Saturday, December 12, 2015

Academic B.S. as artificial barriers to entry


"Stratos has never sampled the full terror stalking the stars." - David Brin, Glory Season


Paul Romer complains of "mathiness" in macroeconomics. Paul Pfleiderer talks about "chameleon" models. Ricardo Caballero says macroeconomists encourage the "pretense of knowledge". Everywhere, people complain about economists' fetish for pointless model-making. And of course, some folks accuse the economics profession of being a front for laissez-faire ideology.

But we should remember that compared to other disciplines, econ is in great shape. A friend just sent me a paper by Ananya Roy, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, entitled "What is urban about critical urban theory?" Here is an excerpt from the abstract:
This essay discusses how the “urban” is currently being conceptualized in various worlds of urban studies and what this might mean for the urban question of the current historical conjuncture. Launched from places on the map that are forms of urban government but that have distinctive agrarian histories and rural presents, the essay foregrounds the undecidability of the urban, be it geographies of urbanization or urban politics. What is at stake is a critical urban theory attentive to historical difference as a fundamental constituting process of global political economy and deconstruction as a methodology of generalization and theorization.
And here is the spectacular final paragraph:
I conclude then with the invitation to read the urban from the standpoint of absence, absence not as negation or even antonym but as the undecidable. I conclude too with the provocation that theory, including a theory of the urban, can be made from the tealcolored building at the edge of the world that is the Dankuni municipality, a panchayat office repurposed for urban government. But in a gesture befitting the task of provincializing the urban, I note that the dedication plaque for the panchayat building references a fin de siècle poet, Jibanananda Das and his writings on “rupasi bangla,” or beautiful Bengal, envisioned as rural and verdant. But Das is also the first urban poet of Bengal, with a set of starkly neo-urban poems that are now etched into the region’s self-imagination of urban modernity. The plaque can thus be read as a serendipitous anticipation and premonition of the urban yet to come but its rurality cannot be effaced or erased (Figure 4). The sign of a constitutionally demarcated urban local body, it is the undecidability of the urban.
To many readers not steeped in critical theory, this may sound like a broken fire hydrant of nonsense. One may be tempted to reach for a copy of Pennycook et al.'s paper, "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit."

But I don't think critical theory is simply the academic equivalent of meaningless auto-generated guru wisdom. My guess is that it's actually something else: Obscurantism.

Here's what I kind of suspect is going on.

For a given level of demand, supply restrictions generally push up price. You don't want to have any old dork walk in off the street and get a full professorship in urban studies. That would send salaries crashing, and prestige as well.

But what if urban studies is just inherently a really easy field? (I'm not saying this is true, I'm just being hypothetical!) What if all the remaining big truths could be uncovered by running a few regressions in Stata? In that case, the supply of potential urban studies profs would be really big. Danger!

If existing urban studies profs can form a cartel, they can artificially raise the barriers to entry and bring supply back down again. Cartelization in academia doesn't seem that hard, since admissions, hiring, and tenure committees are already cartels, and since the barriers to creating new universities and new top journals are very high.

The barriers to entry will probably be some combination of A) a psychometric test, and B) an ideological loyalty test. These tests are relatively easy to administer. They also take advantage of natural supply restrictions - very high-ability people (along whatever dimension you want to measure) are relatively rare, and ideological buy-in is limited by the diversity of ideas in society. For example, there are just not that many people who are both A) really good at parsing dense paragraphs of text, and B) deeply committed to a quasi-Marxist lefty ideology.

Artificial entry barriers provide a tidy explanation for the rise of "critical theory" in humanities, urban planning, anthropology, and sociology departments. Critical theory is basically just the practice of taking lefty social criticism - of the type you might find in any college dorm - and dressing it up with a bunch of neologisms and excess verbiage. Stephen Katz of Trent University explains this in an essay entitled "How to Speak and Write Postmodern". He gives some hypothetical examples:
For example, let’s imagine you want to say something like, “We should listen to the views of people outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural biases that affect us”. This is honest but dull...[Instead]  say, “We should listen to the intertextual, multivocalities of postcolonial others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities”... 
You want to say or write something like, “Contemporary buildings are alienating”. This is a good thought, but, of course, a non-starter. You wouldn’t even get offered a second round of crackers and cheese at a conference reception with such a line. In fact, after saying this, you might get asked to stay and clean up the crackers and cheese after the reception...[Instead, say] “Pre/post/spacialities of counter-architectural hyper-contemporaneity (re)commits us to an ambivalent recurrentiality of antisociality/seductivity, one enunciated in a de/gendered-Baudrillardian discourse of granulated subjectivity”.
As multivocalities on the internet say: LOL.

The supply of super-lefty people who are able to parse artificially dense text is limited, but not so limited that it's hard to find people who are willing to do it for $70,000 a year. Meanwhile, student demand for humanities, anthropology, urban studies, and sociology majors is probably pretty inelastic, so university demand for professors in these areas is probably inelastic. Hence, for departments and journals in these fields to make "critical theory" a soft requirement for professors is probably an effective way of keeping their salaries (and job perks) as high as they are.

It seems pretty obvious that humanities departments have been almost entirely consumed by this sort of thing. Any semblance of objectivity (whatever that would even mean in the humanities!) is gone, replaced by pervasive quasi-Marxist doofiness. And humanities scholars' research work now appears to largely consist of parsing and writing artificially dense text. As for the social sciences, anthro seems to have taken some big steps in this direction, and sociology more modest steps.

How about economics?

The econ profession as a whole is shifting toward empirics, and possibly even toward reduced-form empirics. Since the flood of data is a recent thing, most of the new insights in the field over the next decade or two will probably be gained from doing this kind of work - as John Cochrane says, "The stars in their 30s are scraping data off the internet."

Scraping data off the internet is cognitively demanding work, but not that demanding. Without artificial entry barriers, the data flood would probably increase the supply of people qualified to be economics professors. To preserve their high salaries and high levels of intellectual prestige, it therefore behooves the economics profession to create some artificial barriers.

Econ isn't going for ideological tests - or at least, not very much. There's too much pressure from the world at large to stay objective. So the entry barriers rely mostly on psychometric tests. Mathematical theory, of the type economists do, is hard to do - much harder, for most people, than parsing dense paragraphs of woo-woo "critical theory".

This could explain the pressure on empirical economists to include a structural theory section that has little relation to the reduced-form empirical analysis that forms the core of a paper. It also might explain why even though the economics literature is more and more filled with reduced-form empirical studies, theory papers are still very common on the job market.


Updates

Brad DeLong is annoyed with me for picking on Ananya Roy, and links to an essay of hers that he implies is much better than the paper I cited (and which is written in more-or-less plain English). But I didn't quote one of Roy's papers because I think she's a bad urban studies researcher (how would I even know if that were true?). My conjecture was that many successful urban studies profs will have written at least one or two papers like this - much like almost any top macroeconomist will have at least one or two theory papers with unrealistic assumptions and complex math that can't really be tested against data. I'm not trying to single out any individual for criticism.

Some commenters have been suggesting that critical theory is actually on the wane in the humanities. That is interesting; I don't know many humanities people, so I'm pretty uninformed about recent trends. I knew a bunch of Michigan humanities PhD students back in grad school, and they were all very into critical theory. I also met an incoming literature prof at Stony Brook who said she does "theory", and when I asked her "What kind of theory?", she blinked in surprise and asked "Are there multiple kinds?". So anecdotes suggest it ain't dead yet...

A commenter points out that, as usual, Feynman did this snark way before I did.

For much more on this, read about the AMAZING Sokal-hoax that a guy just pulled on some sociologists.

100 comments:

  1. hilzoy2:39 PM

    First: #NotAllHumanities. Second: consider an alternative. Suppose urban studies are actually *hard* to do well (as I believe. Cronon's Natures Metropolis, for instance, is not an easy book to write.) In that case, Theory might be a way of pretending to do something worth doing, even if one was not up to the hard work of doing urban studies well. Likewise, while I have no way of knowing whether this is true, hypermathy econ sounds like just the sort of thing one might do if one were not up to the job of actually understanding economies, but wanted to look useful nonetheless.

    Just a thought.

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    1. Nature's Metropolis is an admirable achievement, but it's readable by an outsider, as is witnessed by the fact that I read it. Its language communicates ideas. One is not left with the impression that there is an effort to obfuscate.

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    2. Oh, I agree. I just meant: it is really, really good, and writing something that good is really, really hard, and so people who suspect they can't do it have to do something else instead. Like maybe Theory.

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  2. Again, have you taken classes at a high level in where critical theory is applied, or is this just your hobby horse that supports your priors? This jargon may be over-defined, but tell me what academic works without some sort of obscurantism that is necessarily the result of years of study?

    That said, I didn't go beyond my masters in English for a reason - at that high level, it was mainly a discourse of the people who had bought in and it didn't really solve any outside problems. Nor did it really positively influence texts (though I will find people who disagree with that).

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    1. So you're saying I'm right. :-)

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    2. I'm not saying you're wrong.

      I just wonder if your continued denigration of the humanities is just some sort of thing where you're trying to draw a bright line between them and econ. Maybe it is a sort of reverse physics envy thing popping up.

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    3. Actually I was trying to draw an analogy...

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    4. Are you suggesting that critical theory has any content? Is it, in any way, information?

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    5. In life I assume that any content which is intentionally obscured is very unlikely to be useful.

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    6. Back before there were journals mathematicians and scientists would often intentionally encode their results and release the encoded version in order to claim priority without having to release the clear text. They could then use their result to solve other problems without revealing their method. When their result was independently discovered, they could then point to their encoded result and claim that they had discovered it first.

      Journals have eliminated some of this intentional obscuration.

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    7. I'm with J. Edgar, above. While humanities has its problems, so indeed does econ.

      Yeah, I'd agree that the math fixation in econ today is silly, especially because (as someone very clever pointed out recently) econ is where science and engineering students go when they fail math cos it's too hard for their widdle brains.

      But econ has another form of obscurantism too, where "heterodox" ideas (like those of Douglass North or JK Galbraith, say) are censored out in favour of "positive" economics. It's like cutting economics' cock off.

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    8. I am Responding to an Idiot12:56 PM

      You seem dumb.

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  3. Your friend could also have sent you:

    Or you could read...

    Ananya Roy: [The Land Question](https://lsecities.net/media/objects/articles/the-land-question/en-gb/), LSE Cities: "It is precisely land that *is* a problem...

    >...disputes over land are central to the politics of urban transformations around the world, from Kolkata to Detroit. Closely entangled with the land question is... ‘urban informality’: complex arrangements of tenure, ownership and shelter that cannot be easily converted into neat and tidy sales. Governing urban informality is thus tricky. On the one hand, such unsettled and unmapped land regimes present tremendous opportunity for powerful state action, notably evictions, dispossessions, and land grabs. On the other hand, such action can set in motion equally powerful social uprisings, or simply be confounded by the sheer inertia of urban informality. Let me return to the case of Kolkata to explain these points.

    >The land promised by one executive, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, to another, the Prime Minister of Singapore, is to be an industrial site. Billed as both ‘encroachment-free’ and ready ‘right now’ for the location of manufacturing industries, the site marks one of the many inter-Asian transactions through which a new era of modernisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation is being forged. It also marks some of the common problems that haunt such transnational alliances. For example, this particular plot of land, fantasized as empty of encroachers, and indeed of inhabitants, is one that has its share of squatters. Not surprisingly, these are labourers who migrated to the area from nearby villages to work on the various construction projects of the government. And despite the promise of readiness for global investment, there is little adequate infrastructure for industrialisation. To build such infrastructure requires not only substantial subsidies from the state but also the capacity to acquire land through eminent domain.

    >Thus, while the Chief Minister states ‘I can give the land right now if someone wants it,’ in the lower ranks of the bureaucracy, a district official says this about the widening of the one narrow road that serves the region: ‘We’ll need to acquire hundreds of acres of land as the road passes through many densely populated areas. Given the government’s hands-off land policy, a four-lane road to the Goaltore plot is a distant dream.’ The infrastructure problem, it turns out, is effectively a land problem...

    What column would you have written then?

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    1. If this meant to be an example of serious useful scholarship, realize that people who engage in obscurantism can also engage in serious, useful scholarship...

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    2. Does it really matter if its obscurantism or tendentious cant that a certain type of of economist engages in (cough, neo Fisherism, cough), and then declare victory, when another prominent economist spend 70 pages to find out that if everyone can do algebra in their heads, it might, just might possibly be true. So lets assume a can opener.. sorry I mean that people can, when experience teaches us that most people can't calculate a 20% tip.

      Or on the other side, we have the economist who knows that because they are now accounting for the financial sector their DSGE model is just going to nail it.

      Or how about a Noble committee that gives a prize to one economist, whose work is disproved by another economist who shared the prize.

      Or an entire field, which labored mightily to understand why they missed the second worse crisis in 80 years, only to discover it was for the same reason they missed the worst crisis 80 years ago.

      The difference between critical urban theory, or litcrit, or pomo philosophy or popomo art theory and economics isn't that it is easier for people to make fun . It is that economics matter and the nonsense that dominates the discourse, and therefore policy, affects everyone's life.

      So console yourself that as bad of writers most economist are, their obscurantism is couched in equations so it's harder for the unschooled to ridicule heir papers.

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    3. Anonymous12:57 PM

      All she's saying is that there are conflicts over the use of land. Nothing insightful there.

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    4. Actually she's saying a bit more. Prior ownership is often a serious obstacle to development. It is easy to argue that all a nation or city needs is capital and know-how, but existing tenure can make mock of that. Just as there is stickiness in wages and prices, there is stickiness in ownership that can make it difficult or even impossible to reach a market equilibrium.

      I agree, it isn't very profound, but it is often ignored or forgotten.

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    5. She's saying that in some developing countries, land rights are informal, so the government can implement a stealth tax on poor people in order to build infrastructure, by forcing those people off the land they're currently occupying.

      Yep, useful to know, but not a very difficult thing to figure out. Could be done by almost any journalist.

      Which kind of fits with my hypothetical - useful but easy stuff.

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  4. Anonymous3:19 PM

    I agree with hilzoy's point about what empty obscurantism might actually be trying to communicate.

    I also think that Noah's piece makes the mistake of conflating positive and negative arguments. It's one thing to point out that an essay is propped up on absurd rhetorical stilts; it's another thing entirely to argue that that essay is ultimately vacuous. In the case of Roy's essay, I think it actually is both intentionally convoluted and bogus. But there's a ton of humanities/urban studies work that's both presented in stilted prose *and* in possession of valid and hard-earned insight. As an archetypical example, I'd argue that Judith Butler actually has a lot of interesting and important things to say about gender, however (intentionally) unreadable she might be at times. The problem from an outsider's perspective is that it's a lot easier to spot terrible prose than it is to comb through a long manuscript trying to parse out legitimate insight. This can lead to the kind of conflation that I see Noah making: seeing a general pattern of pretentious writing, knowing that some of these pretentious papers are also likely devoid of any true scholarly value, and making a claim about the general lack of scholarly merit in some set of disciplines.

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    1. I was saying that although it might look vacuous to an outside observer, it's not. It's just some simple college-dorm-room ideas gussied up in neologisms and prolix verbiage.

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    2. Anonymous3:36 PM

      Within the context of scholarly production, "simple college-dorm-room ideas" is another way of saying "vacuous". What I'm arguing is that a lot of what gets produced in the field(s) that you're attacking goes well beyond this, and in any case, it'd be impossible to say either way by simply glancing at a few shittily written paragraphs.

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    3. If Butler has anything interesting to say, she should say it. If I have to parse her meanings, it's her problem. The difference with econ is that the most obscure theories do try to say something about the observable world. In other words, at least in principle, there should be a way of telling them right or wrong. Yes, math obscurantism is all over the place, but math has a fixed meaning at least.

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    4. Anonymous1:56 PM

      Presumably, no one here would expect a humanities PhD to determine whether an economic theory paper is accurate or useful. Why should the reverse be true?

      There may well be advantages to this "obscure" language, in the same way that Bourbaki-esque notation and abstraction is useful in economics. This is communication between experts; the notion that you should be able to understand it most likely reflects a disrespect for the given field itself.

      I don't envy any theorist whose primary tool of communication is verbal, but if I were put in that position, you may well expect a complex vocabulary to accompany complex ideas (or even simple ideas, rigorously stated). There may well be problems in the humanities, but we're not qualified to recognize them.

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    5. They are experts on what? How do you know that stuff has any content? Astrology used a complex language, too, yet it was totally empty.

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    6. Anonymous2:30 AM

      As I said, "There may well be problems in the humanities, but we're not qualified to recognize them." Noah himself has posted on various misguided critiques of economics by non-economists. There's no reason to think based on rigor of arguments presented here that we'll do any better in criticizing the humanities.

      Really, we should be asking humanities PhDs for their take before speculating ourselves.

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    7. Should we be also asking Astrologists for their opinion of their own contribution? The question is: is there any evidence current humanities "research" has anything to do with knowledge? Not necessarily scientific one? Is there more there than self-referential BS? if so, how would we know?

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    8. "Presumably, no one here would expect a humanities PhD to determine whether an economic theory paper is accurate or useful."

      I would. I would expect that a humanities PhD could understand any well put together piece of prose, with mathematical and empirical support. The fact that word limits and obscurantism in economics makes such clear prose rare is an indictment of economics as a profession, to some extent.

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    9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Ananya Roy3:56 PM

    Really enjoyed reading this. There is even a postmodernism generator website
    http://www.elsewhere.org/journal/pomo/
    Just keep refreshing this and every time it excretes a chunk of paragraphs just like Dr. Roy's you have cited. Even the name of the website (elsewhere) is a play on elsevier!!

    It's really tough to make economics research useful and enjoyable. But at least there is an environment in which hypothesis are stated and tested, or some simulation proof is provided for the conceptual mathematical model. It takes critical thinking (not Critical Theory!!) and objectivity to do this.

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  6. Agree about cartels, but I don't think they're that schematic or conspiratorial. Professors across disciplines really do believe they are contributing to something beyond themselves, to knowledge or truth, and grabbing territory and raising salaries is just a means toward those altruistic ends.

    Raising (or guaranteeing) salaries looks to me like an unintended consequence of what is proudly and loudly intended by economists and professors of humanities -- increasing the rigor of analysis. There is just about nobody who disagrees that increasing the rigor of analysis is a bad thing. But how do we do that? By opening up intellectual competition among disciplines, political ideologies, etc., or by constructing evermore elaborate apprentice programs designed to hone already-existing intellectual traditions *within* disciplines, ideologies, etc.?

    I can't really see any qualitative difference between increasing the complexity of grammar using any symbolic system, bourbakian notation in mathematics or latinate phrases in English. What's most dangerous for economics is its disregard for empirical observation outside of econometrics. Econometrics, just like theory itself, becomes a theoretical exercise and is subject to all of the same self referential signaling games as high theory is.

    Admiring each other's screw drivers isn't any more empirical than admiring each other's theories of how screws secure materials. The point is to turn some screws.

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    1. A cynical advantage to the increased use or mathematics and mathy-ness is that the economics field gets to use university math departments to thin the herd just like the engineering field does. Better still, the filter imposed by requiring calculus, statistics and differential equations is not always anticipated: while prospective engineers take AP Calculus and end up in a class where they already know half the material, prospective economists enter Calculus I and flunk out.

      Considering that the MBA

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    2. Points well taken on econ and econometrics, but where do you see increasing rigor in humanities? I see the opposite. DerridIan word plays sound simply pathetic.

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    3. Anonymous4:25 PM

      @Krzys You really need to get out more. Read American Historical Review, for example, and come back and talk.

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  7. Uttam P.4:55 PM

    nteresting read! It is one of those topics that political correctness might make it harder to have a proper discussion among scholars. Often it is hard to gauge the importance and rigorousness of a field that one is not involved in, thus one’s dismissal of the field that he/she is not involved could be due to nothing but a sheer ignorance. But on the other hand, there are quasi-universal standards set by academia that one could use to gauge the field. And it is not very hard to imagine that there exist fields that aren’t doing much but bullshitting each other and somehow managing to continue to exist.

    But again as I said earlier it is tricky to properly assess a field if you are an outsider. Only an insider would truly know how the field is. To be an insider, one needs to go through years of academic training, but by then either one could be brainwashed to believe that he/she is performing an important scholarship thus other should value it, or could realize that it is all bullshit but yet doesn’t want to dismiss his/her years of work and training thus one continues arguing that his/her field is critical and should be valued. One could argue the proper assessment of a given field could be done by those who left the field, but then the people in the field could always claim that the bitterness is talking not the person, because he/she failed to make a name and fame in the field thus ended of leaving. It’s a tricky subject matter.

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  8. Your point about barriers to entry is a sound one. But of course the whacking you administered to humanities is what gets the comments section riled up. So you may ask yourself, was that whacking bothr fair and central to my point?

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  9. You might be interested to learn that the philosopher Jon Elster has drawn an analogy between "hard and soft obscurantism" (econ and critical theory).

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    1. Cool! Got a good link?

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    2. Anonymous9:38 AM

      He devotes the last chapter of his book Explaining Social Behavior to this distinction. The whole book is very much worth a read: http://www.amazon.com/Explaining-Social-Behavior-Bolts-Sciences/dp/0521777445

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    3. Here is a paper (gated): http://dio.sagepub.com/content/58/1-2/159.extract

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  10. In geography prior to the 60s it was mostly just descriptive stuff. So, to make it into a real science in the 1960s in came a lot of the quantitative tools of economics. This was called the quantitative revolution and attracted me to study economics. But then in the 1970s there was a counter-revolution against this "Positivist" pro-laissez faire etc. approach and there was a turn to first Marxist and then critical theory approaches to replace the neoclassical style approach. By 1990 when I started my PhD this was reaching its peak and what drove me to shift towards economics over time (which I studied together with geography as an undergrad). Since then, the introduction of GIS has resulted in a more empirical but less theory heavy version of geography similar to what is happening in economics now. My understanding was that in the humanities critical theory was way past its heyday and now it is mostly a thing in the social sciences.

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    1. My understanding was that in the humanities critical theory was way past its heyday and now it is mostly a thing in the social sciences.

      That is interesting! Do you have any links to info about this?

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    2. I reckon people just presumed it was on the wane given the Sokal hoax etc

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  11. I generally agree with your point, except the part where you don't think of Economics as ideologically driven.

    http://blog.supplysideliberal.com/post/128894764282/what-is-indoctrination-and-how-is-it-different

    "What is indoctrination and how is it different from regular instruction? Indoctrination, suggests Christina Hoff Summers, is characterized by three features, the major conclusions are assumed beforehand, rather than being open to question in the classroom; the conclusions are presented as part of a “unified set of beliefs” that form a comprehensive worldview; and the system is “closed,” committed to interpreting all new data in the light of the theory being affirmed.
    Whether this account gives us sufficient conditions for indoctrination, and whether, so defined, all indoctrination is bad college pedagogy, may certainly be debated. According to these criteria, for example, all but the most philosophical and adventurous courses in neoclassical economics will count as indoctrination, since undergraduate students certainly are taught the major conclusions of that field as established truths which they are not to criticize from the perspective of any other theory or worldview; they are taught that these truths form a unitary way of seeing the world; and, especially where microeconomics is concerned, the data of human behavior are presented as seen through the lens of that theory. It is probably good that these conditions obtain at the undergraduate level, where one cannot simultaneously learn the ropes and criticize them–although one might hope that the undergraduate will pick up in other courses, for example courses in moral philosophy, the theoretical apparatus needed to raise critical questions about these foundations."

    General Equilibrium, Rational Expectations, Microfoundations, The parculiar definitions of "Rationality" and "Efficiency", Utility Optimization, etc. are all very ideologically driven, and if you do not conform to these standards, you are not accepted within the discipline. I've been told just how completely unreadable Econ papers are, not even talking about the math component, thanks to all of the Jargon.

    Might be less politically-motivated, but it doesn't necessarily require a particular political viewpoint to be ideologically-motivated.

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    1. If that is the definition of indoctrination, then most of college physics is indoctrination.

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  12. Dulimbai7:48 PM

    Yo do understand that this is exactly the point? Thomas Kuhn, which knew something about science, basically said that science requires barriers to entry to get amateurs out.

    A good explanation can be found here http://lesswrong.com/lw/lr/evaporative_cooling_of_group_beliefs/

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  13. Anonymous7:55 PM

    "Mathematical theory, of the type economists do, is hard to do..."

    Such barriers to entry should be erected so as to keep out the math and physics nerds that have destroyed economics.

    Henry.

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  14. Ghyl Tarvoke8:29 PM

    I think here you are giving too much importance to the gatekeeping/economic aspect of the most vacuous outpourings of Critical Theory. My experience as a history MA is that such academics give so little thought to economics and their economic situation that such thoughts rarely enter their minds. However, it probably has had the effect of reducing the intellectual diversity of many subjects, which in the humanities at least is a major shame and a problem.

    My theory is more straightforward and it's simple. Don't underestimate people's, even academics (perhaps especially academics), intellectual laziness and the desire to dress up their priors in language that looks 'intellectual' thus making your priors look smart and those who don't share your priors not so smart. In short the popularity of most of Critical Theory is due to the lazy man's guide to enlightenment, making something look intellectually difficult while not really challenging people at all. After all, it is not as if many of the core beliefs of large parts of critical theory once you remove the verbiage are not widespread among certain elements of society. And those elements are massively over represented among people liking to do a BA in literature or anthropology. Why are such beliefs so popular? Well, that's a different and difficult question.

    However, I do feel liking pointing out, as others have already alluded to, critical theory and postmodernism have had their day. It peaked in the 90s and belongs to the era of Seinfeld, Grunge, and Triangulation. Now there is a trend towards another ideology, bland progressivism and the fear of giving anything that looks like a controversial opinion. This, at least, is notable in History (I can't speak for literature, in Anthropology pomo is more prevalent but is certainly declining). Some have justified this as 'empiricism', and perhaps it is a needed reaction to what went before, but it is frequently driven by the same intellectual forces I've described above. The difference between Generation Y and the Boomers perhaps. Either way, the gatekeeping aspect is barely part of it.

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    1. +1 for Jack Vance username!

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    2. Anyway, interesting thoughts. I think mathiness is also declining in econ, and peaked in the early 80s. There's still quite a bit of it around, though. The decline is slow and gradual.

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    3. Academics don't need to have thought about the economics. Noah Smith is simply suggesting that "academic bullshit" will become established and will continue if it leads to more jobs and higher pay. The first fish to crawl out on land didn't think, "Wow, there's so much food up here and no competition. I'm going to leave lots of descendants." But that's what happened.

      That, of course, doesn't explain which academic b.s. will be most prevalent at any given time. Your second paragraph goes a way towards that.

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  15. Noah, I loved the article, and the epigraph. I liked it so much that I looked it up, and I noticed that the book by David Brin with that quote is actually called "Glory Season." Anyway, that's a beautiful excerpt, and it made a lot more sense after I read a plot summary and the remainder of the paragraph that follows your pick.


    https://goo.gl/nuFp2M

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    1. Whoops, Freudian slip! I've been craving atavistic adventure recently, and bored with the ennui of life, rather than embarking on a quest with my all-female sailor crew... :D

      Delete
  16. Academic obscurantism is mostly explained by the guru effect: http://www.dan.sperber.fr/wp-content/uploads/guru-effect.pdf

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  17. That spectacular final paragraph was totally incomprehensible to me. Within her group of peers, it was perhaps profound, but I don't know. I do know this: most of the goals of academics are personal.

    I wish academics were pursuing altruistic goals. Some do, but most don't. Why write incomprehensible paragraphs? I suspect it is just a matter of incestuous thoughts.

    A lot of people bash Krugman for speaking so plainly. I happen to think he's one of the only relevant economists today. His ideas are very plain in language but very complex in cognition. How many people understand it all? How many people challenge him? He needs to be challenged. This is a group effort!

    Honestly, can I keep up with him? Yes.

    I took an MBA test that eventually presented me with incomprehensible arguments like this. It looks like word salad. But I got a perfect score on the test.

    Is that IQ? The ability to keep complex arguments in cache? Is that all there is to it? I think so. I have a good short-term cache, and that gives me a high IQ.

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    1. IQ has a couple components; working memory is a key part of it, but not everything; there is a fairly good literature on the subject.

      Delete
  18. Land is the problem?

    I have a cousin that believes that land taxes are the solution to all problems.

    Land? I used to live in a townhouse that owned about 1/12 of an acre of land. I made a huge profit on that when I sold it, because it was the height of the real estate bubble.

    Land? 1/12 acre? Land value? In urban settings this is the main problem. But land value is related to the distance from economic hubs.

    I think everyone wants to value what they have. If you own land, you value land. If you own a pizza business, you value the food business. If you own money, you value the investment business.

    Word salad? You value peers over oversight.

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  19. Anonymous7:38 AM

    This is a meta-article. Noah is spewing bullshit to test us.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Yo!
    The key reference you missed was to Diego Gambetta's thesis on Italian professors: weakness, lack of originality and incompetence among the baroni.

    Crooked Timber has a great summary http://crookedtimber.org/2009/08/26/incompetence-as-a-signalling-device/

    You can't beat this for a heuristic:

    “Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity…. In the Italian academic world, the kakistocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”

    Certainly a mechanism to keep the sheep from straying from the flock.

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  21. I think there's a more traditional explanation that during the '60s-'70s when the baby boomers overwhelmed the job market and it was popular and still cheap to live the eternal student lifestyle, PHDs were invented in many new fields that were previously considered trades (eg the transforming of journalism departments into PHD-granting communications departments) and obscurantism flourished among the rapidly expanding PHD industry as a means of obscuring that there wasn't really that much new being discovered in most of these newly PHD-granting disciplines. Obscurantism as artificial barrier to entry seems strongest in these relatively new fields that only exist in academia, though it also invaded some ancient academic fields eg literary criticism.

    Economics seems to me of a different group, closer to something like archaeology where there is an inherent tendency towards jargon but not much selection for the entirely disconnected from utility.

    Romer was actually picking a very specific battle with "mathiness" against a creeping practice of published peer-reviewed papers whose formulas and text arguments don't agree. What he doesn't discuss is the problem of papers with too little prose argument for non-specialists to get any clue what the paper's about, which I think is a shame as there's not really any good reason not to provide the prose to explain your math, and doing so I think would greatly help many economists clarify their own thinking. On that score the popularity of econblogs can only help so keep it up.

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  22. This is a very real phenomena in the job market. When there are 2 or 3 applications for every opening, I have seen managers ask increasingly arcane questions of candidates in order to weed people out. HR puts up increasingly stringent requirements. These are people with econ and finance PhDs, not urban studies.

    Supply > demand is always a sign that prices are too high. If you cannot cut supply by lowering wages (because they are sticky for whatever reason), you cut it with higher entry barriers. As it was before and so it shall ever be.

    And, the fact that "critical studies" is on the wane does not disprove the point, it probably reinforces it: When people figure out the entry fee (interview questions, jargon, etc.), then the field or HR department needs to come up with a new game to play. At the end of the day, you can only hire 1 person (out of 2 or 3), and you have to justify it somehow.

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    1. "I have seen managers ask increasingly arcane questions of candidates in order to weed people out." - and when they do ask these of candidates during a panel interview, I am secretly glad I already have a job because I do not know what the eff they are asking.

      Delete
  23. Roger Scruton has a chapter that discusses this subject in depth in his book Modern Culture. Are you familiar with him?

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  24. Anonymous2:55 PM

    Reminds me of a funny example of Feynman parsing a postmodern sentence. Eg. See:
    http://askville.amazon.com/word-logorrhea-defined-commonly/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=63905043
    From that page:
    A sociologist brought a paper which he had written beforehand to the committee where Feynman served, asking everyone to read it. Feynman found it completely incomprehensible, and feared that he was out of his depth — until he decided to pick one sentence at random and parse it until he understood. The sentence he chose (to the best of his recollection) was:

    The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.

    Feynman “translated” the sentence and discovered it meant “People read”. The rest of the paper soon made sense in the same fashion.

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  25. "People who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief." - Sir Peter Medawar

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  26. Your last post, which references a graph from David Andolfatto, could be seen as a proper illustration of just how (in)significant modern economic theory is. Until data mining yields demonstrable policy results, the usefulness of empirics will be limited to establishing oneself with 'new' and 'innovative' research.

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    1. I am Responding to an Idiot1:41 PM

      Your post, which references BS from Noah Smith, could be seen as a proper illustration of just how insignificant you are in economic science. Until you go away, we'll just keep accumulating data points to that effect.

      Delete
  27. Anonymous6:05 PM

    The instability of your question leaves me with several contradictorily layered responses whose interconnectivity
    cannot express the logocentric coherency you seek. I can only say that reality is more uneven and its (mis)representations more untrustworthy than we have time here to explore.

    Or, in English: I liked this post.

    B.L. Zebub

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  28. Greedy Reductionist Theory on Critical Theory:

    Has anyone looked at the correlation or lack thereof of the levels of atmospheric lead ~20-25 years prior versus the number of citations of works by Post-Structuralists in academic papers?

    Or for that matter, the rise of Anti-Keynesian Macro in US Economics programs? (Moving the lag up 5-10 years to reflect the average age of young tenured professors as opposed to humanities graduate students.)

    ie. If atmospheric lead making people dumber, less rational and more selfish explains much of the crime wave among poorer young adults, why can't it explain Critical Theory and RBC?

    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline

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  29. Postmodern speak and, of course, the 'thought' that lies behind it and which it engenders is pathetic. But why has it happened and what keeps it on the rails? It seems like an intellectual virus of sorts rather than a professional economic ploy among those in the humanities.

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  30. I don't want to say yea or nay to your major premise, but I must dispute your casual use of the term "quasi-Marxist."

    As it happens, I have a friend who has recently suffered a kind of mid-life crisis and gone back to school to take up urban planning. Hitherto, she had seemed to be an entirely rational - even hyper-rational - person; an operations research specialist, Princeton doctorate, done her time in academia etc. And of course, there followed many hilarious moments during the supposedly "quantitative" sections of the course.

    Now, it is true that from your American perspective, you would consider her a "liberal". I, on the other hand, would simply say that she is an intelligent person who also happens to be a decent human being. But let us not start by quarreling; if she is "left-leaning", that merely sharpens the point.

    And the point is this: her class decided that some research was required into the nature of the local condominium market. She was the unanimous choice to undertake this research (in cooperation with her partner.) The reason was that her classmates were not "quasi"-Marxists, nor were the "crypto"-Marxists; they were Marxists full stop. They took it as read that "capitalism has failed." She had not a single classmate who could plausibly impersonate a prospective condominium buyer.

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  31. Anonymous8:21 PM

    The difficulty with posts like these is that they are by and large written by people who, judged by the standards of 200 years ago, would be considered illiterate, and are thus incapable of actually assessing the style or content of the things they complain about. The recourse to wholesale discounting as "bullshit!" or "obscurantism", rather than challenging particular claims, only seems to suggest an underlying insecurity that they might, in fact, be missing something. As a result, the possibility of meaningful distinctions and critiques of particular words or sentences--like "inaccurate," "vague", "non-sensical", "begging the question"--are swallowed up by posts like this that conflate Katz's "examples" with Roy's actual writing. (Presumably, if he had a shred of self-awareness, Stephen Katz would be very embarrassed about having written such a thing, which does more to reveal his own ignorance regarding the discourses circulating around him as it does to point up their absurdity; the same is true of Martha Nussbaum's attempt to 'translate' Judith Butler into 'everyday English', which show not that Butler is obscure but rather that Nussbaum doesn't know when she's out of her depth.)

    From the inside, the situation is somewhat different. For a competent humanities academic not in Roy's field, the abstract is easily readable but more or less empty; there are some stylistic errors (one would expect "be it *in*") and some eyebrow-raising claims (such as the final paragraph), but the abstract doesn't argue for something and get it wrong--it's just a bad abstract.

    The final paragraph is also easily readable and relates a minor anecdote about the paradoxical invocation by a local municipality of a particular Indian (Bengali?) poet, who both fantasized about rural Bengal and was amongst the first Bengali poets to write poems about urban life. There's no critical theory present; her claim about the "undecidability" of the urban is, on the basis of that paragraph, unfounded, but this doesn't make the text obscure, it just makes it bad.

    The real problem (or state of affairs, I suppose) is that, like many professions, you don't have to be particularly witty or bright to get a Ph.D., you just need to be willing to read a lot on a particular subject for low pay.

    "Und er dachte mit einem leichten Staunen: wenn wir damals Behauptungen aufstellten, so hatten sie auch noch einen anderen Zweck als den, richtig zu sein; eben den, uns zu behaupten! — So viel stärker war in der Jugend der Trieb, selbst zu leuchten, als der, im Lichte zu sehen"

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    1. Anonymous8:28 PM

      "...and some eyebrow-raising claims (such as the final paragraph)"

      Whoops, this should read "final sentence."

      Delete
    2. Yes, fully agreed. People should first try to have a closer look into the content before dismissing the scientific effort so lightly.But, why start with critical theory? Alchemy and astrology are awaiting their turn in the sun, too. Don't dismiss it until you know it through and through.

      Delete
    3. Cool story, bro.

      Delete
    4. I took the "paradoxical invocation", and really the whole of the quoted material, as rather a coded critique of the definitions "rural" and "urban" themselves. Perhaps a more direct critique would have received too much push-back from too many quarters.

      Delete
    5. Seems to me anon you are agreeing with the complaint about academic obscurantism: it's the use of an artificial dialect, which only practitioners would invest in learning how to read, to create a false impression of sophistication. The only oddity is you seem inexplicably proud of your fluency in said dialect.

      Delete
  32. Anonymous12:34 PM

    How does one say in one place:

    "It seems pretty obvious that humanities departments have been almost entirely consumed by this sort of thing. Any semblance of objectivity (whatever that would even mean in the humanities!) is gone, replaced by pervasive quasi-Marxist doofiness."

    And then admit later on:

    "I don't know many humanities people, so I'm pretty uninformed about recent trends."

    I'm not real confident in your judgement on this to say the least.

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    1. Well, I knew a lot of humanities people in 2010, so I know critical theory was pretty dominant five years ago. It's just the very last 5 years I'm less aware of, but that doesn't really affect my point at all.

      So go stick your nose in a rubber hose. :D

      Delete
  33. Anonymous4:12 PM

    Welcome to another day at Noah's blog

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  34. I think you should consider that you simultaneously announce that you don't know what goes on in humanities programs and yet are doggedly attached to the idea that critical theory is dominant (despite it being very out of fashion in many locales). Doesn't that tell you that your stance here is emotional and affective rather than informed? Isn't the most likely reality that there's nothing about humanities research that could compel you to look beyond the stereotype that leaves you looking like the more serious, more important person?

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    1. My impression, from talking to a bunch of humanities people at Michigan and a couple at Stony Brook, is that critical theory basically took over the humanities in the 90s and is still quite prevalent, though a little less dominant than before. Humanities people I'm talking to on the internet agree. Since I haven't done a systematic literature review, I am basically being a journalist here - asking insiders to give their impression. But it's clear from even a cursory glance at the literature that critical theory is still very common, which speaks to my point.

      So hush. :-)

      Delete
  35. If the econ profession is shifting towards empirics, then maybe you shouldn't write articles full of speculation based on individual cherry picked anecdotes? Sociology based on the retweet is terrible sociology. That paper was most likely shown to you because it was *unusual*.

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    1. Econ is shifting toward empirics, but the econ job market is still weighted towards theory (as demonstrated in the link I sent). And there's big pressure on empirical paper writers to include theory sections that aren't closely related to (and are thus unnecessary for) the main empirical part of the paper.

      Delete
  36. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Look, Noah, you want to speculate on why one observes this kind of prose? Fine--but you really need to signal that ahead of time, and speculate about competing hypotheses to account for your lack of knowledge of the full span of facts. (You should also check your bias at the door. Econ, even when empirical, is CHOCK FULL of BS posing as "science," including a large chunk of its methods and theory--and lots of that bs survives because of arrogance and blinders in the discipline. Econ is not unique for this, but it's pretty dire there.)

    As it is, take it from someone who is in the social sciences and outside econ (but familiar with econ, soc, polisci, anthro, etc.). There is jargon, much of it of dubious value, but some of it potentially useful. (What one person calls "jargon" another calls "nomenclature" to make sense of or point out social dynamics that don't quite fit in the existing "scientific" vocabulary.) Mainstream soc & polisci are pretty straightforward, and the conceptual problems (e.g. what is an "institution" anyways?) are common throughout the social sciences. The kind of jargon you are pointing out here is more common in subdisciplines, such as race & gender studies (and even then, not defining of those subdisciplines). Sometimes that is because one almost needs a new vocabulary to talk about what "gender" really is (hint: it doesn't fit easily into a logistic regression model, when all is said and done). Same for "power."

    I will agree with you somewhat: part of the linguistic game is related to gatekeeping and status. And here I'll speculate: my gut feeling is that, as a rule, jargon increases the more lit crit is involved in the field of study. The headache that comes to mind when we think "post-modernism" (and well captured in the post-modern generator) is more related to lit crit. Post-modernism as used in anthro, soc, or history is often more about a focus of study (such as non-elite discourses) or being careful about how "power" operates, than making up a new universe based on words. There also seems to be a national component here: British social science is more jargony, ceteris parabis, than American social science. Sometimes that is to cover up weak methods (use flowery language to make it seem a finding is significant--similar to the Feynman story).

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    1. I am Responding to an Idiot1:49 PM

      Making assertions and posting them on a crappy blog does not make them true. It is clear that you know nothing about economics.

      Delete
    2. "British social science is more jargony, ceteris parabis, than American social science."

      Couldn't disagree more.

      Delete
  37. Anonymous12:41 PM

    You have missed a trick. LAW is also not rocket science and there is a steady supply of unhappy lawyers who want to go back into teaching. The legal academy has always used credentials as a screening mechanism -- for instance law review editorships and clerking on the Supreme Court. Nowadays they expect prospective hires to have written a serious article at least in draft form, which is no picnic if you are billing 2500 hours a year in a law firm at the same time.

    The legal academy too had a period of critical legal studies, starting in the late 70s, but CLS is in a serious decline. Many CLS'ers were denied tenure; young faculty who figured out that CLS is not a good career choice if you want tenure started writing other stuff. The marketability of CLS depends entirely on the left vs right political orientation of a law school faculty.

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  38. Don't be worried about making Brad mad. He's a defender of the elites.

    His elite friends caused the financial housing bubble and subsequent collapse.

    He's the last person anyone should listen to.

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  39. Jiami Jia10:00 PM

    That's nice to see.

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  40. Good one.

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  41. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  42. It is quite funny when Feynman mocks people calling reading for visual communication to individual members of the community with symbolic means.

    But in mathematics we say that a function from A to B is a subset R \subset A x B such that for all a in A there is a b in B such that (a,b) is in R, and for any (a,b),(a',b') in R we have that a=a' implies b=b'.

    Feynman enters: haha, you just say that a function can take any value and spit out a unique value.

    While he is correct, the function definition is not pointless. Mathematicians frequently struggled around the definition of a function before someone cared to write it down.

    When someone in humanities talks about reading as symbolic communication, it *could* be because they consider reading as one instantiation of a broader class of communication, where it is relevant to distinguish between symbolic and non-symbolic communication. For example, the degree of symbolism in communication is important to whether the communication is relevant only to an in-group or to an out-group.

    In Economics, we have countless examples of making concepts more abstract and removed from everyday experience, which in the end gives us much stronger explanatory power in everyday experience (for example, conceptualizing assets as state-contingent claims is a bit weird, but very smart).

    Take-away is that it is silly to take a sentence or even a paper, say that it can be written more easily, and dismiss the enterprise as obscurantist. Sure, many postmodernists *are* obscurantist, but here I trust the judgement of insiders more (like Foucault's dismissal of Derrida) as it must be more a holistic judgment than citing a text and laughing. The laughing exercise could be done in good mathematics, physics and economics without any problems.

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  43. You certainly have some agreeable opinions and views. Your blog provides a fresh look at the subject.
    Intraday Stock Tips

    ReplyDelete
  44. I don't really buy the idea that the humanities are more obscurantist than other domains (or that Frankfurt School derived parts of the humanities are especially obscurantist), for a couple reasons.

    I don't deny that there are obscurantist elements, or elements of shibboleth, or that neologisms are used. In fact, I would make the argument that neologisms are used more often than is strictly necessary for the ostensible content. However, this is normal: we use neologisms as shibboleth outside the humanities as well, and we furthermore use specialized vocabulary to add nuance. "Baudrillardian" and "Ballardian" have different meanings to someone who has read Baudrillard and Ballard, in the same way that "Orwellian" has a different meaning to someone who has read both 1984 and Animal Farm than it does to someone who only understands the term from cultural osmosis.

    Your writing in the post is, of course, full of terms that act as shibboleth -- but they are shibboleth for a different community. You don't have to be a Marxist to understand the nuances of the writing in critical theory, but it helps to have read Marx (and to have read other formative works) in order to recognize when a reference is being made, in precisely the same way that it helps to recognize the original context of the phrases "a body in motion" or "spooky action at a distance" (which, after all, are rich in history and metaphor and nuance and are not exact, minimal, or precise summaries of the math they ultimately describe) -- or for that matter, to understand the semi-jocular way in which someone might say "billions and billions".

    For that matter, it helps for readers reading your post to understand that, ultimately, you are talking to an audience that has been primed by Feynman and by the Skokal Affair to consider everything other than physics to be varying degrees of abstract and unfalsifiable navel-gazing wank; someone without that particular set of assumptions is unlikely to find the suggestion that the passages you quote are obscure to be believable.

    The style used in the fields you criticize says several things on several levels. On the most literal level, it explains the author's point. One level down, it indicates the author's familiarity with his or her proximate sources. One level below that, it indicates the author's familiarity with foundational texts -- and this is also normal in the sciences (it's the equivalent of using "F=ma" rather than substituting completely new variables each time: you can assume readers are familiar with "F=ma" and so you save time in explaining the meaning of each variable and the function of the equation; likewise "the author is dead" or "there is no X under late capitalism" or "deferance" are indications that the reader should consult his or her knowledge of certain foundational texts and use that to interpret the current work). Finally, there are indications that the author understands and is willing to work within the norms of the academic culture. Again, your post does this: the only purpose of the post is to signal that you are in line with the ideological norm of having contempt for the writing style of Frankfurt School derived theorists, because the post contains no information that is new to the intended audience (other than the implicit acknowledgement that you agree with its content, which could be expected but not predicted with complete accuracy from other variables).

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    1. Anonymous12:47 PM

      Thank you, that was needed and articulate. Agree wholeheartedly. (Let me add that the Sokol affair was a cheap shot--not entirely unnecessary, and not entirely undeserved, but a cheap shot nonetheless, and that whole affair was totally oversimplified by just about everyone.)

      I think part of the trap that Noah falls into (and not for the first time) is the horrific organization of the humanities and social sciences, and from there their balkanization. If the humanities and social sciences were organized like the natural sciences--by levels of organization--then economists couldn't retreat from the many valid criticisms (theoretical, empirical, etc.) that others raise--and vice versa. As it stands, people in disciplines and subdisciplines and interdisciplinary fields can always retreat to home turf, where--as you say--they have a better understanding of the various texts and vocabularies and language games involved. We get this in the freshwater-saltwater split in economics; postmodernists versus positivists in other social sciences (and woe to those of us who try to transcend that divide, sometimes); etc. Sometimes what I see as "obfuscation" is a deep discussion in the different language of that subfield; sometimes it really is obfuscation; sometimes it is other scholars fooling themselves. Parsing it all out with side commentary not well grounded in knowing the real state of that subfield won't really help things.

      Noah has, at times, called out economists--although if he really wanted to put in the honest effort, he could go much further than he has (or has Romer, for that matter). "Jargon" can be really important for conceptualization--what we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence (not always a good thing)--and nothing in Critical Theory or postmodernism is as difficult to grasp as the IUPAC system for organic chemistry (and has anyone gone after THAT mess--albeit a useful mess)?

      Delete
    2. tldr: Post-modern gibberish is actually just like physics because terms and stuff

      Delete
  45. Yes, the Sokal affair was a cheap shot. Anyone can get published in a Chemistry journal, for example. Just use a bunch of weird chemistry jargon and no-one will know the difference! Sokal was being unfair to the fragile post-modernist professors who are society's true victims, in a way.

    I have been primed by my education to write concisely and detect B.S when it shows up. You clearly have not.

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  46. I defend obscure postmodern writing: http://robertvienneau.blogspot.com/2015/12/obscure-postmodern-language.html

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