Responses to the Sokal Affair

Follow-up between Sokal and the editors
In the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, in the article "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies", Sokal revealed that "Transgressing the Boundaries" was a hoax and concluded that Social Text "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject" because of its ideological proclivities and editorial bias. In their defense, the Social Text editors said they believed that "Transgressing the Boundaries" "was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field" and that "its status as parody does not alter, substantially, our interest in the piece, itself, as a symptomatic document". Besides criticizing his writing style, the Social Text editors accused Sokal of behaving unethically in deceiving them.

Sokal said the editors' response illustrated the problem he highlighted. Social Text, as an academic journal, published the article not because it was faithful, true and accurate to its subject but because an "academic authority" had written it and because of the appearance of the obscure writing. The editors said they considered it poorly written but published it because they felt Sokal was an academic seeking their intellectual affirmation. Sokal remarked:

My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. ... There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counterproductive.

Social Text's response revealed that none of the editors had suspected Sokal's piece was a parody. Instead, they speculated Sokal's admission "represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve". Sokal found further humor in the idea that the article's absurdity was hard to spot:

In the second paragraph I declare without the slightest evidence or argument, that "physical 'reality' (note the scare quotes) is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough. 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.

Book by Sokal and Bricmont
In 1997, Sokal and Jean Bricmont co-wrote Impostures intellectuelles (U.S.: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, U.K.: Intellectual Impostures, 1998). The book featured analysis of extracts from established intellectuals' writings that Sokal and Bricmont claimed misused scientific terminology. It closed with a critical summary of postmodernism and criticism of the strong programme of social constructionism in the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Media coverage and Jacques Derrida
As Sokal revealed the hoax, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida was initially one of the targets of discredit in the United States, particularly in newspaper coverage. A U.S. weekly magazine used two images of Derrida, a photo and a caricature, to illustrate a "dossier" on the Sokal article. Derrida responded to the hoax in "Sokal et Bricmont ne sont pas sérieux" ("Sokal and Bricmont Aren't Serious"), first published on 20 November 1997 in Le Monde. He called Sokal's action sad (triste) for having overshadowed Sokal's mathematical work and ruining the chance to carefully sort out controversies about scientific objectivity. Derrida went on to fault him and coauthor Jean Bricmont for what he considered an act of intellectual bad faith in describing their follow-up book, Impostures intellectuelles (UK: Intellectual Impostures; US: Fashionable Nonsense): they had published two articles almost simultaneously, one in English in The Times Literary Supplement on 17 October 1997 and one in French in Libération on 18-19 October 1997, but while the two articles were almost identical, they differed in how they treated Derrida. The English-language article had a list of French intellectuals who were not included in Sokal and Bricmont's book: "Such well-known thinkers as Althusser, Barthes, and Foucault--who, as readers of the TLS will be well aware, have always had their supporters and detractors on both sides of the Channel--appear in our book only in a minor role, as cheerleaders for the texts we criticize." The French-language list, however, included Derrida: "Des penseurs célèbres tels qu'Althusser, Barthes, Derrida et Foucault sont essentiellement absents de notre livre." Derrida may also have been sensitive to a slight difference between the French and English versions of Impostures intellectuelles. In the French, his citation from the original hoax article is said to be an "isolated" instance of abuse, whereas the English text adds a parenthetical remark that Derrida's work contained "no systematic misuse (or indeed attention to) science." Derrida cried foul, but Sokal and Bricmont insisted that the difference between the articles was "banal." Nevertheless, Derrida concluded, as the title of his article indicates, that Sokal was not serious in his approach, but had used the spectacle of a "quick practical joke" to displace the scholarship Derrida believed the public deserved.

Social science criticism
Sociologist Stephen Hilgartner, the Cornell University science and technology studies department chairman, wrote "The Sokal Affair in Context" (1997), comparing Sokal's hoax to "Confirmational Response: Bias Among Social Work Journals" (1990), an article by William M. Epstein published in Science, Technology & Human Values. Epstein used a similar approach to Sokal's, submitting fictitious articles to real academic journals to measure their response. Though far more systematic than Sokal's work, it received scant media attention. Hilgartner argued that the "asymmetric" impact of the successful Sokal hoax when compared with Epstein's experiment cannot be attributed to its quality, but that "Through a mechanism that resembles confirmatory bias, audiences may apply less stringent standards of evidence and ethics to attacks on targets that they are predisposed to regard unfavorably." As a result, according to Hilgartner, though methodologically competent, Epstein's experiment was largely silenced by the far more socially accepted social work discipline he critiqued, while Sokal's attack on cultural studies, despite his lack of experimental rigor, was accepted. Hilgartner also argued that Sokal's hoax reinforced the presuppositions of various gatekeepers in the media such as George Will and Rush Limbaugh, so that his views were amplified by media outlets predisposed to agree with his argument.

The Sokal Affair scandal extended from academia to the public press. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, criticized in Fashionable Nonsense, described the scandal as a "tempest in a tea cup". Retired Northeastern University mathematician turned social scientist Gabriel Stolzenberg wrote essays meant to discredit the statements of Sokal and his allies, arguing that they insufficiently grasped the philosophy they criticized, rendering their criticism meaningless. In Social Studies of Science, Bricmont and Sokal responded to Stolzenberg, denouncing his "tendentious misrepresentations" of their work and criticizing Stolzenberg's commentary about the "strong programme" of the sociology of science. In the same issue, Stolzenberg replied, arguing that their critique and allegations of misrepresentation were based on misreadings. He advised readers to slowly and skeptically examine the arguments proposed by each party, bearing in mind that "the obvious is sometimes the enemy of the true".