Bullshit in academic writing is everywhere. It’s not just tolerated, it’s actively encouraged, fawned on, lauded. Particularly in journals where a post-modernist, relativist approach is emphasised, bullshit is the norm. The Sokal hoax is an example, and I summarise the Wikipedia entry. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether a leading US journal would publish an article “liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”. The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, was published in the Social Text Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. On its date of publication, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense…structured around the silliest quotations by postmodernist academics he could find about mathematics and physics”.
The classic treatment of the construct of bullshit is provided by Frankfurt (2005). In Frankfurt’s conception, a person bullshits when faced with “obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic that exceeds his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic”, thus rendering the bullshitter “a greater enemy of the truth than the liar”. For the bullshitter in such a situation, the goals range from trying out an idea that one has not fully developed in order to see how it sounds, to trying to masquerade as more knowledgeable than one is. Frankfurt considered these goals nefarious, not because of the malevolence of the bullshitter toward the persons addressed but rather because of the cumulative effects of a cavalier treatment of truth in society overall. I concur: bullshit hides the truth.
Frankfurt claims that bullshit blurs the line between truth and falsity and thus must not be tolerated blithely. He concludes his essay with a critique of relativism, saying that “the contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of scepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry”.
Bullshit in academic writing is characterised by adoxography: the inflated vocabulary and obfuscating syntax employed to veil a poverty of substance in academic essays. In Postman’s (1969) words, it refers to “the triumph of style over substance”. Postman argues that bullshitters “use fancy titles, words, phrases, and sentences to obscure their own insufficiencies”. I invite you to examine articles published in applied linguistics journals which take an “ethnographic” or “post-modernist” approach, and which use terms like “hermeneutics”, and to spot the use of fancy titles, etc.. After that, decide for yourself if the article adds to your understanding of things or is bullshit.
Bullshitting deliberately places significant demands on the reader. Some readers find incomprehensible writing to be impressive and scholarly simply by virtue of its impenetrable prose, regardless of whether a more perspicacious reading could identify any substantive ideas or not. Bullshitting can also be accomplished by using well-known academic and research terms to “dress up” mundane and incomplete studies. A classic example is Willett (1995) who employed a “sociometric test”, which she used “to corroborate my ethnographic analyses of the social structure in the class”. She used “generic theorising processes and general analytic procedures (Goetz and LeCompte, 1984) to construct an interpretative description of the processes and outcomes of L2 socialisation in the classroom. These processes and procedures involved scanning the data, noting patterns, looking for counter-evidence and selecting important domains for further analysis”. What she actually did was to sit in on a class, take notes, and make comments which beggar belief.
Fuller (2006) contends that the extensive training within postgraduate programmes produces “institutionalized immunity to bullshit” because “the time required to master a body of knowledge virtually guarantees loyalty to its corresponding practices and central dogmas”. If the academic community tolerates or elevates vacuous jargon, students will gravitate to this value and produce it comfortably in their speaking and writing. To Fuller “the accomplished bullshitter must be a keen student of what people tend to regard as true, if only to cater to those tendencies so as to serve her own ends”.
Alas, too many students spend years learning the expectations of scholarly writing in their disciplines and are taught to venerate particular styles of argument and explication. Learning how to write in a discourse community, students are forced to reach beyond their current abilities to produce something that they believe will impress their teachers, based on its semblance to received standards of scholarship. They must thus employ the conventional knowledge that helps them to establish themselves as members of academic communities, even if they don’t know what they’re talking about. Fuller also comments “Bullshitting may also involve procedural knowledge related to content. By attempting to meet the expectations of a paper, the student experiments with various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say”. I think this is a very eloquent description of common practice, and, to the extent that it’s true, a sorry reflection on those members of academic staff who don’t do their utmost to sniff it out and then stamp on it.
The worst of it is that bullshit is seen by many as “a highly dynamic and necessary matrix for the development of expressive, creative, critical and higher order thinking and representation that gives birth to the truth or/and new truths” (Smagorinsky, et. al. 2009). I think bullshit is disgraceful and a blight on academic life.
Frankfurt, H. G. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fuller, S. (2006). Just bullshit. In G. L. Hardcastle & G. A. Reisch (Eds.), Bullshit and philosophy: Guaranteed to get perfect results every time (pp. 241–257). Chicago: Open Court.
Postman, N. (1969) Bullshit and the art of crap-detection. Paper presented at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, Washington, D.C.
Smagorinsky, P., Daigle, E., O’Donnell-Allen, C., and Bynum, S. (2009) Bullshit in Academic Writing. Retrieved from http://faculty.salisbury.edu/~tamoriarty/compresearch/bs/RTE0444Bullshit%5B1%5D.pdf 16th September, 2013.
Willett, J. 1995: Becoming first graders in an L2: an ethnographic study of L2 socialisation. TESOL Quarterly 29, 473-503.