Academia Still Has a Terrible Gobbledygook Problem

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Maybe you’ve heard of the Sokal hoax. In 1996, the physicist Dr. Alan Sokal wrote a bunch of intentionally gibberishy gobbledygook about how quantum gravity might actually just be a social construct and submitted it to the postmodern journal Social Text. His goal, he wrote, was to see whether such a journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” The answer was a resounding yes. Social Text published the loftily titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” and Sokal blew the hoax open in an article in Lingua Franca (that’s where the “salted” quote comes from).

In 2010, the urban-policy scholar Dr. Peter Dreier of Occidental College tried a similar stunt, albeit on a much more modest scale. He just came clean in an American Prospect article that is very much worth reading in full, and his story suggests that in certain corners of academia, things haven’t improved since 1996 — if you mash together a bunch of jargon into a giant ball of nothing, your peers will still stroke their chin and nod at your erudition.

Dreier writes that in 2010 he was invited to a panel in Japan “sponsored by the Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies.”

Here’s how the description read:

This panel addresses absences—the gaps, silences, and remains within the construction of knowledge and ignorance—in order to contribute to an ongoing STS dialogue; one that has roots in Bloor’s “sociology of error” to more recent work in agnotology (Proctor and Scheibinger) and in residues (Bowker and Star). From feminist and postcolonial theory, we have learned to be continually vigilant about the dynamics and non-dynamics in knowledge construction and application. This panel addresses these negations, unseen crevices, deletions, and leftovers from multiple perspectives. Its aims to identify and theorize some of those areas that demand our vigilance in order to broaden and provide systematic ways to understand how absences and gaps are a continual part of social interactions and our STS studies. Interested Presenters: Please send us a brief abstract and title of your talk with your name, email and affiliation. We would like contributions no later than 15 January to compile and submit the session.

“I admit I had no idea what any of this meant,” writes Dreier. “But I took that as a challenge. So I wrote a few hundred words of complete nonsense and in January 2010 submitted it to the panel organizers under the title, ‘Music, Religion, Politics, and Everyday Life: The Tensions of Utopianism and Pragmatism in Movements for Change.’”

Dreier went Full Sokal in his description — try to read it all in one breath:

From the scribes and rabbis who wrote the original Torah, to the troubadour-activists who sang “Which Side Are You On?” and “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy,” to the gangbangers and hip-hoppers who create contemporary street rap, the relationship between culture, politics, religion and everyday life has been poorly understood. As Bloor observes: “In fact sociologists have been only too eager to limit their concern with science to its institutional framework and external factors relating to its rate of growth or direction this leaves untouched the nature of the knowledge thus created.” There is an obvious tension between romanticism and reality, between humanity and barbarism, between self-reflection and communal expression, which pervades both the written word and the oral tradition. Can a society promote utopianism and dystopianism simultaneously, while allowing its governing officials, whether military conquerors or democratically elected, to perform the necessary day-to-day functions of street-cleaning, sanitation, animal rescue, industrial production, hunting-and-gathering, maintaining law and order, and (what Heideger called the “organicity of intellectual work”) educating children and reproducing the next generation. We might call this a kind of scientism of contradiction, or the contradictions of scientific production, or the contradictory intellectual discipline of everyday life. In other words, can the rigors of so called “pure” intellectual work (including those of the priestly class and its modern counterparts), the artistry of craftwork (or the craft of artistry), and the degradations of subsistence agriculture, mining, factory work, and retail sales co-inhabit the same society without igniting the ticking time bomb of social implosion, as we’ve recently seen in riots in the French suburbs and in the ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles? How, in other words, does the globalization of both production and knowledge work (the so-called “Walmartization” of societies) challenge our ability to think clearly about what is true in contrast to what is delusion? Self-delusion and self-discipline inhibits the reflective self, the postmodern membrane, the ecclesiastical impulse forbidden by truth-seeking and sun worship, problematizing the inchoate structures of both reason and darkness, allowing knowledge, half-knowledge, and knowledgelessness to undermine and yet simultaneously overcome the self-loathing that overwhelms the Gnostic challenge facing Biblical scribes, folksingers, and hip-hop rappers alike. Sociologists ignore these topics at their peril.

It is important to emphasize that Dreier went out of his way for this to be a meaningless blurb. But it wasn’t meaningless enough, apparently — the proposal was accepted, and he was invited to Japan to present the paper. Not wanting to charge such a frivolous trip to his university, he decided against writing up an entire nonsensical paper to go with his nonsensical abstract.

The easy reaction here is to laugh. It’s insane that a professional academic conference accepted an abstract specifically written not to say anything. But as Dreier points out, there’s a cost to all this lofty jargon. “I am a professor with a Ph.D. in sociology who now teaches in a political science department and chairs a department of urban and environmental policy,” he writes. “In other words, I do not have strong disciplinary loyalties and think that the boundaries between many academic fields are pretty blurry. I believe that most social scientists — sociologists, historians, economists, anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists — should be able to read and understand most of what their fellow social scientists write, if only they would write in relatively clear prose.” It’s not a good sign, in other words, that Dreier can pick up academic writing pertaining to his main area of interest — cities — and have no idea what the hell is going on.

Then there are the bigger, broader issues with writing about vital issues in such a tanglebrush way. Dreier decries what he calls “the exponential growth of bad writing by academics, especially by those on the left”:

The problem of academic jargon is not confined to a single political or ideological wing, but it certainly dominates much of the writing by leftists in the social sciences and humanities. I consider myself a person of the left, and my research and writing—focusing on American politics, urban policy, social movements, and labor studies— generally explores issues of social justice and democracy. But I have little patience for much of what passes for left-wing academic writing in the social sciences and humanities, which emphasizes criticism (often called “deconstructing” or “problematizing” by academics) of conservative and liberal ideas and social institutions, but makes little or no attempt to figure out what to do to make things better. I also have little patience for the kind of embarrassingly obtuse writing style preferred by many postmodern and allegedly leftist academics that obscures more than it enlightens and is often a clever mask for being intellectually lightweight. Professor Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University made a similar point in an article published in the October 2005 issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology entitled, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” The Atlantic in March 2006 summarized Oppenheimer’s point thusly: “Insecure writers tend to reach for the thesaurus.”

Let’s keep this simple: Amen.