December 6, 2013

"There’s the kind of boneheaded explanation, which is that a lot of people with PhDs are stupid..."

"... and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be," said David Foster Wallace in an old interview.
I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. And that’s how in disciplines like academia—or, I’ve read some really good legal prose, but when it’s really, really horrible (IRS Code stuff)—I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously. It’s a guess.
More of that sort of thing in "Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing," a newly published book.

58 comments:

Dr Weevil said...

Posted at 3:29am - is this a metapost about the previous post, showing that second sleep doesn't always show up on time? (I'm in Germany, so it's 10:29am here.)

Dr Weevil said...

By the way, did you know your URL is different here? I started typing in althouse.blogspot.com and the autocomplete sent me to althouse.blogspot.de.

Larry Nelson said...

OK, someone has to post this:

“There are some ideas so preposterous that only an intellectual could believe them.”
George Orwell

Larry Nelson said...

Also, it's about 9:20AM in Brazil, that's why I'm up "early"

Larry Nelson said...

In a similar vein, most technical manuals in the telecommunications industry are written by staff engineers to impress their engineering managers in the corporate ladder game, not to illuminate an end user or technician trying to debug a problem.
Just sayin.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

There is a profound difference between intelligence and mere intellect. Those attempting to demonstrate their intellect with abundant and fancy words are merely displaying their own lack of intelligence, for truly intelligent people make their ideas and information clearly understandable.

In essence they're attempting to show that they're the smartest person in the room. In my world, if I'm the smartest person in the room ... I'm in the wrong room.

Michael said...

All writers of critical studies exhibit the kind of writing he describes. It is a way to tie bullshit to stilts.

mesquito said...

You're only as smart as the crowd you run with.

tim maguire said...

The biggest reason there's a lot of bad writing out there is that there are a lot of bad writers out there. Academic writing seems to stand out because, not only is the writing bad, but the target audience is different and the target audience is receptive to this style of writing.

There is an observation about culture that it gets its most extreme or unusual aspects (think 18th century hairdos in French court, or women's bound feet in the court of the Chinese emperor) through the gradual exaggeration over time of particular desired features (extravagant hairstyle in France, small feet in China).

When what is new today becomes normal tomorrow; the drive to stand out requires pushing one step further.

Same thing here, obscure academic writing has developed over decades of assigning value to proper application of jargon.

It's a specific example of a natural and universal tendency.

tim maguire said...

BTW, althouse.blogspot.ca even if I type in althouse.blogspot.com

surfed said...

It's been my experience going through life that some people are born smart, some people are born in the middle and some are born stupid. You can educate stupid people but that doesn't make them smart. It just makes them educated. I know many a person with advanced degrees out the wazoo stupider than dirt. And I know high school drop outs who are as smart as a whip.

SJ said...

There are some fields in which it is hard to tell poseurs from experts.

There are other fields in which it is easy...

For fun and giggles, check out this comic.

great Unknown said...

Stripping the jargon and bias from Wallace's preferred "smarter thing to say", it's the same as the "boneheaded explanation."

Except that the "boneheaded explanation" is more concise and honest.

tim in vermont said...

The idea of language as a display behavior is an old one.

Henry said...

tim maquire wrote: The biggest reason there's a lot of bad writing out there is that there are a lot of bad writers out there. Academic writing seems to stand out because, not only is the writing bad, but the target audience is different and the target audience is receptive to this style of writing.

There's also the fact that (a) discipline proficiency and literary proficiency don't necessarily overlap and (b) Intelligent people are ignorant of their blindspots outside of their domain.

Combine this with Wallace's explanation and you have the argument that academic writing is at once produced by the insecure and overconfident.

But I would offer one out for the academic writer, at least for the experimentalist: it is hard to write strong dynamic prose that is also littered with caveats. Yet all research is the offspring of special conditions. Researchers are dishonest if they don't insist upon their narrow case.

Paul said...

Ann,

Some PhDs are book smart but street stupid.

That is, they have no common sense.

And that explains Obamacare and most of the Federal Government.

Bob Ellison said...

I've ordered the paperback. Looks very interesting.

I took a modern art course in college. It was intended for non-arts majors like me. Everyone called it "Spots and Dots". The professor gave scintillating lectures, but my TF was of the Greenberg school and deeply into Marxist art criticism. We had were assigned 5-page papers weekly, and I kept getting B minuses in my attempts at honest discussion of the works in class.

One week I deliberately dropped all pretense of honesty and simply mimicked the jargon-filled shit that filled our textbooks, and my TF was thrilled. I got an A. She said I was really on to something. My essay had no meaning at all; it was really just a joke on my part. So I kept writing like that and did fine in the course.

TML said...

I've posted this before on Althouse. Check out Dennis Dutton's (RIP) jargon contest (Google him) and read this epic Chomsky quote

http://www.stephenhicks.org/2013/11/27/chomsky-on-postmodernism/

Hagar said...

"You do not need to know what you are writing about; you only need to know how to write."

(Apologies to J.P. Morgan)

Bob R said...

One thing that explains a lot of the insecurity in academia is the distribution of intelligence. This is an exaggeration, but you can think of the distribution as the chopped off right tail of a bell curve. Most of the people in academia are the dumbest people in academia. (I like Bart Hall's comment at 5:54am.)

Henry said...

Bob R wrote: Most of the people in academia are the dumbest people in academia.

That's Bernard Shaw level brilliant.

pm317 said...

I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously.

From my experience in academia, this is 99% of them mimicking the top 1%. They take the scraps from the 1% and try to make a life out of it. It is more that the ideas of the 99% are not even good, not that they lack seriousness because they don't follow a certain style or jargon. It goes deeper. They are pretenders and they have to keep up the phony facade.

Hagar said...

"We all know what B.S. stands for. Well, M.S. is More of the Same, and PhD. is Piled Heap Deep."

Peter said...

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

(This may be a paraphrase of the Einstein quote, "It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.")

Which arguably is either a simplification or an elaboration of Occam's razor.

In any case, I don't see why it can not be applied in many other fields- but especially to non-fiction writing (including academic papers).

Larry Nelson said...

SJ said...

There are some fields in which it is hard to tell poseurs from experts.

There are other fields in which it is easy...


Which may be why William F. Buckley said this:
"I would prefer to be governed by the first 100 people listed in the Cambridge phone directory than by the faculty of Harvard".


Then there is this, which may apply to anyone opining outside of their field of expertise.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

Quasimodo said...

To err is human, to really foul things up takes a computer ... but to obliterate sanity only requires an intellectual.

Robert Cook said...

"And that explains Obamacare...."

Not at all. What explains Obamacare is that it purports to be a means of providing access to insurance to those who have previously been unable to obtain it, when it is really a means of delivering millions of new (captive) customers to the private insurers.

(It's the same sort of idea behind television: it purports to be a medium of entertainment, bringing news and teleplays to the masses, when it is actually a medium for delivering the viewers to businesses selling products and services via advertising. Or, as has been said before, the programming is the lure, the necessary evil that interrupts the commercials, which are the essential thing.)

Hagar said...

Boneheaded and stupid is not necessarily the same thing.

Hagar said...

F. ex., just consider Robert Cook ...

pm317 said...

Going back to my previous comment and the 99%ers, now you see how you got Obama elected -- it is all these nitwits trying to fit in, herding after the brand name.

MayBee said...

Google switches you to the Blogger address of the country you are in.

MayBee said...

Just as it switches you to the google search address of the country you are in.

m stone said...

Credit David Foster Wallace for his insight. He was brilliant in his way but plagued with demons.

Not for everyone. But then who is?

I recommend his unfinished, reconstructed Pale King novel over the ponderous Infinite Jest for a taste of that brilliance.

Michael K said...

" for truly intelligent people make their ideas and information clearly understandable."

This is why Richard Feynmann decided to teach a freshman course in Physics. He decided that they needed to understand basic principles before going on to more esoteric detail. His course was only taught for a few years but it was crowded with upper division students and even young faculty. Someone recorded the lectures and it lives on in books and tapes that he never intended to make.

Thus, it was decided to reconfigure the first physics course offered to students at Caltech, with the goal being to generate more excitement in the students. Feynman readily agreed to give the course, though only once. Aware of the fact that this would be a historic event, Caltech recorded each lecture and took photographs of each drawing made on the blackboard by Feynman.

Based on the lectures and the tape recordings, a team of physicists and graduate students put together a manuscript that would become The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Although Feynman's most valuable technical contribution to the field of physics may have been in the field of quantum electrodynamics, the Feynman Lectures were destined to become his most widely read work.

The Feynman Lectures are considered to be one of the best and most sophisticated college level introductions to physics.[2] Feynman, himself, however, stated, in his original preface, that he was “pessimistic” with regard to the success with which he reached all of his students. The Feynman lectures were written “to maintain the interest of very enthusiastic and rather smart students coming out of high schools and into Caltech.” Feynman was targeting the lectures to students who, “at the end of two years of our previous course, [were] very discouraged because there were really very few grand, new, modern ideas presented to them.” As a result, some physics students find the lectures more valuable after they obtain a good grasp of physics by studying more traditional texts. Many professional physicists refer to the lectures at various points in their careers to refresh their minds with regard to basic principles.


I can't think of another such example.

Pettifogger said...

"[V]ery often [legal jargon] stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously."

I like that. When a young and inexperienced lawyer, I worried that my writing did not look like that of other lawyers. I aped the style and quickly mastered it. A while later, I realized I had made a monumental mistake. I've worked long and hard to shed the bad habit.

John Lynch said...

Stupid is as stupid does. Whatever the motivation, it's the action that counts.

I think that academics write a lot of papers that no one will ever read.

Levi Starks said...

Ann,
In reading your explanation of his explanation, I feel confident in saying that if you fully understood the complexity of his explanation you would no doubt see that you are the one of the ones he's talking about......

jacksonjay said...


Henry liked what Bob R said:

Bob R wrote: Most of the people in academia are the dumbest people in academia.

That's Bernard Shaw level brilliant.


Sounds like Yogi Berra to me! Brilliant!

Fritz said...

People with Ph.D.s are rarely stupid, but they are often obsessive compulsive on the subject of their expertise, and far too sure that their expertise in a small area makes the experts on everything.

EDH said...

"Oh joy, rapture, I've got a brain!"

Joe said...

Until recently ALL the PhD degreed computer engineers I worked with consistently put theory above experimental proof. Last year I worked with some guys with PhDs who were much more pragmatic (and universally admitted that while fun, their PhD program was a waste of time.)

RE: Feynman

At one point, I was majoring in design engineering. One summer, I took the physics course aimed at engineers and those going into physics. It was one of the best classes I've ever had virtue the teacher. He was normally the PhD academic advisor. Every summer, he taught the freshman physics aimed at physics majors. He threw the syllabus out the window, made up his own tests and really taught.

By contrast, the subsequent class was taught by the normal teacher. It was by-the-book, boring and I learned nothing. (This was one of those teachers who insisted you show all your work in solving a problem even if there wasn't any! So you learned to make crap up just to avoid a B.)

Joe said...

BTW, my [retired] father has a PhD and yet manages to do awful things to his computers that amaze me. In part I think because he overthinks everything.

TosaGuy said...

Intelligent people know they don't know everything and don't pretend that they do.

Portia said...

If a PhD wrote a screed and no body read it, does it really exist?

I'd be willing to bet half of the stuff written never gets read even by the author.

Ann Althouse said...

"In reading your explanation of his explanation, I feel confident in saying that if you fully understood the complexity of his explanation you would no doubt see that you are the one of the ones he's talking about……"

I'm writing on this blog, not in the style of law review articles and judicial opinions. I'm specializing in cutting through that kind of crap.

Also, I didn't say a darned thing about what he said. If that counts as an explanation of his explanation than my writing style is some weird Zen nothingness, which is not the style of legal academics and won't get you anywhere.

Though it might get you nowhere.

Where you can write like David Foster Wallace.

Levi Starks said...

And I'm just having fun on the internet waiting for the bread I finished kneading to rise enough so it can go in the oven while I watch it snow outside.....

Stephen A. Meigs said...

I don't think excessive faith in one's group is about impressing fellow group members so much as impressing people outside the group. The people in your group are, by definition, in your group, and so convincing them that your group is better than some other group won't make you seem worse or better than themselves. True, people in your group may want you to love them more than people outside your group, but that may be balanced by (the more numerous though less particularly familiar) people outside your group wanting you to love them more than people inside your group.

There is a kind of patriotism in groups, but I'd say that is more about being professional or about serving the interests of the group than about convincing group members that group members are better than they are. The best service to one's group is good work. Take spectator fan sports, which is typically almost exclusively about groups. If you want to be a fan of a team, to get acceptance from fellow fans as a fan of that team, all you have to do basically is want the team to win enough to keep track of things, the measure of one's desire and interest in the team winning. True, there may arise certain dogmas that are exceptions. Let us see whether they arise from fans trying to impress fans or non-fans. For instance, I noticed when living in Maryland that when Cal Ripken broke the consecutive games played streak and later retired, he was almost treated like some sort of God by the media and, presumably, Orioles fans. I've nothing against him, but it seemed excessive compared to those who broke other records. But presumably the reason is that he was a stable hard-working person, and that is the sort of person that baseball fans need to convince skeptical others that baseball can represent, since people not fond of sports seem to think sports fans tend to be lazy and to drink too much (and drinking leads to instability). The deification of Ripken wasn't so much about impressing hard-working sober people in the group, even though I'm sure there are hard-working sober Orioles' fans, but about impressing hard-working sober people outside the group that Orioles can be consistently hard-working, I'm guessing.

Crimso said...

As is my wont, I give you a Frank Herbert quote:

"In all major socializing forces you will find an underlying movement to gain and maintain power through the use of words. From witch doctor to priest to bureaucrat it is all the same. A governed populace must be conditioned to accept power-words as actual things, to confuse the symbolized system with the tangible universe. In the maintenance of such a power structure, certain symbols are kept out of reach of common understanding--symbols such as those dealing with economic manipulation or those which define the local interpretation of sanity. Symbol-secrecy of this form leads to the development of fragmented sub-languages, each being a signal that its users are accumulating some form of power."

Terry said...

Obama's letter to HLR, written in 1990:
http://hlrecord.org/?p=11263

Obama wrote this as a 3L and president of HLR.
"I would therefore agree with the suggestion that in the future, our concern in this area ia [sic] most appropriately directed at any employer who would even insinuate that someone with Mr. Chen’s extraordinary record of academic success might be somehow unqualified for work in a corporate law firm, or that such success might be somehow undeserved. Such attributes speak less to the merits or problems of affirmative action policies, and more to the tragically deep-rooted ignorance and bias that exists in the legal community and our society at large."

Drago said...

RC: "It's the same sort of idea behind television: it purports to be a medium of entertainment, bringing news and teleplays to the masses, when it is actually a medium for delivering the viewers to businesses selling products and services via advertising. Or, as has been said before, the programming is the lure, the necessary evil that interrupts the commercials, which are the essential thing."

Falling off my chair laughing.

Poor Cookie.

It really is a shame we can't have the quality programming available to those citizens in the peoples non-capitalist paradises of the Soviet Union (when it existed!), Cuba and North Korea, amongst others.

A tragedy really.



You really can't

Drago said...

Cookie, your comments are so reflexively marxist and immature I'm going to guess you are member in good standing of some academic (high school?) community.

n.n said...

While some language will be esoteric by necessity, the need for ego gratification should not be underestimated.

Alex said...

PhDs can easily outhustle a street pimp. I see it all the time!

Alex said...

n.n. - everyone else's ego but yours of course. You're just a humble guy.

Jason said...

It's like Althouse when she talks about gays!

n.n said...

Alex:

How is my ego relevant? Have I used language for leverage? Certainly. Have I benefited from its exploitation? Perhaps, but not in a tangible manner.

Anyway, I am just making a personal observation that esoteric knowledge can be expressed in two ways, with two reasons, which is complementary to Wallace's insight. At worst, it's redundant. At best, it confirms his experience. Another data point.

FullMoon said...

Lt. Colombo investigating murder at a Mensa type club;
How do you like that?. Here I am talking to the smartest people in the world, and I didn't even notice."

Robert Cook said...

"Cookie...I'm going to guess you are member in good standing of some academic (high school?) community."

Nope.