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Wednesday, September 18, 2002
 
Mistakes

There are many sorts of mistake. Apart from the deliberate sort, there is the genuine, honest mistake. Then, of course, there is the total error of judgement. Today's lesson is about a mistake so gross that the matter has become a standing joke. The most interesting part is not so much the nature of the mistake as the attempts at excusing it.

In 1996, an American Physics professor, increasingly disillusioned by the loose thinking in humanities studies, decided to make his point in a decidedly academic way: he wrote a paper.

However, the paper did not seek explicitly to criticise this loose thinking. Oh no, he wrote a paper designed to appeal to those guilty of such a lack of rigour and he succeeded in getting it published.

Speaking personally, having perpetrated a number of spoofs and made my fair share of mistakes, e.g. The South Sea Bubble, the Ford Edsel, and The Millennium Dome (I can't quite remember which category these three achievements come into), I have some experience of admitting to my mistakes. Problems occur when pig-headed people try to justify their errors. Politicians spring to mind, here.

Professor Alan Sokal's paper, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ was published in Social Texts 46/47, Spring/Summer 1996, pp. 217-52. The spoof appeared in a special double issue of the journal devoted to rebutting the charge that cultural studies’ criticisms of science tend to be riddled with incompetence. Professor Sokal’s hoax was first revealed in Lingua Franca, May/June 1996, pp. 62-4 in his paper 'A Physicist Experiments with Social Studies'.

The Quantum Gravity paper was a hotch potch of nonsense that any half-competent physicist would have seen through immediately, but it was not referred to anyone able to assess its technical nature. The logical arguments used in it were also questionable, if not utterly specious. However, because it was evidence that at least one scientist endorsed some tenuous criticisms of some scientific attitudes, the paper was accepted enthusiastically, although the editors concerned subsequently disputed this.

There is only one reasonable way to react if one is the victim of such a hoax: that is to say 'Ha ha,' through gritted teeth and, 'Oops; that was very silly of me. I should not have done that. I will try harder in future.' Not a bit of it. There was extensive writing about why it was acceptable to have published the paper, how it was terrible of Sokal to have perpetrated the hoax, and how the editors had doubts but decided to publish the paper, anyway.

Professor Sokal has a page of interesting links and it is worth consulting. You can look at further argument about the fallout but you will need hours and hours to study the subject properly. I haven't finished digging yet...


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