Thursday, July 21, 2011

So connected yet so disconnected

Two very different news stories caught my eye yesterday. The first story was about Candy Spelling's Los Angeles mansion, which sold for a mind-blowing $85 million.

The second story was about the food crisis in Somalia, which is now a full-blown famine.

The two stories seem unrelated. But they're not. They are both fundamentally about greed and stupidity.

A society that not only allows but glorifies the use of 4.7 acres of land to build a 56,500-square-foot house that contains 123 rooms, 27 bathrooms, and five kitchens for one family is a symbol of all that is wrong with the world.

Candy Spelling's mansion is an extreme example of wasteful excess but it drives home the point that our economic system is built on a foundation of limitless consumption.

We've created this myth that growth is progress and that progress is accumulation. So we accumulate obscene amounts of wealth and build obscenely big houses and call it "progress" but what we're really doing is digging our own graves (and taking everyone else with us) by consuming resources faster than they can regenerate and pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the climate is changing.

And this is where Somalia comes in. The famine is being blamed on the combination of a severe drought and the ongoing conflict. A New York Times article reports that many scientists point to climate change as the cause of the current drought. And if we are changing the climate with our growth and our technology and our addiction to cheap oil, then we are partly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Somalis.

Of course, there is also the greed and stupidity of the Islamic militants who control the famine zone in Somalia. The militants forced Western aid groups out of Somalia last year when the drought was looming and now they are asking the aid groups to return. But few want to return due to the danger of dealing with the militants. Making the whole emergency relief effort even more complicated is that American government rules prohibit material support to the militants. The scale of the disaster and all of its complexities boggles the mind.

I don't know what's worse: the insanity of America's excess or the insanity of Al Shabab's extremism? An economic system that is directly responsible for climate change or a bunch of militants who chop off hands, stone people to death and ban TV, music and bras in the hope of turning Somalia into a seventh-century-style Islamic state?

Either way, multi-million-dollar mansions in America and Islamic militants in Somalia are connected. It's not difficult to imagine some Somali kid growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Los Angeles seeing these McMansions and the obscene wealth and the big cars and feeling excluded and angry. And it's not hard to imagine some Islamic extremist group exploiting that teenager's frustration by giving him a sense of community and a feeling of brotherhood while radicalizing the young man's anger into something more sinister.

And so when I read those two very different stories yesterday -- the sale of Candy Spelling's mansion and the food crisis in Somalia -- it wasn't their differences that struck me, it was their connections.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Academic writing ain't my thing

Can someone please explain why so many scholars and scientists feel compelled to obscure, confuse and bore their audiences?

These are brilliant people with brilliant ideas and yet they can't tell a story to save their lives. Just open any academic journal and you'll see what I mean. The language is impenetrable to outsiders. The sentences are clunky, heavy, and awkwardly constructed. Each article contains a wealth of information – some of it interesting and important – but the writing is so bad as to render the whole thing unreadable.

It pisses me off for three reasons: one, because I have to read this shit as part of my master's degree; two, because of the inherent disrespect to the general reader embedded in this kind of writing; and three, because it doesn't have to be this way.

I think part of the reason academics write the way they do is because they write for other academics. They're after the approval of their peers, not the public. As a result, there's a certain snobbery and elitism in academic writing. Academic writing must have weight and gravity, and the easiest way to add weight and gravity is to fill a paper with technical terms and sentences that are so scientifically precise that they obscure, rather than illuminate, what it is the author is trying to say.

Accuracy is the aim but obfuscation is the result.

Let me give you an example from one of my least-enjoyable reading assignments of the past year. The article, published in Functional Ecology in 2005, was titled "Neutral theory in community ecology and the hypothesis of functional equivalence." Here is a brief excerpt:

"The theory for community assembly based on the competitive niche paradigm became highly developed, first with multispecies community matrix theory (Levins, 1968), which was developed on the foundation of the Lotka-Volterra equations, and then with more mechanistic theory, which explicitly incorporated the dynamics of resource supply and consumption along with the dynamics of the resource-dependent consumer species (Tilman 1982, 1987)."

It goes on and on like this for seven pages. I had to read it three times before I started to understand it. And then I had to read it a few more times before I was able to translate the author's abominable sentences into something more digestible. Line by painful line.

You could argue that someone without a background in ecology is not the intended audience for this paper. It was written for specialists in the field who could quickly and easily grasp its context and significance. So there is no need to simplify it for a general audience. It's all well and good to contribute to the general body of knowledge in a particular field. But why are so many scholars and scientists content to just please their small circles of peers?

If you as an environmental scientist have no desire to communicate your findings to the public or to policy makers then what the hell is the point? Why spend years of your life on research that ends up collecting dust in an obscure journal in a remote part of some distant library?

It goes back to the snobbery and elitism unnecessarily embedded in academic writing. The problem is that plain English and simple storytelling is disparaged as not scientific. I have one professor who constantly dismisses non-academic writing as mere journalism.

And while I agree that journalistic research doesn't carry the same weight and rigor as academic research, I disagree that a more journalistic style of writing is somehow less serious than an academic style of writing. If academics want their research to resonate with the public or policy makers, they could benefit from a more narrative style of writing.

I'm not saying you have to spoon-feed the reader but at least open it up a bit. Tell us why your research is important. Put some effort into making the significance of your research clear and compelling. Strip down the sentences a bit. Why use five words when one will suffice? Push the academic journals to change their stuffy conventions.

There are many scientists who are excellent communicators. People like E.O. Wilson, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan come to mind. They understand the importance of explaining their work to the public and they do it well.

Scientific research is important but it is meaningless if there is no attempt to communicate that knowledge in a way the public and the people in power can understand. Information locked away inside impenetrable jargon and technical terms is not helping anyone.