“[E]xisting pseudorandom and introspective approaches use pervasive algorithms to create compact symmetries. The development of interrupts would greatly amplify Byzantine fault tolerance. We construct a novel method for the investigation of online algorithms.”IEEE and Springer recently withdrew 120 papers that turned out to be random generated nonsense and Schadenfreude spread among the critics of commercial academic publishing. The internet offers a wide variety of random text generators, including the one used to create the now withdrawn Springer papers, called SciGen. The difficult part of creating random academic text is the grammar, not the vocabulary. If you start with a grammatically correct sentence it is easy enough to fill in technical language.
“[T]he effective diminution of the relevant degrees of freedom in the ultraviolet (on which morally speaking all approaches agree) is interpreted as universality in the statistical physics sense in the vicinity of an ultraviolet renormalization group fixed point. The resulting picture of microscopic geometry is fractal-like with a local dimensionality of two.”
Take as example the above sentence
“The difficult part of creating random text is the grammar, not the vocabulary.”And just replace some nouns and adverbs:
“The difficult part of creating completely antisymmetric turbulence is the higher order correction, not the parametric resonance.”Or maybe
“The difficult part of creating parametric turbulence is the completely antisymmetric resonance, not the higher order correction.”Sounds very educated, yes? I have some practice with that ;o)The problem is that if you don’t know the technical terms you can’t tell if the relations implied by the grammar make sense. There is thus, not so surprisingly, a long history of cynics abusing this narrow target group of academic writing, and this cynicism spreads rapidly now that academic writing has become more widely available. With the open access movement there swells the background choir chanting that availability isn’t the same as accessibility. Nicholas Kristof recently complained about academic writing in an NYT op-ed:
“[A]cademics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.”Kristof calls upon academics to better communicate with the public, which I certainly support. At the same time however he also claims professional language is unnecessary and deliberately exclusive:
“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.”Let me take these two issues apart. First deliberately exclusive, and second unnecessary.
Steve Fuller, who is a professor for Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, argues (for example in his book “Knowledge Management Foundations”) that the value of knowledge is related to the scarcity of access to it. For that reason, academics have an incentive to put hurdles in the way of those wanting to get into the ivory tower and make it more difficult than it has to be. It is a good argument, though it is hard to tell how much of this exclusivity is deliberate. At least when it comes to my colleagues in math and physics, the exclusivity seems more a matter of neglect than of intent. Inclusivity takes effort and most academics don’t make this effort.This brings me to the argument that academic slang is unnecessary. Unfortunately, this is a very common belief. For example, in reaction to my recent post about the tug-of-war between accuracy and popularity in science journalism, several journalists remarked that surely I must have meant precision rather than accuracy, because good journalism can be accurate even though it avoids technical language.
But no, I did in fact mean accuracy. If you don’t use the technical language, you’re not accurate. The whole raison d’être [entirely unnecessary French expression meaning “reason for existence”] of professional terminology is that it is the most accurate description available. And PhD programs don’t “glorify unintelligible gibberish”, they prepare students to communicate accurately and efficiently with their colleagues.
For physicists the technical language is equations, the most important ones carry names. If you want to avoid naming the equation, you inevitably lose accuracy.
The second Friedmann equation, for example, does not just say the universe undergoes accelerated expansion with the present values of dark matter and dark energy, which is a typical “non-technical” description of this relation. The equation also tells you that you’re dealing with a differentiable, metric manifold of dimension 4 and Lorentzian signature and are within Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It tells you that you’ve made an assumption of homogeneity and isotropy. It tells you exactly how the acceleration relates to the matter content. And constraining the coupling constants for certain Lorentz-invariance violating operators of order 5 is not the same as testing “space-time graininess” or testing whether the universe is a computer simulation, to just name some examples.
These details are both irrelevant and unintelligible for the average reader of a pop sci article, I agree. But, I insist, without these details the explanation is not accurate, and not useful for the professional.
Technical terminology is an extremely compressed code that carries a large amount of information for those who have learned to decipher it. It is used in academia because without compression nobody could write, let alone read, a paper. You’d have to attach megabytes worth of textbooks, lectures and seminars.
In science, most terms are cleanly defined, others have various definitions and some I admit are just not well-defined. In the soft sciences, the situation is considerably worse. In many cases trying to pin down the exact meaning of an -ism or -ology opens a bottomless pit of various interpretations and who-said-whats that date back thousands of years. This is why my pet peeve is to discard soft science arguments as useless due to undefined terminology. However, one can’t really blame academics in these disciplines – they are doing the best they can building castles on sand. But regardless of whether their terminology is very efficient or not compared to the hard sciences, it too is used for the sake of compression.
So no, academic slang is not unnecessary. But yes, academic language is exclusive as a consequence of this. It is in that not different from other professions. Just listen to your dentist and her assistant discuss their tools and glues, or look at some car-fanatics forum, and you’ll find the same exclusivity there. The difference is gradual and lies in the amount of time you need to invest to be one of them, to learn their language.
Academic language is not purposefully designed to exclude others, but it arguably serves this purpose once in place. Pseudoscientists tend to underestimate just how obvious their lack of knowledge is. It often takes a scientist not more than a sentence to recognize an outsider as such. Are you be able to tell the opening sentences of this blogpost from gibberish? Can you tell the snarxiv from the arxiv?
Indeed, it is in reality not the PhD that marks the science-insider from the outsider. The PhD defense is much like losing your virginity, vastly overrated. It looms big in your future, but once in the past you note that nobody gives a shit. You mark your place in academia not by hanging a framed title on your office door, but by using the right words at the right place. Regardless of whether you do have a PhD, you’ll have to demonstrate the knowledge equivalent of a PhD to become an insider. And there’s no shortcuts to this.
For scientists this demarcation is of practical use because it saves them time. On the flipside, there is the occasional scientist who goes off the deep end and who then benefits from having learned the lingo to make nonsense sound sophisticated. However, compared to the prevalence of pseudoscience this is a rare problem.
Thus, while the exclusivity of academic language has beneficial side effects, technical expressions are not deliberately created for the purpose of excluding others. They emerge and get refined in the community as efficient communication channels. And efficient communication inside a discipline is simply not the same as efficient communication with other disciplines or with the public, a point that Kristof in his op-ed is entirely ignoring. Academics are hired and get paid for communicating with their colleagues, not with the public. That is the main reason academic writing is academic. There is probably no easy answer to just why it has come to be that academia doesn’t make much effort communicating with the public. Quite possibly Fuller has a point there in that scarcity of access protects the interests of the communities.
But leaving aside the question of where the problem originates, at prima facie [yeah, I don’t only know French, but also Latin] the reason most academics are bad at communicating with the public is simple: They don’t care. Academia presently very strongly selects for single-minded obsession with research. Communicating with the public, about one’s own research or to chime in with opinions on scientific policy, it is in the best case useless in the worst case harmful to do the job that pays their rent. Accessibility and popularity does for academics not convert into income, and even an NYT Op-Ed isn’t going to change anything about this. The academics you find in the public sphere are primarily those who stand to benefit from the limelight: Directors and presidents of something spreading word about their institution, authors marketing their books, and a few lucky souls who found a way to make money with their skills and gigs. You do not find the average academic making an effort to avoid academic prose because they have nothing to gain with that.
I’ve read many flowery words about how helpful science communication – writing for the public, public lectures, outreach events, and so on – can be to make oneself and one’s research known. Yes, can be, and anecdotally this has helped some people find good jobs. But this works out so rarely that on the average it is a bad investment of time. That academics are typically overworked and underpaid anyway doesn’t help. That’s not good, but that’s reality.
I certainly wish more academics would engage with the public and make that effort of converting academic slang to comprehensible English, but knowing how hard my colleagues work already, I can’t blame them for not doing so. So please stop complaining that academics do what they were hired to do and that they don’t work for free on what doesn’t feed their kids. If you want more science communication and less academic slang, put your money where your mouth is and pay those who make that effort.
The first of the examples at the top of this post is random nonsense generated with SciGen. The second example is from the introduction of the Living Review on Asymptotic Safety. Could you tell?