Revenge of the po-mos

Did you have a good laugh when a physicist got his spoof paper on the textuality of quantum physics published in a journal of cultural criticism? Did you ever wonder, just for a moment, whether some of the cosmologists were just making it up as they went along? Read, and weep.

Now that the score is even — though the latest case seems to involve unintentional nonsense rather than hoaxing — it’s worth noticing that there’s less here than meets the eye. The Sokal hoax didn’t prove that the entire project of post-modern cultural criticism was empty, and the latest fiasco doesn’t prove that about cosmology.

It’s too bad that referees sometimes sign off on worthless papers, but journal publication isn’t the same as influence on a field. If either the hoax cult-crit paper or the worthless cosmology papers had been cited in other papers published in good journals, that would have said something pretty devastating about the fields involved. But that doesn’t seem to have happened in either case. (Sokal’s immediate revelation of his own hoax can be seen as putting a premature end to what he calls his “experiment” on cultural studies.)

Someone pointed out that the institution of blogging has solved the basic problem that plagues other forms of on-line interactivity: flaming. A blogger can post whatever offensive nonsense he wants; if no one links to it, no real harm is done. In that regard, journal scholarship is like blogging. Data-based hoaxes, a la Bellesiles, matter, both because (not being obviously nonsensical) they do get cited in the professional literature and because non-scholars use their results in real-world arguments. But theoretical nonsense — as opposed to the subjectivism that seems to have been Sokal’s real target — threatens mostly the reputations of the journals in which it appears.

[Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily for the pointer.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: