As we near the 25 th anniversary of the publication of Alan Sokol's landmark discourse on the transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity, it is entirely appropriate that we commemorate the event – but not for the reasons you might expect.
Twenty five years ago physicist Alan Sokol ( https://physics.nyu.edu/sokal/ ) wrote an article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum GravityA” that was published in the journal, Social Text. [TRANSGRESSING] Although Sokol refers to the article as a parody, it was bogus plain and simple. It subsequently became known as the Sokol hoax, and it has taken a place in history alongside such eminently forgettable literary hoaxes as Clifford Irving's phony autobiography of Howard Hughes [HOAX] and a totally fabricated anti-Semitic rant called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that was published in the U.S. by Henry Ford in the 1920s [SEGEL]. But to equate the Sokol hoax with these other misgivings is a mistake of the first order. Sokol's hoax was cerebral and enlightening for those who cared to invest the time to study and learn from it.
While much has been made of the theatrics of the hoax, too little has been made of the majestic way it engendered its nonsense and contributed to the scholarship on intellectual entropy. This article remains, in my view, a worthy assignment to college undergraduates of any major and at all levels, for it is useful both as a measure of student tolerance of nonsense, the willingness to admit self-ignorance, the understanding of the pathology of deception, familiarity with basic logic, and most importantly the ability to appreciate irony. The bottom line is that Sokol's article can only be fully appreciated in the context of other social-psychological phenomena such as cognitive dissonance [FESTINGER], right-wing authoritarianism [ALTEMEYER], and partisan tribalism [CAMPBELL] [DEAN]. Sokol's article should have been a wake-up call for all of us in the academy. But that's not how it played out.
From the theatrical perspective, editors of the journal were awarded the 1996 igNobel Prize for “eagerly publishing research that they could not understand.” ( https://www.improbable.com/ig/winners/#ig1996 ). While this was in fact what happened, too much has been made of this aspect. Academic journal editors frequently publish material that they don't fully understand – that's why they rely on peer review. And, peer review itself is not always infallible (although it's the best means for crap detection that the academy has found so far). But far too much has been made of this side of the story. Unfortunately, the Sokol hoax became a hot button issue for some noisy tribalistic scholars who circled their respective quasi-intellectual wagons and fired inward. The resulting acrimony distracted any casual observer from thinking about the implicature of the hoax.
As Sokol himself recognized,[FASHIONABLE][BEYOND] the more important aspect of the hoax is what it says about society and scholarship in general, and what it says has strong present parallels with the absurdities that appear today in in social media, fake news sources, and trolling, and how the digital world of which we are all a part is actually creating a cosmic moral hazard by incentivizing people to engage in partisan forms of hoaxing totally absent of cerebral foundation and purpose. In short, what the Sokol hoax should have shown all of us is that even scholars are subject to the psychological frailties of the rest of the population, even if to a lesser degree when it comes to fake news, et al. That should have been a constructive exercise. But because of our psychological deficits, we interpreted it tribalistically which undermined effectiveness and purpose.
In Sokol's own words, the Social Text article was a parody “crammed with nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotations about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals.” [FASHIONABLE] Sokol's primary criticism of postmodern intellectuals included their use of scientific concepts out of context and without justification, and their epistemic relativism – the idea that all inquiry is a social construction of potentially equal value. In a sense, epistemic relativism is related to the phenomenon that Alexei Yurchak labeled hypernormalization [YURCHAK] – the belief that everything is a delusion so fake news is just as real as the veridical. Filmmaker Adam Curtis has even made a documentary on the subject. [CURTIS] These two beliefs underlie a good part of the bewildering, confusing politics that we see today. Although Sokol, Yurchak and Curtis are widely separated in background, time and space, all three are the same page with respect to a critical dimension of our human predicament: our incapacity to recognize and appreciate our intellectual limits and psychological deficiencies.
We illustrate this point with a simple experiment that I encourage any academics who read this to try on their students. Which of the declarative sentences in the sidebar seem meaningful? Which seem both meaningful and true?
Which of the following are meaningful? Which are true?
All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
The present king of France is bald
The Krebs citric acid cycle may be described as an intercellular energy wheel.
The natural state of all objects is rest. Objects will move only when some external force is applied.
The natural state for all objects is to remain in motion until some external force is applied.
Ptolemaic cosmology succumbed to Venerean disease
The transfer of heat from hotter objects to cooler objects results from the flow of caloric fluid.
The boundary of a conformally compactified anti-deSitter space is itself a conformally compactified Minkowski space with one fewer dimension.
Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation under non-linear space-time diffeomorphisms. The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other.
Let's analyze these ten statements. We assume for present purposes that the meaning of at least one of the above statements is undeterminable on first reading. Which ones might they be?
1. is nonsense taken from Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. 2. Is one of Noam Chomsky's examples of semantic confusion embedded in what would appear to be a syntactically correct sentence. 3. Is a sentence that expresses a failed definite description as nothing answers to the subject term. Some background in biology and astronomy is required to recognize 4. as meaningful, but it is. 5. Expresses Aristotle's flawed view of motion, whereas 6. Reflects Newton's correction of same. 7. Is a meaningful (albeit cutsey) truism that alludes to the flawed ad hoc patchwork of Ptolemaic astronomy that persisted far too long until Galileo recognized that it was impossible for Ptolemaic astronomy to account for the phases of Venus. 8. Of course is Antoine Lavoisier's faulty account of thermodynamics. 9. Is meaningful and, based on our current understanding, is one correct solution to Einstein's field equations. However, 10 is Sokol's favorite example of fashionable nonsense. For an explanation, we direct the curious reader to Sokol's own analysis. [BEYOND] (As an aside, the interested reader may appreciate Andrew Bulhak's interactive postmodern fashionable nonsense online generator: http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/ .)
What may we make of this exercise? What we should take away from it is that it isn't always obvious which utterances are meaningful, much less when they're true. Before we get too carried away, we should embrace these facts as an intellectual challenge and not a problem. After all, such confusion justifies humanities' quest for knowledge in the first place. That was what the enlightenment was all about – trying to sort out truth from falsehood, sense from nonsense, meaning from absurdity. What Sokol did for us is rub our collective academic faces in the cavalier attitude we sometimes take when we attempt to recognize and express what we know. All knowledge is contextual and it borrows on complex levels of interlocked understandings, and if we get any one of the putative understandings wrong, that part of our epistemological house of cards crumbles. Even some sensory experiences need to be understood contextually – e.g., the sensation of lukewarm is relative. The beauty of modern science is that it is predicated on best evidence and not faith, belief, superstition or even absolute truth. Modern science when done properly does not require a specific belief system, is evidence-based, is continuously inspected for internal consistency, and is self-correcting. And further, it should not and cannot be expected to produce absolute truths. When done correctly, science produces the best explanation consistent with observation at a moment in time – and science seems to be getting better at it over time. Should verified new observations undermine an explanation, a good scientist looks for a better explanation. That's what we should have taken from Sokol's example. The article was a reminder that the fragility of the human intellect requires us to avoid pitfalls like over-confidence, pomposity, and intellectual arrogance. Unfortunately, too many focused on the bogosity of the article and the fact that it was published in a social science venue. These facts should have been seen as incidental to the true story.
Sokol was objecting to a virulent form of cognitive/epistemological relativism that has pervades postmodernist thought – especially as it is contrasted with the rationality associated with the enlightenment. Postmodernism is reflected in opinions like “the big bang holds that in the beginning there was nothing and then it exploded,” and absurd positions like “this sentence is true for me.” Anyone familiar with modern politics or who has taken a beginning logic class in college has experienced such opining first hand. This historical context is critical to an understanding of Sokol's motives in publishing the parody.
As we showed above, the determination of whether our sample sentences were meaningful depends upon both an understanding and appreciation of context as well as a level of antecedent knowledge: an elementary school student might weigh them all equally meaningless, but college graduates (we hope) would recognize that some are clearly meaningful, and that even a few are both meaningful and true. In fact, the more prescient students could recognize that some statements seem incontrovertable. So we are obligated to recognize that one's ability to discern meaning in these statements is closely related, if not proportional, to one's understanding of the epistemological contexts and the ability to recognize appropriate contextual clues. These clues are the way that we relate semantic fragments to other things that we purportedly know or don't know. Of course, these clues may be our downfall, for if we don't know that we don't know something, the clues may poison our understanding. This gets at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the targets failed to recognized that they were being played for useful idiots, but that's another story.
Further, as one moves down our list the requisite preparation increases – until, probably, we get to 9. where adequate preparation is well beyond all but the most advanced students of physics. In order to explain this, we need to recognize that a mismatch between the intellectual preparation of the reader and the semantics of the sentence prevents any reasonable evaluation. We note that this is about knowledge and is independent of any meaningful measure of intelligence.
This leads us to what I'm calling the Sokol Paradox: we are imperfect instruments in determining whether in all cases we have intellectual preparation sufficient to either make truth claims ourselves or interpret putative truth claims of others. Put simply, humans, no matter how well informed, can never have perfect knowledge of what they don't know. As a consequence, the evaluation of strange statements is in principle impossible: they may be meaningless, they may be meaningful but false, or they may be meaningful and true. Absent perfect knowledge – which none of us possess – it's impossible for anyone to determine as long as the statements are sufficiently strange.
Put another way, Sokol's paradox holds that no background knowledge is completely adequate for the semantic evaluation of all statements – and further that the knowledge that is required to assess the adequacy of the background knowledge may be of an entirely different sort than the knowledge required to evaluate the statement itself. This is true within and between different disciplines and contexts. That is, disciplines naturally evolve toward complexity so that the level of understanding is proportional to, and in some ways limited by, education, training and experience. This is a partial explanation of Einstein's failure to receive a Nobel Prize for his seminal work on relativity. At the time that his papers on relativity were published, too few of the academic physicists were able to appreciate the significance. In a sense some were in the similar situation as the imaginary students considering our list of statements, above. And this involves intra-disciplinary considerations which poses even greater challenges. There is no reason in principle to believe that any Nobel Laureate in physics will be able to understand and appreciate the significance of a paper written by a Turing Award recipient in computer science, and v.v. As a mathematical physicist, Sokol should have been aware of this long before he wrote his parody. Unfortunately, in many ways, he chose to express this by means of his famous hoax which triggered the tribalism, and the tribalism detracted from an otherwise valuable point.
I am not discounting that Sokol's hoax was directed against postmodernists, but his critics seem to be fixated on the Sokol hoax when their energies would have been more productively spent focusing on a meta-level principle that I will call the Sokol paradox in recognition of his contribution. The editors of Social Text, and presumably the peer reviewers involved, made the very common mistake of putting too much reliance on their scholarly abilities. Social scientists will always be at a disadvantage in this respect due to the nature of their disciplines. In this respect, the physical sciences, computer science, engineering and mathematics have an enormous advantage as there are fairly well defined rules, formulas, algorithms, etc. that circumscribe our work. But that doesn't make science, math and engineering more important, just more formal. Perhaps computer scientists have been made more aware of that than other “hard” disciplinarians, because so many of the subfields of our discipline – graphics, multimedia, digital videography, etc. – borrow on the arts. Many of us are open minded to the claim that graphics is just as important to computing as, say, compiler design. But we recognized that both sub-disciplines contribute to the overall effort in different ways. But even in the most formal of disciplines misjudgments arise. A case in point is Andrew Wiles 1993 proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. When first proffered, the proof was faulty. It took several years for Wiled himself to recognize how to correct the error. Over the centuries hundreds of others had produced faulty proofs of the theorem that were no so repairable.
So in my view the value of the Sokol hoax experience is that it shows how critical intellectual preparation is for our ability to recognize nonsense for what it is. Blaise Pascal's adage that chance favors a prepared mind is operative here as is Ludwig Wittgenstein's remark that “even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain untouched.” [TRACT] The fact is that the social sciences, even from a positivist perspective, is amenable to a broader range of interpretations than science and math. That does not imply that social sciences, or the arts and humanities for that matter, are less consequential – it is just that the standards and methods for judging quality are different.
Peer review only works well when the reviewer and author are relatively equally familiar with the literature, equally competent, and equally open-minded. That situation isn't always the case – in some contexts, from my experience, it's downright rare. I've recommended to several editorial boards with which I've been associated that a provision should be made for articles who are simply impossible to review adequately (Einstein's paper on special relativity would have fallen into this class) by just listing that the paper was recommended by some specific scholars who were willing to go on record as endorsing the contents. This “recommended by” approach could be a clear indication to all that the standard, external peer review process was not followed, but that the named authorities mentioned believed it had merit. Had Social Text done that with Sokol's submission, much of the rancor might have been avoided.
This is not to deny that Sokol operated with a less-than-open agenda: a hostility toward postmodern approach to scholarship in the social sciences and he sought to take advantage of any perceived weakness in peer review in that arena. And for this reason his participation in the rancor must be admitted. However, the scholarly community read far too much into the hoax than was justified. The default editorial postures in science, engineering, math, humanities, and the social sciences are different. We should not find that some may be more tolerant of iconoclasts than others surprising. If it should turn out that the standards and practices of editorial review in the hard sciences makes Sokol-like hoaxes less likely, that is not necessarily and not always a good thing, for it may prevent unreasonable barriers to the best ideas if they've wandered too far away from the received views. Conversely, less formal disciplines that may be too accepting of ideas that are wrongheaded, fickle, or inconstant might also be more willing to admit breakthroughs. After all, not all of alchemy is absurd: transmutation of elements underlies nuclear fission and fusion. We all need to accept that one cannot always anticipate enduring sources of enlightenment.
So this new spin on the Sokol hoax that we're calling the Sokol Paradox is the recognition that it is likely to be more difficult to know what we don't know than to know what we do. That's where Aristotle, Ptolemy and Lavoisier went wrong in our list – they failed to embrace the fact that they didn't know what they didn't know.
While we're on topic, there is an interesting corollary to the Sokol paradox developed by author Michael Crichton. He named the corollary “Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.” His remarks are poignant and worthy of repeating here:
“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper's full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. I'd point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus , which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn't. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.” [CRICHTON]
Crichton describes a phenomenon to which we all succumb – on some occasions more than others. We have become accustomed to willingly suspend disbelief even in the presence of unmitigated nonsense and falsehood. The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect accords well with Aldous Huxley's observation that humans have a seemingly infinite capacity for distraction. [HUXLEY] Note that Crichton and Huxley's observations both compound and complement the Sokol paradox for they combine to weaken any cerebral protection that one might reasonably apply to new unobserved and untested observations. In deference to Sokol we will eschew any inclination to draw parallels to Godel's incompleteness theorem which in this context is akin to Godwin's Law to online tribalists [GODWIN].
The Sokol paradox holds that since at any particular level of knowledge there are statements that the observer is incapable of understanding, any observer may be expected to err in adjudging meaningful statements as long as he possesses imperfect knowledge of what he doesn't know – which is always the case. Our claim is that if we take perfect knowledge to be both knowing precisely what we know and what we don't know, then perfect knowledge is impossible. (We leave the proof to the reader). The fact that no one can ever achieve such a perfect epistemic state implies conservative judgment when it comes to the evaluation of scholarly work. But it does not imply suspending all judgment in these cases. It is the recognition that most knowledge consists of contingent statements that makes science appealing and non-threatening to the refined intellect. It is precisely for this reason that it sets itself apart from dogmas of any form. Appreciation of new inconsistent data is for the most part the life blood of science and scholars who view the study of non-contingent and unipolar claims as futile and barren. This is not to deny that all such claims are false – they may be what Wittgenstein called “degenerate propositions on the side of truth.” [WRIGHT]
So what are we to make of the Sokol paradox? The following consequences are worthy of consideration:
We are all incapable of evaluating the veracity of all communications all of the time. This is an inevitable byproduct of the paradox. The only protection we have against fake news, <ALT>-facts, post-truths, weaponized digital propaganda, and the like [BERGHEL1] [BERGHEL2] is eternal vigilance. There is no escaping the fact that absent perfect knowledge, mistakes in evaluation of putative facts will be inevitable. The Cambridge Analytica scandal confirms this. [BERGHEL3]
While the prestige of the source of information is an important factor to consider in the evaluation of content, it is fallible. Crichton's Gell-Mann Effect makes that clear. There is no source that is so reliable that everything contained therein may be considered reliable and authoritative. There is no alternative to critical evaluation of information from all sources. This has held true since the advent of written languages, but the influence of social media exacerbates the problems.
One must always be on guard for disinformation. Unlike misinformation, disinformation is manufactured specifically to confuse, disrupt, and manipulate. While some sources of disinformation are fairly easy to detect (especially egregious online sources), others are not (shared social media feeds from friends). As Edward Bernays observed in 1928, “Those who manipulate [the habits and opinions of the masses] constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” [BERNAYS] These manipulators will emerge in full force in the 2020 US elections.
In a perfect world, Sokol's hoax and the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect would have been taken as a wake-up calls that reinforced the criticality of situational awareness and contextualization to understanding. Instead, the Sokol hoax was misinterpreted and Crichton's Gell-Mann effect has been largely ignored. The community of litterati needs to do better.
Finally, and most obviously, we need to see that our experience with the Sokol hoax was entirely predictable given the human propensity toward tribalism. Whenever any of our sacred oxes is gored, there is something in our lizard brain collective that suspends rationality. There is no way to stop this, but we at least owe it to ourselves to be aware of it.
Sokol's webpage - https://physics.nyu.edu/sokal/
\[TRANSGRESSING] Sokol, Alan, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, Social Text 46/47, ppl 217-252. (1996) ( https://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html )
[HOAX] Irving, Clifford, The Hoax: A memoir, Open Road Media and Amazon Digital Services, 2014.
[SEGEL] Segel, B.W. and R.S. Levy, A Lie and a Libel: The Hisotry of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
[FESTINGER] Festinger, Leon, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford University Press (1957).
[ALTEMEYER] Altemeyer, Robert, The Authoritarian Spectre, Harvard University Press (1996).
[CAMPBELL] Campbell, Angus, P. Converse, W. Miller and D. Stokes, The American Voter: Unabridged Edition, University of Chicago Press (1980).
[DEAN] Dean, John, Conservatives Without Conscience, Penguin Books (2006).
[FASHIONABLE] Sokol, Alan and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, Piccador (1988)
[BEYOND] Sokol, Alan, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, Oxford University Press, (2010).
[YURCHAK] Yurchak, Alexei, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, Princeton University Press (2005)
[CURTIS] Curtis, Adam, HyperNormalization, BBC, 16 October 2016. ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04b183c )
[TRACT] Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, section 6.52, Kegan Paul, 1922; and Side-By-Side-By-Side edition v. 0.54. 2019 ( https://people.umass.edu/klement/tlp/tlp.pdf ).
[CRICHTON]” Michael Crichton, Why Speculate?, International Leadership Forum, La Jolla (26 April 2002). ( http://larvatus.com/michael-crichton-why-speculate/ )
[HUXLEY] Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World Revisited, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, Reprint edition (2005)
[GODWIN] Godwin, Mike, Meme, Counter-meme, Wired, 10.01.94. ( https://www.wired.com/1994/10/godwin-if-2/ )
[WRIGHT] von Wright, Georg Henrik, Remarks on Wittgenstein's Use of the Terms “Sinn”, “Sinnlos”, “Unsinnig”, “Wahr” and “Gedanke” in the Tractatus, in A. Pichler, S. Saatela (eds.) Wittgenstein: The Philosopher and His Works, Frankfurt (2006), pp. 98-106. ( http://wab.uib.no/ojs/agora-ontos/article/viewFile/2227/2189 )
[BERGHEL1] Berghel, Hal, Lies, Damn Lies, and Fake News, Computer, February, 2017, pp. 80-85. ( https://www.computer.org/csdl/magazine/co/2017/02/mco2017020080/13rRUzp02jw )
[BERGHEL2] Berghel, Hal, Alt-News and Post-Truths in the “Fake News” Era, Computer, April, 2017, pp. 110-114. ( https://www.computer.org/csdl/magazine/co/2017/04/mco2017040110/13rRUxNmPJv ).
[BERGHEL3] Berghel, Hal, Malice Domestic: The Cambridge Analytica Dystopia, Computer, May, 2018, pp. 84-89. ( https://www.computer.org/csdl/magazine/co/2018/05/mco2018050084/13rRUILLkHc )
[BERNAYS] Bernays, Edward, Propaganda, 1928; reprinted lg Publishing paperback edition, 2004.