Can we save academia from bullshit?

academiaBased on the 23,000 people who viewed and shared it, you liked my post on writing tips and psychology. But those in academia were displeased. A typical comment:

I can only hope that the college students whose papers I have to read do not see this. Academically, this could be titled, “How to Fail a Research Paper”.

How would professors view my tips? They accept tips 6, 8, 9, and 10:

6 Cite numbers effectively. We agree on this.

8 Move key insights up. Academics write deductively, reasoning from causes to effects, which puts the big conclusion at the end. But good scholarly writing also puts the thesis up front.

9 Cite examples. Good academic writing, like all good writing, includes examples.

10 Give us some signposts. Disciplined academic writers explain where they’re going before they get there.

They reject tip 7.

7 Use “I,” “we,” and “you.” That’s just too informal for academic writing.

And they resist the first five tips, which violate academic tradition.

1 Write shorter. Academics must fill spaces (publish or perish; “write a 10-page paper”). Filling space means padding things, so there is a temptation to write long.

2 Shorten your sentences. Academics tend to write longer, more complex sentences to impress readers with their sophistication.

3 Rewrite passive voice. At this point, passive voice is an ingrained habit in academia. Academics see no reason to resist this habit. It’s mandatory in scientific papers since referring to the experimenters is forbidden.

4 Eliminate weasel words. Academics who are uncertain about their conclusions use weasel words like “generally” to leaves themselves an out.

5 Replace jargon with clarity. The academic community consists of small, tightly-knit group subgroups tied together by jargon.

This saddens anyone who hires and trains college graduates who learned to write in this stilted, arcane fashion. In the business world we need to retrain them before they can be useful.

pinker essayThe psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a brilliant analysis called “Why Academic Writing Stinks.” After rejecting three obvious explanations — they’re hiding their insecurity, writing about abstract subject matter, or writing to please gatekeepers in journals — he looks deeper. His basic thesis is that immersed in their own abstract concepts, professors naturally use jargon and complex sentences to communicate. They can’t express that sophisticated thinking in ways that the rest of us can read. As Pinker says:

They are not trying to bamboozle their readers; it’s just the way they think.

Unfortunately, the result is stuff like this (by Stephen T. Tyman):

With the last gasp of Romanticism, the quelling of its florid uprising against the vapid formalism of one strain of the Enlightenment, the dimming of its yearning for the imagined grandeur of the archaic, and the dashing of its too sanguine hopes for a revitalized, fulfilled humanity, the horror of its more lasting, . . .

I’ve spared you the second half of that sentence, because I object to torture on moral grounds.

I have hope that that university writing may yet turn in the direction of power and clarity. But until that happens, you’ll be able to recognize its stilted formats instantly, regardless of the content, as this video clearly demonstrates. (Warning, do not watch while eating or drinking.)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Note: the original title of this post was “Can academia be saved from bullshit?” That’s passive voice. I caught it and fixed it, and I apologize.

26 responses to “Can we save academia from bullshit?

  1. Not all academics reject good clear writing. I require it.

    I was once chided by a referee for using the personal pronoun and active voice in a journal article. I responded to the editor that my results weren’t found under a rock. I worked hard to do the research and take personal responsibility for everything written under my name. He published the article, lively prose notwithstanding.

  2. I am a phd/professor and the best research papers do not use the passive voice and to avoid it you must use I or we. I am suprised by these results. I agree with nearly all the advice except sometimes sentences do need to be long for complex ideas but break them down if possible.

    1. I doubt of your quality as professor and investigator, from the moment you associate research quality to whether the sentence is in active or passive voice.

      The quality of research has nothing to do with that.

  3. As a journalist, I could tell any story in a 30-word first paragraph. While a Ph.D candidate in Political Science, I was branded a lousy writer. Such bullshit!

  4. I hate academic writing and particularly hate APA styling. It’s one of the reasons I quit graduate school. I had whole textbooks written in APA style or a variant of it. To the professors out there here’s a clue: probably 25% of your students never buy or read the text because it costs too much and is unreadable. If you’re an author of one of these books then shame on you.

  5. I’m surprised by these reactions. As a writing resource professional at a small psychology institute, these principles are what I preach (except for #7). Frankly, if my program would accept it, I’d go for 7 as well. Anything that makes scholarly writing and literature reviews easier to comprehend is helpful. Especially today, when so many books intended for mass consumption use scientific research to build their cases, the ability to make complicated information understandable is valuable. That said, many accomplished fiction writers bristle at the current trend toward minimalism in language, but that’s a matter of artistic style. Thank you for this discussion.

  6. I reject #2, on the grounds of #3. Long sentences are not, in themselves, a problem. Long sentences become a problem when their individual clauses are poorly written. As long as you give us a clear character in subject position and a clear action in verb position, you can stack up as many clauses as you want and they’ll still be easy to understand. My students now live in a 140-character world; my first task is always to introduce them to subordinating conjunctions: because, although, while, even if, as long as (see the sentence before this one), whenever… People who can’t use subordinating conjunctions can’t form complex thoughts. I don’t think it’s good advice to warn students away from “long sentences,” without teaching them how to write clear clauses and join them logically.

  7. I just discovered you, Josh! And I am delighted.

    After 20 years on Wall Street, I had a lot of style-changing to do. Financial writing is right behind academic.

    I like your site and look forward to your newsletter.

  8. This “article” ticks all the boxes for 10 tips you gave but it is still boring and pointless. effectively, you don’t need academic style to talk bullshit.

  9. I’m a prof and I like (& try to follow, not always successfully) all of your rules, except #4. About #4: sometimes we come to conclusions that actually *are* partial or uncertain. How to express that honestly without “weasel words?”

    1. Good question. Answer: rewrite for precision.

      Weaselly: Most people generally keep their mobile phones next to their beds.

      Not as weaselly: According to a YouGov/Huffington post survey, 63% of mobile phone uses sleep with their phone in the bed.


      Everyone I know sleeps with their phone near their beds.


      Young people, especially, sleep with their phones.

      1. Now *that* is actually useful advice. Eliminating qualifiers often turns potential bullshit into definite bullshit, but making the qualifiers as precise as possible is always a good idea.

      2. This article, especially about pointer 4 and the passive words, actually relate to these 3 articles about blame.

        Go to the comment section of the first link and you’ll see the insights of native speakers of some languages about causality and events. In the second link, this one shows the tendencies of each nationality with blame. The third document contains research and the fourth one contains a questioning of evidence.
        Before you conclude or respond to this comment, read them all first. These things will have bearing on the usage of passive voice and hints of uncertainty in the weasel wording you cited.

        1. My book is already scheduled for translation into Chinese. I’ll be interested to see how people respond to translations in the kinds of languages you’ve cited.

          My advice is for speakers and writers in English, but I get comments from all over the globe.

  10. While I agree that most academics would find your writing tips difficult, I think the slip up for them is more that academic culture is inconsistent with those tips. It’s becoming increasingly common for academics to be familiar with jargon-free writing (I blame the internet). However, one person’s jargon is another field’s precise terminology; it would be inappropriate for a scientist to use plain language in a journal or academic presentation among their peers, and this is perhaps 70% of the communicating they do.

    In my experience writing about science with researchers, I have found that most of them understand the importance of writing for their audience, some of them actually do so, but most of them do not have the time. More importantly, there is little reward for them to do so, and like so many psychology experiments teach us, where there is scarcity, the mouse chases the reward.

    Not all academics are alike, however. You cite a philosopher, a field known for confounding even informed people, as an example of academic writing. In my experience, academics in engineering have a concise, clean prose that is a joy to work with but often lacks persuasiveness, medical researchers are often good at communicating the importance of their work but bad at keeping to page limits, and nursing researchers have an economical, business-only approach. The sort of writing you quoted from Dr. Lyman would never find its way into science writing of any sort.

    I have never found that scientists inflate their writing to fit a page target, however many have trouble expressing themselves in a single page. Almost every scientist must write grants for their research funding, and every grant I know has a strict page limit. What then follows is a horrible task of cutting down everything that we would call good persuasive writing for the sake of ensuring a complex scientific concept and the methods of a four year study fit into six short pages.

  11. Surely it all comes down to clarity. That applies to ALL forms of writing. If you present your ideas, story or thesis in long, complex, jargon-filled paragraphs you will confuse and turn off all but the most determined of your readers and your effort will be largely wasted.

    1. I think the clarity-level of the article depends on the audience. I’m a NMR spectroscopist and in communicating with my peers I use lots of jargon which they (hopefully) understand. I find it helps to compact the discussion. However for the lay person I don’t do the jargon as much and what little I use I try to carefully explain. So, yes, clarity is the goal but one must keep in mind the audience.

  12. Thanks, Josh. Your writing tips remind me of an old essay I read a long time ago — and re-read periodically. George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is a classic that everyone, especially politicians and people who work in bureaucracies both public and private, should follow.

    He has six basic rules:

    (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    These are rules to live by.

  13. You say:

    Move key insights up. Academics write deductively, reasoning from causes to effects, which puts the big conclusion at the end. But good scholarly writing also puts the thesis up front.

    You do not understand the meaning of ‘deductive’.
    ‘All’ Western scholarly writing contains a thesis at the start.

  14. I’d go along with the late, great Richard Feynman; if you can’t explain it simply then you don’t understand it well enough’. At least, I think it was Feynman and I know I’ve got the quote wrong but that was the general gist of it.

  15. Words like “generally” and “possibly” are not weasel words. They express uncertainty, which is a necessary quality in the search for truth. Authors should be free to leave discussions open and not to argue cases as if they were lawyers. If you read the scientific literature from 20-30 or 40 years ago, the tone of a paper was less about building an ironclad case for a particular conclusion, and more about reporting findings. I have read papers that openly reported a puzzling finding that did not quite fit with the main thesis of the work, and it is more common the further back you go.

    I say leave the false certainty to lawyers and the courtrooms.

  16. Actually I think it was Albert Einstein, but Richard Feynman certainly supported that view.
    My favourite author of the 20th century is George Orwell. with incredible simplicity his writing gave deep insight and clarity to the highly complex world of politics. His 1984 novel is a classic
    For quite a few years I have been trying to learn some basic computer languages and there are so many examples of where the article, or text is meant to be a simple introduction to say the instruction set that a computer uses and then throws in a piece of terminology that for a beginner is totally meaningless and confusing . For example “the instruction set is orthogonal”. It took me ages searching on the internet to finally find someone that knew what this meant. In many ways computer talk as become “babble”.
    I can recall a mathematician, Michael Spivak who wrote beautiful text books on advanced mathematics, one of his quotes when trying to explain a difficult idea was to say “Now let us cloak our ignorance in terminology”.
    Unfortunately we see this all to often in papers written by academics

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