Sokal Squared just confirms a foregone conclusion

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor
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The world of academia just got exposed, and it isn’t pretty.

As reported by The Atlantic, three humanities scholars have spent the past 12 months writing 20 papers boasting ridiculous claims, attempting to get them published within reputable journals in areas such as gender studies and queer studies. Despite how ludicrous their submissions were (one paper suggested physically abusing privileged students as a form of historical reparation), their success rate is even more stupefying: seven were published, seven were still under review, and only six had been outright rejected.

This hoax has been termed “Sokal Squared” in honor of the original experiment conducted by Alan Sokal, a professor of Physics at New York University in the 1990s. The original Sokal hoax did much the same thing, but Sokal Squared is of far greater scope (hence the name).

The issue with targeting academia is that no matter what you find, you’re going to upset someone, especially in our politically charged atmosphere. Sokal Squared proved that to a T; as information about the study was revealed, conservative media had a field day. With a significant portion of the right comprised of climate change deniers and individuals with staunch anti-science views, conservatives didn’t lose any time in using Sokal Squared to discredit anything and everything contrary to their beliefs. Meanwhile, the left tried their best to defend their favorite liberal outlets, attempting to justify the error by saying that some areas of study are “morally” justified and that the mistakes shouldn’t be extrapolated indiscriminately.

Both sides are wrong, trying to frame the facts in their own self-serving contexts. But more than anything, Sokal Squared proves absolutely nothing - aside from the fact that even academics like to pull pranks.

Anyone who’s even remotely open-minded and rational understands that because research and peer-review are done by humans, things are bound to go wrong. It’s unfair to hold science to an unrealistic standard of perfection, and just flat out wrong to do it for selfish, ideological goals.

If you think about it, the peer-review process for distinguished journals in all fields of inquiry acts like a sieve to separate the legitimate contributions from the general riff-raff, giving the spotlight to the work that’s most deserving. That’s not to say, of course, that incorrect data or unsubstantiated papers never make it through. Whenever that happens, though, those who see science and intellectual progression as a threat—rather than a boon—to their way of life seize upon it, using extreme induction to claim that everything else is wrong. It’s the equivalent of saying that getting one question wrong on a 100 question test results in a score of zero.

Peer-review and research are imperfect processes, and even more so when you try to game the system. The problem with the premise of Sokal Squared is that if you intentionally send out a concentrated blast of junk, proportionally more of it is going to make it through the net. What’s more, given the volume of articles peer reviewers must go through, it’s impossible to maintain the same level of scrutiny for every one of the innumerable papers that they come across. So yes, a large portion of the 20 papers that were put out did make it into the review process, but all that proves is that the flaws that have been long-suspected of existing are there.

The more concerning question is what will come of Sokal Squared. Despite having contributed nothing, the hoax helped stir the pot, galvanizing those who try their hardest to defeat science (as stupid as that sounds). It’s ironic when those who decry scientific inquiry nevertheless benefit from resulting innovations, they complain noticeably less, and with an administration dependent on such individuals as a voter base, the future seems increasingly uncertain. One can only hope that as the younger generation becomes more cemented in society, we can change the status quo from the top down.

Right now, it’s not possible to ensure perfection for every research project, so that’s not an option. Rather, so long as we focus on our pursuits and avoid stooping to their level, we can lead by example, working towards a brighter future for all and making sure that big topics in science — space exploration, climate change, and renewable energy — remain at the forefront of the national conversation.

Together, as a community of scholars and citizens, we must do our part to stifle ignorance with intellect.