I'm not going to assess the policy merits of Nobel Prize-winning economist (and aspiring philosopher) Amartya Sen's piece in the New Republic, Stop Obsessing About Global Warming. Because as a lengthy and repetitious series of platitudes calling for a more “rational assessment” of the problem, it doesn’t possess any substantive merits or demerits. What interests me is how terrible this article is as an attempt by an intellectual to communicate with the general public.
If the content of the piece were to suit its breezy, click-baity title, we'd expect a global warming denialist rant by someone out past their curfew from a right-wing version of Gawker. Instead we get what is an atrociously written, repetitious, and very boring academic policy paper calling for humanity to think more deeply about how to tackle climate change. More than 4,000 words long, it is rife with passive voice and phrases like "normative framework" and "inclusive of the externalities involved." It begins with this stunningly generic sentence: "Our global environment has many problems."
This is not a matter, as some have argued recently in response to Nicholas Kristof's critique of academic jargon, of needing big words (and big, bad sentences) to convey big ideas. Professors are supposed to be able to explain complex ideas to neophytes: that it was it means to "profess." Whether they’re in front of a classroom, writing for a general audience, or writing for an academic journal, it is part of their job. And it’s very unlikely that their work is jargon-laden and poorly written out of mere profundity. More likely than not, especially in the humanities, a professor understands what they’re talking about with precisely as much clarity as they can muster when they talk about it. Very probably their jargon and obscurity is a sort of academic mating display, an attempt to puff themselves up into something more intellectually formidable than they really are. And likely they got into the habit of such displays because they are today commonly part of the bizarre courting ritual required to win academic positions. Within the confines of the university, academics can get away with such posturing, because they’ve created a pact in which they promise never to ask each other to put on any intellectual clothing. Outside of the university, there are impolite commoners who don’t know better than to point and stare.
Take this sentence: "Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge." I assume that Sen means that we don't yet know how to weigh the benefits of fighting global warming against its costs, because we haven’t fully established our criteria for such analysis. What kinds of costs? Well, the dangers of using nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, and the costs to the project of fighting poverty, which requires energy use. This turns out to be the substance of many long, jargon-laden paragraphs.
Now try to swallow down, if you can, this sentence: "Without going into the challenges of uncertainty-inclusive evaluation more fully here, I should point to the understanding that there are many different ways of speculating on usable estimates of probabilities, within intervals of values, that allow us to reason about ranges of comparative costs."
What does this mean? That there's a way to perform some sort of quantitative cost-benefit analysis here, despite the fact that uncertainty in our assumptions will lead to a certain amount of uncertainty in our conclusions? I’m not certain. But beyond the clumsiness of this sentence -- its absurd syntax -- I'm just amazed that some editor at the New Republic let phrases like "uncertain-inclusive evaluation" and "within intervals of values" go without explanation.
Ultimately, and via a series of very un-scenic detours, Sen comes out against global warming denialism, as well as the political partisanship and public apathy concerning the issue. He endorses sustainable development, and a certain kind of non-anthropocentric environmentalism in which we take into account more than the long-term costs to human beings, and do something to improve the environment rather than merely minimize our effects on it. These are fine generalizations for a brief, well-written op-ed. To get more than 4,000 words requires padding it with this sort of platitude: "The need to go beyond unidirectional thinking about the environment is extremely strong right now."
Finally, there is Sen’s attempt to add a little bit of surplus philosophical value, as if philosophy were an exotic spice to be sprinkled into his ham water soup of a policy analysis. (Usually the amateur misuse of philosophy for their academic mating displays is the province of literary theorists and sociologists, but there’s no reason economists shouldn’t give it a try as well.) That’s where phrases like “normative framework” come in, not to mention Sen’s evocation of Buddhism to suggest that our power over the lives of the animals affects our “fiduciary responsibility” toward them. Just a few more philosophy sprinkles like this, and we’ll have a very robust normative framework indeed.
In the meantime, isn’t it sad that the editors at the New Republic, instead of editing this into something readable, tried to seduce us into this La Brea Tar Pit of writing with an entirely misleading headline worthy of Buzzfeed? Next up: The 10 Most Loveable Pets of the Week (where by “pets,” we mean “alternative energy sources”).
-- Wes Alwan
yep, but Wes leaving aside the jargon issue I’m not sure how much one can simplify very complex matters and still get across what is at stake/work in these situations, such that our understandings and our responses are a good enough fit to make helpful and informed corrections/policies.
In reporting on (and generally thinking about) science, politics, economics or the like I think we all too often get it wrong and yet have the feeling that we have a handle on it.
We don’t need the whole theological baggage but I think there is something vital to Heidegger’s distinction between thinking and gossip that we can hang on to in terms of such technical issues ( ways that Heidegger would wrongly dismiss as “merely” anthropological). If you get a chance see what you make of:
Jordan Batchelor says
I agree with you to a certain extent; however, “such jargon issues” is really the entire issue at stake. Sen’s overuse and misuse of unnecessary jargon in the piece is like using toilet paper to wrap birthday presents instead of gift-wrap. What Sen should have been doing was making the issue more plain for the readers so that the “obsession” over global warming can be seen as obsession, as opposed to a correct human reaction to our ecological problems. Nonetheless, I agree that avoiding large words is merely one point of contention in this piece, and that merely avoiding them is more difficult than one might imagine.
hey JD, I think we are all agreed about Sen’s sins if you will, was just stepping back a bit to wax philosophical in relation to the recent bit of reflection by the fellows on the purpose/success/future of PEL and more generally on how much we (the public) can/should know about affairs other than those we specialize in if that makes some sense?
Jordan Batchelor says
That does make sense. I guess the main question then is whether the article is intended for the public or the specialists, right?
well it was in the NR and not some academic/government journal, my main question is even if he had written in clearer/plainer language could he have done justice to the complexities involved such that a non-expert could make a meaningful/informed choice afterwards?
For the record his academic/insider work with Nussbaum tends to be overly simplistic too.
Jordan Batchelor says
DMF, for some reason I can’t reply to your last link-comment, but only to MY last comment. So, technically, I am replying to myself. But I hope you find this reply regardless…
That is an interesting article, and thank you for sharing it with me. Firstly, I want to address a comment the article made: “Longino found that the demands…favor science with a very simple storyline. Research that looks for a single…”gay gene,”…receives more attention in both popular and scholarly media.” Negating the cultural issues with looking for a “gay gene,” applying this same thought to the problems we’ve discussed with Sen’s article doesn’t clear things up much, in my opinion. For example, the “gay gene” simplification in genetic studies is a problem with the group of researchers who think that exist, rather than a problem with the way the articles regarding the “gay gene” is written. That is, Sen overcomplicated global warming with terminological misuse, but the research on global warming itself isn’t over simplified or rife with terminological misuse. Whereas, in the Stanford article, the problem is in the research for, using the same example, a “gay gene” (a gross simplification in the early stages of the idea), and that problem continues over to the subsequent articles on the topic. But Sen is committing the sin of taking ideas that are not already over simplified or misused, but then doing so in his article. Anyway, regardless if that makes sense, thanks for sharing the Stanford article with me.
Nailed it, Wes.
Could not agree more. My eyes had glazed over by the end of the first para and I thought maybe I had stumbled onto an ambitious undergrad’s college essay application. Those are the only people allowed to get away with such horrible sentence structuring.
Angela McLoughlin says
Wow, this article has really got your goat, eh.
For the most part I agree. I suggest writers refer to Plain English Foundation for communicating to the wider public- important to use language appropriate for your audience
J Hessler says
Right on the money Wes…I have read his books and they are deep and interesting extensions of Rawls’ ideas…but this Sen piece was almost irresponsible in its tone….and certainly betrays an inappility to communicate with the very people he hopes to convince and educate…
Billie Pritchett says
I read the piece and it does seem that there’s a lot of lofty language but not much substance. In a way, it’s akin to what comes out in some of the worst of philosophy, analytic or continental: very basic ideas, many of them truisms, dressed up in technical language. It feels like Sen’s intentions are good, though; he’s just not, as you say, a good communicator.
David Zetland says
It seems you missed the depth of the piece, which is sad considering that he defined and used most “jargon” in an accessible context. Perhaps you wanted the twitter version? How about: “Don’t forget the poor.”