Jargon and obfuscation in academiaAcademics have long been accused of trading in convoluted and rarefied prose. Michel Foucault once went so far as to pillory French philosopher Jacques Derrida for employing a “terrorism of obscurantism” to win professional cachet. Nicholas Kristof, leveling a similar claim in his recent New York Times Op-edlambasted academics for writing poorly and making their work irrelevant in “real world” policy debates. The consequence, he contends, is that researchers who have committed their lives to a particular topic end up remaining silent in public discourse.
For Kristof, the problem with academic research is that academics study arcane subjects and obscure useful ideas with turgid language. To support the first claim, Kristof notes that the number of policy-oriented articles published in The American Political Science Review has decreased from 20 to 0.3 percent since the 1930s. Many fields, he argues, are specializing in this way.
Although some work is unnecessarily abstruse, some research is simply too advanced to be understood by most laypeople. Cutting-edge research—in biology and quantum physics for example— may be impenetrable now, but it will eventually move mountains in its field. Einstein’s theory of relativity may not have made sense to the average person in 1916, but now we can hardly imagine physics without it. No one should dilute the quality of frontier work just to squeeze it into public debates.
We are more concerned with Kristof’s accusations that academics intentionally shroud otherwise clear thinking in bombastic language. In some cases, deliberately bad writing is the result of power struggles within the university—namely, the need for disciplines without presumed relevance (like some humanities fields) to use convoluted language as a way to signal importance.
We worry that some disciplines may unnecessarily write themselves into obscurity. The 1996 Sokal affair, in which a New York University professor published a hoax article in the journal Social Text, demonstrated that academic communities might accept junk research if it fits certain linguistic conventions and ideological biases. Interdisciplinarity might worsen this phenomenon by creating more spaces for bombast and obfuscation.
The incentives within academia may be misaligned. As Kristof notes, “A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process.”
Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor, has responded to Kristof arguing that academics are absent from the public sphere not because they are disinterested or disdainful, but because publishing bottlenecks and the onerous tenure process suck away their time. Robin’s retort reminds us that discourse is shaped not by a handful of public intellectuals, but by a larger system that determines who does and does not get to speak.
Exclusivity for its own sake undermines a primary goal of academic research: to make progress in a field for the benefit of society. Academics are some of the most useful resources for policymakers, and both have an interest in working together without sacrificing their standards. Although academia has found an anti-intellectual American public to be a difficult partner, it must do its best to become a voice in public debates.