The value of scientific hoaxes

It came to my attention recently that some of my friends were not aware of the Sokal Hoax.  I recommend that you check out the Wikipedia article on it as this provides not only an extensive discussion of the event itself, but also a look at the subsequent discussion that the hoax generated, but I’ll quickly summarise what happened here.

The Sokal Hoax

The Sokal Hoax involved the submission of a paper by Alan Sokal, a physics professor, to a humanities journal called Social Text.  In this paper, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” (Sokal, 1996a), were 6,000 words of utter bovine excrement.  Sokal claimed that he had been inspired to submit the article based on an anti-intellectual trend in the social sciences.  He wrote the paper appealing to these sentiments, using concepts such as “emancipatory mathematics” and “liberation science”, pandering to the vanity of the editors and other authors, and inserting numerous obscure maths jokes into the footnotes.  At the time, Social Text didn’t have a peer-review process and so, while the editors thought Sokal’s paper “hokey”, they accepted it into an issue discussing the relationship between science and the arts.  Indeed, they thought that “the article was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field”.  They thought he was coming to them for affirmation!  Sokal revealed the hoax in another paper in the journal Lingua Franca (Sokal, 1996b), has since hosted a dialogue between Sokal and the Social Text editors (Robbins and Ross, 1996).

The “Butt-ology Hoax”

Illustration of reflexology of the buttocks, from McLachlan 2010

Where Sokal wished to highlight the anti-intellectual trend in the social sciences (he went so far as to call it a “rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment”), Prof John McLachlan sought to expose a lack of intellectual rigour in “integrative medicine”.  McLachlan was concerned that “integrative medicine” was simply another name for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) which was losing support in the UK.  He submitted an abstract to the “The Jerusalem Conference on Integrative Medicine”, held in October 2010.  This was the abstract:

I write to ask if you would be interested in a presentation on my recent work on integrative medicine. I am an embryologist by background, with an extensive publication record, in journals including Nature and the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and have written an award winning text book on medical embryology. Recently, as a result of my developmental studies on human embryos, I have discovered a new version of reflexology, which identifies a homunculus represented in the human body, over the area of the buttocks. The homunculus is inverted, such that the head is represented in the inferior position, the left buttock corresponds to the right hand side of the body, and the lateral aspect is represented medially. As with reflexology, the “map” responds to needling, as in acupuncture, and to gentle suction, such as cupping. In my studies, responses are stronger and of more therapeutic value than those of auricular or conventional reflexology. In some cases, the map can be used for diagnostic purposes. (McLachlan 2010, see also the image from the same paper)

The conference organisers got back to him asking for more details, which McLachlan provided along with the following closing statement, very much in the spirit of Sokal: “Unfortunately, this novel paradigm may meet with closed minds and automatic rejection. Patience and understanding of “closed” mindsets is essential in order to advance this new discovery in a way commensurate with its importance”.  The abstract was accepted but McLachlan declined to participate in the conference feeling that his goal had already been accomplished.

Summary

These two hoaxes were perpetrated to make points about the lack of rigour in some fields of research.  However, it is likely that a large number of academic publications receive sub-standard peer review due to a lack of familiarity with the fields in which the papers are situated.  I know from my own experience of reviewing manuscripts and having my own reviewed that there are times when you cannot think of more than a few people who would be able to grasp the entirety of a given submission.  Such is the diversity of fields, approaches, techniques and analyses that some hoaxes inevitably make it through the cracks.  This is certainly one limitation of a peer-review system that no doubt does extremely well under such circumstances (anyone who has submitted a paper to even a low-impact journal will know that reviewers take great delight in tearing long-toiled-over work to pieces at the slightest hint of a weakness).  Finally, for those physicists among you who are snickering away at the expense of social scientists and alt med practitioners, take a look at http://snarxiv.org/ and see if you could tell any as randomly-generated abstracts!  None of us are immune!

_________________________________________________________________________________________

References

McLachlan, J.C. (2010) Integrative medicine and the point of credulity. BMJ 341.

Robbins, B. and Ross, A. (1996) Mystery science theater. Lingua Franca.

Sokal, A. (1996a) Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text 46/47: 217–252.

Sokal, A. (1996b) A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s