That must be wonderful; I have no idea of what it means.

—Albert Camus

gobbledygookI’m sure that most people would take one look at the sort of things I read professionally and collectively gasp. The technical papers I read are usually greeted by questions like “do you really understand that?” Its usually a private thing, but occasionally on a plane ride, I’ll give a variety of responses based on the paper from “yeah, it actually makes sense” to “not really, this paper is terrible, but I think the work might be important.”

Most of it looks like impenetrable gobbledy-gook to all but the most trained eye. Some of it still looks like impenetrable gobbledy-gook to a trained eye. Even within these highly technical set of literature there are islands of complete confusion for me (turbulence theory, continuum mechanics, finite element mathematics are good examples). For the most part those working in these fields are completely to blame for the state of affairs. Some subfields seem to be conspicuously attempting NOT to communicate with anyone outside their club, anyone who hasn’t been given their specific secret decoder ring. decoder_ring1

If you cant’ explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

― Albert Einstein

Why do some fields write with clarity while others obfuscate and make their work as opaque as possible?

Write to be understood, write to teach. Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

― Marie Curie

In some cases the writing is done in such a dense coded fashion that one can only draw the conclusion that the author’s intent is to make them look smarter than you. They seem smarter than me because I can’t understand anything they say. I have grown to resist this notion, and drawn another conclusion; they encapsulate their work in a notational din that hides their own lack of understanding. If they really understood what they were talking about, they could explain it in terms others could begin to comprehend. Such dense and impenetrable writing only masks the lack of any sort of deeper understanding. If they really understood what they were doing, they could make it simple, and walk the reader up to the complexity in a constructive manner.

One should use common words to say uncommon things

― Arthur Schopenhauer

Often authors take the confusing and technically opaque approach to writing means that they are really only interested in communicating with a small cadre of peers. There are many oblique subfields in the scientific world where communities of several dozen people write only for those people. The same small clique reviews, reads and cites the work of others. Over time the writing only climbs deeper into the rabbit hole AliceInWonderland-DownTheRabbitHole-011and becomes increasingly unapproachable to anyone else. This tendency should mark the death knell of the area, but instead the current system seems to do a great deal to encourage this pathology.

Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.

― David McCullough

161448.strip.zoomOther areas seem to be so devoid of the human element of science that the work has not contextual basis. In every case science is an intrinsically human endeavor, yet scientists often work to divorce humanity from the work. A great deal of mathematics works this way and leads to a gap in the understanding of the flow of ideas. The source and inspiration for key ideas and work is usually missing from the writing. This leads to a lack of comprehension of the creative process. A foolhardy commitment to loses history only including the technical detail in the writing. Part and participle of this problem are horrific literature reviews.impostor In some fields the number of citations for the work is appalling. The author ends up providing no map for the uninitiated reader to figure out what they are talking about. Again this works both to hide information and context while making the author seem smarter than they really are.

Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.

― Madeleine L’Engle


I was buoyed to read about efforts to improve communication scientists to the outside world,, but scientists could stand some work on learning to communicate with other scientists. If you can’t write to be understood by anyone outside you tiny subfield it should be viewed as a problem. At the very least other scientists should be able to fathom something about what you’re doing. If they can’t the common citizen doesn’t stand a chance. This compounds the sort of deep political problems science has today. It doesn’t cause them, but it makes them worse.

 In the land of Gibberish, the man who makes sense, the man who speaks clearly, clearly speaks nonsense.

― Jarod Kintz