion, is that not an objective fact, that
it’s merely a belief that’s held to be true in some cultures?’
We never got a straightforward answer from them."

Whether or not Sokal is right in his accusations, his methods, particularly
the parody, have been criticised on some fronts for undermining
certain important things, such as trust. Does perhaps the ridiculing
of an area of academia bring the whole intellectual community into

"There’s certainly a danger. I have to emphasise that I didn’t expect
that this would ever reach the man on the street. It certainly wasn’t
intended to reach the front page of the New York Times or
the front page of the Observer or the front page of Le
. It happened that way. A month before it came out in Social
I was discussing with my friends, ‘How big is this
likely to be?’ My prediction was that it would be a significant
scandal within a small academic community. It would be page ten
of the Chronicle of Higher Education [The American equivalent
of The Times Higher] and maybe a 50-50 chance of a brief
mention on the New York Times education page. So I certainly
didn’t expect that it would make the popular press and, indeed,
when it did, some of the articles in the popular press, even in
the so-called serious press like the New York Times gave
off a whiff of anti-intellectualism, which I’ve tried to criticise
in my writings since then. We criticise the political twist that
the New York Times gave it, for example.

"So yes, it was briefly used. It dropped out of the popular press pretty
fast, which is fine by me. I intended it to cause a debate in academia
and that’s what I think it has done. But, yes, in the popular
press it had briefly two negative effects. It was used to bash intellectuals
in general and it was used to bash the political left in general.
At every opportunity I’ve had I’ve argued against both
of those two misuses. It’s not an attack on intellectuals in
general. It’s a critique by some intellectuals of other intellectuals.
And it’s not an attack on the left in general, it’s a
critique by someone on the left against others on the left."

As a physicist criticising people in the humanities, I wonder if Sokal
has ever felt like an impostor.

"No. I’ve felt lots of times that perhaps I’m getting in over
my head, which is a totally different thing. We emphasise in the
introduction that everybody has the right to express their ideas
about anything, regardless of whatever their professional credentials
are, and the value of the intervention has to be determined by its
contents, not by the presence or absence of professional credentials.
So physicists can say perfectly stupid things about physics or the
philosophy of physics and non-physicists can say perfectly smart
things about physics, it depends upon what’s being said. So,
of course, sometimes I’m a little scared because I know I’m
venturing outside of the area of my primary competence. A lot of
the book is on our area of primary competence, namely mathematics
and physics, but one chapter is on philosophy of science, which
is a little bit out of our area, so, of course I’m a little
worried that perhaps I’ve made some stupid mistake and the
philosophers are going to take us to task for it. If we made some
stupid mistakes I want to be taken to task for it. If we’ve
made gross errors or even subtle errors in the philosophy of science
I want to be criticised, but not because I’m a physicist or
because I lack a degree in philosophy. That’s irrelevant."

As Sokal prepares to return to his "first love", physics,
how have his perceptions of the humanities and social sciences been
changed by the experience of writing the parody and book?

"The best thing about this whole affair for me, which has now taken about
three years of my life, has been that I’ve been able to meet
and sometimes become good friends with really interesting people
in history, philosophy and sociology that I wouldn’t have otherwise
met. From them I’ve found out both that things were worse than
I thought, in the sense that some of the sloppy thinking was spread
more widely than I thought, and also that things were better than
I thought in that there were a lot of people within the humanities and
social sciences who had been arguing against sloppy thinking for
years and often were not being heard. After the parody and again
after the book I got an incredible amount of email from people in
the humanities and social sciences and people on the political left
as well, who were saying, ‘Thank you. We’ve been trying
to say this for years without getting through, and maybe it was
necessary for an outsider to come in and shake up our field and
say that our local emperor is running naked.’"

This article was originally published in Issue 4 of The Philosophers’ Magazine.

Julian Baggini has a web site here.

Intellectual Impostures is published by Profile Books and is available in
paperback at £9.99

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