Who’s Denser? The Writer or the Material?

If you can’t figure out what the heck the bookish mean in their writing, don’t blame yourself. Blame them. As some of the bookish actually do. (More last week in The Atlantic: “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing”.)

Critics can’t be too harsh. It’s really important that academics quit being obtuse. Because the better they write, the better they think.

And they’re the gatekeepers of new knowledge.

Reformers Within

Criticizing one’s fellows happens in every field. There’s always some insider who wants other insiders to change their nefarious ways.

The reform spirit lives!

Some scientists dish out the Ig Nobel Prize for research that makes normal people laugh then, hopefully, think. As the great sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut said, “Any scientist who can't explain to an eight-year old what he is doing is a charlatan.” Meanwhilethe science popularizer Steven Pinker in the Chronicle of Higher Education described academic writing as “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand”.

What’s Behind such Absurdity?

As the hip do with slang, the occupants of ivory towers want to exclude interlopers with their professional jargon and needlessly complex syntax—that even someone with a Ph.D. can’t understand.

Apologists say it’s not just a case of code to keep out those not in the know. There are other factors coming into play:

  • the process of getting a PhD is a hazing ritual; opaque writing is part of the torture.
  • there are more students than jobs for professors, so grads contrive ever more elaborate and arcane dissertations to stand out; the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes made this point hilariously; and
  • “brain training”: the years of study, out of touch with non-specialists, makes it difficult for specialists to unpack their ideas.

Excuses, excuses.

How Serious Is It?

Frank academics say they shouldn’t write to express but write to impress. Who’s impressed? It’s far more intellectually challenging to write clearly.

If you can’t write clearly, you can’t think clearly.

The problem is bigger than laymen not understanding academics, or even academics not understanding each other. It’s this: if you can’t write clearly, you can’t think clearly.

If those people who get to work in pleasant environments for just a few hours a week doing little more than spouting their opinions to young students whose lives they can ruin while living off the largess of the taxpayer had to write sentences shorter than this one, then not only would they be fair to and considerate of those who make their lives so cushy, but they might also become better researchers and discover something of use to the rest of society.

Situation Improved?

A few egg-heads do try to raise the bar. Crusader Annetta Cheek—ex academic, current bureaucrat—co-founded the Center for Plain Language. With friends, she had introduced the 2010 Plain Writing Act.

To reach more people, the news site TheConversation.com “sources” (pardon the jargon) news from academia; academics get the byline, but the stories are edited by journalists. The Conversation, which offers articles by 1,500 academics from 300 institutions, gets hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month, mostly through word of mouth and social media.

And if passing a law can change human behavior … in Congress there’s a new bill that calls for bureaucrats to write regulations in clear language. Success at that endeavor would definitely be worthy of a Nobel—and not an Ig one.

© Text Copyright Jeffery J. Smith rights reserved.
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