August 24, 2007

Dinner with the deep-sea divers

Back in November of 2006, Stephen J. Dubner, the journalist half of the Freakonomics blogging team, explained to his readers why he finds "Economist-Speak" problematic:

I try to keep up with the current economics literature, which means reading quite a few papers and a whole lot of abstracts. Most of the literature isn't very interesting or meaningful to me (this is simply a matter of preference); and some of it might be interesting or meaningful but I am unable to tell. Why? Because the language of economists is often -- not always, certainly, but often -- deeply obtuse.

It's a bit less clear what the topical economics hook was for his difficulties in understanding David Beaver's paper on the interaction of factive verbs and implicatures, but I suspect that he was mostly motivated by the desire to find an occasion to repeat a witty put-down:

The above paragraph reminded me ... [of] a comment once made by a grouchy New York Times writer discussing another New York Times writer who had just received a promotion: "He writes as if he were badly translated from the Croatian."

This reminds me, in turn, of a story Sylvain Bromberger once told me, to the effect that he had chosen a problem to investigate, and explored a particular hypothesis about it, all in order to be able to write a paper in which he could make use of a certain witticism that had occurred to him.

I suspect that this was not really true, but it made a good story. In any case, Sylvain's enterprise inspires me to quote from the start of a paper by Dubner's co-author, Steven D. Leavitt, about the economics of asymmetric communication:

The standard principal-agent model neglects the potentially important role of information transmission from agent to principal. We study optimal incentive contracts when the agent has a private signal of the likelihood of the project's success. We show that the principal can costlessly extract this signal if and only if this does not lead her to intervene in the project in any way that will influence its outcome. Intervention undermines incentives by weakening the link between the agent's initial effort and the project's outcome. If possible, the principal commits not to cancel some projects with negative expected payoffs.

And this quotation -- which, like the passage from David's paper, is straightforward to those who know the terminology and the conceptual history, but baffling to outsiders who merely know the ordinary meanings of English words -- sets up my chance to quote a clever put-down of obtuse academic writing, from p. 190 of Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin: A Life:

In letters to E.H Carr and Alan Bullock, Isaiah wrote scathingly about the positivist pedantry of American social science. He probably had not read much of it, but this did not prevent him from remarking that American academics wrote with all the grace of a deep-sea diver sitting down to a dinner party.

[Update -- Matthew Rankine writes:

Surely when Dubner describes academic writing as obtuse (which you later repeat), he means to say abstruse? I asked a question about this over on Metafilter a while ago, and it seems to be popping up all over the place recently.

Yes, I think this was a malapropism, though one where there is some overlap in meaning. The OED give obtuse the sense

2. fig. a. Annoyingly unperceptive or slow to understand; stupid; insensitive. Also, of a remark, action, etc.: exhibiting dullness, stupidity or insensitivity; clumsy, unsubtle.

which might almost fit the case to some extent, depending on what he meant. However, Ken Wilson wrote that

Using obtuse as a rough synonym of abstruse is Nonstandard, and you should avoid it.

and Paul Brians also flags it as an error:

When you mean to criticize something for being needlessly complex or baffling, the word you need is not “obtuse,” but “abstruse.”

So yes, Dubner is yet another victim of the Harman/Skitt/McKean Law of Prescriptive Retaliation, or perhaps of an amendment affecting those who complain about bad writing.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 24, 2007 07:00 AM