Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Sokal Affair and the Academy

"The intellectual is so frequently an imbecile that we should always take him to be such until he has proved to us the contrary"--Bernanos
The Spring 1996 issue of Social Text contained an article by Alan Sokal (see a summary here) that revealed the weak-mindedness and ideological bias in academic journals. The author was a physicist who submitted his paper to a top peer-reviewed cultural studies journal to see if it would publish an article making scientific claims that have no basis in reality. The problem was that this claim coincided with the ideological prejudices of the editor and reviewer. His paper was a parody that argued that gravity was a social construction. Neither the journal editors nor the academic reviewers saw the submission as a parody. Sokal revealed this hoax after the journal published his paper.

Although Sokal endorses leftist politics and I do not embrace his preferences, his paper reveals a profound bias in the assessment of ideas in the academy today. He has also seen entire academic disciplines embrace poorly-constructed ideas simply because of the ideological position embraced in the research. Regardless of its merits, scholars tend to support papers and ideas because of the position endorsed rather than the evidence for the argument. Scholars have forgotten their main task and have become proponents of an ideology. Sokal wanted to illustrate this dramatically by offering a non-sense article to a top journal to see if they would publish it. Unfortunately, this journal complied and published an article claiming that gravity was something created through social construction and was something that could be changed if only human beings were socialized differently. In the article where he reveals the parody, Sokal writes, "... 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.)" The editors claimed they were to busy to assess the actual merits of the article and used this as an excuse for their inability to distinguish between parody and authentic scholarship. Perhaps a more troubling side of this controversy is the good articles that make arguments outside the prevailing ideological consensus would equally be dismissed and prevented from being published. It seems that what you claim is more important than the truth of your statements. This event reveals the deep ideological bias in the academy and the problems that exist for individuals who are open to reality and reveal the shortcomings in weak-minded popular ideas.

In reading this post, you may ask yourself, "What does this have to do with forming a Catholic culture?" The Church finds itself outside the prevailing intellectual ideology and, in fact, several disciplines have active petitions that would effectively ban Catholic professors from the academy. There is a petition advanced by the American Philosophical Society that wishes to prevent Christian colleges from discriminating against homosexual acts. Anyone attempting to publish a paper that does not conform to the prevailing academic ideology jeopardizes their academic advancement. There is also the case of Dr. Kenneth Howell, the adjunct Illinois professor, who was fired for presenting the Catholic position on homosexuality. There is also the case of Jennifer Keeton, the Augusta State University student who was told that her Christian faith in unethical and was forced to undergo training to accept homosexuality or leave the program. If this policy spreads, the danger is that the only surviving believing counselors will be those who gave no indication of their faith before graduating. The other academic disciplines in the social sciences are equally anti-Catholic and are guilty of the same intellectual crimes.

Ideological litmus tests are now part of the academic world and, as the Sokal Affair displays, reason is no longer required to affirm or deny ideas. As scholars have lost the ability to distinguish between good and bad thought, the freedom to express ideas at universities has declined. In particular, this has worked to suppress the voice of the Church and the voice of individual believers to remove them from the academy so their voice will not reach today's youth. This is a dangerous trend and, unfortunately, it is growing.

See also:

Brief Reflection on the Academy

Newman Centers in the West

John Paul II's Warning

No comments: