Two Decades After Sokal, Is Academic Writing Any Better?
Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.
The above is an excerpt from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s magnum opus, suitably titled: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein puts forth the fairly simple idea that the clarity of a thought or argument depends on the language we use. What’s ironic about the paragraph is that the thought behind the language is considerably simpler than the language used to express the thought.
This, in short, is what is wrong with academic writing. Many academics still operate under the flawed logic that good writing must be complex writing (or vice versa).
The Sokal Affair
This very theory was put to the test twenty years ago, when mathematics professor Alan Sokal sent in a purposefully incomprehensible article to the journal Social Text. His aim was to see whether the journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”
The article, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was indeed published in the spring/summer 1996 issue of Social Text. In the article, Sokal argued that quantum gravity and physical reality are social and linguistic concepts. One of the quotes from the article reads:
In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the [pi] of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.
Once it was published, Sokal revealed that the entire article was in fact a hoax. He called his paper “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations.”
Similar hoaxes have been performed throughout the years, and the Sokal Hoax was used as the basis of an experiment by sociologist Robb Willer at Stanford University. Willer got his students to read Sokal’s paper, telling them that it was either a paper written by another student or an eminent scholar. Willer found that the students who believed the paper was written by a renowned scholar rated it higher than those believing it was written by another student.
‘Explosion in a dictionary factory’
From 1995 to 1998, The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Award – much like the Bad Sex in Fiction Award but far less popular on a broad scale – was given to writers and academics whose work proved purposefully dense. One of the more notable winners was gender studies theorist Judith Butler, whose work, according to academic David Gauntlett, is like an explosion in a dictionary factory.
One single sentence from Butler’s work Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time was enough to make her the winner of the 1998 award:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Of this sentence, the late philosopher Dennis Dutton remarked that “it’s possibly the anxiety-inducing obscurity of such writing that has led Professor Warren Hedges of Southern Oregon University to praise Judith Butler as ‘probably one of the ten smartest people on the planet.’”
The complex work of academics and their unwillingness to write for a more lay audience is unsurprising to some commentators. Journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes that the academic industry “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience”, while philosophy professor Terrance Macmullan argues that “most intellectuals simply don’t bother trying to engage the public.”
Of course, not all academic work is designed to be written for a general audience, which is why academia is distinguished from other kinds of writing, such as journalism. Each industry has its own specific lingo, from medicine to law, complete with its own buzz words and terminology.
When the idea in question is relatively straightforward, however, there is no reason why clear communication can’t be used over jargon. As Gauntlett writes about Judith Butler, “if one takes the time to dig through the rubble, one finds that her ideas are actually quite straight-forward.”
It’s been 20 years since the Sokal Affair, but has academic writing progressed? That is, are academics any better at communicating to a wider audience, or to each other?
While some academics strive to keep academia a gated community, others, such as former academic Annetta Cheek, have developed initiatives to promote better communication. Cheek is the co-founder of the US non-profit Centre for Plain Language, which championed the 2010 Plain Writing Act, making it legally necessary for US government agencies to communicate clearly.
Writer Victoria Clayton notes that academics are now more willing to “call their colleagues out for being habitual offenders of opaque writing.” However, she concedes that “the battle to make clear and elegant prose the new status quo is far from won.”
For instance, the UTS Library Academic Writing Guide, released in February 2013, provides a checklist of requirements for academic writing. According to the guide, academic writing must be linear, informative, accurate, and complex, with essays “written using more complex grammar, vocabulary, and structures.”
It advises academics that:
Instead of two short sentences, use more complex sentence structures.
The demand to be deliberately complex is sutured into the very fabric of academic life. But complexity shouldn’t be confused for intellect. Writing in a more straight-forward way does not necessarily mean compromising on quality; as George Orwell outlined in his essay Politics and the English Language: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
While academia is indeed a specialist area like any other, ideas that are of importance to society at large – gender, race, equality, health, democracy – deserve to be discussed in a coherent manner.