Why Academic Gobbledygook Makes Sense

Robert Weissberg

This article is cross-posted from Minding the Campus.

When 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 = μc + μt + θdct + γxct + η_ct, (1) where e_ct is a measure of the educational attainment of leader _ in country c at date t, μc is a country fixed effect, μt 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 = μc + μt + θdct + γxct + η_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, a long-time NAS member, is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.

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