Thursday, 11 August 2011

Notes for discussion on Academic Writing - by Simon Wakeling

In the early 1950s, world renowned (and future Nobel prize-winning) quantum physicist Richard Feynman was invited to attend a cross-disciplinary conference in New York to discuss the "ethics of equality." He writes:

"There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read—something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damned thing and my eyes were coming out—I couldn't make head nor tail of it […] I had this uneasy feeling of, "I'm not adequate," until finally I said to myself, "I'm going to stop, and read one sentence slowly so I can figure out what the hell it means."
So I stopped at random and read the next sentence very carefully. I can't remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: "The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels." I went back and forth over it and translated. You know what it means? "People read."
Then I went over the next sentence. And I realized that I could translate that one, also. Then it became a kind of empty business. "Sometimes people read. Sometimes people listen to the radio." And so on. But written in such a fancy way that I couldn't understand it at first. And when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it."
(Feynman, R. 1985. Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman! London: Vintage, pp. 281-282)

How often do we find ourselves repeating Feynman's experience? Is it a particular problem for the social sciences, or academia in general? How can we ensure we communicate our ideas clearly?

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