“Sokal Squared” and Academic Freedom


Many people on AcademeBlog, including Hank Reichman, have made interesting comments on the so-called “Sokal squared” hoax. Earlier this month, I was a discussant at a session focusing on the hoax at FIRE’s annual faculty conference, and I think it’s important to discuss the academic freedom implications of the hoax.

I have never understood why the Sokal hoax was considered important or revealing of anything. The fact that someone is able to hoax a few journals is neither surprising nor useful. Nevertheless, academic freedom protects the right to speak out, even if someone thinks it’s unimportant or unethical. Hoaxing is protected by academic freedom, even when it involves fabricated data. Let me give some examples of important and useful hoaxes: if someone conducts research on bias by sending in fake job applications, they are engaged in hoaxing—and I think this is very important and useful research that reveals the fact of ongoing racial and gender discrimination.

The more important aspect of academic freedom here is what the hoaxers are demanding. The creators of this hoax, James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose, explained what they were doing in an article for Aero, and offered this for what they wanted to see done in response:

Our recommendation begins by calling upon all major universities to begin a thorough review of these areas of study (gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and other “theory”-based fields in the humanities and reaching into the social sciences, especially including sociology and anthropology), in order to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.

It’s bad enough when one university investigates the views of one professor for offending someone. For all universities to undertake an investigation into all of the scholars in most of the humanities and social sciences would be an act of incredible repression.  Although they express hope that these fields “can be redeemed, not destroyed” after this mass investigation, it is unclear what it means to be “redeemed.”

The hoaxers are not alone in calling for mass censorship of the left. NAS president Peter Wood earlier this month wrote an article declaring:

State legislatures must defund all public university programs that promote or use social justice, civic engagement, or service learning. And getting rid of anything that presents itself as experiential learning in the public universities would be a good start.

Wood and the hoaxers are part of a new movement on the right that represents an enormous threat to academic freedom. This is not the usual effort to fire a controversial professor who writes a tweet that upsets conservative snowflakes. It is instead a campaign to punish and even ban entire fields of study deemed to be too leftist.

The hoaxers made a horrifying call for massive repression of academic freedom, and whatever you think of the hoax itself, they deserve nothing but condemnation for their demands for mass investigation and censorship.

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