Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Was Sokal Affair?

Or is. Alan D. Sokal is a particle physicist at New York university and a communist. Around the last two decades of last century a trend was noticed in humanities and social sciences there that was termed as post modernism. Some of these people even went a step further and commented on science. The hallmark of science, as most of the scientists think and believe, is objectivity. Post modernists like Jacques Derrida said that science is a social construct because it is done by social beings-nothing objective about it. Another post modernist  even told that there is no such thing as a scientific method. The gist of the whole post modernist position was that science, in fact is not science. It was irksome to professor Alan Sokal. More so because some of the participants in these ideas, the ideas that were termed a fashionable nonsense by another social scientist, were communists. The action that he took got the title of Sokal Hoax or Sokal Affair or the Science Wars.

He wrote an article that very vaguely supported the above position of the port-modernist thinkers but in fact was completely gibberish. The title of the article was "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Because of sophisticated feel of high academics to the title as well as the matter of the article it was published in a famous post modernist journal called the Social Text. In the meantime Sokal wrote another article in another journal called Lingua Franca that his Social Test article is indeed a hoax. After that all happened which should happen when you rock the boat. Sokal was accused of showing lack of integrity but the editors of Social Text too lost their position.

So in some sense science upset the applecart of post modernism. Or science was saved from a post modernist attack, depending upon the point of view.

Then there is the so called the Bogdanov Affair that is termed by some as the  reverse-Sokal controversy. Here two French brothers, with Russian sounding names, published some research work in theoretical physics-the broad area of research which also covers Sokal's field. Some people felt that their research indeed is bogus, vacuous and fashionable nonsense-this time entertained by theoretical physicists. These brother themselves deny any hoax on their part.

The latest in this context is an article by in a journal called Democracy : A Journal of Ideas. He feels that science is again under attack again. This time it is under attack from the right, according to him-the way it was under attack from the left earlier.

Where is the connection, in this all, with the Aligarh Movement? Well only cultural. If the current western ideas are not brought in by our people then they will be accused of not keeping up with the times. If they do then there is the danger of bringing home something unwanted. To do  or not to do is the question. And this is a question that comes back again and again. It is part of life.

Let us finish with an anecdote.

Anecdote: A young man , an Alig, bought, at the time of Eid-ul-Azha, a camel. Good idea. But the father was not amused and the camel had to be returned. The problem was to find a butcher, locally, who could handle a camel.