Alan Sokal and science


Posted to on February 2, 2006


Dear Richard and Brett,


I was glad to see your commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Stephen Jay Gould's "Mismeasure of Man" in the current Monthly Review (, especially as it resonates with Cliff Conner's "People's History of Science", a book that I am about 1/3 the way through now. Cliff's book can be described as a marriage of Stephen Jay Gould and Howard Zinn and it doesn't get much better than that.


I do want to raise an issue that is close to my heart, namely your linking of Alan Sokal to the project of rescuing science from postmodernist obfuscation. As an old friend of Alan's, as president of the board of the nonprofit that placed him in Nicaragua and as a long-time opponent of postmodernism, I was initially excited--as most socialists were--by his hoodwinking of Social Text.


Now with the clarity afforded to me by hindsight, I have a somewhat different take on the whole affair.


To start with, it is important to acknowledge that the Social Text issue, that was devoted to the "science wars" and which published Alan's spoof, was itself a response to a conference held at NYU on the topic. Norman Levitt, who Alan describes as a social democrat, was the chief organizer but funding came from the ultraright Olin Foundation.


In your footnote on Sokal, you quite rightfully place some distance between him on one hand and Norman Levitt and Paul Gross on the other. I am much more familiar with Levitt's reputation but assume that Paul Gross has pretty much the same ax to grind. You put it this way:


"Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, published in 1994, in part inspired Sokal to perform his hoax. Gross and Levitt deserve credit for rightly criticizing some anti-science scholars, but, unfortunately, present only a partial truth, in that they fail to seriously acknowledge the strong anti-science tendencies of the right and the long tradition on the left of commitment to reason."


I think it is important to understand that Norman Levitt is actually part of the right, although not the Christian/Republican right. Surely the Olin Foundation has a way of discerning who is promoting their agenda. If Levitt would not be caught dead being associated with "intelligent design", he has had a long and sordid record supporting corporate domination in the name of science. For this sector of the right, DDT, nuclear energy, GM crops, etc. are the salvation of humanity.


Levitt can be placed ideologically on the libertarian right that includes Virginia Postrel's "Reason" magazine and spiked-online, a publication associated with the same crew that used to put out LM magazine. Levitt, Postrel and the spiked-online people mounted a conference at the New School about 5 years ago that warned about fear of risk. In their eyes, worrying about Frankenfood is the same thing as worrying about Friday the 13th.


In a recent article in spiked-online, Levitt lashed out at the academic left in terms found on David Horowitz's Frontpage. He warns that some professor might be fired for "Suggesting that affirmative action might conflict with other standards of justice and equity, or that opponents of affirmative action are not ipso facto Klansmen waiting for their white sheets to come back from the laundry." ( As far-fetched as this seems, he really believes it. He also believes that your own university, the University of Oregon, is a spawning ground for such threats to academic freedom, especially under the auspices of 'cultural competence', a program designed to ensure that the school respect diverse cultures. This program has infuriated Horowitz, the Murdoch press and all the other usual suspects.


It should not be assumed that it is easy to distinguish between the libertarian right's enmity toward postmodernism and our own agenda as socialists. Back in 1997, MR published something called "Science and the Retreat from Reason" by John Gillot and Manjit Kumar that was sent along to them from Pluto Press with the assurance that it was in the same vein as the Sokal's efforts. Alan was originally intended to review it.


But when I got wind of this, I felt compelled to warn MR that their reputation would be damaged since Kumar and Gillot were long-time adherents to the LM sect. Upon reading it, John Bellamy Foster was alarmed to discover a vitriolic attack on Rachel Carsons as well as a paean to DDT, which in those circles has the same weight as the Transitional Program has in the Trotskyist movement. Foster went on to review the book in MR magazine and was forced to disassociate himself from the more noxious aspects of the book, which seemed largely beside the point. Kumar and Gillot's problem was not in what they said about Rachel Carsons, but in their estimation of the role of science as a discipline beyond a class analysis and existing in a pure, almost Platonic, sphere.


Returning once again to the aforementioned Cliff Conner, this is an outlook that is challenged on virtually every page of his ground-breaking work. Unlike Gross, Levitt and even Sokal, he believes that science is indebted to the very peoples whose "local knowledge" they disparage. Indeed, without the American Indian's ability to discover the anti-malarial effects of quinine bark or the pain-killing powers of the willow tree (ie., aspirin), the world would be a lot worse off.


In solidarity,


Louis Proyect