Academic gobbledygook

Much has been written about the poor quality of academic writing. Examples include Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychology professor, explaining why academics stink at writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and author Victoria Clayton, describing the needless complexity of academic writing in an article in The Atlantic. Pinker points to literary analysis (e.g., when scholars “lose sight of whom they are writing for”), cognitive science (e.g., when scholars know too much and have “difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know”) as well as economic incentives (e.g., because scholars have “few incentives for writing well”). According to Clayton, “Academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers.”

When are scholars going to get the message?

The following is the first sentence in the introduction of a paper submitted to Agriculture and Human Values: “This paper will explore how environmental documentaries through their use of direct address and creative aesthetics and imaginaries foreground a range of cautionary tales around the ethical importance of modes of food production, waste, and (over)consumption.” The paper concludes with this: “The toxic materiality of the eco-documentary … is a matter of a complex network of social and material effects, involving not only the immediate material of the DVD or film strip, but also the design and mass manufacture of technology, travel and transportation, land use and accessibility.”

I rejected the paper for publication. This is what I wanted to say to the author: “I am rejecting your paper because it is utterly incomprehensible. Too much of it is scholarly mumbo jumbo and academic goggledygook. I do not know what you are saying and don’t want to spend any more time trying to figure it out. Learn how to write clearly and simply before submitting a paper to my journal.”

Of course I was more diplomatic. My response began this way: “Critiques of the food system and assessments of ethical issues relating to food production fit within the aims and scope of this journal. However, I struggle to see the contribution of your paper to the kinds of debates we see published here and in similar outlets …”

Sigh.

Interestingly, dictionary.com gives this definition for goggledygook: “language characterized by circumlocution and jargon, usually hard to understand.” Circumlocution? Really? Merriam-Webster’s is better: “wordy and generally unintelligible jargon.” Maybe Dictionary.com has too many academics working for them.

 

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The boiling frog metaphor

We’ve all heard the story. You place a frog in a pot of boiling water and it jumps out to safety. You put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat and it cooks to death. It’s a great metaphor. If we are unaware of problems that develop slowly, we may never recognize there is something to be concerned about until it is too late.

Recently, a writer describing a contemporary musical number used the metaphor (here) to explain how “people wouldn’t realize they’ve been suckered into a musical until it was too late.”

However, the truth is that the story is not true. You put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog gets agitated and jumps out. In fact, it’s really hard to keep a frog still enough in a pot of water to test the theory. Some scientists did this in the 1800s producing mixed evidence for the boiling frog story. Today experts generally agree that the boiling frog story is hogwash, or perhaps better said, “frogwash”.

Economic models, high-priced consultants and ethical analysis

A colleague sent me a ProPublica article that explains how some “professors make more than a thousand bucks an hour peddling mega-mergers.” That’s a lot of money, even by consulting standards. MBA business consultants can charge between $200 and $600 an hour. Top partners in consulting firms might charge between $800 and $1200. A Wall Street Journal article in 2011 reported that top lawyers charged as much as $1000 an hour. But some economists are pulling in $1300 an hour as consultants.

To be fair, in a free market buyers and sellers should be able to negotiate for exchange prices. If someone is demanding $1300 an hour for their services and another is willing to pay it, then there is nothing objectionably wrong about the arrangement.

In this case the economic consultants are hired by firms that want to merge with or acquire other companies. The consultants are tasked with building a strong case, based on solid and objective economic principles and evidence, that the merger is in the interest of the industry, business, consumers and everyone else. What makes the article interesting is not that there are high priced economic consultants. It is that these consultants often get the antitrust analysis wrong. They build the arguments on speculation. They ignore or trivialize inconsistent or contradictory evidence. They use “junk science,” in the words of a Justice Department official quoted in the article.

A cynic might say that companies are paying the economists whatever price they will accept to argue whatever the company wants them to say, regardless of economics. Apologies to my lawyer friends, but isn’t this what lawyers do? So economists are on the same level as lawyers now?

Economics is a science. And economic models, when used appropriately, can provide a degree of objective assessment. The subjectivity comes in determining which economic models to use and what evidence to incorporate into the analysis. The ethical problem arises when the prospect of financial gain (in this case, a $1300 an hour contract) influences which models and what evidence to utilize. As noted by the authors, “The government’s reliance on economic models rests on the notion that they’re more scientific than human judgment. Yet merger economics has little objectivity. Like many areas of social science, it is dependent on assumptions, some explicit and some unseen and unexamined. That leaves room for economists to follow their preconceptions, and their wallets.”

The implication is that government regulators might be convinced a proposal is best for stakeholders (notice I didn’t use the word stockholders) when it is really only in the interest of the company seeking the merger–and comes at the expense of other stakeholders. In the case of a proposed merger between cell phone companies AT&T and T-Mobile, the economic consultant wanted to make this argument: “That even though prices would have risen for customers, the companies would have achieved large cost savings. The gain for AT&T shareholders … would have justified the merger, even if cell phone customers lost out.”

Let’s hear it for the economists.

New issue of Agriculture and Human Values in print

The next issue of Agriculture and Human Values, volume 33, number 4, has just been published. The table of contents as well as links to papers (for those with access rights) is available here. This issue contains twelve regular papers, two discussion papers, the presidential address given at the 2016 meetings of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, a special symposium, and several book reviews.

The regular papers are summarized as follows: Specht et al identify factors relating to the acceptance by stakeholders of farms in and on urban buildings in Germany. Cederlöf revisits the agroecology versus industrial agriculture debate through a study of low-carbon urban farming in Cuba. Warner studies the ability and willingness of smallholder farmers to adapt to climate change and trade policy changes in Costa Rica. Wairimu et al use a case study from northern Uganda to examine the interplay between humanitarian services and development policies. Jaffee and Howard analyze similarities and differences among four US fair trade certification programs. Schupp uses national, regional and census tract data to evaluate the location of farmers markets in the US. McIntyre et al expand Poppendieck’s Sweet Charity critique of contemporary food banks through a careful review of the literature. Carson et al conduct a study of vendors and patrons of farmers’ markets in order to determine how information exchanges affect consumer purchasing behavior. Robinson et al examine the ability of mobile food markets to address food security needs in a case study from Syracuse, New York. Tobin et al critically evaluate the ability of pro-poor value chains to enhance the food security of participants in their study of farmers in Peru. Gillespie et al examine the reasons U.S. farmers choose to raise goats for meat production. Berry et al assess the agrarian attitudes of Australians through an innovative quantifiable index.

The discussion consists of two papers. Mueller, et al provide a critique of a previously published paper examining the empirical relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and organic farming. McGee, the author of the original paper on greenhouse gas emissions, writes a response to the critique. The 2016 AFHVS presidential address, “Decoding diversity in the food system: Wheat and bread in North America,” is by Phil Howard (from Michigan State University). Lincoln Addison (from Memorial University) and Matthew Schnurr (from Dalhousie University) edit a special symposium of papers on the topic of labor, gender and sources of agrarian change.

Prisoner’s Dilemma and presidential campaigns

I introduced my microeconomics class today to game theory. Doing so gave me an opportunity to explain why US presidential campaigns are filled with so much hateful and ugly rhetoric. Why can’t politicians be nicer, speak to the issues, and avoid the hurling of mud at their political opponents? Why do we see so many negative campaign adds? Game theory, particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma, provides insight here. In a previous post I described briefly what the Prisoner’s Dilemma is.

pd-election

Consider this figure, which depicts the campaign strategies of Donald Trump (“Trump”) and Hillary Clinton (“Hillary”). Trump and Hillary can be nice or mean. If both are nice and avoid negative campaigning, they each split the Electoral College (EC) votes, with one getting a few more than the other for a win. The same outcome occurs if both play mean and nasty and spew hateful rhetoric at the other, but now the tone of the campaign is harsh and leaves a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. With 270 EC votes needed to win, as of this writing Trump was declared the winner with 279 EC votes. Thus they split the EC with Trump getting a few more but doing so with a very negative campaign–an inferior outcome for everyone.

If Trump is nice and takes the high road but Hillary is mean, she will get most of the EC votes. Similarly, if Hillary takes the high road while Trump is mean, he will win most of the EC. In other words, negative campaigning works, which is why both have an incentive to campaign negatively. That is, both Trump and Hillary have a dominant strategy to sling mud. Regardless of whether Hillary is nice or mean, Trump is better off being mean and campaigning negatively–when Hillary is nice, for Trump getting most of the EC by being mean is better than getting about half by being nice, and when Hillary is mean, getting about half of the EC by being mean is better than getting only a few EC votes by being nice. Similarly, regardless of whether Trump is nice or mean, Hillary is better off being mean and campaigning negatively. This produces a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma outcome.

Most people will prefer that the candidates remain nice and civil during the campaign. For example, the Pew Research Center said this (here) about this year’s presidential campaign: “The presidential campaign is widely viewed as excessively negative and not focused on important issues. Just 27% of Americans say the campaign is “focused on important policy debates,” which is seven points lower than in December, before the primaries began.” Interestingly, a 2000 Gallup survey found that “negative campaigning [is] disliked by most Americans” and that most people felt that the presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush “may be one of the most negative presidential elections in recent history.” Maybe every presidential contest is the worst one in history.

But since the game candidates play is a Prisoner’s Dilemma, the expected and actual outcome is one in which both are mean and nasty.

How do we resolve the Prisoner’s Dilemma in this case? Standard solutions that scholars have examined, such as repetition and institutional rules promoting cooperation and punishing defection, can’t apply or won’t work in political campaigns. The only seemingly viable option is for players of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to have high moral values so that they avoid the incentives to be mean to each other. If both players of this game are virtuous and possess high integrity, and each knows the other player is that way, then maybe we can see political campaigns and elections that are civil and informative.

It’s best to be far on the right side of the line, not close to it

I am reading Maureen O’Hara‘s book, Something for Nothing: Arbitrage and ethics on Wall Street. Professor O’Hara is a financial economist at Cornell University. In her book she explains how modern finance works and what led to many of the contemporary ethical scandals of Wall Street. I’ll probably have more to say about the book after I finish it, but I enjoyed this tidbit:

Some people want to stay as close to the legal line as possible, while remaining on the “right” side of that line. However, Professor O’Hara says, “laws reflect moral standards, and over time the laws change to reflect what is acceptable to society. … But that also highlights why a strategy of being exactly on the line of legality is a poor business practice; when the lines shift, you go from being a weasel to being a felon, even when you have done nothing differently.”

Adopting an ethical standard is a higher one than merely following the letter of the law. So being on the right side of the ethical line, even close to it, can keep you from falling into the “weasel” category. But adopting a strategy of staying close to the ethical line can cause problems. There are differing ethical perspectives, and these don’t always agree or even provide clear-cut answers. Therefore, if you really want to follow a strategy of ethical conduct, it is best to stay as far away from the ethical line as possible–if there really is such a thing as an ethical line anyway.

Commitment by default

The University of Missouri is set to announce soon that an administrator from the University of Connecticut will be named president of the University of Missouri system. The University of Missouri sought to hire a new system president with Tim Wolfe resigned as system president in late 2015. His resignation followed protests by students, faculty and alumni over his handling—or lack of handling—of events that underscore a problem of racial tensions on campus. As a faculty member at the University of Missouri, I hope the hiring of a new system president will commence a healing that is sorely needed within our community. I also hope that if he is indeed capable, the new system president will stick around for a while.

Whenever a president or leader of an organization is forced to resign, I often wonder why it came to that. Was the leader really that bad or incompetent? Why couldn’t the leader and other affected parties work things out? More generally, why is it, following a crisis within an organization, that there is an immediate call for resignation, effort to impeach, or organized effort to see that “heads roll” (figuratively speaking)? Why isn’t there first a concerted effort to work through difficulties and differences? It is as if the default reaction is “get rid of the leader” rather than “let’s see if we can work this out.”

I think there is a lesson here if we think about something analogous in marriage. When things go wrong in a marriage, the default reaction seems to be for the couple to split rather than to overcome and problem-solve. The principle of no fault divorce that is so common in society has now become divorce by default. In contrast, why isn’t commitment the default?

My wife and I have been married for more than 28 years. It has not always been easy. We have said things we should not have said and haven’t said things we should have said. We’ve taken each other for granted, been inconsiderate and otherwise acted like humans unfortunately often do. But one of the reasons our marriage has lasted so long is because we are committed to each other. For us, commitment is the default, not divorce. I know my wife will not bail on me when things get difficult, and she knows the same about me. When we married, we made a commitment to each other that we accepted as binding. My religion’s theology also tells me that our marriage will be binding forever–that is, in this life and in the next. Now that is a long-term commitment!

Because my wife and I are committed and because each of us knows the other is committed, we have learned to work things out and our marriage is better because of it. I can only imagine what my life would be like for me today if divorce were our default. I suspect I would be trying to figure out how to help my children manage a two household situation.

When commitment is the default, parties in a relationship—whether in marriage or within an organization—have a long-term perspective. They see the potential the partnership can become and thus are willing to work to make that vision happen. This requires a willingness to compromise as well as an ability to see things through another’s eyes. It requires mutual respect. It fosters not only an accurate recognition of our faults and the weaknesses of others but also a realization that people can and do change. Commitment by default does not mean that separation should never happen. Rather, it means giving the relationship and those within it a benefit of the doubt. Divorce or separation is a last resort and only when there is a strong and compelling reason that healing and improvement will not be possible or if a continuation of the relationship will be physically or emotionally harmful.

When divorce rather than commitment is the default, parties in a relationship tend to be short-sighted and selfish. They see things primarily through their own limited understanding and fail to appreciate the perspective, values and interests of others. They see the motes in the eyes of others without recognizing the beams in their own. They want others to change but they don’t want to change themselves. A call for separation does not produce solutions to difficult problems. It just forces them on to the next partners or leaders. Divorce by default does not mean that long-lasting relationships are not possible. Rather, it means parties will work things out only when they have good reason to, but determining what these reasons are is often difficult to assess, especially when emotions are strong and tempers flare.

I believe that commitment by default leads to stronger marriages and families than divorce by default. And strong families are essential for the well-being of society. I also believe that commitment by default will lead to stronger and more effective organizations. When leaders, followers and stakeholders are committed to each other, and when this knowledge is common and accepted by everyone within the organization, they will work to heal, solve and build. They will create solutions to problems rather than evade them.

We have problems at the University of Missouri. Thus, we need a leader who is committed to change and supportive of the university community. But we also need faculty, staff and students who are committed to their new president and slow to call for a resignation when times are difficult. Commitment by default is the best strategy for genuine improvement on our campus and in society at large.