Sokal's letter to the NYT

Rahul Mahajan rahul at
Fri May 24 14:48:26 MDT 1996

>Dear friends,
>   Here's the latest news from the NY Times:  After giving Stanley Fish
>38 column inches (not including graphics) to misrepresent my views,
>and giving Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross an additional 4 column inches
>to restate their own views and mildly misrepresent mine, the NYT letters
>editor (Kris Wells, 212-556-1873) has refused to print my 12-column-inch
>reply.  She said I could have only 7.3 column inches.  Since such drastic
>compression would make a travesty of my letter, I refused.
>    Here, for your interest, is the letter the NYT refused to print.
>Feel free to distribute it.
>        Best,  Alan Sokal
>To the editor:
>It's not every day that a mere theoretical physicist such as myself
>has the honor of being subjected to a half-page personal attack
>by the august Stanley Fish ("Professor Sokal's Bad Joke", May 21).
>Fortunately, his allegations can be refuted in far fewer words.
>Fish implies that I am opposed to all sociology of science,
>and that I fail to understand the elementary distinction between
>sociology of science and science.  Give me a break!
>I have no objection whatsoever to sociology of science,
>which at its best can clarify the important political and economic issues
>surrounding science and technology.
>My only objection is to _bad_ sociology of science ---
>numerous examples of which are praised (!) in my parody article
>in the spring/summer 1996 issue of _Social Text_.
>Fish's discourse on the "social construction" of science and baseball
>is amusing, but the situation can be stated much more simply.
>The laws of nature are not social constructions;
>the universe existed long before we did.
>Our theories about the laws of nature are social constructions.
>The goal of science is for the latter to approximate as closely as possible
>the former.  Fish seems to agree.
>Unfortunately, not everyone in the trendy field of
>"cultural studies of science" agrees.
>In a lecture at the New York Academy of Sciences (February 7, 1996),
>_Social Text_ co-editor Andrew Ross said:
>"I won't deny that there is a law of gravity.
>I would nevertheless argue that there are no laws in nature,
>there are only laws in society.  Laws are things that men and women
>make, and that they can change."  [verbatim quote in my notes]
>What could Ross possibly mean?
>That the law of gravity is a social law that men and women can change?
>Anyone who believes _that_ is invited to
>try changing the laws of gravity from the windows of my apartment:
>I live on the twenty-first floor.
>Now, perhaps all Ross means is that our
>_understanding_ of the laws of physics changes over time;
>but if that's what he meant, why didn't he say so, and what's the big deal?
>Granted, not even the _Social Text_ editors would deny the
>existence of an external world, or claim that
>"physical `reality' \ldots\ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct."
>The fact remains that they published an article saying exactly this
>in its first two paragraphs.
>And despite my repeated requests during the editorial process
>for substantive comments, suggestions and criticisms, none were ever received,
>just an acceptance letter.
>Concerning my ethics, this issue is treated in detail in my article
>in the May/June issue of _Lingua Franca_, so I won't repeat it here.
>Suffice it to say that there is a long and honorable tradition,
>going back at least to Jonathan Swift, of truth-telling through satire.
>Doesn't Fish have a sense of humor?
>My goals, however, are utterly serious.
>I'm a leftist and a feminist and proud of it;
>I'm angered by a shoddy "scholarship" that claims to be left-wing
>but in fact, through its sophistry and obscurantism,
>undermines the prospects for progressive social critique.
>Like innumerable others from diverse backgrounds and disciplines,
>I call for the left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots.
>But let me now shut up:
>far better to give voice to the humanists and social scientists
>who have been flooding my e-mail for the past two weeks,
>expressing relief that the nakedness of their local emperors
>has finally been exposed.
>Let's hear their stories about the debate that is now opening up.
>        Sincerely,
>        Alan Sokal

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