Monday, December 27, 2010

The Sokal Hoax Turns 15

Michael Bérubé notes the 15th anniversary of the Sokal Hoax. While defending the cultural studies which Sokal was attacking, he concedes the larger point:

But what of Sokal’s chief post-hoax claim that the academic left’s critiques of science were potentially damaging to the left? That one, alas, has held up very well, for it turns out that the critique of scientific “objectivity” and the insistence on the inevitable “partiality” of knowledge can serve the purposes of climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists quite nicely. That’s not because there was something fundamentally rotten at the core of philosophical anti-foundationalism (whose leading American exponent, Richard Rorty, remained a progressive Democrat all his life), but it might very well have had something to do with the cloistered nature of the academic left. It was as if we had tacitly assumed, all along, that we were speaking only to one another, so that whenever we championed Jean-François Lyotard’s defense of the “hetereogeneity of language games” and spat on Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of a conversation oriented toward “consensus,” we assumed a strong consensus among us that anyone on the side of heterogeneity was on the side of the angels.

But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists, just as I predicted–and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind. Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of “experts” and “professionals” and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research.

The funny thing is it did not take long at all for this way of thinking to catch on among the Right. The first place I ever read about the Sokal Hoax was in (wait for it) Slouching Towards Gomorrah, by authoritarian would-be Supreme Court Justice Robert Bork, who mentioned it regarding the Left's penetration into academia as part of a "radical egalitarian" attack on elites.

Slouching was published in 1996, the same year as Sokal's coup. Sokal is mentioned on page 269; only 25 pages later Bork declares that "the fossil record is proving quite a major embarrassment for evolutionary theory" and goes on to quote Intelligent Design huckster Michael Behe as an authority. The juxtaposition speaks for itself.

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