A Chinese friend of mine is a chemistry major. In one of her classes, the textbook was so hard to understand she said the authors are “trying to confuse you.” They use difficult words, for example. A Berkeley art history major told me much the same thing. In her reading assignments, she said, the writers couldn’t write a sentence without a few big words. They were trying to impress readers, she believed.
Yes, professors write badly — in these two cases, the writing seemed actively bad. Thorstein Veblen wrote a whole book about showing off (The Theory of the Leisure Class). One chapter was about professors. They show off, said Veblen, by doing research with no practical application and by writing obscurely. Obscure writing is showing off because, like useless research, it shows you don’t have to care what other people think (“it carries a pointed suggestion of the industrial exemption of the speaker”).
Veblen said little about the costs and benefits of the behavior he described, beyond calling it wasteful. I say the opposite — not wasteful at all. When, long ago, people bought “useless” (“deadweight loss”) gifts or “useless” hood ornaments or decorated buildings with “useless” ornamentation or performed “useless” rituals and ceremonies that require special products (e.g., special clothes), they subsidized skilled artisans. For a long time, that was incredibly important. Research by skilled artisans led to better tools, the creation of metals, and so on. Helping those artisans make a living supported (increased) research in material science. Pushing people toward “useless” research was valuable because it diversified the research being done — there are many ways to be useless, just as you can misspell a word more ways than you can spell it correctly. The most important discoveries, such as electricity, would not have been made if everyone tried to do research with obvious application. Allowing professors to use big words and write badly is a small price to pay for the valuable “useless” research they perform.
I use Grammarly for proofreading because . . . well, just because.
There is an unrecognized problem with this, however. If you get one group of people to do “useless” research by turning things upside down so that useless is seen as better than useful (professors value “pure” research over “applied” research), it becomes very hard for them to do useful research. For a long time, practically all important research was material science research — how to control the material world. When something useful was discovered via “useless” research, the knowledge could be transferred to everyone else, who had normal values (useful is better than useless). Everyone else went on to use the knowledge in profitable ways — to make better knives, for example. This system (the results of “useless” research are used by other people to make a profit) gave us the world we live in, a world of wonderful products. The products on offer are staggering in their diversity, low cost, and general excellence. The hard drive on my laptop, the clothes I wear, for example.
Against this brilliant control of materials we can put our amazing lack of control of our bodies. A large fraction of Americans sleep poorly. Nothing (such as street noise) is making them sleep badly; they just don’t know how to sleep well. Depression is a huge problem, obesity is a huge problem (in America), and so on. It isn’t just ordinary people. Sleep experts don’t know how to improve sleep, weight control experts don’t know how to lose weight, psychiatrists don’t know how to prevent depression, and so on. Closely related to this is our health care system. It is dominated by doctors, who often use a peculiar and self-serving reasoning I call doctor logic. When I was a graduate student, my dermatologist was surprised when I measured my acne to see if the treatments he prescribed actually worked. It was a new idea to him. An influential Stanford psychiatrist named David Burns, whose famous book has sold millions of copies, has not yet figured out it would be a good idea to measure daily the mood of his patients. (Other psychiatrists are even worse.)
Why are we so smart about materials and so stupid about health — which is far more important? I think it is because the whole system evolved to push our economy forward via advances in material science. For hundreds of thousands of years, that is where improvement was possible: better stuff, such as better tools. The same “habits of mind” (as Veblen would say) and research system has managed to produce plenty of “useless” knowledge outside of material science. This knowledge can be translated into useful discoveries, as I have done (new ways to sleep better, lose weight, be in a better mood, and so on), but these discoveries don’t lead to products, at least not in obvious ways. Control of our bodies is quite different than making something physical. My first interesting self-experimental discovery was that eating breakfast made my sleep worse. That’s very useful, but not at all profitable — there is no obvious associated product. For professors, a problem with my discovery is that it’s useful. (Another problem is that it’s small.) For everyone else, a problem is that it isn’t profitable. The system that worked so well for material science breaks down when it comes to health science.
Yet the fact that you are reading this suggests, at least to me, that a big change is coming.