Friday, April 19, 2019

Keeping Science Accountable – The Sokal Affair

In 1996, a physicist named Alan Sokal submitted a paper to a non-physics academic journal. The paper argued that the idea of an objective physical reality was a social construct to keep scientific power in the hands of the elites. The paper was accepted and published. Three weeks later, Sokal publicly announced that the paper had been a joke, its logic and technical language either made up or used nonsensically, and the reason he submitted it was to test the integrity of the journal. This became known as the Sokal Affair.

Sokal exposed a fact that can sometimes make scientists uncomfortable: science is not inherently superior to all other collaborative methods of determining truth. It has to earn that status by being intellectually rigorous, which means defining terms clearly, making hypotheses that are falsifiable, accounting for all variables, taking unbiased data, and analyzing the data with the best, most applicable statistical methods available. If a journal allows papers that do not live up to these standards, that journal is no longer a vehicle of science, but of dogma.

After Sokal revealed the paper to be a hoax, there were cries of foul play. He had, after all, intentionally published a paper with false data and results. Fabrication is considered profane among scientists, and can result in the author being ostracized from the scientific community. However, the reason for this is because it spreads false information. Sokal’s purpose was not to spread false information, but exactly the opposite: to expose and prevent the spreading of false information by the journal.

Within the past few years, a team of academics followed in Sokal’s footsteps by submitting several bogus papers to a few different journals. Many of these papers, including a passage from Mein Kampf with key words swapped out, were accepted. Luckily, the Mein Kampf plagiarism wasn’t actually published. This became known as Sokal Squared, and also received blowback. It should be noted that Sokal Squared was not meant to discredit the fields being studied, but to expose the fact that it was being done wrong in these particular journals.

I believe the authors in the Sokal and Sokal Squared affairs did absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, what they did is perfectly in line with the scientific process, which is to continually test ideas from every different angle to see whether they can stand up to it. I think that every academic journal, from the natural sciences to the humanities, from the most prestigious to the peripheral, should be regularly put to a Sokal Test. By this, I mean that people from different fields of study, or who are not professional academics, should write nonsense papers using the journals’ jargon, and see if they get accepted. Anyone writing a hoax paper should be required to reveal the hoax within a reasonable amount of time. Journals that fail the Sokal Test will lose reputation points, and those that pass will gain prestige.

Science is an amazing vehicle for understanding the universe and what happens within it. It is naturally competitive, its scholars each putting forth their own theories and doing their best to prove everybody else wrong. To do this, they use every legitimate trick in the book: making sure all significant variables are accounted for, checking the data collection methods for bias, and many others. But these feedback processes are largely self-contained within each discipline, which means they can become corrupted and watered down. Instituting a Sokal Test would be an effective and equitable way to keep journals accountable to scientists in other disciplines, and to everyone who is interested in true scientific knowledge.

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