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-by Phillip E. Johnson
New York University physicist named Alan Sokal played a cruel practical joke this year on the editors of the postmodernist journal Social Text. "Pomos," as the postmodernists are not-so-affectionately called by other academics, are noted for leftism in politics, relativism in epistemology, and murkiness in expression. Pomo writing is radically skeptical about the objectivity of knowledge, including scientific knowledge. This has led mainstream scientists to denounce the Pomos as enemies of science, far more dangerous than the despised creationists because they hold influential positions in universities.
Alan Sokal is himself a leftist, proud of his stint teaching under the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but he is a rationalist--much like the sociologist Todd Gitlin (whose book I reviewed in the previous issue of this journal). To demonstrate that the Pomos are pretentious phonies who give the Left a bad name among sensible people, Sokal stitched together an incoherent article that combined quotations from Pomo authors (including some of the editors of Social Text ) with nonsensical scientific analogies. Then he ponderously titled it "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," signed his name and title, and sent the monstrosity off. The editors, pleased to be taken seriously by a real scientist, published the article in a special issue titled "Science Wars," which had been meant to rebut their rationalist critics. Sokal then turned the Pomo counterattack into a debacle by gleefully revealing his hoax to the press in the May/June 1996 issue of the journal Lingua Franca.
The fun begins with Sokal's preposterous title and continues throughout his brilliant parody, but in the endnotes, he really lets rip. You can almost hear him cackling as he crafted these notes, with their superb mimicry of Pomo pieties, their interweaving of genuine references with fabricated sources, and their inside jokes (many of which no doubt will be accessible ...