Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stanley Fish and the Wine Hoax

I consider Stanley Fish to be one of the great public intellectuals of our day. I may not always agree with him, but I have great respect for him. He is one of the world’s foremost scholars on John Milton and he also manages to be a highly coherent and readable political thinker. He might be one of the leading advocates of post modernism, but he is the sort of post modernist that I can accept. He is someone who uses post modernism as an analytical tool and not something to be worshipped for its own sake.

With all due respect to Fish, though, he suffers from an inability to get over the fact that he was connected, if only tangentially, to the Sokal Hoax. The Sokal Hoax has become a legend among critics of post modernism as the moment that post modernism was called out as an emperor with no cloths. Here is what happened. In 1996 Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at NYU, sent a paper titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, a journal published by Duke University and considered to be one of the main organs of post modern thought in America. This paper was full of post modernist jargon and not something that could be easily understood by members of the lay public. Apparently the editors of Social Text could not understand Sokal either or were just too lazy to bother so they simply published the article, relying on the fact that Sokal had a PHD and his article sounded good. Once the article was published Sokal revealed to the public what his article was actually about; it argued that the laws of physics and mathematics were cultural constructs, with no inherent validity. While it would seem that Fish was not involved with the publishing of Sokal’s essay, he taught at Duke at the time. Fish has never gotten over this embarrassment and has repeatedly inveighed against Sokal for the “unfairness” of it all and declaring that it proves nothing.

Recently Fish returned, once again, to this issue, responding to a similar hoax played on the magazine Wine Spectator by critic Robin Goldstein. Goldstein created a wine list for a completely fictitious restaurant, Osteria L’Intrepido, and managed to get a rating from the magazine. Fish brings down Wine Spectator’s Executive Editor Thomas Matthews’ response that yes his magazine was taken in by a hoax, but that it was a very elaborate hoax. Goldstein went through the trouble of providing them with an address and phone number and even went so far as to create a website for his nonexistent restaurant. As far as Matthews is concerned it is unreasonable that the readers of his magazine should expect them to actually go to the restaurant and see if they actually have the wines they claim to have.

Fish sees a parallel between what happened to Wine Spectator and what happened to Social Text. They both accepted submissions on good faith, which turned out to be hoaxes. For Fish this says nothing about the intellectual legitimacy of either institution. They operate on the assumption that those who submit things to them are acting on good faith. For support Fish refers to Simon Blackburn, who, in response to Sokal, argued that, as someone whose expertise is in philosophy, he could not be expected to judge the historical validity of articles submitted to him. The example he gives is of someone sending him an article arguing that Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy was influenced by his experience in Venice.

With all due respect for such eminent scholars as Fish and Blackburn, this is nothing less than an apology for intellectual laziness. Part of being an academic is that you are not inclined to take things on good faith. The whole point of academic publishing is that a book or article is to be peer reviewed and not simply one person’s opinion. When I, the reader, pick up a piece of published academic literature I am supposed to assume that not only is it the work of an accredited academic scholar but also that it was read by other accredited scholars, capable of judging the piece, and that these scholars, at the very least, found no reason to object to it. I, the reader, am the supposed to take what I am reading on good faith, but the only reason why I can do that is because I am taking it on good faith that those who screened what I am reading were not talking the author on good faith.

Off of the top of my head I would not be able to tell you if Hobbes was ever in Venice or not. I do know that he spent a significant amount of time on the continent after he fled England due to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. If a paper came across my desk, something maybe written by a student, with the thesis that Hobbes was influenced by his experience in Venice I would bother to actually check if Hobbes was ever actually there. If do not readily find such information and the student proves incapable of producing it then that student will fail.

I am about to take my general exams. The people on my committee will demand that I not only sound like I know what I am talking about but will also insist that I actually know what I am talking about and will call me on it if there is any hint that I am bluffing. When I write my dissertation I will have to defend what I write in the face of knowledgeable scholars, who will have no hesitation in taking what I have written, ripping it up in my face and telling me that my work is garbage. I do not claim to be perfect, but I do hold myself to a certain standards and there are people who will hold me to those standards.

This is what academic scholarship is about. We are supposed to demand a high standard of ourselves and if we are not qualified to comment on something we should excuse ourselves and remain silent. This is what separates us from the rest of society and this is what gives us our authority. While it may be perfectly acceptable for Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge to simply pass on any bit of information that supports their cause without careful investigation, academics, if they wish to claim greater legitimacy than Limbaugh and Drudge, must make it obvious to everyone that they operate on a higher standard. This is particularly true for those who are in the humanities. Since we do not deal in hard empirical facts our very legitimacy rests on the unchallengeable quality of our scholarship. People may disagree with our conclusions but they must never have the grounds to challenge the intellectual process that have gone into our conclusions. If we cannot live up to this goal than there is no point to our enterprise.

The people who read Sokal’s essay and agreed to publish it are a disgrace. They should have all been fired from their possessions and never allowed to work as academics again. Their incompetence endangers not only post modernism but all academic scholarship. Sending hoax articles to journals should be a common occurrence in order to keep people honest. Those in the lofty position of editing journals should have to be on their guard. Allow a hoax to be published on your watch and your reputation and your career will be at an end.

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