Why Academic Gobbledygook Makes Sense

teaching the Constitution.jpgWhen I first began teaching political science in the late
1960s I would routinely assign articles from top professional journals to
undergraduates. This is now impossible–without exception, they are
incomprehensible, overflowing with often needless statistical complexity. The
parallel is not the hard sciences where mathematics replaced philosophical
speculation. If anything, these articles reflect a trivialized research agenda.
Consider, for example, an August 2011 American Political Science Review essay
asking whether democratic electorates chose better educated leaders, a
question, it would seem, hardly requires mathematical complexity. To quote from
one key passage:

Our core empirical specification is a
linear probability model. We will focus primarily on determinants of
within-country variation over time of the
educational attainment of leader
l first selected to serve in country c at
date
t. The
estimated equation is then
e_ct = ?c + ?t + ?dct + ?xct
+ ?_ct, (1) where
e_ct is a measure of the educational attainment
of leader
_ in country c at date t, ?c is a country fixed effect, ?t is a year dummy, and xct are
other controls. We cluster the standard errors by country to allow for arbitrary
within-country correlations in the errors.

Get it? Let me suggest, however, that obscurantism
represents a Darwinian evolution to avoid the dangers of rampant Political
Correctness (PC). This is analogous to animals who escape predators by being
unappetizing. So, in a world filled with PC enforcers, what appears in today’s
professional journals gets a pass since scarcely any commissar can stomach the
mind-numbing mathematically infused scholarship. Can you visualize the Feminist
Liberation Front wrestling with
e_ct
= ?c
+ ?t + ?dct + ?xct + ?_ct, (1)?  

A Single ‘Mistake’ Can End a Career

A Darwinian understanding begins by recognizing the brutal
obstacles faced by would-be professors. Baby-boomer job-creating expansion is
long gone, cost-conscious administrators now prefer adjuncts and visitors to
tenure-line appointments, and uncertain economic times encourage senior faculty
to stay put and this means fewer new positions. Meanwhile ever more departments
irresponsibly churn out Ph.D.’s and once hired, these lucky few must be
“productive” (i.e., publish, publish, publish) and this gerbil-on-the-treadmill
requirement now even afflicts second-tier and even third-tier schools. This all
adds up to classic over-population where only the most fit can possibly stay
alive.

Moreover, huge portions of the research terrain are now
dominated by the PC orthodoxy so a single “mistake” can be career ending. In
political science, deadly minefields exist in urban politics, economic
development, and vast sections of political theory plus anything that touches
(however indirectly) on race and gender. Further add student snitches only too
happy to write an anonymous letter to some diversity apparatchik about a lecture aside allegedly offending some
protected group.

Imagine a savvy un-PC second-year political science graduate
musing about future specialization. With Commissars everywhere the best
strategy is to choose sub-fields that are basically applied math–public choice,
game theory, statistical modeling or any other of many quantitative
methodologies. Or, if one still wants to do reality-based research, just
minimize substantive content–never discuss any particular war (and thereby risk
offending somebody); instead just talk about Country A attacking Country B and
Country C using a game theoretic Prisoner’s Dilemma framework in choosing sides
or deciding to remain neutral.

In an instant, mathematical gobbledygook supplies permanent
escape from Thought Police scrutiny. No professor was ever hauled before the
Committee on Inclusion and Diversity for turning an elections course into
remedial calculus. An added benefit is that these highly technical sub-fields
typically lend themselves to prolific scholarly publications since there is
little need to collect original data, learn a language or otherwise engage in
“unproductive” activities. Thanks to mathematically infused babbling you are
now politically untouchable and academically productive, the perfect recipe for
a long university career.

Achieving Dullness to Protect One’s Career

But
what if you are unsuited to the life of the mathematical mind? Fret not–still
lots of places to hide in the bushes of obscurity. Political theory abounds
with sanctuary-like topics. Nobody is outraged over a turgid exegesis of
Immanuel Kant’s more obscure writings. In fact, PC inclined students will avoid
your class. With a little searching, there is perhaps no academic subject that
cannot be reduced to career-protecting dullness and obscurity.

Unfortunately,
this rational personal survival strategy brings intellectual disaster. Chalk up
yet one more pernicious consequence of PC. Most plainly, nearly all academic
scholarship becomes “lost” to those lacking the specialized expertise. Gone are
the days when distinguished plain-speaking scholars such as Edward Banfield,
Samuel Huntington or James Q. Wilson shaped public discussions via professional
journals and books. I seriously doubt that any journalist, let alone public
officials, can peruse the latest American Political Science Review and similar
top-tier outlets for political insight. It is not that academics are banned
from clearly ruminating about public issues. Hardly. Rather, such contributions
will not occur in disciplinary outlets, and only these venues count in
advancing an academic career. Accessible “popular” writing may even be a
liability in top departments (or just tolerated for the most senior faculty).

Add the
frustration of students who want to learn about the real world but instead
receive content-free lectures that reflect “cutting edge” research from the
most prestigious journals. Even graduate students may flee after being exposed
to research that consumes huge effort to master with the most minimal
intellectual pay-off.

This flight to irrelevance is not, however, an equal
opportunity employer when it comes to ideology mongering. With those rejecting
the PC agenda pushed into mute incomprehensibility, the race/class/gender crowd
is free to roam unhindered.  

This
“silencing” of countless professors helps explain why conservative outsiders
mistakenly see a loony Left-dominated campus. Not true. Rather, those who
reject the PC Weltanschauung have just rationally gravitated to fields of study
(or analytical techniques) that render them almost invisible beyond their disciplinary
colleagues.

Finally,
and most important, the escape from reality means that vast stretches of the
intellectual terrain de facto falls into the hands of the PC crowd and with
this surrender, ideology replaces insight. What junior professor would risk
objectivity, no matter how carefully documented, when discussing, say, American
urban politics, economic inequality, the impact of gender equality on American
life, Third World violence, the utility of politics to narrow educational
outcomes or the impact of immigration on crime, to mention just a handful of
potentially career-killing topics? Honesty here is nearly impossible and rather
than cook the data, our junior professor wisely applies some cutting edge
mathematical technique to some handy but deeply flawed UN-collected data to
reach some vacuous (and probably wrong) conclusion. The bedazzling display of
graphs and equations will surely win kudos, even a salary increase but it is
unlikely to advance real knowledge one iota.

One can
only be reminded of how the medieval Scholastics wrote in impenetrable Latin
about justifiably obscure topics at a time when the slightest theological
misstep invited death. It was, to be sure, a personally safe strategy but it
unfortunately delayed by centuries the emergence of science. I’d argue that
social sciences in present day universities suffer the same problem–the Ivory
Tower has become a Tower of Babble and we are wasting millions to produce what
cannot be read or understood. 

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

2 thoughts on “Why Academic Gobbledygook Makes Sense

  1. Well done sir. I could not agree more. It is next to impossible to ask undergraduates (or even graduate students for that matter) to review Journal articles. Then again, why have them pour through (literally) volumes of useless regurgitation and ‘uncreative’ work.
    Another favorite of mine is the ‘journal quality list’. Management is the best. What constitutes an ‘A list hit’? A one page teaching tip in some Journal no one has heard of or ‘puzzles’ for 100-level business students.
    Can a Nobel be far behind?

  2. I saw this recently online, an OBAMA-2012 Campaign Analyst Recruitment Ad:
    “We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.”
    High-tech and bloodless political science?

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