Alan Sokal

Alan Sokal
Born (1955-01-24) January 24, 1955
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Residence United States, Nicaragua, UK
Citizenship United States
Alma mater Harvard University (B.A.)
Princeton University (Ph.D.)
Known for Sokal Affair
Scientific career
Fields Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy of Science
Institutions New York University
National Autonomous University of Nicaragua
University College London
Thesis An Alternate Constructive Approach to the φ4
Quantum Field Theory, and a Possible Destructive Approach to φ4
Doctoral advisor Arthur Wightman

Alan David Sokal (/ˈskəl/; born January 24, 1955) is a professor of mathematics at University College London and professor of physics at New York University. He works in statistical mechanics and combinatorics. He is a critic of postmodernism, and caused the Sokal affair in 1996 when his deliberately nonsensical paper was published by Duke University's Social Text. He also works to counter faulty scientific reasoning, as seen with his involvement in criticising the critical positivity ratio concept in positive psychology.

Academic career

Sokal received his BA from Harvard College in 1976 and his PhD from Princeton University in 1981. He was advised by Arthur Wightman. In the summers of 1986, 1987, and 1988, Sokal taught mathematics at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, when the Sandinistas were heading the elected government.

Research interests

Sokal’s research lies in mathematical physics and combinatorics. In particular, he studies the interplay between these fields based on questions arising in statistical mechanics and quantum field theory. This includes work on the chromatic polynomial and the Tutte polynomial, which appear both in algebraic graph theory and in the study of phase transitions in statistical mechanics. His interests include computational physics and algorithms, such as Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithms for problems in statistical physics. He also co-authored a book on quantum triviality.[1]

In 2013 Sokal co-authored a paper with Nicholas Brown and Harris Friedman, rejecting the Losada Line, a concept popular in positive psychology. Named after its proposer, Marcial Losada, it refers to a critical range for an individual's ratio of positive to negative emotions, outside of which the individual will tend to have poorer life and occupational outcomes.[2] This concept of a critical positivity ratio was highly cited and popularised by psychologists such as Barbara Fredrickson. The trio's paper, published in American Psychologist, contended that the ratio was based on faulty mathematical reasoning and therefore invalid.[3]

Sokal affair

In 1996, Sokal was curious to see whether the then-non-peer-reviewed postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text (published by Duke University Press) would publish a submission which "flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions". Sokal submitted a grand-sounding but completely nonsensical paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."[4][5]

After holding the article back from earlier issues due to Sokal's refusal to consider revisions, the staff published it in the "Science Wars" issue as a relevant contribution.[6] Soon thereafter, Sokal then revealed that the article was a hoax in the journal Lingua Franca,[7] arguing that the left and social science would be better served by intellectual underpinnings based on reason. The affair was front-page news in The New York Times on May 18, 1996. Sokal responded to leftist and postmodernist criticism of the deception by asserting that his motivation was to "defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself".

The affair, together with Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt's 1994 book Higher Superstition, can be considered to be a part of the so-called science wars.

Sokal followed up by co-authoring the book Impostures Intellectuelles with Jean Bricmont in 1997 (published in English, a year later, as Fashionable Nonsense). The book accuses some social sciences academics of using scientific and mathematical terms incorrectly and criticizes proponents of the "strong program" of the sociology of science for denying the value of truth. The book had contrasted reviews, with some lauding the effort,[8] and some more reserved.[9][10]

In 2008, Sokal revisited the Sokal affair and its implications in Beyond the Hoax.


  • But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.[11]
  • Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)[12]
  • The results of my little experiment [Sokal affair] demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that "the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project" [sec. 6]. They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.[13]
  • When scientific research is increasingly funded by private corporations that have a financial interest in particular outcomes of that research—is the drug effective or not?—scientific objectivity is undermined. When universities are more interested in patent royalties than in the open sharing of scientific information, the public suffers. There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.[14]


  1. R. Fernandez, J. Froehlich, A. D. Sokal, "Random Walks, Critical Phenomena, and Triviality in Quantum Field Theory". Springer (April 1992) ISBN 0-387-54358-9
  2. Losada M (1999). "The complex dynamics of high performance teams". Mathematical and Computer Modelling. 30 (9–10): 179–192. doi:10.1016/s0895-7177(99)00189-2.
  3. Brown N. J. L.; Sokal A. D.; Friedman H. L. (2013). "The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio". American Psychologist. 68: 801–13. arXiv:1307.7006. doi:10.1037/a0032850. PMID 23855896.
  4. Sokal A. (1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text. 46/47 (46/47): 217–252. doi:10.2307/466856. JSTOR 466856.
  5. Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity
  6. Robbins, Bruce and Ross, Andrew. Editorial Response to the hoax, explaining Social Text's decision to publish
  7. Sokal A. (1996). "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies" (PDF). Lingua Franca: 62–64.
  8. Richard Dawkins (July 1998). "Postmodernism disrobed". Nature. 394 (6689): 141143. Bibcode:1998Natur.394..141D. doi:10.1038/28089.
  9. Stephen Hilgartner (Autumn 1997). "The Sokal Affair in Context". Science, Technology & Human Values. 22 (4): 506522. doi:10.1177/016224399702200404.
  10. William M. Epstein (1990). "Confirmational response bias among social work journals". Science, Technology & Human Values. 15 (1): 938. doi:10.1177/016224399001500102.
  11. Sokal, Alan (1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: an afterword".
  12. Sokal, Alan (May/June 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca
  13. Sokal, Alan. "Revelation: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 2000. 49-54. Print.
  14. Bruce Robbins; Andrew Ross (July 1996). "Mystery science theater". Lingua Franca.. Reply by Alan Sokal.
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