Physicist Alan Sokal caught some publishers with their pants down when he submitted a paper that was filled with liberally salted nonsense and it was published anyway. It has since spawned much debate about the quality of publications, peer review and non-peer review alike.

"It has thus become increasingly apparent that phsyical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." ("T," p. 217)

Called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," it was published in the Spring/Summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue of Social Text. On the same day of the publication, Sokal announced in another publication, Lingua Franca, that "the article was a hoax, calling his paper "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense", which was "structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics" made by postmodernist academics."

    Why was it published?
  • It sounded good
  • It flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions.
    Why did Sokal do it?
  • Sokal wanted to discredit postmodernist discourse.
  • Sokhal wanted to re-establish intellectual rigor.
  • And, who doesn't like seeing a masterful plan successfully debilitate two enemies at the same time?

Oops. "Reality" no longer exists post publication.

"The acceptance of the article for publication was regarded as proof that the editors of Social Text, supposedly representing the literary academy, endorse nothing less than a lunatic disbelief in the physical world, a position so extreme that it could easily be cited in the mass media--and so it was, repeatedly--as evidence of the absurdity to which literary studies and cultural studies had sunk. The concept of "reality" quickly became the fetishized term in a public debate that was far removed from the philosophy of science and mired (from) the beginning in low-level philosophizing on the obtuseness of the physical world." (JSTOR)

So the next time you read about quantum gravity having progressive political implications, it's a hoax.

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