This morning’s Guardian tells the story of three MIT computer grad students who used a software program of their own design to generate a fake research paper, loaded with titillating, appropriately academic-sounding jargon such as “scatter/gather” and “I/O server,” which they then submitted to the conveners of this coming summer’s World Multiconference on Systematics, Cybernetics and Informatics in Florida—and, lo and behold, the WMSCI “promptly selected” their fake for presentation at the conference. Jibberish and all.
The paper, The Guardian elaborates, was comprised of a “random collection of charts, disgrams and obtuse lines such as ‘We implemented our scatter/gather I/O server in Simula-67′.” But The Guardian failed to mention whether the WMSCI-selected fake delved into the related fields of pornography and human sexuality, feces and urination, and the like. (Though at least one rumor is afoot which suggests that these MIT students are hard at work designing a new program that they hope will one day be capable of generating an infinitely large body of gibberish along these lines.)
This tale of “complete gibberish” passing the muster among the clearly cynical conveners of the World Multiconference on Systematics, Cybernetics and Informatics is a real beauty. No doubt about it. Though the pranksters appear to be of the opinion that the WMSCI’s acceptance of their fake, Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy, was “not a statement about jargon in computer science,” The Guardian also reports. Oddly enough. But if this particular fake was not about jargon in computer science—and about a lot of the other bogus affectations of the celebrated universe of discourse among really sharp minds—then what else might it have been about, pray tell?
Still. This little tale about vanity academic conferences leading to vanity calls for papers and vanity presentations in exchange for hard cash pales in comparison to the similar tale of nearly a decade ago, when one unabashed prankster—He never denied that he was a prankster. Did he?—the American physicist Alan Sokal, published his seminal “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the allegedly serious journal Social Text—and not only didn’t mean a word he had written. But knew that not having to mean a word that one publishes comprises an overwhelmingly large part of what the field he was pranking is really all about.
In this latter case, the exemplary work of Sokal, working individually, as well as in partnership with the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont (i.e., Impostures Intellectuelles (1997), or Fashionable Nonsense (1998)—though the U.K. translation Intellectual Impostures (1998) clearly is to be preferred), ought always to be kept in mind, I think. Wherever postmodern vanities and straightforward deception pop up.
“Making a science out of applied idiocy,” Richard Jinman, The Guardian, April 16, 2005
“Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Alan D. Sokal, Social Text, Spring/Summer, 1996
“A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies,” Alan D. Sokal, Lingua Franca, May/June, 1996
“Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword,” Alan D. Sokal, Dissent, Fall, 1996
“What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove,” Alan D. Sokal, in A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science, Noretta Koertge, Ed., Oxford University Press, 1998
“Rationality/Science,” Noam Chomsky, Z Papers, 1995