Alan Sokal

Away from a theory of a village so insignificant it isn’t even there creating a roadblock

There’s a major controversy currently underway in academic circles.  A study that attempts to expose non-scientific practices among major academic journals, where buzzwords and politics allegedly outweigh solid research, has the social sciences world abuzz.  Our contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens gives her reflection on the ultimate importance and consequences of the study.


Scene from Catch 22

-That sounds like a lot of crap.
-It is a lot of crap, Sir.

In Catch-22, Yossarian receives a medal for releasing his bomb load over the ocean. Realizing that both the target and the mission have no military value, whether considered strategically, tactically, or psychologically, he toggles his bombs three minutes before reaching the target, determined to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths. Because his plane is leading the formation, every bombardier in the group toggles their bombs on his cue. Yossarian’s insubordination is now mutiny, for which the commanding general wishes to bring Yossarian before a court martial. However, he immediately recognizes that a court martial will precipitate no small amount of negative publicity, much of which will reflect badly on Yossarian’s commander; that is, on the general himself. Luckily for both the general and Yossarian, there were no German fighters protecting the sea, and no flak defending it. Consequently, the group was undisturbed and in perfect formation, meaning their bombs fell in a perfect pattern. For achieving this perfect bomb pattern, Yossarian and several other officers of the group receive medals, and the general’s public image is enhanced commensurately.

Yossarian’s refusal to strike the intended target wasn’t cowardice or treason, but an awareness not only that the mission was pointless, but that his commanders were as aware of this fact as he was.

After the war, Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, attended both USC and NYU, and received a Masters in English from Columbia. He was also a Fulbright Scholar who taught at Penn State and later wrote ad copy full time for a small but successful agency. He spent more time in academia than in uniform, and didn’t just know bullshit inside and out, but was sufficiently proficient in flinging it to make a living, although selling the movie rights to an internationally successful novel is what made him a millionaire.

The day before Catch-22 premiered in theaters, Canadian-American psychiatrist Eric Berne was delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the Golden Gate Group Psychotherapy Society. He had titled his address “Away from a Theory of the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation,” and admitted midway through that the title was a sham. In that speech, he speculated that the reason people went into psychiatry was “that they’re not required to do very much except to have staff conferences to explain why they can’t do very much.” Anyone who has read or seen Catch-22 recognizes instantly what Eric Berne meant: You can only see the Major when the Major isn’t in.

After admitting to the sham title, he explained that he’d decided upon that title because psychiatrists were always presenting papers titled “Toward a theory of…” one thing or another, but actually several things conflated for importance; not an importance of content but of context and resonance. It had to sound like something it wasn’t, really, without being too clear about what that was. He also explained that he decided on “Away from a theory” because he felt that it was only when you stepped back from any theory, and got a good look at it from a clear vantage point, that you could make any sense of it. He also noted that in the real world, no one goes “toward” something. When you get on an airliner, for instance, the pilot never says, “We’re going toward Chicago.”

Obviously, the hypothetical supposition that nonsense which sounds good and flatters someone in authority can be accepted and even applauded had been tested and proven even before Sokal successfully rose to the challenge in the late twentieth century. That three academics could give new life to a classic Calvin and Hobbes strip by cobbling together some trendy buzzwords isn’t exactly the stuff of firestorms.

Calvin and Hobbs Academia

It’s actually more of a tempest in the tea party. Yes, four facetious papers were actually published. Out of twenty. And three more had been accepted. But the four published papers were not acclaimed as brilliant by readers; rather, they were spotted as nonsense, even if there was no initial presumption of disingenuous intent or bad faith. And the brilliant scheme to expose something ended by exposing only the schemers, who prudently chose to confess to their duplicity somewhat ahead of schedule.