Ridicule didn't work: The Sokal hoax and its lessons

No lessons seem to have been learned from the hoax: The trends that Sokal spoofed remain trendy in academic liberal arts. “You might have thought that humanities scholars, and particularly those working in subfields of cultural studies, would have been mortified with embarrassment, like a pretentious man who got caught mistaking his son’s finger-paintings for Jackson Pollock originals,” says intellectual historian Wilfred McClay. “But they weren’t much embarrassed, and those fields have not suffered noticeably.”

Postmodern academics have vigorously guarded their reputations—and their turf. Postmodernism was designed to challenge and undermine traditional institutions just as much as it was designed to undermine traditional literary analysis. But Sokal turned the tables on them, undermining the enterprise of postmodernism itself. James Ceaser, professor of political science at the University of Virginia, says the newfangled linguistic theorists were very much not amused: “They reacted like bourgeois academics, condemning [it as an] attack on the standards of academic integrity.”

Though the Sokal hoax may not have changed academia, it certainly helped to alter the public’s view of it. As McClay notes, “the Sokal controversy (and the nonresponse to it) have contributed in their own small way to the erosion of claims to expert knowledge made by academic professionals in this country and around the world. The general public is increasingly disinclined to trust experts, and to see expert knowledge itself as politicized and tendentious.” This is true: By now the public is skeptical of expert claims in a variety of fields, whether they come from scientists making large claims about climate change, pollsters predicting election outcomes, or psychiatrists positing that gender is a social construct that can be altered by surgery.