Thursday, March 18, 2010

Here's a sentence from 'Fashionable Nonsense' on epistemic relativism:
But the numerous discussions we have had during which the theory-ladenness of observation, the underdetermination of theory by evidence or the alleged incommensurability of paradigms have been put forward in order to support relativist positions leave us rather skeptical.
This quote appears in the 50th page - a point where the authors can safely assume that the reader is well in tune with the context and subject matter of the book. I was, in fact. Even then I had to read the sentence twice to understand what the authors are trying to convey. I've read books by professors written for mainstream audience and I've found most of them strikingly clear in getting the message across. Richard Feynman once said that however a difficult a concept may be, if you understand it thoroughly you should be able to explain it to a 17-year old satisfactorily. The authors of this book (Sokal & Bricmont) are professors and from what I've read of the book I can say that they know their stuff. But frequent sentences like this where the reader is expected to perform vocabulary gymnastics can be tiresome.

I understand that authors sometimes are so deeply immersed in writing journal articles for elite societies and keep talking among themselves when evolving ideas for a book which might result in chapters that are jargon loaded like this. But it should have been the responsibility of the publisher to make the authors' ideas more accessible (without diminishing or simplifying) - if at all their target audience are general public. I'm going to try to continue reading, but if I find myself rereading frequently I'll have to shelve it for there are many more in my wish list.


Freehit said...

I had to look up epistemic relativity ;-)

I think words are like essential tools. Some (bright) people seem to be fascinated with the tools rather than the product. Or worse, choose to work with the wrong ones.

Prasad Venkat said...

As I've mentioned in this blog, not before long I used to avidly invent, modify & steal phrases from 'fancy' writers.

As a corollary to your comment, it is quite important to have a good range of vocabulary and the ability to clearly express ideas so that the reader doesn't suffer the author's incoherence or rigmarole.

Freehit said...

Just one more comment on this ;-)

Call it neat coincidence, I received this in a daily newsletter today:

He that uses many words for explaining any subject, doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink. -John Ray, naturalist (1627-1705)

Prasad Venkat said...

Since we're on the subject of a book by Sokal & Bricmont I want to add a clarification: The authors have used a minimum and the most appropriate set of words (which also happens to be uncommon & inaccessible) to convey their thoughts.