Daniel W. Drezner

Why do academics sound so pointy-headed? [UPDATED]

Foreign Policy’s AfPak channel tweets the following query: I don’t understand why political science, as a discipline, rewards bad, unclear writing. Don’t these journals have editors?? To the Blogmobile — there’s some explaining to do!!  Let’s get one thing straight.  The problem isn’t just the political science discipline — it’s all academic disciplines.   Open up any academic ...

Foreign Policy’s AfPak channel tweets the following query:

I don’t understand why political science, as a discipline, rewards bad, unclear writing. Don’t these journals have editors??

To the Blogmobile — there’s some explaining to do!! 

Let’s get one thing straight.  The problem isn’t just the political science discipline — it’s all academic disciplines.   Open up any academic journal and you’re likely to be exposed to an overwhelming number of run-on sentences, obscurantist jargon, and  fancy Latin words displacing of good-old-fashioned, no-BS Anglo-Saxonisms.    

Nor is AfPak the only lamenter of this fact.  Via Rob Neyer, I see that Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics, doesn’t like it when academics talk all jargon-y. 

It modern America it is the accepted practice for experts in each field to develop their own language, their own expressions and reference points, and to write to one another in professional jargon almost indecipherable to the public.

I feel very strongly that this is a mistake. I have felt this way for 40 years; I have argued against this for 40 years, and I’ve never made any headway, but that’s still what I think and that’s still what I argue. People complain about anti-intellectuatlism in American life. I live in an academic community; many of my friends are academics. They complain frequently about the lack of respect for intellectuals in the mainstream debate, about the difficulty in getting the public to accept science and to accept the knowledge that experts in the field generate — yet they insist on speaking and writing in ways that the public cannot understand. Well, duh. If you write in a way that excludes the general public from reading what you are saying, the general public will not accept your conclusions.

To use academic jargon is rude, lazy, elitist, and counter-productive. It diminishes the influence of the academic world; it diminishes the influence of thinking people on the general debate. If you want people to accept your ideas, you have to speak in language that others can understand. This is common sense, and it is common courtesy.

As someone who has a Bill James bobblehead in his home, I take this kind of critique seriously — far motre seriously than, say, Charles Murray’s blatherings about academic elites.  The problem is that I’m not sure it’s right. 

First of all, a lot of jargon exists for a good reason.  All disciplines, professions, and careers have their own specialzed argot that’s used as a way to economize on communication.  If I use the phrases "two-level game," "credible commitment," "moral hazard," or "beggar-thy-neighbor" to people in my profession, they’re going to know what I’m talking/writing about without me having to spend paragraphs explaining the point. 

For example, if I say,

we’re approaching a CreditAnstalt moment in the global political economy

to a bunch of international political economy scholars, they get it.  To the rest of the world, I’d have to write: 

In the near future we could face a financial crisis when in which foreign economic policy leaders prioritize nationalism and geopolitics above preservaing the integrity of the global financial system.  Since the CreditAnstalt crisis played a leading role in making the Great Depression the ten-year agony of mass unemployment, poverty, famine and despotism that we remember today, this would really suck.  

Yes, jargon is a time-saver. 

Now, it could be argued that academics should be smart enough to use jargon when speaking with each other and use plain English when speaking to, you know, outworlders anyone outside their field. 

There is a big problem with this solution, however.  Most academics spend most of their time writing, responding and talking to other academics.  They already know the jargon, so there’s no reason to drop it.  [Um… what about the students?–ed.  One could argue that an awful lot of instruction is teaching students the concepts behind the jargon, so that doesn’t count.] 

If you spend 90% of your day using one kind of language, it’s actually pretty hard to switch conversational styles to engage the outworlders rest of the public.  As Paul Krugman wrote some many moons ago

I hope you think that I am an acceptable writer, but when it comes to economics I speak English as a second language: I think in equations and diagrams, then translate. The opponents of mainstream economics dislike people like me not so much for our conclusions as for our style: They want economics to be what it once was, a field that was comfortable for the basically literary intellectual.

This goes for most of the social science disciplines. 

I grant that the failure to communicate to the rest of the world is a flaw of many academics.  What it’s not, however, is inefficient.  If we’re writing for political science journals, then the audience is other political scientists (and these journals, my dear AfPak, are edited by other political scientists as well).  They already know the jargon.  By using professional argot, political scientists — and academics in general — are able to write and communicate with each other more quickly and efficiently than by using ordinary plain language. 

My non-academic readers might claim that this is absurd, preposterous, and a particular failing of the academy.  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  Bill James’ original complaint was levied against baseball stat geeks.  Journalists and editors throw about "lede," "graf" and "TK"  without even thinking about it.  All occupations and organizations have their own forms of shorthand that sounds like jibberish to the outsider.  No one would accuse most members of the military as being obscurantist, but go to an Army staff meeting and try to decipher the glut of acronyms that fly around like so much schrapnel. 

Is that the only reason for bad political science writing?  Probably not.  We get rewarded for coming up with new jargon like "Bradley effect" or "Stackelberg leader" or "bandwagoning" that catches on.  And, yes, there are scholars who write in a deliberately confusing manner because their ideas ain’t all that coherent.  As a regular reader of political science journals, however, I’m pretty sure these are the exception rather than the rule.  I’m so inured to the jargon that I can read these papers without conscious translation. 

Some political scientists (ahem, cough) do try to write for a wider audience.  Some political science journals like Perspectives on Politics are intended for a wider audience.  But the bulk of political science publications are intended for other political scientists — and there’s little upside to eliminating jargon if that’s how everyone in every field communicates.

So this is my very long-winded answer to AfPak.  Whereas if I was using jargon, all I’d have said was:

The specialization of knowledge leads actors to reduce the transacton costs of communication with each other.  Naturally, this phenomenon creates a barrier to entry for outside consumers, while instilling a common identity among specialists. 

Am I missing anything?

UPDATE:  Yes, I did miss something.  FP editor extraordinaire Blake Hounshell tweets

[B]ut jargon is only one aspect of bad academic writing. There’s also the passive voice, nominalizations, bland verbs, etc.


There’s no way I’m going to be able to offer a single explanation for bad academic writing beyond the jargonese.  That said, I’ll suggest that many of the tropes that editors don’t like about academic writing are actually an effort at hedging.  The classic academic answer to whether something will happen is, "It depends."  In academic journals, political scientists can articulate all of the qualifications, exceptions, and emendations that come with their central argument. 

This hedging instinct makes it very tricky to convert a scholarly article into something more accessible to the general interest reader.  Editors everywhere want the writer to get to the point with clear, forceful prose.  Academics are a bit leery of the declarative statements that get editors all hot and bothered — because the simple direct statement is often far more sweeping in scope than the academic’s original argument.  This is a natural tension, and one that breeds resentment on both sides. 

I’m just here to play peacekeeper.  [Me too!!–ed.]

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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