A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why academic writing sucks - Part II

Before I start my academic writing challenge, I wanted to finish up a few things, including one more reaction from Pinker's paper on "Why Academic Writing Stinks". I keep coming back to one accusation Pinker makes about academic writing, one that struck particularly close to home: The idea that academic writing is flawed by virtue of being self-reflexive and by making its assumptions and their justifications clear. For example, apparently he would hate the fact that the book I am preparing on evolution and psychology considers whether we can sensibly talk about the evolution of psychological processes. My knee jerk reaction is "Of course I need to talk about that, the answer isn't obvious at all!" But then Pinker shows how undermining that type of writing can be, with a convincing (borrowed) example of a self-reflexive cookbook:

"When we open a cookbook, we completely put aside—and expect the author to put aside—the kind of question that leads to the heart of certain philosophic and religious traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which knowledge is possible? Can anyone else ever tell us anything true about cooking? … Classic style similarly puts aside as inappropriate philosophical questions about its enterprise. If it took those questions up, it could never get around to treating its subject, and its purpose is exclusively to treat its subject."
First off, being a hobbyist historian, I can say that when cook books first started, these questions were very real. Not questions about whether eggs existed, but fundamental questions about whether knowledge-of-cooking could be transmitted through writing. Early cookbooks were not at all like modern ones---with the intention of teaching cooking---and were instead compiled reminders for already-experienced chefs. However, at this point, the genera of a cook book is so well accepted that Pinker is correct in asserting that a book tackling these questions would be looked upon as ridiculous. When I first read this, it felt like a punch in the gut.

But can this really be generalized to works about psychology? The answer is certainly that it can, as many people do it, but I think they do it at tremendous costs. Here is something to contrast with Pinker's quote, from a paper I wrote a while back with Martin Dege:

If you were interested in “how memory affects perceived meaning”, how would you go about investigating it? “Memory” could be operationalized in a wide variety of ways; memory could refer to what people remember in the present, any change in behavior following an event you (the investigator) are sure happened, the effects of bodily (neuronal?) alterations on future behavior, the retention of a conditioned response, etc. “Perception” and “meaning” are similarly, if not more, ambiguous. Perhaps you will ask people to recall certain events in their lives, then have them interpret ink-blots; perhaps you will flash lists of words for 50 ms at a time, then see if they feel positively towards words you repeated several times; perhaps you will ask people the perspective from which they view specific memories, then test them for their accuracy in recalling important aspects of the event; the variety is almost infinite. Despite this incredible lack of specificity of the question, it is easily transformed into a concrete empirical endeavor. Whatever the form of the study, the results could be reported in the local newspaper and the average high school student reading it will nod their head as if they are learning something important about human nature. Further, if you also give the task to chimps or dolphins it can make national headlines—“Chimps perception of meaning less affected by memory manipulations than teenagers”—despite the headline saying nothing concrete, it is perceived as understandable and straightforward.  (p. 195)

If I am right, then a memory-investigating paper or a book in psychology might not need to talk about whether memory exists or whether it is possible to study it, but surely there should be some attention to what it means to study memory, and what memory is in the context of the type of study performed.

In my case, I am interested how we can sensibly talk about the evolution of psychological processes, and I am interested in what a psychological process must be in the context of those conversations. There are lots of books on evolutionary psychology that don't bother to deal with those difficulties, but I think they suffer a lot for it. They don't deal with the tough questions of what the theory of evolution is, the problems applying that theory to behavior and psychology, the methods needed for such work, etc., etc., etc. Most, instead, pretend their are few problems, if any, and just go about the task of drawing conclusions about psychological evolution as if it were easy. The result, it seems to me, is that they end up with a wide range of highly questionable conclusions. But, heck, at least there is something interesting, right? And you don't have to be faced with silly seeming questions, like whether or not the thing you are reading about actually exists.

So what do I make of Pinker's claim? I'll admit, again, that my first read of his cookbook-example really threw me for a loop. However, upon reflection, I think it might be 1) another expression of his elitism - that people don't give him trouble with these issues any more, 2) it might not apply so well in the realm of psychology, where so much is still up for grabs, and 3) you can probably get away with it if your audience is a bunch of people who share your assumptions, but if you really want to convince people to change the way they think, you might want to model your writing after something other than a simple cookbook.

Any thought?


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