Too magnificent

I recently read Andrew Ross’ “No Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs: Behind the Myth of the New Office Utopia” in remembrance of my own brief time as consultant in New York’s “Silicon Alley” during the booming 90s. I even had a few meetings at Ross’ study site: the ever-cool design/strategic/Web firm RazorFish. I like Ross’ portrayals of American culture, including the “Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town,” but I encountered him first in the Sokal Hoax affair – and was disappointed with his defense of accepting a Po-Mo goobly-gook hoax submission to the prestigious Social Text journal. I expect I am sympathetic to Alan Sokal in this affair because as a former computer scientist I’ve been acculturated with the maxim of K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple Stupid. This sensibility persists into my engagement with humanities and social sciences – though it sometimes causes me to feel alienated and distressed. Similarly, I’ve always been fond of physicist Richard Feynman’s freshman principle regardless of the discipline: if something can’t be explained in a freshman lecture, it is not yet well understood. (He was quite a character, and is also alleged to have said that the philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.)

So reading Ross again prompted me to peruse his Wikipedia article, which then led to the Sokal hoax article, and then to a wonderful list of similar hoaxes in other disciplines, including the fascinating tale of the Bogdanov brothers:

The Bogdanov Affair is an academic dispute regarding the legitimacy of a series of theoretical physics papers written by French twin brothers Igor and Grichka Bogdanov (alternately spelt Bogdanoff). These papers were published in reputable scientific journals, and were alleged by their authors to culminate in a proposed theory for describing what occurred at the Big Bang. The controversy started in 2002 when rumors spread on Usenet newsgroups that the work was a deliberate hoax intended to target weaknesses in the peer review system employed by the physics community to select papers for publication in academic journals. While the Bogdanov brothers continue to defend the veracity of their work, many physicists have alleged that the papers are nonsense, considering this evidence of the fallibility inherent within the peer review system. The debate over whether the work represented a contribution to physics, or instead was meaningless, spread from Usenet to many other Internet forums, including the blogs of notable physicists and both the French and English Wikipedia encyclopdia projects.

While perhaps not as common, the natural sciences too can suffer from incomprehensibility masquerading as erudition. In fact, some of the worst excesses in the humanities go hand in hand with speculative takes on cosmology and quantum physics. And, I am putting aside the interesting issues of the efficacy of peer-review and the extent to which a discipline can trust its members not to flat out lie – such as the case of disgraced Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk. My main point here is to the extent that we should strive, and hold others accountable to, a standard of simplicity, or as Einstein said “as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

For my own purposes I’ve come to view that which is incomprehensible to me as perhaps like medieval Scholasticism – famously parodied with the question of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”. Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard were no doubt far smarter than me, but if one starts with particular set of assumptions (e.g., textual inerrancy), fetishize a logic over a broader rationality (e.g., dialectics, be they Christian or Marxist), and lack an understanding of how we fool ourselves (e.g., confirmation bias) I feel we can end up with brilliant nonsense. (Frederick Crews is famous for his criticism of Freudianism along these lines and his latest book is aptly titled “Follies of the Wise.”)

And I now have a new term for describing those works that are manifestedly learned but for which I’m confused as to whether I’m too dumb to understand or they are simply incomprehensible. Herman Kogan (1958), in the “The Great EB: the Story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” writes of the Britannica’s editors difficulty with the “Algebraic Forms” article which was so complex that it was referred to different experts to assess whether it was sensible. In the final review, Simon Newcomb of Johns Hopkins University wrote, “It’s magnificent, although I am not sure it is all clear to me but it’s really magnificent.” Consequently, the editor rejected the article as being “too magnificent” (p. 90).

Ported/Archived Responses

Said Kassem Hamideh on 2008-01-27

I enjoy Clay Shirky’s writings for this very reason. For example, in his “Ontology is Overrated” article, I noticed that he can talk about something as complex as ontology and break it down through easily understandable prose.

I always doubt those that say that certain concepts cannot be conveyed through simple language, even in very technical disciplines that require precise terminology. The problem, I believe, is that certain academic disciplines don’t make much of an attempt to anchor their language in the public experience. “Inter-group linguistic bias” soon develops and references become innaccessible to those without the means to decipher. Personally, I think this could be viewed as an anthropological issue of elite groups distancing themselves (or just being lazy).

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