Alan Sokal
Alan David Sokal (ˈsoʊkəl; born 1955) is a professor of mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

 at University College London
University College London
University College London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and the oldest and largest constituent college of the federal University of London...

 and professor of physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

 at New York University
New York University
New York University is a private, nonsectarian research university based in New York City. NYU's main campus is situated in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan...

. He works in statistical mechanics
Statistical mechanics
Statistical mechanics or statistical thermodynamicsThe terms statistical mechanics and statistical thermodynamics are used interchangeably...

 and combinatorics
Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics concerning the study of finite or countable discrete structures. Aspects of combinatorics include counting the structures of a given kind and size , deciding when certain criteria can be met, and constructing and analyzing objects meeting the criteria ,...

. To the general public he is best known for his criticism of postmodernism
Postmodernism is a philosophical movement evolved in reaction to modernism, the tendency in contemporary culture to accept only objective truth and to be inherently suspicious towards a global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. Postmodernist thought is an intentional departure from the...

, resulting in the Sokal affair
Sokal Affair
The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies...

 in 1996.

Academic career

Sokal received his B.A. from Harvard College
Harvard College
Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of two schools within Harvard University granting undergraduate degrees...

 in 1976 and his Ph.D.
Doctor of Philosophy
Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated as Ph.D., PhD, D.Phil., or DPhil , in English-speaking countries, is a postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities...

 from Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

 in 1981. He was advised by Arthur Wightman
Arthur Wightman
Arthur Strong Wightman is an American mathematical physicist. He is one of the founders of the axiomatic approach to quantum field theory, and originated the set of Wightman axioms....

. In the summers of 1986-1988, Sokal taught mathematics at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua
National Autonomous University of Nicaragua
The National Autonomous University of Nicaragua is the principal state-funded public university of Nicaragua.Its main campus is located in Managua...

, when the Sandinistas were heading the elected government.

Research interests

Sokal’s research lies in mathematical physics and combinatorics. In particular, he studies the interplay between these fields based on questions arising in statistical mechanics and quantum field theory. This includes work on the chromatic polynomial
Chromatic polynomial
The chromatic polynomial is a polynomial studied in algebraic graph theory, a branch of mathematics. It counts the number of graph colorings as a function of the number of colors and was originally defined by George David Birkhoff to attack the four color problem. It was generalised to the Tutte...

 and the Tutte polynomial
Tutte polynomial
The Tutte polynomial, also called the dichromate or the Tutte–Whitney polynomial, is a polynomial in two variables which plays an important role in graph theory, a branch of mathematics and theoretical computer science...

, which appear both in algebraic graph theory
Algebraic graph theory
Algebraic graph theory is a branch of mathematics in which algebraic methods are applied to problems about graphs. This is in contrast to geometric, combinatoric, or algorithmic approaches...

 and in the study of phase transition
Phase transition
A phase transition is the transformation of a thermodynamic system from one phase or state of matter to another.A phase of a thermodynamic system and the states of matter have uniform physical properties....

s in statistical mechanics. His interests include computational physics
Computational physics
Computational physics is the study and implementation of numerical algorithms to solve problems in physics for which a quantitative theory already exists...

 and algorithms, such as Markov chain Monte Carlo
Markov chain Monte Carlo
Markov chain Monte Carlo methods are a class of algorithms for sampling from probability distributions based on constructing a Markov chain that has the desired distribution as its equilibrium distribution. The state of the chain after a large number of steps is then used as a sample of the...

 algorithms for problems in statistical physics. He also co-authored a book on quantum triviality
Quantum triviality
In a quantum field theory, charge screening can restrict the value of the observable "renormalized" charge of a classical theory. Ifthe only allowed value of the renormalized charge is zero, the theory is said to be "trivial" or noninteracting...


Sokal affair

Sokal is best known to the general public for the Sokal Affair
Sokal Affair
The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies...

 of 1996. Curious to see whether the then-non-peer-reviewed postmodern cultural studies
Cultural studies
Cultural studies is an academic field grounded in critical theory and literary criticism. It generally concerns the political nature of contemporary culture, as well as its historical foundations, conflicts, and defining traits. It is, to this extent, largely distinguished from cultural...

 journal Social Text
Social Text
Social Text is an academic journal published by Duke University Press. Since its inception as an independent editorial collective in 1979, Social Text has addressed a wide range of social and cultural phenomena, covering questions of gender, sexuality, race, and the environment...

(published by Duke University Press
Duke University Press
Duke University Press is an academic publisher of books and journals, and a unit of Duke University. It publishes approximately 120 books annually and more than 40 journals, as well as offering five electronic collections...

) would publish a submission which "flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions," Sokal submitted a grand-sounding but completely nonsensical paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."

The journal did in fact publish it, and soon thereafter Sokal then revealed that the article was a hoax
A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth. It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment, or rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences or April Fools' Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes.-Definition:The British...

 in the journal Lingua Franca, arguing that the left and social science would be better served by intellectual underpinnings based on reason
Reason is a term that refers to the capacity human beings have to make sense of things, to establish and verify facts, and to change or justify practices, institutions, and beliefs. It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, ...

. He replied to leftist and postmodernist criticism of the deception by saying that his motivation had been to "defend the Left
Left-wing politics
In politics, Left, left-wing and leftist generally refer to support for social change to create a more egalitarian society...

 from a trendy segment of itself."

The affair, together with Paul R. Gross
Paul R. Gross
Paul R. Gross is a biologist and author, perhaps best known to the general public for Higher Superstition , written with Norman Levitt. Gross is the University Professor of Life Sciences at the University of Virginia; he previously served the university as Provost and Vice-President...

 and Norman Levitt
Norman Levitt
Norman Jay Levitt was a mathematician at Rutgers University. He was born in The Bronx and received a bachelors degree from Harvard College in 1963. He received a PhD from Princeton University in 1967...

's book Higher Superstition, can be considered to be a part of the so-called Science wars
Science wars
The science wars were a series of intellectual exchanges, between scientific realists and postmodernist critics, about the nature of scientific theory which took place principally in the US in the 1990s...


Sokal followed up by co-authoring the book Impostures Intellectuelles with Jean Bricmont
Jean Bricmont
Jean Bricmont is a Belgian theoretical physicist, philosopher of science and a professor at the Université catholique de Louvain. He works on renormalization group and nonlinear differential equations....

 in 1997 (published in English, a year later, as Fashionable Nonsense
Fashionable Nonsense
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science is a book by professors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont...

). The book accuses other academics of using scientific and mathematical terms incorrectly and criticizes proponents of the strong program for denying the value of truth. The book had mixed reviews, with some lauding the effort, some more reserved, and others pointing out alleged inconsistencies and criticizing the authors for ignorance of the fields under attack and taking passages out of context.

In 2008, Sokal revisited the Sokal affair and its implications in Beyond the Hoax
Beyond the Hoax
Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy, and Culture is a book by Alan Sokal detailing the history of the Sokal affair in which he submitted an article full of "nonsense" to Social Text, a critical theory journal, and was able to get it published....



  • But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction
    Deconstruction is a term introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 book Of Grammatology. Although he carefully avoided defining the term directly, he sought to apply Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion or Abbau, to textual reading...

     was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.
  • Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

External links

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