IF BEING A NATIONAL LAUGHINGSTOCK cannot derail a career as a university scholar, what can?
The City University of New York graduate school just promoted Stanley Aronowitz from plain old professor to distinguished professor of sociology. Aronowitz's fifteen minutes of fame came three years ago when his left-wing journal, Social Text, fell prey to "Sokal's Hoax." Six ST editors read and accepted physicist Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"—without realizing it was a parody of academic double-talk.
With mock seriousness, Sokal claimed to show how "the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality"—in other words, he set out to prove the world itself doesn't exist.
"The pi of Euclid and the g of Newton," Sokal wrote, "formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point."
Don't bother deciphering the sense: There is none.
The writing, Sokal explained, "wasn't obliged to respect any standards of evidence or logic." He simply strung together "the silliest quotes about mathematics and physics from the most prominent academics"—including Aronowitz himself.
That Aronowitz and his cronies accepted the paper strongly suggests that their own thought processes had become so jargon-muddled that they were unable to perceive Sokal's spoof of those thought processes as a spoof—in other words, they accepted a paper based on a scattershot of jargon alone.
In the non-academic world, Aronowitz was instantly recognized as a charlatan. At CUNY, little more than an instant later, he is "recognized." That's the problem—and it's larger than Aronowitz. Absurdity—in a person or an idea—is no bar to academic promotion. Stripped of the Darwinian control of a reality check, humanities professors nationwide are now spinning out invincibly ignorant, incandescently silly variations on the ancient theme of Protagorean relativism—variations that go by resonant names like "poststructuralism," "perspectivism," and "discourse analysis." Their common features: baseless, shifting, virtually impenetrable jargon, and a dogmatic insistence that there is no independent reality beyond appearances, that knowledge is always a tool of power.
The inevitable outcome of such theorizing is the denial that "facts" exist or that "evidence" can establish objective truth. From this follows a generally unspoken corollary: the demotion of truths such as the European slave trade, the Nazi Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulags to the status of well-received rumors.
Aronowitz, indeed, provoked Sokal's hoax by his commitment to the relativist point of view—even in the realms of mathematics and physical science. The resulting whiff of national humiliation does, in a sense, distinguish Aronowitz from most of his peers. But he is only one among hundreds of professors of gibberish currently employed at American universities. It is up to the schools themselves to stop perpetuating nonsense.