Some Thoughts on Sokal's Hoax

August 26, 1996

If you know about Sokal's Hoax, the following letter in reply to a piece on the subject in the August 8,1996, issue of the New York Review of Books, by the distinguished University of Texas Professor and physics Nobel laureate, Steven Weinberg, will probably make sense.

[I have more to say on the topic. Check my Homepage.]

To the Editors, NYR

As a former particle physics theorist myself, I have a high regard for Steven Weinberg as both a person and a physicist. Still, I must ask, is it only coincidental that he ends his mostly favorable evaluation [NYR, Aug. 8,1996] of Alan Sokal's hoax on the editors of Social Text by approvingly quoting the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose own downfall was his public authentication of another famous hoax (the forged Hitler diaries)? Trevor-Roper went much further out on a limb than the Social Text editors ever did, so if his other words have merit, perhaps theirs do at least equally. On the other hand, if everyone vaguely associated with taking Sokal's parody at face value is now to be subject to additional scrutiny, shouldn't that apply as well to Trevor-Roper, and by extension, to Weinberg himself?

Weinberg's point is that "more is at stake in the controversy over [the social construction of science thesis] than just the health of science. ...[O]ur civilization has been powerfully affected by the discovery that nature is strictly governed by impersonal laws. As an example I like to quote the remark of Hugh Trevor-Roper that one of the early effects of this discovery was to reduce the enthusiasm for burning witches. We will need to confirm and strengthen the vision of a rationally understandable world if we are to protect ourselves from the irrational tendencies that still beset humanity."

If in the plus side of the rise of science is the end of burning of witches (a point in itself debatable, but never mind), on the minus side is the highly impersonal burning by such products of science as napalm, or the "impersonal" experiments of a Dr. Mengele. The overall balance might still tilt in favor of science, but it is by no means an overwhelming or absolute tilt. And further, as a careful reading of the quoted passage reveals, Weinberg's stand has an ideological tinge to it; it is not a completely disinterested plea for truth, but rather a stance in favor of a vision of the world regardless of whether the evidence for that vision is as utterly absolute as Weinberg would have it be.

One of the points of the more thoughtfully serious members of the field known as STS -- science technology and society studies, the field attacked by Sokal -- is that absolutely rational knowledge -- knowledge totally untainted by cultural preconceptions -- is a will o'the wisp -- beyond the realm of the possible. No matter how hard one may strive to attain such a goal it must remain beyond reach. This does not imply one should not strive, but rather that to believe one has fully succeeded or can succeed is to mislead oneself -- and others.

When it comes to designing experiments, scientists are well aware of this difficulty. This is why, to have any chance of being accepted as valid, an experiment on the efficacy of a drug must be performed "double blind" with neither the experimenters nor the patients knowing who is receiving an actual drug and who a placebo. Researchers' abilities not to be swayed by what they hope is the case is far too unreliable to be trusted. Likewise, the possibility of 'systematic bias' in any sort of experiment must be carefully investigated but still can never be ruled out.

However, for the interpretation of experimental results, including the scientific theories in which Weinberg justifiably glories, no one has come anywhere close to devising procedures for systematically or convincingly ruling out bias -- especially that resulting from presuppositions or prejudices held in common. Thus it is totally sensible and necessary to presume that some biases remain, biases whose effects quite obviously can only be guessed at. In trying to suggest the forms these biases might take, the practitioners of STS, far from being harbingers of a Stalinist dikat in the offing, are performing a useful and essential service, one which ought to win scientist's gratitude, not their heavy-handed disdain.

Take for example the matter of sexism. Who can doubt that by today's standards science developed and grew in a strongly sexist environment? Where gender is directly at issue, as, say, in sociology, psychology, physiology, ethology (the study of "animal behavior") and so on, it now not hard to spot what seem to be highly prejudiced work done in even the recent past. But what about areas such as astronomy, physics and chemistry, where gender never arises as official subject matter? Does it follow that centuries of sexism had no effect at all on the whole way knowledge was accumulated, areas of study selected, or concepts formulated? Quite to the contrary, that conclusion would be utterly unbelievable.

How then should sciences such as physics be revised so as to eliminate the latent biases of sexism, militarism, etc? Thinkers such as Sandra Harding, Evelyn Fox Keller, David Noble and others have loosely speculated on the consequences of sexism, but the fact is, short of beginning science from scratch in a non-sexist environment, no one can be completely sure just what the changes ought to be. Still the critiques are extremely valuable in at least offering something to chew on, some hope of greater awareness of the form these biases might take. The result of so chewing would not be a feminist science or an Aryan science, but simply a still imperfect but more rational science. I cannot see why Weinberg, if he is truly interested in promoting a more genuinely rational world should oppose such efforts.

Instead, Weinberg, like Sokal, takes umbrage at the very idea that it makes sense to say that reality, the laws of nature, or science (take your pick) is "socially constructed." Part of their problem seems to be that don't see what such a phrase plainly means. For an example of something obviously socially constructed, think of any building. A building is real, certainly, but it couldn't come into existence apart from the particularities of some definite social order or other, with its own preconceptions, tastes, institutional arrangements, and so forth.

The reality of the building of course is in no way at odds with its ultimately being made out of something that might exist anyway had humans never existed, but there is no way to say much of anything about what that something would be. Say the materials that go into it are labelled as glass, steel and concrete. These are all human made, according to our concepts of what counts as these substances. Nor if we say the building is made of sand, gravel, water, iron ore and coal -- materials that might be used to make glass, steel and concrete -- do we necessarily get back to a pre-or a-social set of terms.

As Jacques Derrida's work strongly suggests , the fingerprints of human thought are all over any ideas we can possibly arrive at of the nature of the stuff out of which the building -- or anything else -- is made. (Weinberg includes in his essay a quote from Derrida that he found in Sokal's parody. Sokal, in turn found the citation in Levitt and Gross's splenetic Higher Superstition. Not having been able to trace down the context, I admit I have only a faint idea of what Derrida was getting at there. However, whether this particular reference makes sense or not, it would be ludicrous to use such a passage as a reason to discount his contributions, in toto. Derrida adopts a somewhat opaque style at times, no doubt, but he does so, as far as I can make out, because he believes, possibly correctly, that it is the clearest way to get at some essential unclarities inherent in thought itself.)

What we call the laws of nature are very much like a building. No matter what we do, they bear the marks of our thoughts -- even the idea that it makes sense to speak of laws of nature to begin with. Weinberg gives as an example of a well-established law Maxwell 's equations. (He has to qualify this by pointing out that they are valid only as approximations, and then only under certain circumstances. The same could be said of the "law" that the earth is flat. But, again, never mind.) He can hardly be suggesting that the mathematical equations -- a set of symbols on paper or a blackboard or in scientists' minds are themselves "natural." Rather he presumably means that the equations refer to a state of affairs in the world that is quite often the case.

But what state of affairs? When Maxwell first began to formulate his equations, as Weinberg is very well aware, he took it that they referred to the state of the aether, or rather of several different quite complicated aethers that coexisted somehow. The current interpretation is more in terms of Weinberg's own vastly influential electro-weak theory, in which the state of affairs is part of an underlying symmetry between a number of quantum fields at each point in space and time.

As physicists' concept of the underlying reality of nature keeps changing, so does their sense of what is meant by nature being governed by laws, even though they may rarely put these shifts of meaning into words. Weinberg, as much as anyone, has been at the forefront of such a shift. Perhaps he would never have been capable of the theorizing that got him there if he had focussed on the ways the thoughts he shared were socially constructed, but it is disappointing that in hindsight he cannot see (or acknowledge) this.

Instead, he would have it that scientific laws are as real as rocks in a meadow. (He uses the word "field," not "meadow," but the latter word seems less ambiguous in this context.) But in a meadow there might be many rocks, not to say other entities, such as flowers, shadows, butterflies, attitudes, buzzes, and so on. What is at stake is not simply what is true or false about some aspects, but how one selects what to focus on altogether. Nothing in the meadow is prima facie more fundamental than anything else. Whatever kind of operation one pursues in this meadow, to mean anything it must somehow connect with pre-existing concepts, even though what one does, if shared with others, can also help add to and modify those concepts.

One non-controversial example of how science is limited by the socially constructed concepts available is suggested by the following rather romantic passage in Weinberg's own Dreams of a Final Theory :"Physicists generally find the ability of mathematicians to anticipate the mathematics needed in the theories of physics quite uncanny. It is as if Neil Armstrong in 1969, when he first set foot on the surface of the moon, had found in the lunar dust the footsteps of Jules Verne."

Weinberg is referring to such episodes in the history of physics as Einstein's realization when he was developing general relativity that he could make use of Riemann's geometry of curved spaces, and Heisenberg's realization in developing quantum mechanics that he could use the theorems of matrix algebra.

A less romantic interpretation of such moments is that science cannot proceed without suitable concepts. In these cases, among many others, physicists happened to stumble on mathematical concepts previously unknown to them, which made it possible for them to both develop their own ideas and convey them to other physicists. In many other cases, however, it is to be presumed that physicists were not so lucky; they simply came across no ready-made concepts from mathematics to give form to their thoughts, so no theory resulted. There is nothing uncanny or mysterious about it.

Can anyone possibly dispute that mathematical concepts are socially constructed, by mathematicians who raise problems and pose questions to one another according to their interests of the moment, and with very little regard for "external" reality? And further, even though normally , there is no obvious and simple connection between what interests mathematicians and what goes on in the larger society of the moment, can anyone seriously claim there is no connection at all? If so, why is it that almost all the mathematics and science we know developed out of a single unbroken cultural tradition beginning with the Greeks, passing through Arab culture and then, roughly at the time of the Renaissance returning to Western Europe and areas influenced by it.

Weinberg seems confused on this. He points out, correctly, that people from just about any cultural origin or gender succeed as scientists. However, it is also the case that people from just about as diverse backgrounds succeed as Christians, Buddhists, Marxists, rock musicians, volleyball or chess players, investment bankers, or even chinese food mavens. Yet, like modern science, all these other pursuits had quite specific and unique cultural origins, and still bear some traces of these origins. In some sense, all these pursuits may be said to "work" -- and to work better for their followers, at least, than cultural parallels that might be closer to home. One may accept that for a variety of purposes modern, western-originated science works better than the knowledge system in reference to the natural order developed independently by any other culture, without concluding that our science has no defects, deformities or limits to its powers and usefulness, just as rock music's success does not prove it to be the "music of the spheres."

Weinberg also evokes the presumed agreement of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe with our natural laws. Of course he has no evidence whatoever for such agreement. If anything, there is more evidence to the contrary. One of the main applications of Maxwell's equations is in the design of radio transmitters and receivers. In the early 1960's radioastronomers begtanwhat was then known as Project Ozma and is now know as SETI (the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence). The idea was that, relying on our knowledge of natural laws, and supposing what Weinberg supposes about other intelligent beings agreeing with us, we could guess the sort of radio signals (and, at first, even the wavelengths) advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe would transmit. Needless to say, no such signals have yet been found. If there is intelligent life elsewhere -- and contemporary theories about the origin of life certainly rasie that expectation to a near certainty -- it evidently doesn't think along the same lines as mid-twentieth century western science. Maybe, like the Chinese before contact with the west, they have constructed for themselves (through their own processes of discovery) very different laws.

One of the ironies of Sokal's hoax and his follow-up is this. At their most extreme some of the proponents of STS sometimes speak as if what is considered true in science is whatever has social power and rhetorical strength behind it. By relying less on rational argument than ridicule and the established social power of scientists relative to post-modernist theorists, Sokal and his supporters only confirm those extreme views. One can hope that the outcome will instead be the beginning of a less tendentious but more frutiful dialogue on the limits of science. I am sorry to see Steven Weinberg not moving further in that direction.


Michael H. Goldhaber

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