Monday, November 29, 2004

Clarity in writing

Via Critical Mass comes this screed criticizing obscure writing in literary theory circles. Much of the article is "inside baseball" for literary theorists, but there is at least one point that relates to what scientists do. It concerns one of the arguments literary theorists appear to make in defence of their alleged obscurity:
Scientists have their jargon—why can't theorists have theirs? Again, this is a valid question with a simple pragmatic answer. The public tolerates scientific jargon and not theory jargon because it believes that scientists need jargon to extend their researches and produce practical knowledge that benefits all. Only when scientists appear to abandon the common good does their language come under attack (for example, Swift's portrait of mathematicians in Book III of Gulliver's Travels, or contemporary ridicule of sociologese and psychobabble). Come the day when the theorists are able to demonstrate that their jargon enhances human life, and isn't just pretension and science-envy, public mistrust of them will end. Constantly claiming to foment social justice isn't sufficient.
I don't remember the Gulliver's Travels allusion, but the idea that only when scientists appear to abandon the common good does their language come under attack appears interesting, and in the light of the all the current evolution imbroglios, not quite right.

Alan Sokal's hilarious spoof was one of the first salvos fired at the obscurity of literary theorists (although his intent was quite different); it is interesting to see followups, even if my standpoint is of the mildly amused observer indulging in schadenfreude.
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