What Critics Get Wrong (and Right) About ‘Sokal 2.0’

Much has been written about the recent hoax perpetrated against segments of postmodern academia, most of it fairly binary. People are either enthusiastic fans or strident critics. For my part, I’m in the former camp. The fields targeted by the hoax are, at best, silly and indulgent. Less generously, a case can be made that these fields are actively harmful. They not only spread, but actively reinforce, bias, confusion, and extremism.

Still, the hoax was flawed. For one, it wasn’t scientific. Though, in this regard, it’s worth remembering that the authors never claimed otherwise—in fact, they state explicitly that their project was not scientific. And, while it proves that journals within those fields will publish garbage, it doesn’t prove that garbage is all they produce.

Below, I’ll explore some of these criticisms. I’ll do so largely with an eye on the philosophical roots of the disciplines in question as compared to the sciences. Points of merit will be noted, but the primary thrust here is to illustrate how a lot of the criticism of the hoax stems from a failure to understand the fields it hit.

Nowhere do I contend that I’m any kind of expert in postmodernism, post-structuralism, textual analysis, social/cultural constructivism, or any of the other schools of thought within the broad realm of “critical” theory. I had to wade through hundreds of pages of this work as an undergraduate in anthropology. As a graduate student, I did my best to avoid the stuff, but I still bumped into it occasionally in method and theory courses. The result: a reluctant familiarity that far exceeds my interest.

It is also not my intention to smear the humanities. Depending on the specific target of inquiry, my native field of anthropology, sits squarely in a peculiar nexus of the humanities and social science. History is indispensable. I consume large amounts of philosophy on a regular basis. Writ large, the humanities have a lot to offer.

There just happens to be a strain of thought within the humanities that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. I encountered in plenty in anthropology. It is fairly widespread in the sweeping collective of interests folks call “cultural studies.” It comes in a variety of flavors. Their common ingredient is a radical skepticism about the possibility of learning anything clear or concrete about the world. This manifests itself in a belief that everything—ethics, reason, evidence—is highly relative and conditioned by culture and individual perception.

At first glance this might look like a piece of insight. For the fields in question, it has been taken to disorienting extremes. As a result, it has become thoroughly counterproductive. The fields in question don’t produce or contribute to knowledge—they stand in its way.

Criticism 1: science does it too.

Here, the claim is that fraudulent papers have been published in serious scientific journals. Demonstrating that certain domains within the humanities will do likewise doesn’t really single them out as especially credulous or slipshod.

There is some merit to this critique. Kooky or outright fraudulent material does sometimes sneak into the sciences. But this doesn’t really excuse the banality of the fields targeted by this hoax. Arguing otherwise is to tacitly accept a, ‘so-and-so did something bad, so why can’t I?’ defense. That reasoning doesn’t usually work very well on police officers, parents, or judges. It shouldn’t work among academics either.

The comparison breaks down further when we examine the epistemological roots of the fields in question. Science has a way of cleaning up after itself. Disciplines rooted in postmodern, critical, or constructivist “theory” don’t. A duped science journal can improve its review methods. The same can’t be said of fields that are rooted in a wholesale denial of one or all of the following claims: there is an objective reality shared by all humans, the nature of that reality can be discovered, and the knowledge produced will be universal.

Branches of the humanities that reject these claims ensure that whatever methodological standards they adopt are ultimately arbitrary. Thus, any properly constructed attempt to sidestep them will be undiscoverable. Even the most painstakingly constructed act of scientific fraud will be uncovered by its final failure to reflect reality.

Here, critics are often keen to cite the replication crisis in psychology. They don’t present this as an example of fraud, but as an illustration of how easy it is to get bad work published. This line of reasoning doesn’t hold much water when we take a step back and recognize that the replication crisis was uncovered by scientists working within the relevant discipline. Someone from identity/gender/race studies didn’t point out the problem—researchers, doing science the way science is supposed to be done, did.

Contrast this with the “grievance studies” hoax. It was not uncovered by scrupulous academics working within the slighted fields. Journalists working outside those disciplines sniffed it out and forced the hoaxers to expose their work ahead of schedule. Absent that meddling, these journals would still be hosting finely curated nonsense and still more of it likely would have made it to print. Science—and any other worthwhile knowledge-gaining activity—has self-correcting mechanisms like falsification.

Self-correction is unavailable in large swaths of the humanities because they eschew the notion that concepts ought to have any kind of external reference point in the real world. So it is that, twenty-two years after Alan Sokal uncovered a tendency for subdisciplines within the humanities to celebrate and esteem nonsense, many subdisciplines within the humanities are still celebrating and esteeming nonsense.

Criticism 2: the hoaxers were ideologically motivated.

Critics are all over the map on this one, so it’s hard to boil it down to a single critique. Some are vague, simply noting that the hoaxers appear to have had some kind of axe to grind. Others are quite specific, arguing that, because a lot of the journals targeted trade in gender studies, the hoaxers must have been on some kind of gender-motivated crusade. Maybe. Others suggest that, because the work has been applauded by alt-right clowns like Jordan Peterson, the hoaxers must be some kind of right-wing sleeper agents. Again, maybe.

Both of those suggestions should be shelved until someone can produce some solid corroborating evidence. Currently, they are speculation inspired by coincidence. For now, it is far more reasonable to take the authors of the hoax papers at their word. Implicit in their write up is a concern for the rigorous pursuit of objective truth. A belief that academia should be bent toward uncovering what is true about the world is certainly ideological. It just happens to be an ideological claim that has formed the foundations of academia for centuries.

The targeted fields reject this creed. Some even go so far as to label it a form of violence. That is, the truth-seeking orientation of universities falls within the same class of behavior as domestic abuse, child molestation, and genocide.

Rejecting objective truth isn’t a fringe position in large swaths of the humanities. It is the prevailing dogma. This makes sense in some domains. Who’s to say what the objective meaning of a piece of art or literature is? No one, that’s who. The same, however, is not true of the causes and consequences of things like systemic racism or homophobia. Likewise for many of the phenomena these fields study.

Practitioners of identity/gender/race studies frequently treat empirical questions like matters of opinion. Simultaneously, they advance claims about the world that can only be ideologically motivated. The structure and theoretical roots of these disciplines thereafter grant them license to cast all contradictory information as products of a twisted social structure. Anything that runs contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy can be dismissed as the progeny of colonialism or the patriarchy or systemic racism.

It goes overlooked, but the idea that the world is intelligible is a sort of ideological proposition. It just happens to be the ideological proposition on which most of the core tenets of liberal society—democracy, human rights, science, the rule of law—rest. Sokal-squared targets individuals and disciplines that deny that there are truths about the world accessible to all humans, then fill the resulting gaps with subjective “truths” uncovered by whatever means happen to be in fashion. That’s the only ideological claim you need to explain the motivations of the hoaxers.

Criticism 3: a lack of intellectual engagement.

Others have echoed it, but this one comes directly from the physicist Sean Carroll. Taking to Twitter, Carroll wrote, “What strikes me about stunts like this is their fundamental meanness. No attempt to intellectually engage with ideas you disagree with; just trolling for lulz.”

This one maps onto criticism 2, and, as we’ll see, wraps back around to criticism 1. Carroll is obviously imputing motives on the hoaxers (just trolling for lulz) but at issue here is his concern with their apparent lack of intellectual engagement.

This is dubious. To pull off their hoax, the authors had to immerse themselves in the jargon and intellectual culture of the fields in question. Describing that as a lack of intellectual engagement doesn’t make a lot of sense. But more to the point, it reveals something telling about those fields: a jargon-laden intellectual culture is all they are.

Consider a hard science like chemistry or physics. To perpetrate a similar stunt in those fields (that is, a layman or outsider tricking a serious journal into publishing nonsense) one would have to first develop a good grasp on chemistry or physics. For the journals in question, it was clearly enough to make up some data, couch it in appropriately quirky, convoluted, and pretentious syntax, then season it with the appropriate buzzwords.

This is because these fields are explicitly concerned with subjective meaning. True, meaning crops up in the sciences as well, but only in a very specific sense. For instance, one might say, “individuals in a population of cichlid fish possess different traits. Some of these traits are heritable and the individuals reproduce at different rates. That means the frequency of those traits in the population will change over time.” That last sentence is both a logical outworking of the sentences that preceded it and easily subject to empirical evaluation.

In the fields targeted by the hoax, meaning and interpretation take on very different flavors. This is because they don’t set themselves the task of finding out what is true of the world. Instead, they work to uncover what something might mean in light of a specific interpretative frameworks. The result is inevitably a ceaseless spiral of pedantry. Here, one might say, “performative heteronormativity, when viewed through the lens of feminist criminology, perpetuates cycles of racialized incarceration and recapitulates the colonized-colonizer relationship. It thus demands a praxis of decolonizing pedagogy to overthrow.”

Serious intellectual engagement with this sort of claim is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. First, it demands the use of a specific interpretative lens. This makes it borderline tautological. Assuming conditions A through X and philosophical lens Z, the implications are clear. If you build a box with only one exit, the way out is obvious. Second, though one could say something similar about science (scientific theories can be thought of as interpretive lenses), science comes with a built-in stopping point.  This is because scientists embrace the proposition that the world is knowable and agree that the best way to learn about it is through some combination of reason and evidence. Science recognizes a need to be able to find out when you’re wrong. For the duped disciplines, it’s just turtles all the way down.

In science—and other empirical disciplines like history or more serious branches of the humanities—claims ultimately boil down to something everyone can access: reason and evidence. Even the most carefully calibrated scientific fraud will be sniffed out the moment someone does a similar experiment that produces sufficiently different results.

In the more slippery segments of the humanities, the fuel and fire of inquiry is privilege and identity. Society and culture are read as texts. This is a very good way to build a perpetual motion machine for spitting out opinions, but an exceptionally poor way to find out if any of those opinions are true or have anything helpful to say about what makes society tick. Bad ideas can proliferate endlessly because counter-proofs or inconvenient facts can always be written off as a product of nefarious social agents and outside corruption. Capitalist hegemony, neoliberal dogma, heteronormative patriarchy, systemic racism, structural violence—it’s like “fake news” for people with large vocabularies.

The roots of these fields are deeply idealist. Not in the hopeful colloquial sense, but in the dry philosophical sense. They contend that our perceptions of the world are, in the final analysis, constructions of cultural forces and individual imagination without anchor in anything real. Taken seriously, this means that there really isn’t much to be gained by listening to anyone else. Everyone’s opinion is equally valid. Confusingly, the practice of critical theory also tacitly contends that the opinions of people who had have read and can quote from Lacan and Foucault and Derrida are particularly valuable. This, even though there is no way to tell whether the opinions of Lacan and Foucault and Derrida are better informed or more valuable than anyone else’s.

The Hoax and Hoaxed

Certainly, the hoax was flawed. It’s claims about uncovering clear ideological bias are weak absent some control. Had they submitted nonsensical papers that aligned with conservative or libertarian orthodoxy, the hoaxers would have had a real test on their hands. And, as even a glancing familiarity with scientific methodology reveals, the hoax hardly represents proof that these entire disciplines are corrupt beyond repair.

Still, the business of getting to know ourselves and the world we inhabit is one of conversation and criticism. That conversation can only move forward if we agree that world is knowable and accept that reasoning about evidence is the best way to learn about it. The value of the hoax rests not its proof of anything (positive or negative) about the targeted disciplines. Rather, it rests in its capacity to generate conversation and debate.

In our fact-troubled times, we can’t afford to fund entire disciplines that teach young people that there are no facts unencumbered by bias. Or, worse, that the presence of bias provides a shortcut for establishing truth or falsity. This simply isn’t the case. It’s not that uncovering universal, objective truths is easy. It’s not—humans were around for hundreds of thousands of years before we discovered a reliable method. We’ve only been putting it into practice for about 500 years. So far, it has been enormously (if unevenly) successful. Take your capacity to the read this article on a highly sophisticated device connected to a vast network of near-instantaneous information transmission as a good example. The fields targeted by the hoax mistake a fundamentally difficult problem for an impossible one.

Consequently, thousands of smart, talented people squander their abilities on esoteric and masturbatory errands. Instead of actively working to alleviate hunger, cure cancer, halt the spread of malaria, combat nationalism, eradicate racism and homophobia, develop clean and sustainable energy sources, mitigate the worst effects of climate change, or improve education, they spend their time learning how to use other people’s goofy, ostentatious opinions as tools for problematizing behavior and institutions that are comparatively harmless. Not only is this unhelpful, it is sometimes actively (though, I suspect, accidentally) insidious, sowing seeds for fresh division and offering justification to authoritarian impulses.

These fields are structured around perverse incentives. Accolades and prestige accumulate to those most capable of complicating the mundane and trivial. Because the complexion and severity of problems can only be defined by subjective preferences, the resulting ideological extremism is inevitable. This would be true if the progenitors of the disciplines had been inclined toward conservative ideologies. It just happens to be true that the histories of these field trace back to liberal progenitors, locking them on a self-reinforcing path of ever-increasing leftist extremism.

As a result, individuals within these fields and the people they influence are often given to think that the entire system is corrupt. Instead of working with imperfect allies to develop effective solutions to obvious, inhumane abuses like mass incarceration or the war on drugs, they waste time and effort cooking up foes where none previously existed. Meanwhile, differently minded ideologically minded extremists—ones with a notable preference for measurable results—accumulate real power. They erode voter rights, unleash unlimited corporate spending on elections, and dismantle valuable environmental protections. Individuals in some branches of the humanities react by complaining that there isn’t enough feminism in the study of glaciers.

Of course, that is largely a matter of opinion. It is a well-reasoned opinion that doesn’t depend on a lot of ideological baggage (just the belief that the world is knowable), but it is still just an opinion. It is also an opinion that I happen to share with the hoaxers. They didn’t prove me right or strike the killing blow against academic indulgence and sophistry. Yet they still accomplished something important: they cast a bright light in a corner of academia that, for most folks, was previously shrouded in darkness. People who weren’t thinking or talking about these fields now are.

It’s easy to look at the current sociopolitical landscape and see only causes for cynicism. But I take some solace in the fact that anyone who isn’t currently drowning in a hermetically sealed bowl of ideological zealotry and tribalism can look at someone like President Donald Trump and recognize the truth: an odious buffoon sits in the White House. Now that it has been dredged back into daylight, I suspect a similar fate will befall the shoddy work done cultural studies. People will be able to look at it and recognize that there’s nothing there save gaudy language and pedantry. Perhaps, then, another generation’s talents can be fixed on better ends.

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