Academics write well enough, actually

The most intimidating sight in the world: the empty page

The complaint is perennial: Why can’t academics write well? I’m not going to tag any particular examples of essays plying these waters; their numbers are so vast that the genre has become as stale and repetitive as it accuses scholars of being. Finding myself waiting for a server migration to complete before I can do real work, however, let me essay a response.

The Presumption: That Academics Can’t Write

The standard form of the complaint fits into one of a few categories:

  • Academic prose is dense. The standard exposition of this complaint involves putting some poor humanities or social-science professor in the stocks and mocking how inscrutable their prose is.
  • Academic writing is boring. Although often confused for the complaint that “academic prose is dense”, boredom and density form distinct branches of this family tree. Dense prose must of necessity be boring, but spritely prose about a topic that readers find dull will produce boring effects as well. Similarly, the leadenness of academic prose may result not from any bad sentence taken individually but from the plodding insistence on adding details, citations, and counterarguments, until the weight of all these straws breaks the reader’s back.
  • Academic writing is structured poorly. This more sophisticated critique begins with the observation that scholarly monographs and articles are not structured to be welcoming to outsiders. Sometimes, renegades from the academy will profess to reveal the secrets of the temple–that academics don’t read the entirety of every book they cite. They will point out that, unlike bestselling nonfiction texts, many scholarly books are designed to be read nonlinearly or in pieces. The failure of academic writing is thus linked to the failure of academic reading.
  • Academic writing concerns itself with trivial topics. I hesitate to mention this, since it is not, strictly, a complaint about writing but a complaint about scholarship. Yet the two sets of complaints are so tightly correlated that I must mention them together, as frequently the argument holds that academic writing is bad because those boffins are wasting their time writing about the history of the s

The Second Axiom: That Academic Writing Is Distinctively Bad

None of these complaints would matter if it were not for the assumption–sometimes unstated, sometimes spotlighted–that academic prose is distinctly bad. The comparison sets are usually drawn from journalism, good-selling texts written by academic (and that does exist), and from high-profile authors of nonfiction unburdened by academic affiliations.

One senses occasionally a desire on the part of the author to turn the red pen that some professor wielded against a sophomore essay back against authority in these complaints. Who doesn’t yearn to undermine the teacher? The number of complaints about the distinct badness of academic prose penned by scholars themselves means that this complaint has deeper foundations than a lust for vengeance.

Most Bad Academic Prose Is Bad For Good Reasons

One cannot defend the indefensible, and so I begin by disclaiming any intent to do so. I admit that most academic prose is bad; long habituation to academic writing has sharpened my ability to distill meaning from bad writing but it has not improved the taste.

Some academic writing is bad for bad reasons, too. Professors have to publish to keep their jobs; graduate students have to publish to get a job; and not a few veterans of the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s learned that outfitting banalities in the latest jargon could camouflage their intellectual weaknesses. So I will not defend them, either.

Most bad academic prose, however, is bad for good reasons. Among them:

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Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]

Originally published 14 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Attention Conservation Notice: Robin Hanson has written a provocative book illuminating the contributions social science can make to understanding the future, even if the details are (amply) debatable.

What will the future look like? Social scientists pay a great deal less attention to this question than they should. There are departments of History, but no departments of Future–nor even a great number of academics whose primary research program explores the future.

There are good reasons for this. All of our evidence about how humans and human societies behave exists in the past (yes, literally all of it). The future, by contrast, may not even occur. Theorizing about the future, then, appears from one direction to look like nothing so much as a modern version of medieval Scholasticism–or, as the demotic version goes, like playing tennis without a net.

But the optimal level of effort to be invested in thinking seriously about the future is not zero, or close to zero. Indeed, it’s interesting that businesses and governments are more likely, not less, to invest resources in trying to estimate at least the parameters within which the near future will take place — for instance, as reflected in the US intelligence community’s Global Trends reports or Bill Gates’s now-forgotten The Road Ahead. More to the point, even though all of our evidence comes from the past, none of us will live there–and (almost) all of us will live in the future.

Robin Hanson’s Age of Em represents a significant intervention in debates about what kind of futures to envision, how to envision those futures, and why we should do so in the first place. Hanson’s future concerns a post-human society within the next 100 to 1,000 years in which whole-brain-scanned humans exist as emulations (or “ems”) within a joint virtual-physical world. Within this civilization, the limits of physics trump the limits of biological life, and ems are able to work and live in a population that expands at rates closer to insects or bacteria than to homo sapiens. As a consequence, the GDP of em-world increases rapidly—doubling every month or so—even as the population heads towards the trillions and wage rates plummet toward subsistence (which, Hanson notes, is the historical regularity within human societies over time and for most life-forms generally).

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Talking Points for Panel on Trump and Foreign Policy

Donald Trump Signs the Pledge, by Flickr User Michael Vadon

These were my notes for a presentation at a campuswide panel at UMASS delivered on 16 November 2016. They were originally posted then but were lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017. I’m reposting them here, unaltered.

What can we expect from the Trump administration in its foreign policy?

It is difficult to tell. The Trump campaign is perhaps the least vetted on foreign policy since–ironically–the Clinton ’92 campaign. Trump is long on attitudes and chauvinism (in the literal, textbook sense of that word), but he is short on specifics.

Three major trends seem likely:

  1. The liberal trade order will be substantially modified, if not ended.
  2. The U.S.-led alliance system will be substantially weakened, if not catastrophically eroded.
  3. The post-Second World War period of U.S. leadership and hegemony will likely come to a close.

Let me stress that what I am most certain of is the width of the error bars in my predictions, not in the point prediction itself. The Trump administration could be, at best, weakly mediocre in its exercise of U.S. leadership. The depth of foreign distrust and shock in the Trump administration — and in what it represents for U.S. legitimacy — cannot realistically permit anything more than that. The worst-case scenario, to be frank, is the worst-case scenario, and even if that remains unlikely it is much more likely than it was a couple of weeks ago.

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