The politics of the sciences: In pursuit of truth, we have lost it

A fake academic paper shows intellectual rifts in academia can have real-world consequences.

Under the Arch

 The politics of the sciences: In pursuit of truth, we have lost it

A fake academic paper shows intellectual rifts in academia can have real-world consequences.

An illustration of a volumetric flask with orange liquid in it and a conical flask with pink liquid and a green plant growing inside of it. Various tiny people drawn in a simplistic, blocky style congregate around the flasks with empty speech bubbles floating around their heads.

(Illustration by Daniel Yee)

Samson Tu, Creative Director | Feb. 11, 2024

On May 18, 1996, a story about a fake academic paper made the front page of the New York Times. The paper, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” rejects the objectivity in physics and the natural sciences at large through a discussion on what was then the latest debate in quantum mechanics — a subfield of theoretical physics that studies the uncertainty in subatomic movements. The paper made it past several rounds of editing to be published in a renowned cultural studies journal. 

“I structured the article around the silliest quotes about mathematics and physics from the most prominent [social science] academics, and I invented an argument praising them and linking them together,” Alan Sokal, the author of the paper and a professor emeritus of physics at NYU, told The New York Times at the time. “All this was very easy to carry off because my argument wasn’t obliged to respect any standards of evidence or logic.”

The editors of the journal deemed the article a potent critique of the natural sciences as a construct — but that’s not what the article is really about. What the article truly is, as explained by Sokal, is a parody of what he believes to be a typical social science paper. In Sokal’s view, these papers create a strawman of scientific concepts and make sweeping and casual criticisms of the scientific enterprise as a whole without providing sufficient justification — a trick that he believes is too often exploited in the social sciences.

An illustration of a brown Schrodinger’s Cat stepping out of the Borromean rings with three blue particles, in front of a lilac background. The cat has a black shadow with an X over its eye.
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, a theory that states the location and momentum of an electron cannot be measured at the same time, is an important foundation for quantum mechanics. Our human inability to directly observe subatomic movements differentiates quantum mechanics from Newtonian physics in the sense that quantum mechanics is not deterministic. Schrodinger's cat, a philosophical metaphor explaining that the observed phenomenon can be both true nad false until human observation, encapsulates the contemporary thinking about quantum mechanics. (Illustration of Daniel Yee)

The article also shed light on a rift within academia between the natural and social sciences. The natural scientists applauded Sokal for calling out social scientists for offhandedly criticizing the natural sciences and spouting extreme forms of relativism; the social scientists challenged that the natural scientists had missed the point of postmodern criticism of Enlightenment thinking. Most importantly, the article foretells a pervasive divide inside education and politics in America. What Sokal exposed was not just the turf war in academia, but the cultural war that has ripped away our ability to agree on a common truth. 

Now, the Sokal incident has largely faded away from contemporary academia. The natural and social sciences have moved on with their own course, despite believing in opposite versions of reality. The theoretical physics community continued with string theory — a multidimensional mathematical solution to bridge together Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Social Text, the journal where Sokal’s article was published, has continued to publish articles exploring the intersectionality of different historically fringe identities. At NYU, which now houses the nation’s second-best applied mathematics institute and the nation’s top-ranked gender and sexuality programs, the natural and social sciences seem to peacefully coexist together while operating on fundamentally opposite assumptions. 

Beyond academia, however, the fracturing consensus of a common reality has cast real casualties on our world.

The culture war in modern discourse falls on the same philosophical fault lines as the two sciences. The social sciences, which rely on theories developed by left-wing intellectuals, are more popular among liberals while conservatives tend to hold a more rigid worldview similar to the natural sciences. Liberals see some scientific disciplines as part and parcel of an outdated social order that has historically denied opportunities to minorities, while conservatives criticize the social sciences for sabotaging functioning systems and values. While people have always seen the world through unique lenses, like academics from a few decades ago, our contemporaries can no longer seem to agree on a common reality that unites us anymore.

Social scientists believe the world is socially constructed — the idea that the way humans perceive our reality is determined more by societal values, norms and traditions rather than objective constraints. Social construction lends itself to policies that aim to introduce more diverse representation in positions of power to construct a more egalitarian society. 

Social constructionism is fundamentally opposed to an objective or religious worldview, which would interpret reality as independent of human influence or created by supra-human beings. Diversity and representation can, at times, run counter to values like meritocracy — where decisions are made first based on qualifications and competence before other characteristics. 

That’s part of the reason why conservatives tend to push back on liberatory ideas from the social sciences that have reified into social policies — diversity, equity and inclusion policies in workplaces, affirmative action in hiring and college admissions, gender-affirming surgeries for minors and transgender athletes competing in professional sports. The decadeslong litigation around affirmative action in higher education and continuing controversy around human resources departments over implicit bias and diversity training are indicative of our inability to settle on a common ground. 

The academic divide has also turned the value of higher education and the culture on college campuses into polarizing topics. In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, over half of Republican respondents believed colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country, whereas over two-thirds of Democrat respondents believed the contrary. Most Democrats believed college professors act in the public interest, while most Republicans did not. 

Despite most respondents expressing doubt about the direction of higher education across the political spectrum, more Republicans did so than Democrats. Democrats were largely concerned with the increasing cost of higher education; Republicans were more concerned about universities having “too much concern about protecting students from views they might find offensive” and “professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom,” issues that fall under the “woke” culture American conservatives have come to vehemently oppose

Despite partisan disagreements, we know there is genuine value in education. The United Nations — an intergovernmental organization recognized by most countries in the world — sees quality education as perhaps the most effective way to lift the entire world population out of poverty and mitigate gender inequality. But despite these findings, we are unable to agree on the value of education beyond our political views. 

Representative Majorie Taylor Greene speaking to a crowd of protestors with a megaphone. There are many people pointing cameras towards her.
Marjorie Taylor-Greene, an election-denying representative, at a pro-Trump Rally in Foley Square on Apr. 8, 2023. (Samson Tu for WSN)

Perhaps a more pernicious effect of the academia divide is an overall distrust in science. Since the 1980s, conservatives in the United States have slowly turned against the natural sciences and see scientific research as another facet of big-government regulation. The start of the anti-science movement roughly coincided with the rise of postmodernism in American academia. Even though it might be less likely that conservatives are exposed to postmodern critiques of modern sciences, criticisms against science without providing constructive alternatives erode public confidence in the scientific process. This is particularly problematic when the distrust for fields like climate science and public health bifurcates public opinion on social issues that require large-scale collective action, like mitigating man-made climate change or stopping the spread of a global pandemic. 

The constant debate around the nature of reality seems to have killed our ability to agree on any basic set of facts. At the core of the current political polarization in America is an epistemological polarization, one about whether the earth is flat, whether the 2020 election was stolen, whether COVID-19 is real and whether an objective truth really exists. Perhaps the only unifying truth we have is that we don’t believe in the same truths. “Postmodernist academics and their activist followers are not to blame for any of the evils of today’s right wing,” Sokal wrote in an article responding to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. “What postmodernist relativism has wrought is, rather, something more insidious: by devaluing the concept of objective truth, it has undermined our own ability to combat objective untruths.”

Contact Samson Tu at [email protected].