If You Don't Know What to Say, Obfuscate. by Jonathan Knight
What makes people do science? Probably the same thing that makes people do sociology, a deep drive to understand ourselves and the world around us. But lately sociology and science have been at odds.
At a recent weekend conference on the sociology of science at UC Santa Cruz, speakers from both camps aired conflicting viewpoints. Scientists taking one extreme defend their work as an objective pursuit that marches inexorably towards truth, while sociologists, taking the other, claim that science is merely a social practice, like religion or sports. Some sociologists see scientists as so heavily guided by social circumstances that any resemblance between truth and what is put forth as scientific fact is probably coincidental and, in any case, impossible to verify.
People like me who want to understand the deconstructionist view of the sociologists find themselves facing an insurmountable wall of jargon. Physicist Alan Sokal last year tried to break through that wall by writing a parody of a deconstructionist argument and sneaking it past the editors of the journal Social Text. Sokal, who has no training in sociology, announced the hoax three months later, causing many to wonder how far he could have gotten if he had just kept quiet. Would he now be a tenured sociologist at Harvard?
Perhaps anxious that their bluff has been called, sociologists now appear eager to communicate with the outside world. But evidence that they are capable of doing so, or that they even have much of use to communicate, is still lacking. In fact, by the end of the conference the deconstructionists appeared hopelessly mired in their own jargon, unable to explain what they believe about the practice of science, much less why they believe it. Rather than inventing a lingo to discuss a subject, they appear to have invented a subject to support a lingo.
Early in the first day of the conference, following two rather obtuse talks, science writer Timothy Ferris stood up and asserted that impenetrable prose is the enemy of clear thought. He suggested that an idea not expressible in simple language might not be much of an idea. But rather than rising to the challenge to make his subject understood, one member of the panel responded by chiding Ferris for being so pugnacious.
Of course, jargon can be useful. Every field has its peculiar set of tongue-twisters that let the practitioners discuss their work more easily. Jargon is a form of shorthand for things that might otherwise take a while to describe. Benzaldehyde, for example, is a carbon-based molecule, whose structure any good organic chemistry student can draw. But without the name, chemists would have a hard time talking about this substance or its behavior.
Nevertheless any teenager can understand what benzaldehyde is with a few words in ordinary English and perhaps a drawing or two. I had hoped to be similarly enlightened at the conference, but found instead that the only people who spoke clearly were those pleading with the sociologists for a jargon-free explanation of their work. Renowned astronomer Sandy Faber confessed halfway through the first day that she had understood almost none of what had been said so far, and urged subsequent speakers to talk more plainly.
Unfortunately for Ferris, Faber, and the rest of us, no light penetrated the thicket of postmodern-speak. Postmodern theorist Arkady Plotnitsky tried in vain to untangle a particularly recalcitrant knot of a passage from Jaques Derrida, but to no avail. By the end, he himself admitted that he has had trouble making definitive interpretations of Derrida's writings.
But these articles are not written in ancient runes. We aren't trying to make sense of the Rosetta stone. Derrida is still alive, and if his ideas are to be of any use at all, he should at least be able to explain them to his colleagues, never mind the rest of us.
Certainly some science studies concepts can be rendered in plain English, but once their gold plating is removed, they appear ordinary and unremarkable. The first speaker, for example, described several anecdotes supporting his claim that scientists more readily accept research that supports their beliefs. This was hardly objectionable to scientists, who know that, while data should be viewed critically, one takes less time picking apart experiments that show the earth is round than those that suggest it is flat.
How can confusing jargon persist in a competitive academic environment? Why doesn't clarity prevail? For one thing, it is much harder for people to argue with you if they don't understand you, and those who fear derision from their colleagues are not likely to admit they are baffled. Apparently jargon is more than a convenient shorthand for some in academia - it's a way to get tenure.