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April 15, 2005

Variations on a Theme by Alan Sokal

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

You knew I worked in higher education, but you probably didn't know I was a hard-core science type, right? Now you know. Here is my latest paper, a little thing I tossed off just this morning.

How was I able to toss this off with such ease, you ask? Truth be told, I did it with this scientific paper generator, placed on the web by several enterprising MIT students. The program generates gibberish.

Wouldn't you know it, but the MIT students submitted one such gibberish paper to organizers of an academic conference, and it was accepted. The story has been written up here by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Shades of the Alan Sokal/Social Text controversy of a few years back. However, this story seems to have a slighltly different flavor. The Sokal affair was about how an apparently serious journal could not have spotted a pomo gibberish hoax. This story appears to be about a non-serious conference, in business to make money and to help academics pad their CVs. The obligation on the part of a farcical conference to spot a hoax is obviously less than that of a serious journal. Still, it is hardly a good thing that such conferences are in business in the first place.



posted by Fenster at April 15, 2005


Sorry Fenster, but my guess would be that many PhD.'s simply have brains that work like "paper generators", all form, no substance. Remember that "Bad Writing Award" winner---that lit prof from Berkley? She's probably got a "literature paper generator" secreted in her basement ("...have changed structure of structure")...For my money, it is also entirely possible that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Hemann Melville (at least circa "Billy Budd") did too.

Posted by: annette on April 15, 2005 2:45 PM

Annette - Billy Budd's an all right novelette, and The Scarlet Letter's not bad, either. Granted, they were assigned High School reading, and I haven't revisited either recently, but you really think neither has any substance?

Posted by: Michael on April 15, 2005 10:19 PM

Fenster, as another higher ed type (English prof, now administrator), I have to agree that there's a huge difference between the two cases. A bogus conference has no reason in the world to reject (or even read) proposals, if it's all done to make money.

Annette, I *wish* I'd had a paper generator during the years I had to scramble to get things published -- it would have been so much easier than actually writing the damned things. And I wouldn't judge all academic writing by a few spectacular examples of incomprehensibility -- sure, tons of it is irritatingly dense, but I'm finding more and more readable stuff these days.

Ooh, and the Hawthorne/Melville dig hurts . . . try The Scarlet Letter again without the first section. I hated it in high school too.

Posted by: missgrundy on April 16, 2005 11:35 AM

The whole academic-jargon question is fascinating, bogus conference or no bogus conference. Was jargon as much of a humanities plague prior to the advent of Theory? I remember an awful lot of bad academic writing, but it didn't tend to the thickets-of-incomprehensibility thing, it tended to be pompous and snoozy. My hunch is that at one point Theory seemed to academics of a certain Boomer age to be an exciting alternative to the pompous/snoozy old thing -- that it was really more about the excitement than it was about any overt political cause. It was the academic-intellectual's way of rockin' out. (And the rock and roll flame long ago burned out.) Anyway, that's what it looked like to me circa 1977, when I decided to hightail it out of academia...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 16, 2005 11:44 AM

I can't make the link to your latest paper work. Is that just me, or what?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 18, 2005 12:47 AM

I think "Billy Budd" and "The Scarlet Letter" both have substance---and it could have been conveyed in about 12 pages. As I recall, they are both about judgemental-ness and persecution. Yep, 12 pages.

Posted by: annette on April 18, 2005 9:34 AM

This conference seems to have been an especially bad one, but there are some that get close in my field (organic chemistry and drug development.) There's a company called IBC that runs more conferences than you can list, all for profit (expensive registration, etc.) They're not completely worthless (sometimes there are some good talks from knowledgable speakers), but they're nowhere close to the scientific quality of a real meeting.

You wouldn't be able to pull this trick on them, though - they invite all their speakers, as far as I know.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 21, 2005 9:11 AM

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