impressive but not informative

From the economist, David Hakes:

Think back to your first years in graduate school. The most mathematically complex papers required a great deal of time and effort to read. The papers were written as if to a private club, and we felt proud when we successfully entered the club. Although I copied the style of these overly complex and often poorly written papers in my first few research attempts, I grew out of it quite quickly. I didn’t do so on my own. I was lucky to be surrounded by mature confident researchers at my first academic appointment. They taught me that if you are confident in your research you will write to include, not exclude. You will write to inform, not impress. It is with apologies to my research and writing mentors that I report the following events.

The preference falsification in which I engaged was to intentionally take a simple clear research paper and make it so complex and obscure that it successfully impressed referees. That is, I wrote a paper to impress rather than inform—a violation of my most closely held beliefs regarding the proper intent of research. I often suspected that many papers I read were intentionally complex
and obscure, and now I am part of the conspiracy.

I suspect that adding overly-complex math to a paper is specific to economics, but I also suspect that every social science has issues like this, whether it’s writing 20 more pages of text than you need or adding extra controls to your model that don’t really improve the specification. Generally I think the review system works great. My papers have improved over the course of the review process.  But I can also see alternative ways of writing papers that might lead to clearer arguments, more straightforward results, etc. Altering the way we write articles though requires cooperation from reviewers who prefer to hold on to the conventions we’d like to see changed. And, in a way, even if they aren’t very efficient in distributing information or developing theory, these conventions may be effective in reducing conflict about the “right way” to do research.

Written by brayden king

September 14, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, research

5 Responses

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  1. Talcott Parsons must be as guilty of this as any economist.


    Michael F. Martin

    September 14, 2009 at 11:25 pm

  2. Indeed. He was also tried and convicted of it forty or fifty years ago, and that was pretty much that.



    September 14, 2009 at 11:41 pm

  3. I feel this way about a lot of Continental theory.



    September 15, 2009 at 1:30 am

  4. But enslavement to jargon, whether inherited or invented, is, certainly, a bad quality in any writer, whether he be a philosopher or not. It curtails the number of people who can understand and criticise his writings; so it tends to make his own thinking run in a private groove. The use of avoidable jargons is bad literary manners and bad pedagogic policy, as well as being detrimental to the thinker’s own wits.

    But this is not peculiar to philosophy. Bureaucrats, judges, theologians, literary critics, bankers and, perhaps above all, psychologists and sociologists would all be well advised to try very hard to write in plain and blunt words. None the less, Hobbes who had this virtue of writing plainly and bluntly was a lesser philosopher than Kant who lacked it; and Plato’s later dialogues, though harder to translate, have powers which his early dialogues are without. Nor is the simplicity of his diction in Mill’s account of mathematics enough to make us prefer it to the account given by Frege, whose diction is more esoteric.

    In short there is no a priori or peculiar obligation laid upon philosophers to refrain from talking esoterically; but there is a general obligation upon all thinkers and writers to try to think and write both as powerfully and plainly as possible. But plainess of diction and power of thought can vary independently, though it is not common for them to do so.

    Incidentally it would be silly to require the language of professional journals to be as esoteric as the language of books. Colleagues can be expected to use and understand one another’s terms of art. But books are not written only for colleagues. The judge should not address the jury in the language in which he may address his brother judges. Sometimes, but only sometimes, he may be well advised to address even his brother judges, and himself, in the language in which he should address the jury. It all depends on whether his technical terms are proving to be a help or a hindrance.



    September 15, 2009 at 2:41 am

  5. I’ve heard that in some areas of economics (e.g. labor, development), the tide has been turning over the past decade. Math Models are getting relegated to appendices. Empirical work is getting highlighted. Abstracts tell the hypothesis, identification strategy and results. So do the beginnings of seminars.



    September 17, 2009 at 1:35 am

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