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Why is Academic Writing so Confusing?

By Daniel L. Leonard
Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House.

It’s a story many students will find familiar. You sit in the library, doing your assigned readings, and notice yourself stumbling over the same few sentences. You re-read them but you’re still perplexed; the author uses advanced terms without explaining what they mean, and structures his sentences in the least straightforward way imaginable. You read them again. Once you finally feel that you understand the message, you’re crushed by the discovery that the next paragraph is even more confusing than the last.

If this sounds like you, don’t worry — you are not the problem. If the purpose of academic writing is to clearly communicate one’s ideas and research to the reader, then writing that is difficult to understand is bad writing. Period.

Many academic papers skip the process of defining basic terms and concepts; perhaps the authors assume that their work will only be read by other scholars in their field. But on the other end of the academic spectrum are “popular” works, which try to make some area of study understandable (and interesting) to the public. The movie “Hidden Figures,” for example, is a work of popular history, because it tells the story of the African American women who helped America’s space program in an engaging and easy-to-grasp way.

If the goal of our university system is to foster a well-educated public, not just to create a class of intellectual elites, then scholars who produce academic papers should be grateful to their peers who create “popular” works of academia. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. In many areas of scholarship, it’s commonplace to find a divide between “academics” and “popularizers,” where the former is often dismissive or condemnatory of the latter. For example, I was recently warned that a particular source in the history of science had received criticism for being “too much of a popular history.”

This makes no sense. If we take a random popular history book off the shelf, then there are many valid critiques that could potentially apply to it. Maybe the book oversimplifies the facts, or it creates a false narrative in order to make history seem more interesting. However, it would be invalid to say the book is bad merely for being a work of “popular history.”

We should praise authors who want to make history, science, and philosophy accessible to the public. We can suggest that they refine their methods, but we should be supportive of their goal. Instead, many academics seem to dismiss the popularization of their fields as a useless, risky pursuit.

I think there are two potential reasons for this. The first is academic elitism. If you’re one of the world’s only scholars on the Flemish goose, then you’d naturally feel some pride in possessing a set of knowledge that very few people have. So, you might disapprove of a popular science book on the Flemish goose, as this would spread that knowledge to many people who weren’t originally part of your small club of academic goose-lovers.

But, let’s be generous and assume that elitism isn’t the main cause for the academic-popularizer divide. Then, the only remaining reason for a scholar to oppose popular works is if they sincerely believe that academic fields can only be popularized through the use of major rhetorical or analytical flaws.

To some academics, the idea of making a subject “understandable” is synonymous with making it deceptively oversimplified. I wholeheartedly disagree. Converting an academic subject into something that the public can understand is not easy, but it’s certainly possible. Communicating complex truths without being misleading requires skill and subtlety; rather than create some easy answer, you’ll need to be honest with your listener about the things that confuse even the foremost intellectuals in your field. Some academics might think that this is too much for the public to handle, but I believe that the average person is a lot smarter than scholars give them credit for.

Above all, scholars need to understand that humans have the natural tendency to view simpler arguments as more convincing. In 2015, U.S. Senator Jim M. Inhofe (R-OK) brought a snowball into Congress, essentially suggesting that global warming was a hoax because it was cold outside. This (familiar) argument is extremely simple, which, for many people, makes it especially convincing. Those of us who wish to defend climate science are left with two options: Counter a simple lie with a 97-page research paper full of terms like the “albedo effect,” or counter a simple lie with an easy-to-understand version of the truth.

To me, the choice is clear. In order to get people to listen, we need scholars who are skilled at translating complex ideas into accessible language. Harvard students are especially fortunate, as the quality of our education is unparalleled. For this reason, we should try to share what we learn with as many people as possible, whether we do it through making videos, articles, or even intelligent Twitter threads. Once we free ourselves from the notion that academic knowledge can only be communicated through esoteric research papers, then we realize that every day offers us the opportunity to help educate (and learn from) those around us.

Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House.

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