Strange Bedfellows

Arthur Chadwick, 
Southwestern Adventist University,
Keene, TX

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 50 (March 1998): 4-5.

The Spring/Summer 1996 issue of the postmodernist ("pomo") journal Social Text unwittingly laid the roots for the unfolding of the most notorious academic prank in recent years. Alan Sokal, a physicist from NYU, troubled by the growing influence of postmodernist philosophy on science, submitted a fully contrived essay to that journal entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" http://www. ). The erudite, apparently carefully studied piece argued against the existence of an external, knowable world, using the convoluted verbiage of "pomo" and suggested that even physics was just another venue for cultural criticism. For example, he states:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality," no less than social "reality," is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge," far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.

Not that Sokal believed a word of it, but the editors, taken in by the possibility of so eminent a scientist defecting to their ranks, published the article without external review. Sokal immediately revealed the prank in the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca to the absolute horror of the Social Text editors Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, but to the delight of many in the scientific community. The editors responded by attacking Sokal as a scientist and as a person (Stanley Aronowitz, the founder of the journal suggested he was "ill-read and half-educated"a condition apparently missed by the editors while accepting his article for review). Subsequently the editors made things worse by insisting that they really never were taken in by the ruse, even claiming "From the first, we considered Sokal's unsolicited article to be a little hokey" ( pubs/socialtext/sokal.html   

Whatever one's opinion of postmodernism, there is a feeling shared by some inside as well as outside of science that Sokal transgressed the boundary of acceptable conduct in making his point. Postmodernism is largely an outgrowth of the loss of perspective in a society where for over a century scientific rationalism has prevailed. For example, the once popular view of science as a revolutionary process elaborated by Thomas Kuhn, a view supported by the entire historical development of science, was rejected finally, not because it did not comport with experience, but because such a model clashed with the more rational linear, cumulative view of science presented in every textbook. For whatever excesses postmodern advocates have been guilty of (and there are plenty of examples), they have had a role in drawing attention to the excesses and limitations of a purely rationalistic worldview. In an ironic twist, Sokal's farcical article unconsciously draws attention to the very excesses of science postmodernistic thought has sought to address. Perhaps at least part of the joke is not on the advocates of "pomo." In any case, a continued, spirited and occasionally acrimonious debate between the editors and Sokal has ensued, and it is clear they share precious little common ground.

There is, however, one element that these advocates of antithetical views may find as common ground. While they cannot agree about whether the universe exists or has meaning apart from context, or whether there are universal truths or even any truth, perhaps they can agree that creationism does not belong in the science classroom. At least this was the hope of Social Text co-editor Robbins during a panel discussion with Sokal and others in the Physics Department of Rutgers University. He states:

 I will conclude by saying that we may not agree on a common epistemology, but I think we have a better chance at a common politics. If and when we have to argue with people who want creationism given equal time in science class, we are going to be on the same side, and we should perhaps remember that when we talk to each other.

By depicting creationism as the common enemy, Robbins may have been attempting conciliation, knowing postmodernists are sometimes accused of aiding the cause of creationists, through their deconstructing of science. He might have been surprised if he had sought Sokal's response. What could have been Robbins' justification for this statement, since as a postmodernist, he could not argue, as Sokal might have, that there is a body of evidence that contradicts the assertions of fundamentalist Creationism? But what a sad commentary on the values of two disparate worldviews that the only common ground they can find is a common antipathy for the view that God created life on the earth. Whatever perspective one may entertain respecting the details of or meaning of "Creationism," this is bad news for those in pursuit of Truth.


Sources for further information:  includes the text of the original articles as well as a number of subsequent discussions and debates.  National Association of Scholars web page. Numerous links to "pomo" related subject matter.  Social Text editors respond to Sokal  Steven Weinberg analyzes Sokal's article.