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Thursday, September 07, 2017

Does Legal Scholarship Need a "Sokal Affair"?

Admit it: sometimes you pick up a journal article and say to yourself, "how the hell did this thing get published in [top 20 Law Review]?"  Most of the time, I think that statement is born out of jealously ("I could have written that!") rather than a belief that the article is poor scholarship.  But either way, there is an enduring belief that law journals, and more specifically, student editors at those journals, lack the expertise to distinguish between high quality and low quality scholarship.  

One way to test this hypothesis is to intentionally submit trash and see what happens.  That's what Alan Sokal did in 1996, and he got it published.  Sokal was a physics professor at NYU and was deeply skeptical of some postmodern sociological scholarship.  So he--a physics professor, mind you--submitted an article to "Social Text" titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."  At bottom, Sokal argued that gravity was a social and linguistic construct.  But he dressed it up in lots of postmodern-sounding language.  Sokol's stated goal was to see if he could get nonsense published by--and this is key-- appealing to the idealogical priors of the editors (Social Text was not a peer reviewed journal at the time).  After the article was in print, Sokol revealed his hoax and the "Sokal Affair" was born.  There is a nice history of the affair in The Chronicle.

For the most part, I don't think we need a Sokal Affair in the world of legal scholarship.  Sure, student editors (like the rest of us) make mistakes in assessing scholarship, but it's not clear to me that they come to the table with strongly-held idealogical priors.  The one exception to this might be some types of  specialty journals.  A lot of specialty journals are simply focused on an area of law (international law, for example) but some appear to be focused on a particular idealogical principle--say "social justice."  If a school has a publication titled "Journal of Law and Social Justice," and it appears that the journal regularly publishes articles advocating a particular worldview, then one might suspect that students editors would select into the journal because of their affinity for that worldview and be thus more susceptible to a Sokal hoax.  To be clear, I'm not criticizing student editors here. We all have ideological priors and are thus all susceptible to a Sokal hoax.  Nor am I criticizing social justice journals or any other journal with a specific focus.  I'm simply observing that some contexts are more likely that others to support the growth and influence of ideological priors.  

A final note: just because most mainline journals would not be fertile places for ideological priors to exert much influence does not mean that there are not other types of priors that might be at work.  Letterhead bias, publication history, etc, likely play some type of role in publication decisions--though how much, nobody knows.   



Posted by Jack Preis on September 7, 2017 at 09:33 AM | Permalink


No need for someone to write a bogus article as a hoax. Plenty of law professors are already writing bogus articles in earnest.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Sep 7, 2017 2:53:05 PM

RQA- thanks for the correction. The post has been updated.

Matthew Bruckner- thanks for that.

juniorprof- that's a fair point. I don't know what the average political valence of a law student, but I assume that, whatever it is, it would have some effect on article selection.

C.E. Petit- thanks also. Yes, I had read a similar critique of the hoax-- that he was going after an easy target.

Posted by: Jack Preis | Sep 7, 2017 1:41:18 PM

Keep in mind, though, that an analogous Sokal Test wouldn't reach the law reviews that have consideration of the effect of David Hume on Bulgarian jurisprudence. It wouldn't even reach flagship journals, no matter how "low prestige." SOCIAL TEXT was the equivalent of the hypothetical University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople Bovine Law Journal — that is, a speciality-subject-area journal read by almost no one who wasn't already ensconced in that specialty subject area, however much those in that speciality subject area paid attention to it.

N.B. Sad to say, I was contemporaneously somewhat familiar with SOCIAL TEXT, due to my shameful past in another academic discipline. Let's just say that most of the READERSHIP wouldn't have recognized it was being played, either, due to its overt hostility to anything that looked like Science With Numbers.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Sep 7, 2017 1:30:18 PM

82.4% of respondents say that letterhead matters. See, e.g., https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3011602 (Figure 4)

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 7, 2017 1:08:06 PM

Sokal, not Sokol.

Posted by: RQA | Sep 7, 2017 12:15:22 PM

If expands the range of conceivable ideological priors beyond those held by the relatively affluent, then it seems entirely fair to say that student editors have largely uniform, strongly held ideological priors (e.g., an anti-Trump Sokol-type article would stand a much better chance at publication than it should). With law reviews, though, the real concern is that the in-text proxies upon which student editors rely (e.g., novelty claims) are easy to exploit if one is sufficiently cynical.

Posted by: juniorprof | Sep 7, 2017 10:44:51 AM

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