In a recent post on his blog, Steve Walt of the Harvard Kennedy School amplifies on a discussion at Andrew Sullivan’s new blog about why academic writing is so bad. It’s well worth reading, because I think Walt gets to the heart of the matter: academic writing stinks because academic writers intentionally mean it to stink.
Walt nods to the difficult of the some of the subjects involved, noting that if you’re writing about epistemology, you’re going to have some dense prose on your hands no matter how able you are as a writer. But then he gets to the real reasons academic writing is so ghastly:
The first problem is that many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically.
Moreover, jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don’t sound like a professional scholar, then readers won’t believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.
The second problem is the fear of being wrong. If your prose is clear and your arguments are easy to follow, then readers can figure out what you are saying and they can hold you to account. If you are making forecasts (or if the theory you are advancing has implications for the future), then you will look bad if your predictions are clearly stated and then fail. If your argument has obvious testable implications, others can run the tests and see how well your claims stand up.
But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood.
Amen. Preach it, brother.
I’ve carped about this before; back in July I wrote about a piece of impenetrable garble I had come across in a review of an equally impenetrable book about Russia and got a hurt, angry blast from the author. People who write poorly tend to have thin skins. (My own sentences, of course, are collections of shiny pearls, each an object of unspeakable beauty. Ahem.)
I was thinking about this because a friend of mine has to attend a professional seminar on information technology, and his packet of assigned readings include some scholarly articles that are so bad they’re good. Here’s an except from an article called “A Political Economy of the Substrate Network,” whatever that means:
Applying the economic framework of socialism to online collaboration, Kelly’s article is a classic symbol of the techno-ideology that surrounds the digital commons, a sign that the effusive rhetoric of the ‘networked information economy’ (Benkler, 2006) is alive and well in the public consciousness and has yet to reach its conclusion in the crisis of capital. This reflects this paper’s core criticism of the ideology of free culture, specifically that its notion of “free” pays lip service to an imperial credo aligned more closely to the social factory than to the necessary apparatuses of an idealised peer-to-peer economy, rolling out a vista from Utopia to YouTube that wilfully [sic] glosses the conflicts inherent in immaterial labour.
Yeah? So’s your old man.
All of this reminds me of the 1996 Alan Sokal hoax, which should have been a wake-up call to the academic community. Instead, academics acted like embarrassed cats trying to kick litter over an inconvenient piddle on the rug. Gibberish still runs rampant in the journals, and Walt’s right: if ordinary people could understand academic articles, the writers would not only lose their claim to intellectual superiority, but they would actually have to defend their ideas…assuming any are to be found, of course.