An Alternative Hypothesis For Academic Obscurantism

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.

This entry was posted in Bullshit As a Load Bearing Structure, Education, Genomics. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to An Alternative Hypothesis For Academic Obscurantism

  1. Felicis says:

    Another issue with jargon leaving the academy is that non-experts will string together the words to produce something like this:

    “Space/time is a 4 dimensional represented as the universe, now. The future is a vector of rapidly collapsing potentialities. The past does not exist to travel “back” through because time is part of the universe which exists now. There is a past but there is no universe there. You can not travel to the future, because the universe has not collapsed the potentialities into the present and therefore the universe does not exist there either.
    There was no big bang, the energy/mass state (6 dimensional construct?) intrinsic to the current space time universe collapsed the potentiality into a fully present universe.

    Entropy is then the leakage of mass energy out of the space time into the collapsed potentials into anti time or nothingness. The universe will therefore not collapse, but all the mass energy might fall out of it.”

    This looks like it could mean something, but to me (with only a minor in Physics, so not a *lot* of academic background), it’s gibberish.

    We see it most often with the misuse of Quantum Mechanics, but I’ve seen it with plenty of other pieces of science, from physics and other disciplines.

  2. “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).”

    I think there should be more talk about “sociology communication” in a vein similar to science communication, especially for people trying to use the language for advocacy. Because it seems incredibly self-defeating for a lot of so-called activist educators, as so many blogs style themselves now, to assume they shouldn’t explain things without jargon.

  3. Netizen Denizen says:

    I canceled my subscription to Science magazine precisely because all the ads read like your biology paper quotation. Even as I was studying Physics, I found half of the magazine to be incomprehensible due to phrases that I would never encounter in any fashion, anywhere.

  4. kaleberg says:

    Weird, I can almost understand that abstract and conclusion you quoted. Basically, muscle protein regulation seems to trigger a lot more stuff than expected. I have minimal context, so I can’t tell just how much we know about muscle cell protein regulation, but I’m guessing we now know a little bit more.
    Maybe I can almost understand this kind of stuff because I’ve been reading Science since the late 70s. I remember reading some article on geology (or perhaps hydrology) and encountering the phrase “Indogangetic plain”. I was stumped, but then I worked it out. I knew that the Indus and Ganges are rivers, and I knew what a plain is. It was like doing a crossword puzzle.
    In your quotations, I particularly liked the little contextual note in plain English pointing out that muscles do more than just move things. They also store amino acids and energy (as ATP?). What a kludge! So much for intelligent design.
    Noah Smith is actually doing some good work though. Given that we have gone through a major economic crisis and are now in a prolonged recession, economics has been going through a slow motion crisis. There is an awful lot of mathematics and jargon, but it isn’t clear how much of it can be translated into ordinary English, and, worse, an awful lot of it, when translated into ordinary English, is demonstrably false. If that paper had ended with a statement that muscles are central to facial recognition and metabolized plutonium, we’d know that biology was in a similar crisis.

  5. David Taylor, MD says:

    Ironically, Noah Smith’s points have been made over and over, for years, by social scientists and arts and humanities scholars. And the general point about language/jargon barriers to a profession have been a standard feature of sociolinguistics for a hundred years. For an interesting variation on the point, check out the recent book by Harry Collins “Are We All Scientific Experts Now?”

  6. jrkrideau says:

    Well I am an admirer of Alan Sokal’ ground-breaking work and I have read some blogs about people being encouraged not to write too clearl

    However I agree that one is not writing for the masses. I might have understood 1 in 5 words in your abstract but I have never taken a biology course in my life. Every discipline and trade has a specialized terminology.

    I did choke a bit on compared to other disciplines, econ is in great shape
    Somehow I didn’t think Daniel Kahneman got the Economic equivalent of the Nobel for proving that Utility Theory was valid.

  7. harrync says:

    Some years back, a reader quoted to Ann Landers [or Dear Abby – does it matter which?] a section of the Internal Revenue Code as an example of incomprehensible gibberish. I read it with total comprehension – of course, at the time, I worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Ever since, I have been skeptical of attacks on jargon. What I do hate, though, are people writing for the general public who use undefined acronyms that even google doesn’t recognize.

  8. Dbp says:

    Honestly, the obscurantism is strong in textbooks from my experience. Lots of jargon that is never really distilled in a helpful way (and if it was distilled at all it was many pages back) and this is in a book that should be there to help you grasp the concept. I believe it is part of the reason why people consider math to be the enemy; the rationale behind what you’re doing isn’t necessarily clear and the textbook doesn’t make it any clearer. People I knew would basically just follow examples in the books and ignore the words since they didn’t help.

    I never used my texts except when I had to because random people on the internet explain concepts better than the $200 resource I was expected to turn to.

Comments are closed.