Mathematics and the "Science Wars"
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Mathematics and the "Science Wars"
 
 
In early 1996 the physicist Alan Sokal created a controversy by publishing two journal articles. The first article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity appeared in the journal Social Text. It purported to be, and was taken by the editors of Social Text as, a serious article on the implications of developments in the field of cultural studies for developments in modern physics, and vice-versa. The second article, A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies, appeared in the journal Lingua Franca just as issue of Social Text containing the first article came out. It revealed that the first article was in fact a hoax. As Sokal wrote:
For some years I've been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I'm a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of _jouissance_ and _diff'erance_, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies --- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross --- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Interested readers can find my article, ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,'' in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of _Social_Text_. It appears in a special number of the magazine devoted to the ``Science Wars.''

The full text of both articles, and considerable related additional material, is available from Prof. Sokal's web site. (Mathematicians may be particularly amused to read of the "relation" of post-modern thought to differential topology, mathematical physics, and other branches of modern mathematics.)

The publication of these articles prompted several mathematicians to take a serious look at the "Science Wars". Their conclusions appeared as a pair of articles in the October 1996 issue of the Notices of the AMS,

and a letter to the editor in the May 1997 issue

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have recently published Impostures Intellectuelles (translated into English under the title Intellectual Impostures in Britain and Fashionable Nonsense in the U.S.). Gen Kuroki's page After the Sokal Affair and Impostures Intellectuelles contains an extensive index of links to articles on this controversy, and also to reviews of this book.