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The Ethics of Sokaling
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I'm pretty sure I've mentioned The Sokal Hoax here before. Physicist Alan Sokal purposefully wrote a silly paper entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, which was chock full of nonsense and made-up equations. He sent it to the postmodern journal Social Text, and damned if the thing didn't make it through all the peer review and get published.

Now (via PZ Meyers) we have a hoax perpetrated by an anonymous Brit (I'm wondering why he/she's so worried about exposing their identity), in which a fake paper about the causes of climate change was posted to a fake site purporting to belong to a fake journal. The site has been removed, apparently by the host, but here's a cached version of the paper, entitled Carbon dioxide production by benthic bacteria: the death of manmade global warming theory?, unformatted and without figures.

Apparently the anonymous hoaxster e-mailed the link around, and a few people bit, including Rush Limbaugh, who apparently talked about it on his show.

So a few things about the differences between these cases, and my views are not being colored by my stance on global warming, which is (for the record) that I believe humans have contributed significantly to an increase in worldwide temperatures. However, I am highly skeptical about claims to link this rise in temperatures to causal roles or changes in intensity of particular weather events (e.g. California wildfires or Hurricane Katrina), and am also skeptical about reasonably accurate projections regarding massive changes (e.g. mass flooding causing mass migrations) within the near time horizon (e.g. 100-200 years).

That said, I don't think the climate change paper is anywhere near the level of the Sokal hoax. It doesn't take much to fool a non-scientist, as long as you are posing as an expert with the intent to deceive. Sokal did not post his paper on a website and link people to it as if it were real. He sent it through a peer-review process, and fooled "experts". No experts were fooled here, and the hoax was exposed within a few days.

I actually admire Alan Sokal. He exposed some of the ridiculousness in academia, by fighting them on their own terms, on their own turf. It was a deception, but a fair one. By posting intentional misinformation to the internet, though, you are deliberately muddying the waters, making a paper available to anyone in the world. Who knows how many people might pick up such a link and mail it around, disseminating hogwash at the speed of light.

I think there's a big difference between trying to fool someone who should know better and trying to fool people who aren't necessarily equipped with the tools to ferret out the fakery. Granted, Limbaugh and others shouldn't have snatched it up so greedily, but the difference between the cases was like the difference between defeating a well-armed foe in battle and beating up a 5 year-old.

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