Why Not Just Say That?

Why are young scholars afraid to write understandable prose?

Post-doc writes in draft paper: “Conceptually, it seems reasonable to argue that bi-interactional similarity facilitates cohesion in incipient affiliates of Alcoholics Anonymous by triggering likeability and cohesion in self and observer, thereby infusing social and individual identity with a subjective sense of connection”.

Me, scribbling note to post-doc in margin: “Does this mean that people like AA more if the people at the meeting are like them? If so, why not just say that?”.

I have had these exchanges with young scholars more times than I can count. I understand fully why they don’t “just say that”. They have been trained to believe that the fewer the people who comprehend you, the more scholarly you are. They have been taught to value lingo over clarity. And they believe — accurately — that their career success depends in no small measure on impressing other people who write in the same impenetrable style which they are trying to emulate.

But I go on writing my “Why not just say that?” comment year after year. I don’t do it because I expect to be listened to right away, but because I hope that when these brilliant young people are on the other side of career security, they will remember dimly that someone, somewhere told them it really is okay to let other people understand what you think.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

37 thoughts on “Why Not Just Say That?”

    1. You are right and I do that. I also as an editor stand up for those people who write “normal” and get peer reviewers saying “The tone of this article is not sufficiently academic”.

      1. When I was an editor at a popular-science publication, I and the other staff members used to have problems with expert authors on a regular basis. Even when they acknowledged that they were writing for half a million mostly nonspecialist readers, some of them had trouble abandoning wording that sounded “more professional” to them. And some came right out and said they didn’t care whether anyone but their colleagues understood it, they were just doing it for the CV points. So even after people are professionally secure, they don’t abandon their insecurity about this.

        (Those were, luckily, the minority; other academics were anywhere from amenable to delighted to have things in plain language.)

        1. I was once shown a manuscript for a leading popular science magazine that ran sixty pages (for what had been commissioned as a three thousand word piece) and opened with the immortal lead “See Figure 1.”

  1. Abstract of a published paper by Kimmo Eriksson, located via the Freakonomics site:

    Mathematics is a fundamental tool of research. Although potentially applicable in every discipline, the amount of training in mathematics that students typically receive varies greatly between different disciplines. In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject). Participants were presented with the abstracts from two published papers (one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology). Based on these abstracts, participants were asked to judge the quality of the research. Either one or the other of the two abstracts was manipulated through the inclusion of an extra sentence taken from a completely unrelated paper and presenting an equation that made no sense in the context. The abstract that included the meaningless mathematics tended to be judged of higher quality. However, this “nonsense math effect” was not found among participants with degrees in mathematics, science, technology or medicine.

    As I recall, somebody else carried out a study presenting for publication an identical analysis of a problem (was it in ecomomics?) in two versions, with simple and advanced math. The latter was more successful.

    One of the main payoffs of the Humboldt doctrine of combining teaching and research is to counteract the research comuunity’s bias towards peer-bonding obscurity. Blogging is even better.

    1. Or to put it in plain English:

      There is no better cure for physics envy than a decent physics education.

    2. I have always tried to write clearly and with a minimum of jargon. I particularly thank my Cell Phys professor for that: part of our lab was to harvest tissues from a surplus rat from the psych department. One live-but-soon-to-be-dead rat per student. In my notebook write-up I said something about sacrificing the rat at whatever time it was. She wrote: “Sacrifice? Where was the altar?!? You *killed* it.”

  2. Thank you. Perhaps when we give out Ph.D.s we should also give out a coupon certifying their potential to receive an additional honorary degree: Doctor of Inhumane Letters. Or, as Barnum would say: This way to the egress.

  3. Somewhat to my surprise, in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow,” I just read yesterday that it was academics who were most likely to read highfalutin wordy language and feel that it was a cover for ignorance.

    Wisdom of experience there?

  4. Maybe more context could clear this up, but it seems to me that this writer produced this sentence based on the terminology of carefully operationalized variables. It seems she or he was simply reporting what the data represented within the specified categories. As such, this critique–at least on its face–seems unfair. If what you want is some nice, folksy, Strunk & White common sense, you should not raise these sorts of expectations from academic journals featuring quantitative assessments of data in relation to carefully worded hypotheses.

    1. but it seems to me that this writer produced this sentence based on the terminology of carefully operationalized variables.

      I can only judge by having actually read the paper. What is your judgment based on?

      1. Kieth, I guess the implied “maybe” slipped under your careful eye, or else you are in a foul mood.

  5. Gee, the quote seemed pretty darn impressive to me. He did use “cohesion” twice in the same sentence, though — that must get a demerit or two. Maybe if we substitute “orbital attraction” for the second “cohesion”? And instead of “individual identity” we make it “individuated identity” — yeah, that fixes it right up!

  6. Keith, your hypothesis

    They have been trained to believe that the fewer the people who comprehend you, the more scholarly you are.

    …is part of the cause, and maybe all of the cause in a field like yours.

    But I’m afraid that in my field, political theory, there are at least two other causes.
    (1) The writers actually don’t know what they think in plain language; what they are expressing obscurely is not a simple idea, as above, but no idea, or a false one. (That was what Sokal aimed to show. I don’t think that contemporary so-called “theory” is all bullsh*t, but I do think its style makes is possible for both writers and readers to forget there’s a difference between wisdom and bullsh*t.) And:
    (2) The writers have read so much awful prose that they have honestly forgotten what clear, effective writing is. I know a great many political philosophers who think not only that Rawls’ *A Theory of Justice* is true but also that it is beautifully written. Ponderous philosophical jargon, with unspecified subjects and in the passive voice, sounds to them like music.

    1. Andy: Your comment that some people can’t be understand by others because they themselves do not even know what they are saying reminds me of a painfully funny, true story. I was listening to a talk by a professor and he kept using this abstruse word over and over (I forget what, let’s say it was olegagarodacity). During the question period, someone in the audience said, meekly and apologetically “I’m sorry but you kept using this word olegagarodacity and I don’t know what it means so I couldn’t understand you. What does it mean?”

      He responded, with evident irritation “Frankly, I’ve never bothered to look it up! Next question.”

      1. Yowza! Busted! That must have been embarrassing.

        Reminds me of John Madden. Anyone remember his play-by-play commentary? It always seemed to me that he tried to work in a new vocabulary word every game. (Was he aspiring to Howard Cosell’s commentary style? If so, he sure was a long ways off!) He would repeat some four or five syllable word several times during the game, often two or three times in the same sentence, and it often seemed like it was either shoe-horned into the context or inappropriately used.

    2. Andrew:
      I pretty much agree with what you say, and I would add a third point. For most of us, plain English is far harder to write than jargon. I can write in my own field’s jargon as fast as my fingers allow, and my peers can follow what I say. But expressing the same thing in simple English requires revision after revision after revision. It can be done. It should be done. But for most of us, the task is a hard one.

      Oh, and speaking as a language prude, I spell “bullshit” with an “i”, not an asterisk. It is the context, not the asterisk, that makes a usage appropriate.

    3. The writers have read so much awful prose that they have honestly forgotten what clear, effective writing is.

      In my (technical) field, it’s worse than that: Students may never have had good writing pointed out to them, and so it’s less “forgetting” than “never really knowing”. Good writing looks easy to do, but it’s not.

  7. “Does this mean that people like AA more if the people at the meeting are like them? If so, why not just say that?”

    Could it be because that is not worth saying? Could it go without saying that, in any context, people like being around people who are like them? Maybe the obfuscation is to conceal the obviousness of the ideas being expressed.

    1. I mean to conceal from the writer as much as from his or her readers. I am echoing Andrew Sabl’s point (1) above.

    2. Well, I don’t think common sense or intuition alone is going to tell us whether people prefer homogeneity to diversity or vice versa… Easy to understand once you know its true doesn’t mean it’s obviously true.

  8. Here is a related thought from law:

    My father was a lawyer and he once told me that in law school students are taught to write legal statements in three phases. First they are taught to say what they mean. Then they are taught to revise the wording so that the meaning cannot be misinterpreted. Then, finally, to revise the wording so the meaning cannot be deliberately and willfully misinterpreted.

    The last stage is where “legalese” comes from.

    One purpose of very technical language (with lots of jargon) is to make the meaning unambiguous. “Plain English” can be very imprecise.

      1. I am skeptical of laws requiring the use of plain English, because the tests for compliance are very inexact and often artificial. I am, however, a big fan of its use, including in law. I take the point made by dgm’s father, but it is very often used as an excuse for bad writing. Much of the ‘precision’ of traditional legal writing arises from pre-19th century models created when solicitors were paid by the word. They ‘sound right’ to lawyers, but they are not necessarily clear or accurate. Taking the time to write to avoid wilful misintepretation does not require the result to be unreadable by non-lawyers. I have had clients pleasantly surprisedd that they understood the documents I drafted for them, but they were not disappointed and they paid their bills.

        1. Although I have many times seen stated the “fact” that lawyers were once paid by the word I have yet to find a source for this claim. Even my good friend Google hasn’t helped.

          Does anyone have a solid source or two?

  9. A lot of this flows from the role of “theory” in the social sciences. Journal publications, which in many fields now essentially have to be heavily quantitative, are required to be embedded in “theory.” Much theory is very simple, often trivial, ideas, which have to be dressed up in unusual language in order to make them seem original and worthwhile. So in my field the idea that you get in trouble because you’re around people who get in trouble becomes “differential association,” and the idea that crime is caused by jealousy toward people with more than you have becomes “anomie.” This sets the tone that one can’t say anything worthwhile plainly, and that things said plainly are not worthwhile. Pile on a couple of generations of publishing and “theorizing” and you get the kind of stuff Keith quoted. And it is absolutely the case that violating these conventions will get you ostracized, which younger scholars trying to make a career understand with deadly clarity.

      1. I remember a phrase of Barrington Moore in some political theory book or other, probably written about 1960, in which he described the process as ‘making the obvious precise’. It was not a compliment.

  10. I think it was Bertrand Russell who advised the young scholar to write his first work in impenetrable jargon for his peers so that he would later be free to write as clearly as she wanted to? Good advice. Probably. But that sentence is just bad English, period.

  11. In my academic life we used to call this ” plonking”‘ taking something either painfully obvious or trite and rendering it virtually opaque. Some of these formulations are really quite skillful and require considerable effort to unpack, after which you are left with not much to chew on.

  12. I’ve probably been permanently turned off of much of philosophical writing for this very reason. I have to admit though that I have a tendency to tie myself up in knots sometimes in my own writing. It’s an understandable failing, and Keith’s admonishments can’t be said often enough.

    1. Writing simply and clearly is a lot harder than writing thickly and elliptically. John Kenneth Galbraith is said to have spoken of “the effortless simplicity of the sixth draft.” Whether he really said it or not, it’s right.

  13. In mathematical writing, the problem is not so much that authors like to use long words for the sake of it (at least, not when stating definite results – the weasel words start appearing when the author makes conjectures or tries to explain why the reader should care about the result), but rather it’s that so many everyday words have acquired a precise technical meaning (e.g. ‘simple’, ‘smooth’, ‘flat’ and so on) that it is potentially confusing to use them in their mundane sense.

    On top of this, sometimes the extensive jargon and notation is too successful at compressing a complex argument into a few lines of words and symbols. Novice mathematicians are often worried that it will come across as patronising if they spend a lot of time defining terms and recalling ‘well-known’ theorems, with the result that they assume far too much background knowledge on the part of the audience, especially in talks at seminars and conferences.

  14. Last week I had two academics in the field of robotics deny that (1) the material is inaccessible due to the fees required by the technical publishers and (2) the material is incomprehensible due to the academic “language” used.

    I was suggesting working on a book, or books, that would make the material more accessible.

  15. So this will feel like a thread hijack, but since there are so many academics here and it’s on my mind, I thought I’d ask: what are the academic ethics around self-plagiarism in the Humanities?

    Long story short: I want to publish similar pieces in two different journals. The framing of the argument and the titles are different, but some of the ideas, references, and even language are the same (since these are tied directly to my research.) Is this acceptable, or do I have to rewrite one of them from scratch even though they overlap considerably? The pieces are non-scientific and not data driven. They’re Humanities pieces interpreting the history of a narrow series of events.

    1. First question. Why do you want to do this? Is the new information or theoretical orientation important enough to warrant this and if so, then rewrite the piece around those new contributions.

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