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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