Steven Pinker Uses Theories from Evolutionary Biology to Explain Why Academic Writing is So Bad

I don’t know about other disciplines, but academic writing in the humanities has become notorious for its jargon-laden wordiness, tangled constructions, and seemingly deliberate vagary and obscurity. A popular demonstration of this comes via the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator, which allows one to plug in a number of stock phrases, verbs, and “-tion” words to produce corkers like “The reification of post-capitalist hegemony is always already participating in the engendering of print culture” or “The discourse of the gaze gestures toward the linguistic construction of the gendered body”—the point, of course, being that the language of academia has become so meaningless that randomly generated sentences closely resemble and make as much sense as those pulled from the average journal article (a point well made by the so-called “Sokal hoax”).

There are many theories as to why this is so. Some say it’s several generations of scholars poorly imitating famously difficult writers like Hegel and Heidegger, Lacan and Derrida; others blame a host of postmodern -isms, with their politicized language games and sectarian schisms. A recent discussion cited scholarly vanity as the cause of incomprehensible academic prose. A more practical explanation holds that the publish or perish grind forces scholars to turn out derivative work at an unreasonable pace simply to keep their jobs, hence stuffing journals with rehashed arguments and fancy-sounding puffery that signifies little. In the above video, Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker offers his own theory, working with examples drawn from academic writing in psychology.

For Pinker, the tendency of academics to use “passives, abstractions, and ‘zombie nouns’” stems not primarily from “nefarious motives” or the desire to “sound sophisticated and recherché and try to bamboozle their readers with high-falutin’ verbiage.” He doesn’t deny that this takes place on occasion, but contra George Orwell’s claim in “Politics and the English Language” that bad writing generally hopes to disguise bad political and economic motives, Pinker defers to evolutionary biology, and refers to “mental habits” and the “mismatch between ordinary thinking and speaking and what we have to do as academics.” He goes on to explain, in some fairly academic terms, his theory of how our primate mind, which did not evolve to think thoughts about sociology or literary criticism, struggles to schematize “learned abstractions” that are not a part of everyday experience. It’s a plausible theory that doesn’t rule out other reasonable alternatives (like the perfectly straightforward claim that clear, concise writing poses a formidable challenge for academics as much as anyone else.)

Pinker’s talk was part of a larger Harvard conference called “Stylish Academic Writing” and sponsored by the Office of Faculty Development & Diversity. The full conference seems designed primarily as professional development for other academics, but layfolks may find much here of interest as well. See more talks from the conference, as well as a number of unrelated videos on good academic writing here. Or, for more amusement at the expense of clunky academic prose, see the results of the Philosophy and Literature bad writing contest, which ran from 1995-98 and turned up some almost shockingly unreadable sentences from a variety of scholarly texts.

Related Content:

Steven Pinker Explains the Neuroscience of Swearing (NSFW)

John Searle on Foucault and the Obscurantism in French Philosophy

“Lol My Thesis” Showcases Painfully Hilarious Attempts to Sum up Years of Academic Work in One Sentence

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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