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LETTER TO THE BOOKSHELF

A letter regarding Michael Bérubé's review of Beyond the Hoax

I read with interest Michael Bérubé's book review of physicist Alan Sokal's latest work, Beyond the Hoax ("Post Hoax, Ergo Propter Hoax," January-February 2009). The review mentioned that, despite the title of the book, it nonetheless "devotes its first hundred pages" to yet another retelling of the great hoax Sokal played on the editors of the journal Social Text when he submitted a nonsense article about the "hermeneutics" of quantum gravity.

Important information is almost always missing, however, in the discussion about Sokal's big laugh: The editors of Social Text asked Sokal "to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation" in his article. The editors requested other changes as well, as they subsequently reported in the pages of Lingua Franca, the journal where Sokal first wrote about his hoax. Sokal soon responded to Social Text's editors, also in Lingua Franca, but did not deny that editorial changes were requested. He had told the editors that his article had to run without any changes and, unfortunately for them, operating far outside their area of expertise, such as it is, they fell for the stunt.

Thus, what Sokal actually did was halt his experiment midway, at the point where it suited his hypothesis—the ultimate act of disrespect for the scientific method. Clearly, the true conclusion to his experiment would have been to see what changes would have satisfied the editors of Social Text.

Maybe after 13 years it's time for Sokal to move on and, for example, direct his attention to the fact that no group of scientists has distanced itself farther from the public than physicists, with their obscure and pompous vocabulary, and universal worship of a theory that cannot be disproven.

If anyone needs to get beyond the hoax it's Alan Sokal.

Ingrid Eisenstadter
The Eppley Foundation for Research
New York City, New York

 

Professor Bérubé responds:

I believe Ingrid Eisenstadter is correct that the editors of Social Text asked Alan Sokal to revise the piece, particuarly with regard to the long quotations and excessive footnotes, which they saw as unnecessary. Perhaps, then, Sokal is a hypocrite in some eyes; but this doesn't, in mine, exonerate Social Text for agreeing to publish the piece after all that. And I say this as someone who has been published in the journal twice—once before, and once after, the hoax.

Michael Bérubé
Paterno Family Professor in Literature
Department of English
Program in Science, Technology, and Society
Co-Director, Disability Studies Program
Pennsylvania State University

 

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