Which is: they’re not writing for you. Noah Smith argues that difficult, if not impossible to penetrate, jargon-laden social science papers exist as a way to enforce artificial entry barriers (boldface mine):
To many readers not steeped in critical theory, this may sound like a broken fire hydrant of nonsense. One may be tempted to reach for a copy of Pennycook et al.’s paper, “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”
But I don’t think critical theory is simply the academic equivalent of meaningless auto-generated guru wisdom. My guess is that it’s actually something else: Obscurantism.
Here’s what I kind of suspect is going on.
For a given level of demand, supply restrictions generally push up price. You don’t want to have any old dork walk in off the street and get a full professorship in urban studies. That would send salaries crashing, and prestige as well.
But what if urban studies is just inherently a really easy field? (I’m not saying this is true, I’m just being hypothetical!) What if all the remaining big truths could be uncovered by running a few regressions in Stata? In that case, the supply of potential urban studies profs would be really big. Danger!
If existing urban studies profs can form a cartel, they can artificially raise the barriers to entry and bring supply back down again. Cartelization in academia doesn’t seem that hard, since admissions, hiring, and tenure committees are already cartels, and since the barriers to creating new universities and new top journals are very high.
The barriers to entry will probably be some combination of A) a psychometric test, and B) an ideological loyalty test. These tests are relatively easy to administer. They also take advantage of natural supply restrictions – very high-ability people (along whatever dimension you want to measure) are relatively rare, and ideological buy-in is limited by the diversity of ideas in society. For example, there are just not that many people who are both A) really good at parsing dense paragraphs of text, and B) deeply committed to a quasi-Marxist lefty ideology.
Artificial entry barriers provide a tidy explanation for the rise of “critical theory” in humanities, urban planning, anthropology, and sociology departments. Critical theory is basically just the practice of taking lefty social criticism – of the type you might find in any college dorm – and dressing it up with a bunch of neologisms and excess verbiage.
Over the weekend, I was reading a recent edition of Genome Biology and I stumbled across an abstract from a pretty good and interesting paper. Following Smith, here’s the background from the abstract:
Mutations in myosin chaperones Unc45b and Hsp90aa1.1 as well as in the Unc45b-binding protein Smyd1b impair formation of myofibrils in skeletal muscle and lead to the accumulation of misfolded myosin. The concomitant transcriptional response involves up-regulation of the three genes encoding these proteins, as well as genes involved in muscle development. The transcriptional up-regulation of unc45b, hsp90aa1.1 and smyd1b is specific to zebrafish mutants with myosin folding defects, and is not triggered in other zebrafish myopathy models.
Also following Smith, here’s the grand finale:
Skeletal muscle cells have a highly specialized transcriptional feedback mechanism that links the activity of myosin chaperone proteins with expression of a large number of downstream genes. One key regulator of this response is Hsf1. The expression of the chaperones is induced for refolding or removal of misfolded protein, thereby preventing proteotoxic effects in the myofiber. The response to impaired folding of myosins also entails changes in the transcriptional status of many other genes with different functions. Expression of developmental genes is elevated, including TFs that control muscle differentiation, suggesting that myosin folding is coupled to muscle differentiation. The observed complexity of the response to misfolded myosin accumulation is most likely a reflection of the plasticity of myofibrils during the life of an animal, serving not only as motors for body movement but also as a store for amino acids and energy.
I’m guessing to most people this sounds like, well, pomo writing. It’s probably incomprehensible to most people. But here’s the key point: it’s not written for most people. The target of this paper is a group of specialists who don’t want to waste their time with unnecessary explanatory clause after unnecessary explanatory clause. The jargon serves a purpose–and, yes, some of it could probably be reduced and distilled to more ‘basic’ English.
I would argue there is an economy of communication here that, while not incompatible with Smith’s cartelization hypothesis, is very useful. There’s a reason why, in my posts about science, I often write something like, “Here’s the quote from the paper–don’t worry, I’ll translate it into English.” Sure, some of this might–probably is–cartelization. But it’s a very efficient method of communication–if you’re in the know.
If there is a problem with stereotypical pomo jargon, it’s when it leaves the academy. There is a genre of popular writing and blogging on the left that sounds like a bad sociology seminar (which is unfair to sociology). It uses words that should be confined to specific academic settings ‘in public’–which weakens the legitimacy of the points they’re trying to make to a broader public (which probably needs convincing, not jargon).
That’s the problem with obscurantism: it limits the domain of knowledge to only those who are in the know. And that’s not a good thing.