Monday, October 19, 2015 ... /////

Pompous obscurantism in social scientists' jargon

It seems that I mostly agree with Scott Aaronson of MIT who has written a long text arguing that

Ordinary Words Will Do.
Scott Aaronson is an extreme leftist – to the extent that he was once scheduled to get chemically castrated because he had concluded that a castrated complexity theorist is cleaner from the feminist viewpoint than an occasionally horny one – but you know, we are talking about the U.S. Academia where loons like Aaronson often end up being the moderates. And this topic is an example.

Aaronson talks about Ms Izabella Laba who is a mathematician but who has defended – e.g. in her tweets – the (far left) social and political scientists and their unnecessarily complicated jargon. Aaronson said "lashing Saudi women for driving cars" sounds more comprehensible than "exercising male privilege..." and the latter brings nothing new. Ms Laba claimed that the pompous would-be expert jargon has to be used for the same reason why "derivatives" appear when we talk about calculus.

Except for Dr Laba, everyone (including Aaronson) seems to agree that this analogy is rubbish. The difference between the two situations is that if you replace "male privilege" by "lashing out", everyone will be able to understand (except for non-native speakers like myself who may find verbs like "lashing out" less comprehensible than the Latin-based jargon) and the information he extracts will be effectively indistinguishable in both formulations.

("Exercising male privilege" may be an umbrella term for "lashing out for driving" and many other things. Some similarity between the situations is implicitly claimed whenever we use an umbrella term. But whether different situations should be considered "analogous" is something that social sciences cannot ever "prove". Such analogies – and umbrella terms that encourage people's belief in those analogies – influence the people's thinking but one must always think twice whether he uses the most natural and defensible analogies. People who are not careful about the thinking in terms of "unvalidated analogies" may be said to be ideologically brainwashed.)

On the other hand, if you replace "derivatives" by words that every ordinary human knows, you will degrade the content of the message. The message won't be the original one but either a simplified caricature of the original claim, or at least a message whose interpretation is ambiguous. It's because there is some beef in the word "derivative" that the ordinary people just don't know – they don't know how to differentiate – which is why a new word is needed for that new idea. One is adding "a new term for a new concept".

When the number of new words is lower than the number of new concepts, our language will become insufficient to express the ideas. When the number of new words is higher than the number of new concepts, our language will become redundant and dominated by junk.

One may figure out why the social scientists started to use incomprehensible jargon that is full of new words and terms that aren't commonly used. They wanted to sound just like the scientists. They are using terms that are not widespread – and that may be incomprehensible to many people – exactly because they want to make themselves look special, like experts, people who have mastered some ideas that most others don't understand.

Richard Feynman have made this point nicely:

Because of the success of natural sciences, perhaps especially around the middle of the 20th century, we're bombarded by pseudosciences that superficially try to resemble natural scientists but unlike the natural scientists, they have no genuine results. They haven't found any laws. Social scientists and other pseudoscientists are just emulating the form (jargon, proposed experiments, evaluation of something) and intimidating others who may know better. The obscure terminology is a part of this process of intimidation. But you know, if you know the name of the bird in many languages, you have learned nothing about the bird itself.

The commenters who agree that the social scientists are trying to mask the absence of essence and that their prose is basically bad seem to be a majority. But you do find numerous commenters in that debate who defend this disease, too.

But there were weirdly funny points in that discussion. Even an extreme leftist such as Aaronson is apparently being constantly watched by the thought police. He asked what the 20th century people were most excited about in physics; and in psychological or political science. In physics, the praise would be focusing on people like Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac. In psychology and political sciences, the winners would be Freud and Jung; and Marx, Engels, Trotsky, and Lenin.

Aaronson suggested that the advice by these social scientists would have led (and has led) to an unmitigated disaster; he could have rejected Freud and Marx as "pretentious charlatans"; and Marx has been "catastrophically wrong" about history. You may guess that his readership is full of completely unhinged fanatics who would eat every piece of Marx's manure if they had the opportunity. So you would predict that they should arrive and attack Aaronson. And your prediction would be correct, of course.

In comment #33, NKVD investigates Aaronson's blasphemy:
anon Says:
omment #33 October 18th, 2015 at 11:48 pm

Marx catastrophically wrong? What are you saying? Maybe soviet union was a failure, but this does not imply that Marx was wrong, whatever “wrong” may mean in the case of social “sciences”. Huge parts of his thinking are still holding and we see it every day. Maybe not from the nice point of view of Cambridge, MA.
You may castrate yourself and parrot pretty much every single piece of šit that has ever come out of Marx's mouth, Lenin's aß, and feminists' [other parts of their bodies], but it won't be enough. If you deviate by an epsilon, an anonymous agent of the thought police emerges and makes it clear that you're not sufficiently ideologically clean for Cambridge, Massachusetts. You just don't belong there. The Gulag could finally be better for you, comrade Aaronson, as well. Every person who deserves to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts must insist on Marx's infallible status, regardless of the unlimited amount of catastrophes and crap that this teaching has demonstrably created (and is still creating).

I was actually surprised by Aaronson's blasphemy, too. In comment #37, he said that "he completely rejected the popular idea that the horrors of [the real world's communist countries] can be completely separated from the core ideology". This is a highly nontrivial admission, I think, and the real Marxists – including real closet Marxists – will loudly disagree. They will insist that all the bad aspects of Stalin's or Mao's or Pol Pot's or Kim Jong's regimes were due to some other problems, negative fluctuations, or defects of individual people. Obviously, many ominous comrades in the discussion maintain that Marx was right, for example:
Ross Says:
Comment #7 October 18th, 2015 at 6:16 pm

A few thoughts:

1.) Marx, Engels, Freud, Skinner weren’t wrong. Or at least, you could say Newton was wrong too. Compare to the era before them, not the one after.

2.) One can easily understand the ‘failure’ of ‘leftism’ as a result of the generations long program of political warfare that blanketed the world while a realist power struggle between two empires reigned...
Comrade Ross believes that Karl Marx was as right as Isaac Newton! And all the failures of the communist countries were the imperialists' fault, anyway! ;-) Everything would have worked great in the communist world if the four main enemies of communism could have been abolished – spring, summer, autumn, and winter. To maximize the odds of saving Ross' life, I would probably recommend him to amputate his head because its stupidity is probably way too much even for his aß. (BTW in another comment, Jeffrey Shallit recommends you to read Marx's mathematical writings, check e.g. these 150+ pages, to see that he was just another phony posturing crackpot. For example, look at pages 78-80 where he argues that the term "limit" is ambiguous and ill-defined because 2 is not the limit of 6/3, and 6/3 is not the limit of 2, either LOL.)

But thankfully, at least Aaronson knows better. One may be rather general. These systems want to create a society whose functioning, rules, and distribution of wealth and power brutally differs from the functioning, rules, and distribution of wealth and power that would arise naturally, without dramatically intense interventions by the government. It follows that the vigorous interventions by the government have to be brutally intense, indeed. And when someone exercises too much "unnatural" power, it is guaranteed that a lot of it will unavoidably be very evil.

Stalin had to murder millions of the people because they were dangerous for the survival of the core ideology in the Soviet Union.

The terror against the ideologically inconvenient, creative, skillful, intelligent, pretty, or otherwise non-Marxist people has to be intense for the very ideology to remain powerful. These people create values and inequality and also realize why their freedom to create – and create inequalities etc. – is so important for the societal progress. All these things endanger the regime, its very core aspects. And yes, when Stalin gets the power to remove the people dangerous for the core ideology, he may also remove those who are dangerous for him personally only. But he couldn't have gotten the latter power (to help himself) without the ability to exert the former power (to defend communism's core values). It's the former, not the latter, that turned Stalin into a big boss. So it's ultimately the core ideology that has to be blamed for the death of the people, including the people who were killed by Stalin "just for fun".

Also, it is a very general fact that the Marxist economic system and its diluted variations wants to artificially establish a metastable equilibrium that is very different from the system that emerged from centuries and millenniums (and billions of years) of optimizations in which people, nations, societies, and species persistently wanted to improve their lives. When you're very far from this result, you shouldn't be shocked that the economic system ends up being a disaster, too.

Finally, let me repost a quote by Aaronson that I completely disagree with:
I also believe that the social sciences are harder—way harder—than math or physics or CS. They’re harder because of the tenuousness of the correlations, because of the complexity of each individual human brain (let alone 7 billion of them on the same planet), but most of all, because politics and ideology and the scientist’s own biases place such powerful thumbs on the scale. This makes it all the more impressive when a social scientist, like (say) Stanley Milgram or Judith Rich Harris or Napoleon Chagnon, teaches the world something important and new.
Are social sciences harder than mathematics or physics or computer science? I don't think so. What would be the correct conclusion of Aaronson's arguments would be that "social sciences would be way harder than physics etc. if they were obliged to find as robust, nontrivial, and universal results as physics did".

However, no social scientist is actually expected to achieve such a thing. The expectations are much lower. They're much lower because the results have been much lower. They have been much lower partly because the messiness of the questions (and the dependence of the answers on largely arbitrary unpredictable and changing moods of the individuals and masses) makes weaker results inevitable; and partly because the social scientists are not as intellectually powerful as the natural ones.

When you talk about the actual social sciences in the real world, the lower expectations are way more important for the difficulty or simplicity of the actual social scientists' research than the impossible complexity of the "ambitious" goals that no one will (probably) ever achieve. What actually happens may be deduced from Gell-Mann's totalitarian principle about the nonzero coupling constants – it is not an accident that one of the most important laws (even) in social sciences was found by a particle physicist. Because the social scientists can do lousy, sloppy, superficial, distorted, fuzzy research, they do it. What isn't banned is compulsory!

So because of some general laws of physics, the social scientists end up doing largely rubbish. They do because "yes, they can". Young people who are deciding about their specialization are aware of it and the truly but still realistically ambitious ones will avoid the social sciences because they know it's rubbish. Sadly, many prominent people doing similar kinds of rubbish end up as influential and wealthy people. The young people deciding about their specialization are aware of this fact, too. So lots of people start to do this stuff even though many people in it more or less know that the value of the results is much lower than the value of the results in natural sciences.

Allow me to return to the question of the incomprehensible terminology. People who like to use it seemingly run the risk of being misunderstood, reducing their target audiences etc. But the reason why this tendency hasn't gone extinct is that this reduction is often beneficial for the speaker. It's beneficial because the actual main goal of the texts and monologues using the unnecessary complicated jargon isn't to communicate some information or ideas to as many readers or listeners as possible. Instead, the actual main goal is to make the author look special – the content doesn't really matter so much.

Partly because of the incomprehensibility of the jargon, many people think that the author of such texts is special and it increases their motivation to focus on him or her. So this incomprehensibility may ironically make an author more widely read than if he were comprehensible. Moreover, there is an additional "positive" effect of the incomprehensibility. The people who have learned the jargon and overcome a barrier end up being much more proud about it – much more pompous. They have invested some time and energy and became "special" themselves. That's why they may be expected to be much more enthusiastic champions of the jargon – and the ideas using this jargon.

So there are lots of unexpected and counterintuitive mechanisms that decide about the outcome. Activities that are seemingly harmful if not suicidal may often help the person who does them. However, I would argue that all these counterintuitive implications are mostly confined to the disciplines in which people don't focus on the "beef" but are significantly (if not primarily) affected by numerous kinds of demagogic, psychological, and propagandist tricks.

If people do focus on the beef, on the content of the texts – and people who think as genuine scientists always do – then the number of counterintuitive, seemingly suboptimal strategies that work is much lower. In particular, when you describe science, then the unnecessary complexity in the jargon and notation almost universally reduces the impact of your texts or lectures. In science, we often need to employ complicated and new jargon or notation because the ideas are new. But you should not use a terminology or notation that is much more complex than what is actually necessary to convey the idea at the desired level of accuracy.