The fifth in our series on this year’s group projects by Sci Com students – this week, it’s the turn of Stephen McGann, Emma Houghton-Brown and Haralambos Dayantis.
Do scientists see the world as objectively as they like to think?
Arguments have raged for years between those who regard science as an entirely objective discipline, and certain social scholars that believe science is subject to the same cognitive biases as every other human enterprise. At times, these debates have become less than polite.
In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated an infamous academic hoax against a postmodernist journal called Social Text. Sokal submitted a paper for publication with the lavish title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” It was filled with the kind of popular academic jargon familiar to postmodernist scholars. To the delight of the publishers, the eminent physicist seemed to be embracing a socially constructed view of his discipline. They duly published.
A month later, Sokal announced that his paper was a fake – a stitched-together collection of nonsense to demonstrate the lack of intellectual rigour amongst postmodernists. The journal editors were furious, accusing Sokal of a lack of ethics. Many scientists were delighted. The affair became a major episode in what is now dubbed the ‘Science Wars.’
We became interested in Sokal’s particular objectives for the hoax. He claimed it was an ‘experiment’ to test whether editors would ‘publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.’
This gave us a mischievous idea. What would happen if we took Sokal’s broad premise and turned it around onto scientists? Could we make scientists believe a hoax TV news story because it (a) employed familiar TV conventions and (b) it presented a flattering narrative of a lone scientist battling corrupt authority?
We set about constructing a four-minute TV news item about a visiting Japanese scientist called Shigeyuki Kagoshima, whose important climate-saving research had been thwarted by a cynical Chinese corporation. We studied science news clips on television to mimic common devices such as lab presentations and interview conventions. We presented our film to science undergraduates at Imperial College as a genuine news piece – and tested whether our audience could detect the content as fake. Finally, we revealed our hoax – and asked them for their reactions.
The piece was shot by professional filmmaker Mark McGann of Drama Direct. Practically all elements are fictional – the Chinese company does not exist, and Dr Kagoshima is played with wonderful authenticity by Shigeyuki Koide, the former science editor of Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. In fact, the only real scientist was physics professor Jenny Nelson. But would the science audience be able to tell what was real and what wasn’t?
Our results were fascinating. We showed our film to 23 Imperial College science undergraduates attending a Science Communication class:-
We told them we had made a film to expose a scientific controversy, and wanted their input on the ethical issues. None of the students noticed anything amiss. They accepted the ‘facts’ at face value, and discussed the ethics of the fictional scandal at length. A third of the students even felt strongly enough about the issue to raise it outside of class.
When we revealed our deceit, they were understandably cautious. But thankfully they embraced our experiment (rather than our necks), and generously participated in a survey to assess which elements of the film they thought were real or faked. The results were better than we’d hoped for. For instance, when asked to guess the real-life careers of the participants Jenny Nelson and Shigeyuki Koide, only a minority identified Nelson as a scientist, while a large majority thought Koide was a genuine physicist – and none identified him as a journalist!
Our hoax seemed a great success. Even those trained to think scientifically could be duped in a Sokal-like manner by familiar conventions, expectations and prejudices. But what does it all really prove?
Perhaps it’s simply that a hoax is not really an experiment. It’s a rhetorical tool – founded on a preconception of a target’s weaknesses. Like Sokal’s hoax, our fake was a form of entrapment – moulding evidence to most expose what we assumed were our target’s vices. Ironically, by attempting to expose social constructivism in others, both Sokal’s hoax and ours demonstrated the subjective thinking of the perpetrator.
We were left with a renewed respect for the Royal Society’s famous motto, ‘Nullius in Verba’ – ‘take nobody’s word for it’.
Not even our own.
Stephen McGann, Emma Houghton-Brown and Haralambos Dayantis are currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London