Note to readers: This Sunday column by George Will appeared in my local newspaper this week, and I thought it relevant to repeat the headline and excerpts of it here, because what Will discusses is relevant to the fractured state of climate science. Peer review has turned into “pal review” due to the small population of qualified researchers in climate, and many of the same lessons taught by an exercise in taunting the peer review process in 1996 are germane to the publication of climate science today, where there seems to be an air of “anything goes as long as it goes with our thinking”. On the opposite side, we have garbage papers accepted by people who transposed their names to get past what they feared would be gatekeeping.
Publishing a paper in a peer reviewed journal is by no means a guarantee of accuracy. Just look what happened to Eric Steig with his much ballyhooed front cover paper espousing warming in Antarctica in the world’s most prestigious journal Nature, in 2009. Climate skeptics soon discovered that the warming in Antarctica was nothing more than a mathematical artifact of some shonky Mannian-style methodology (Michael Mann was a co-author), due to familiar problems Mann had with his hockey-stick methods, and the paper was quite rightly trounced by a rebuttal paper. But, it took a huge amount of work, ten months of peer-review, and the headlines that original flawed paper received still reverberate today.
Note, the original article for newspapers did not contain links to references made by Will, I’ve added them – Anthony
Academia may now be beyond satire
By George Will
The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is a window on the sometimes weird world of academia, recently revisited a hilarious intellectual hoax from 20 years ago. Reading the recollections of the perpetrator and of some who swallowed his gibberish is sobering.
In 1996, Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist and self-described “academic leftist,” composed an essay that was a word salad of solemn academic jargon. He said he strove to be “especially egregious,” by maundering on about “the dialectical emphases” of “catastrophe theory” becoming a “concrete tool of progressive political praxis.” His essay’s gaudy title was: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”
He sent it to the left-leaning “cultural studies” journal Social Text, which swooned, perhaps in part because Sokal larded his nonsense with political tropes that are catnip to lettered leftists — “emancipatory mathematics,” “demystify and democratize the production of scientific knowledge,” “the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.” Soon after Social Text published his faux scholarship, Sokal revealed in another journal, Lingua Franca, that it was a parody.
This would have been obvious to anyone whose intelligence had not been anesthetized by the patois of “deconstructionist” and “poststructuralist” professors. They move on to Nietzsche’s assertion that there are no facts, only interpretations, which he wrote shortly before going mad at age 44. They begin with a few banalities: Science is influenced by political and social forces; literature is conditioned by the writers’ contexts. And they arrive at the doctrine that everything from science to sexuality is a “social construct” reflective of society’s power relations, and therefore everything is arbitrary and political.
[This month], Bruce Robbins, a Columbia University humanities professor who was a co-editor of Social Text, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education that Sokal’s essay appealed because he seemed to be a scientist “kind of on ‘our side.’” Robbins and another Social Text editor promptly claimed victim status, saying that “the deceptive means by which Sokal chose to make his point” will injure “the openness of intellectual inquiry.”
The epistemology Sokal attacked precludes serious discussion of knowable realities. What Sokal exposed was — and remains — radical relativism that asserts the impossibility of serious science and scholarship.
Today, Sokal, who seems eager to make amends for his good deed, claims “a small amount of credit” for what he says is diminished ardor for radical epistemological relativism. But he says “the main credit” belongs to — wait for it — George W. Bush, who discredited “science bashing.” Sokal and kindred spirits — he seems to be safely back in the bubble — tell the Chronicle that the real problem is “anti-intellectualism” off campus: “academic expertise” is under attack, “epistemological skepticism” by “the right” is abetting climate change, etc.
Twenty years on, one lesson of Sokal’s hoax is that many educators are uneducable. Another is that although wonderful sendups have been written about academia (e.g., Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”), it now might be beyond satire.
Full essay here