Most folks laugh when they read that gravity is a social construct. But most folks aren’t academics.
The latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education includes an “oral history” of one of the greatest hoaxes in recent American history: Alan Sokal’s pranking of a postmodern literary journal.
Twenty years ago, the “left-wing cultural-studies journal” Social Text, published an article by Sokal, then as now, a professor of mathematics and physics at New York University. The article was entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”
Now, if the title sounds like gibberish to you, you probably don’t read many “left-wing cultural studies” journals like Social Text. The same issue Sokal’s article appeared in included articles entitled “Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographics of Science,” and “Meeting Polemics with Irenics in the Science Wars.”
So, title-wise, Sokal’s article fit right in. The same was true of his content. “Liberally citing” the works of “feminist epistemologists, philosophers of science, and critical theorists,” Sokal “endorsed the notion that scientists had no special claim to scientific knowledge.”
Just as postmodern theory pronounced that so-called facts about the physical world were mere social or political constructs, he wrote, “quantum gravity undermined the concept of existence itself, making way for a ‘liberatory science’ and ‘emancipatory mathematics.’”
A quote attributed, probably incorrectly, to George Orwell goes, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” Whether or not Orwell actually said it, history strongly suggests it’s true, which is why no one at the journal raised an eyebrow when Sokal submitted his article.
That fell to Sokal himself. Two weeks after the publication, he told another journal that the article was a hoax prompted by a desire “to expose the sloppiness, absurd relativism, and intellectual arrogance” of "certain precincts of the academic humanities.”
He added that “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my [twenty-first floor] apartment.”
Twenty years later, as George Will notes in the Washington Post, it’s clear that little if anything has changed. To be certain, no one is calling gravity “socially-constructed,” but as Will put it, “Twenty years on, one lesson of Sokal’s hoax is that many educators are uneducable.”
A case in point is sex and gender. The same issue that published Sokal’s hoax contained an article entitled “Gender and Genitals: Constructs of Sex and Gender.” In it, the author argued that the “‘Western assumption that there are only two sexes’ is being refuted by ‘a rainbow of gender’ purged of ‘the binary male/female model.’”
Now, this may have seemed as absurd as “socially-constructed” gravity in 1996, but it’s become mainstream twenty years later. The cover story of the January 2017 issue of National Geographic is one long purging of “the binary male/female model” and a celebration of “a rainbow of gender.”
Regrettably, refuting this bit of unscientific gibberish isn’t as simple as inviting someone to step outside a 21st floor window. Nevertheless, as Chuck Colson liked to say, just as there are physical laws of the universe, so there are moral laws. Transgress either, and you’re in for a world of hurt.
Speaking of refuting gibberish … how well are you prepared to not only truly understand what you believe, but also to defend what you believe in your sphere of influence: at home, at school, or at work? Please consider applying for the Colson Fellows Program. Please visit ColsonFellows.org today.
Eric Metaxas is the host of the “Eric Metaxas Show,” a co-host of “BreakPoint” radio and a New York Times #1 best-selling author whose works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.