Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, conducted a little experiment recently. He wrote an article that was close to pure gibberish and sent it off to a respected social science journal.
Then he sat back and waited to see if it would be published.It was.
The article, an impenetrable bramble of physics and philosophy that appears to argue that the physical world does not exist, landed in the pages of the spring-summer issue of Social Text, a leftist journal of cultural studies published by the Duke University Press.
Then Sokal, adding insult to injury, wrote a gloating article about his own hoax for Lingua Franca, a magazine about academia.
"What's going on here?" he wrote in the follow-up article. "Could the editors really not have realized that my article was written as a parody?"
Well, no, the editors of Social Text concede.
In fact, editor Andrew Ross said Thursday, he thought the Sokal article was simply a bad attempt at philosophy by a scientist. He included it in the journal's new issue - which is devoted to a rift between scientists and cultural critics of science - as a "curio" intended to reflect the scientists' side of the debate.
But why would anyone publish something that appeared to be nonsense?
"Physics is obscure enough as it is, and philosophy is obscure enough as it is," Ross said, "and when you have physicists who are writing in that genre, then what they write is obscure. But there's a difference between obscurity and gibberish, right?"
Well, yes, sometimes. But consider what Sokal wrote.
In the opening paragraph, he lays out his basic theme: There are scientists, he asserts, who "cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole."
In other words, some dumb scientists actually believe that the world exists.
There follow many pages of impossibly dense scientific mumbo-jumbo, all supported by lengthy footnotes. From time to time, Sokal slips in little parenthetical zingers.
"Mathematically, Einstein breaks with the tradition dating back to Euclid (which is inflicted on high-school students even today!)," he writes. It's not hard to imagine him chuckling over his keyboard.