'Morphogenic Field' Day

IT SEEMED LIKE A DEFECTION ON A PAR with Kim Philby's: someone from the opposing camp in academia's culture wars was adopting his enemy's ideology and even his language. The news came in the form of a manuscript sent to Social Text, a journal of cultural studies. This trendy field examines the social and political underpinnings of pursuits from literature to science, and the unsolicited article caught the editors' interest. Alan D. Sokal, a physicist at New York University, was arguing that a new theory called quantum gravity has implications for "political goals and strategies." That's just what they like to hear. The editors of Social Text wouldn't know a quantum if it hit them, but they do love the connections between science and other fields. Atomic theory inspired the pointillist painters of the 19th century, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle kick-started the idea that the act of observing affects the observed. Impressed, Social Text published Sokal's paper last month.

The article is no uncertainty principle, but it may make the annals of intellectual history anyway: Sokal's paper is a parody. He set out to produce "an article liberally salted with nonsense," he writes in the journal Lingua Franca, where he reveals the hoax, and by getting it published "expose this trendy faction of the so-called academic left which holds that science is no more than a social convention." Now Sokal is receiving more than 100 e-mail messages a day congratulating or slamming him. The New York Times filled half its letters page last Thursday with missives on the affair. English and sociology departments are abuzz with debate over whether, as mathematician Norman Levitt of Rutgers University says, "the left has lost itself in a lot of crummy theory and bad philosophy. Science studies is not the only realm where this occurs, but it's one in which people's predilection to make asses of themselves is easily exposed."

Some critics denounce Sokal for his tactics. "It's the deliberate deception followed by gloating revelation" that rankles, says Stanley Fish, professor of English and law at Duke University and a prominent combatant in the P.C. wars. But the real controversy swirls around whether, as Sokal argues, Social Text's failure to detect the fraud means its scholarship is suspect. The article itself achieves Sokal's goal of "nonsense" with room to spare. It argues that the New Age theory of "morphogenic fields" is "linked" to the quantum gravitational field (it isn't), that quantum field theory confirms the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan (it doesn't) and that quantum gravity -- the theory that tries to unite general relativity with subatomic par- ticles -- has "profound political implications." No chain of reasoning links all this. "The editors were oblivious to the article's illogic," says Sokal. "[Their] acceptance of [it] exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory -- postmodernist literary theory."

As it happens, the first quarter of Sokal's article falls squarely within the mainstream of physics -- even the passages that seem absurd. He asserts that "physical "reality' . . . is at bottom a social and linguistic construct," which he ridicules Social Text for swallowing. But that view is not peculiar to fuzzy-headed sociologists. Ever since the quantum-mechanics revolution of the early 20th century, scientists have accepted, for instance, that an electron in an atom does not have a definite position until an observer measures it. Even more bizarre, experiments prove that merely knowing one property of a particle can change its other ones. Physicists and philosophers argue passionately about what this means. Is it so egregious for social scientists to riff on the idea of an observer-created world?

Sokal's sympathizers -- and much of the press -- have seized on his use of words such as "counterhegemonic" to parody the gobbledygook of lit crit. But jargon is hardly unique to cultural studies. In Sokal's own field of physics, it is common to find papers with titles like "Naked strong curvature singularities in Szekeres space-times." Initiates can decipher this. Did the editors of Social Text know what "transformative hermeneutics" means? They thought they did. But Sokal says that "I could throw their language around even though I didn't know what it means. Which suggests that maybe it doesn't mean anything."

The Social Text editors say Sokal's article would have been considered "hokey" if it had come from a social scientist. "But we thought, "Here is a physicist who thinks this'," says coeditor Bruce Robbins of Rutgers. "That's something the world should know about." Now it does.