Humpty Dumpty in academia Deconstruction gibberish: Professor's parody reminds that 'because I said so' isn't science.

June 01, 1996

IN WONDERLAND, Alice reproached Humpty Dumpty for making up new meanings for his words. Her ovoid interlocutor scornfully retorted, "The question is which is to be master -- that's all." Thus "deconstructionism" was born -- the fancy, practiced on too many university campuses, that meanings are subjective, "constructed" through lenses of race, class and gender.

To the extent that the deconstructionists are saying that men and women may have different perspectives on Monday night football, they are right, if unoriginal. But the deconstructionists push this crude relativism to insist that there can be no verifiable, objective truth. Hence no authority, and no certain knowledge. Even, no science: An article in the current issue of Social Text, argues "that physical reality, no less than social reality, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct."

Author of that surprising assertion is Alan Sokal, a physicist at NYU, who got weary of academic gibberish and set out to parody it. His essay, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," appeared to say that gravity, the value of pi and other so-called facts are all arbitrarily made up to serve the interests of the power elite. Professor Sokal called for a "liberatory science" and an "emancipatory mathematics" that could make science "publicly answerable and of service to progressive interests."

Pure drivel, as Professor Sokal proudly admits. So why did Social Text, supposedly a scholarly journal about cultural studies, print it? An embarrassed co-editor, Andrew Ross, says he "read it as the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some sort of philosophical justification for his work."

It was a lovely joke. Everybody likes to see stuffed shirts deflated. But Professor Sokal's spoof is also a reminder that the deconstructionists are one end of a growing spectrum of posers who insist on the priority of personal belief over observable fact -- Holocaust deniers, "creation scientists," "Afrocentrist" scholars.

Then again, what do we know for sure? Einstein taught us that matter and energy are interchangeable, Heisenberg that the act of observing changes is the reality of the thing observed. Scientists just reported that a single atom can exist in two separate places. The world is less tidy than we thought. All the more reason to proceed with modesty rather than assertiveness, examining evidence rather than emotion to decide what is and isn't so.

Pub Date: 06/01/96

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