December 1, 2009

"I am now part of the conspiracy to intentionally make simple ideas obscure and complex."

An economist makes the incomprehensible comprehensible and then recomplicated it to the point where even he couldn't understand it. And, he says, he'll probably do it again.

***

I lost my patience with unnecessarily complicated writing a long time ago. Life is too short to give parts of it away to careerists who are bolstering their résumés and reputations with scholarly writing that takes extra time to read because, as you go along, you have to undo the obfuscation that the writer seems to have generated to give the appearance of depth to ideas that could be stated simply and crisply.

40 comments:

MadisonMan said...

Also a member of the conspiracy to intentionally split infinitives.

vbspurs said...

What? Althouse will no longer dig into her favourite pomo authors like Roland Barthès? Shame.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

wv: spilitis! When butterfingers trip and fall.

Bissage said...

If I'm understanding correctly, at least with this guy there's eventually a reward for the effort. The problem for me has always been one of pessimism.

Paddy O. said...

Sheesh, Anne, you could have at least written me privately first.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann, one of the most important theologians of the last 50 years, noted once that if you can't explain your theological position in a paragraph that can be read by most anyone then you probably don't understand it yourself.

Something like that at least. I don't feel a need to footnote blog comments.

It's really true. Theology is overwhelmed with the obscure and complex--much of it piling on top of the already obscure and complex. Keeps away the riffraff I suppose.

That's one reason I like blogs and forums--it makes me try to explain myself in a way that actually communicates.

A totally--well maybe not totally--unrelated topic. I'd love to hear some Althousia commentary on the recently published Manhattan Declaration.

traditionalguy said...

You are not sufficiently valuing obfuscation. That is the secret encoding which creates all of the perks and priviledges of the Priestly Class that alone can decode it. Katie Couric can expose anyone not glib with encoding and decoding by a few questions. The self-evident Crowd are simpletons like the farmer Tom Jefferson lecturing the King of England in 1776.

vbspurs said...

Manhattan Declaration.

I tried reading it, but if the purpose of the document is not stated by the second paragraph, at LEAST, it loses my interest. The raping of babies in Rome, Papal Edicts, and William Wilberforce tell me nothing about this clarion call to conscience.

So the answer is, what is about?

DADvocate said...

the obfuscation that the writer seems to have generated to give the appearance of depth to ideas...

When I run into obfuscation in writing, I immediately know the author is trying to appear learned or insightful when he/she isn't. My favorite advice for writing was given by a professor when I was in college: "concisely and precisely."

Paddy O. said...

Victoria, so what you're saying it's pretty relevant to this present post.

It's basically an assertion of freedom of conscience in holding particular conservative positions. A bit of a "here we stand" declaration, one that uses some interesting political/historic foundations.

"While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions."

Ricardo said...

Every time someone tells me they're not, they are.

Sofa King said...

Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

henry.woodbury said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry said...

I'm going to paraphrase this story from memory, so apologies for what I get wrong.

Physicist Richard Feynman was once asked a question by a Caltech colleague about a particular aspect of quantum physics. Feynman said, "Interesting question. I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it."

Later he came back to the colleague and admitted failure. "I can't simplify it enough for freshman. That means we don't really understand it."

traditionalguy said...

Paddy...You could more precisely say that the Manhatten Declaration is the Christian Church's attempt to resume its role as salt and light in the world after 70 years of silence. That is encouraging.

Paddy O. said...

Tradguy, exactly!

And thanks for being salt and light to my obscure and complex.

Fred4Pres said...

Charles Krauhammer schools Andrew Sullivan on reading comprehension.

Ouch. Double Ouch. Ouch.

Paddy O. said...

What is interesting to me--and what I thought might be interesting to our salon hostess--is the strong, repeated assertion of freedom of conscience argued from a conservative religious perspective.

Roger Williams made this exact same stand in mid=1600s, but there is great debate about how much actual influence he had during the crafting of the 1st amendment. Jefferson approached the same position from an entirely different religious perspective.

Recent emphasis has quite strongly trumpeted Jefferson, with both sides often forgetting the earlier religious argument.

mariner said...

Henry,

I like that Feynman story.

Another Feynman story is from a social event. Feynman was asked to explain quantum electrodynamics in a few sentences.

He snorted and said that if he could do that it wouldn't have been worth a Nobel Prize.

Andy said...

I lost my patience with unnecessarily complicated writing a long time ago.

Was that before or after you gave up any pretense of being a serious academic?

Prosqtor said...

I am sure Andy cut Ann to the quick there. Ann, how can you ever survive?

I am really sad for the sociologists. Obviously, Ms. Althouse shall never read anything written by them again.

john said...

Fred,

Feynman at Caltech prepared a series of undergraduate classes after he became convinced that physics wasn't being taught correctly at that level and undergrads were being deprived of the ability to move into the more advanced concepts. So began the Feynman Lectures.

Soon after the lectures commenced, all the undergrads and most grad students dropped out because of the difficulty of the material, and eventually only the physics faculty attended.

So much for simplicity.

john said...

Henry -

That might be your story. Sorry.

john said...

I wish Krauthhamer had not dedicated an entire column to excoriating Andy. It just gives him more attention.

Henry said...

John - The story comes from the introduction to Feynman's Six Easy Pieces, a book derived from his freshman lectures. Apparently one of the problems with the course as Feynman prepared it week to week was a lack of problems that corresponded to the lectures.

Kirk Parker said...

Victoria,

Did you miss the boldfaced section heading that said "Preamble"?

I'm not much of a fan of that particular style of overly-formal manifesto, but it's not like we don't have a long, long tradition of that sort of thing. (For those in a hurry, "Preamble" is a synonym for "Please fast-forward to the next section.")

Lynne said...

Gail Hornstein wrote a piece about the spongy, obscure style so popular with acadmics recently. She's much more blunt in her assessment:

"We assume they're unable to grasp the subtlety of our thought. We think that writing for a broad audience requires "dumbing down" our arguments. But that's wrong. Popular audiences are tougher critics than fellow academics are."

This subject came up in a post I did about a month ago- Circling the Wagons Around the Ivory Tower. Thick, spongy writing affects more and more of our news since we have an Administration that prides itself on its academic accomplishments.

Lynne said...

Now that we have an Administration that likes to emphasize its connections to academia, this kind of thick, spongy writing is creeping into all kinds of policy statements and so forth.
I had to address this issue in a post called Circling the Wagons Around the Ivory Tower about a month ago. I found a great quote by Gail Hornstein:
"We assume they're unable to grasp the subtlety of our thought. We think that writing for a broad audience requires "dumbing down" our arguments. But that's wrong. Popular audiences are tougher critics than fellow academics are."

(Sorry if this is a double post. Computer issues today.)

t-man said...

I've notice quite a few commenters who may have missed Athouse's post explaining that she doesn't really like being addressed as A--.

Prosqtor said...

For some reason, the "name" issue reminds me of the Monty Python routine featuring a woman named "Anne Elk"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOzVkSFnKxI

However, I will henceforth refer to the proprietor of this fine blog as "Althouse" but I must confess that it is contrary to all I was taught as a child. Seriously, Professor, what do you prefer?

edutcher said...

Ann said...

I lost my patience with unnecessarily complicated writing a long time ago. Life is too short to give parts of it away to careerists who are bolstering their résumés and reputations with scholarly writing that takes extra time to read because, as you go along, you have to undo the obfuscation that the writer seems to have generated to give the appearance of depth to ideas that could be stated simply and crisply.

Meade may be her soulmate, but every once in a while, Ann seems to have crawled inside my head and taken up residence about 25 years ago.

I swear that what passes for erudite writing (and I slogged through Aquinas at the tender age of 20) is so thick even the writers really don't know what they've written by the time they're done.

Turgid prose, to the max!

WV "boutolds" Why you shouldn't be taking your life in your hands just so it can be slightly firmer.

(I know, couldn't resist)

bagoh20 said...

Take note turgid commenters. Ah, forget it, you have no idea who you are.

N said...

good point.

John Lynch said...

I feel like I have to say this.

Sometimes Althouse writes obscure and complicated posts. She's misunderstood all the time, even by people who aren't doing it willfully.

There.

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

I stopped reading this post at Life is too short to give parts of it away.....

chuck b. said...

I'm skeptical.

I don't know about econ, but in the physical sciences there are so many levels of journal sophistication (and prestige), you can always find a publisher for any well-told story, however large or small.

The writer is clear that his story is small. Did he really send it to the appropriate journals for review?

If you want to publish at the highest tier, it's hard to argue against the benefits of generalizing the model. And that's what those journals, and their readers, expect.

chuck b. said...

Now, I know there's a lot of academic blather, too. I'm not standing against that claim.

Ritmo Brasileiro said...

Life is too short to give parts of it away to careerists who are bolstering their résumés and reputations with scholarly writing that takes extra time to read because, as you go along, you have to undo the obfuscation that the writer seems to have generated to give the appearance of depth to ideas that could be stated simply and crisply.

Of course, AA doesn't have to worry about careerism because she has... TENURE!!! ONE OF THE ULTIMATE FORMS OF PROTECTION AGAINST HAVING TO JUSTIFY YOUR JOB!!! GO AA!!!

And keep those scholarly tomes coming along. Or not, as the case were.

Can I import this mindset into every job or should we all just become academics?

Iapetus said...

"she doesn't really like being addressed as A--"

That raises an interesting question: what does husband Meade call her if not A--? Surely not "Perfesser."

Michael A. Gottlieb said...

John wrote: "Feynman at Caltech prepared a series of undergraduate classes after he became convinced that physics wasn't being taught correctly at that level and undergrads were being deprived of the ability to move into the more advanced concepts. So began the Feynman Lectures. Soon after the lectures commenced, all the undergrads and most grad students dropped out because of the difficulty of the material, and eventually only the physics faculty attended."

Every bit of information in this statement is false: It was not Feynman's idea to reform the undergraduate physics curriculum at Caltech (it was Matt Sands' idea - it was also Sands' who thought of asking Feynman to teach the course, which took some convincing, of people in the Caltech physics department, and of Feynman, none of whom were keen on the idea initially), and it is a very popular myth that "all the undergrads and most grad students [sic] dropped out because of the difficulty of the material, and eventually only the physics faculty attended." First of all, it was a course for freshmen and sophomores, so no graduate students "dropped out." Secondly, though perhaps 20% of the students chose not to attend lectures, that is normal at Caltech (where lecture attendance is optional), and while many graduate students, post docs and occassionally faculty members dropped in to hear Feynman lecture, it was never the case (nor even nearly so) that these visitors outnumbered the students.

Henry responded to John: "Apparently one of the problems with the course as Feynman prepared it week to week was a lack of problems that corresponded to the lectures."

There was no such problem at Caltech, where the Feynman Lectures on Physics was used to teach Freshman and Sophomore physics for nearly a decade. Though Feynman only lectured and did not participate in the recitation sections where the students were assigned exercises, given tests, etc, other people (including Feynman's co-authors Leighton and Sands) did a very good job of that... and, in fact, Caltech (and also Leighton & Vogt) published Feynman Lectures Exercise books in the 1960s. Some of these exercises were recently republished in the book "Feynman's Tips on Physics." We are currently working on a new 4th volume for The Feynman Lectures that will include most of the published Feynman Lectures exercises - about 1000 of them, all together - published for the first time with answers and example solutions.

For more information about these issues please see: http://www.feynmanlectures.info/popular_misconceptions_about_FLP

Mike Gottlieb
Editor, Feynman Lectures on Physics Definitive Edition

Prosqtor said...

Man, you have to love the internet. Now THAT is a response to issues about the Feynman lectures. Here I want to recommend Feynman's book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!".

Surely You're Joking...