Monday, July 8, 2013

Know your audience (1) – the Sokal affair

To meet the objective of whatever you are writing, you must know your audience. It’s a cliche but it’s true. Let’s take a look at an extraordinary example. It involve questionable morals, but it illustrates the point.

This is an excerpt of the Wikipedia entry for the Sokal affair:

“The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. In subsequent publications, Sokal claimed that the submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether ‘a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?’


“The article, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,’ published in the Social Text Spring/Summer 1996 ‘Science Wars’ issue, proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct.

“On its date of publication (May 1996), Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as ‘a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense... structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.’ ” (Footnotes and several links omitted.)

I do not condone the perpetration of hoaxes, and I assume that your writing objectives are ethical. However, let us admire Mr. Sokal’s ability to precisely determine the interests and desires of a target audience. His hoax worked because he gave his audience what they wanted: “left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense.”

The Takeaway: Whenever you write something for a new audience, study that audience carefully. Don’t just spend a few minutes musing; dig in and do the research. Read things they like; listen to speeches and watch videos that have persuaded them; read what they write, and so on. Diligent research will dramatically increase your chances of achieving your objective.

See disclaimer.

*In the Lingua Franca article, Mr. Sokal wisecracked, “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

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