A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing

Dated Feb 1, 2008; last modified on Sat, 06 Nov 2021

Method of Definition: Prototype Semantics

There is a cognitive science view of categorization that says:

  • Category members need not necessarily share a single set of distinguishing features, and may exhibit features to greater/lesser degrees
  • Some category members are more typical than others

This reasoning goes against how I mentally picture a category.

Although lies may have identifiable features such as misrepresentation of belief, intent to deceive, falseness and reprehensible motives, not all features are always present, and not all features are equally prominent in every instance.

A statement that is factually true, but conceals motive is still a lie, albeit not a prototypical lie. For example, “I’m going to the store” implies grocery store, not a guitar shop.

Protypical Bullshit

Is it deceptive to represent oneself as one aspires to be, but not what one currently is?

There is debate on the rhetoric self and the ‘constructed self’. Is there a pre-existing self to which the bullshitter is not true?

Prototypical bullshit has to do with a purposeful misrepresentation of self, has the quality of gamesmanship, and - contrary to Frankfurt’s argument - is at least potentially a lie.

Academic Bullshit Among Professors

The definition of prototypical academic bullshit depends on who is making the judgement.

When non-academics call academic writing bullshit, they usually mean the articles that receive public scorn, e.g. interpretive papers like “Bestio-Scatological Politics in ‘Go Dog, Go’".

For example, suppose you have observed that children cry when they fall down. You should write: “Methodological observation of the sociometrical behavior tendencies of prematurated isolates indicates that a casual relationship exists between groundward tropism and lachrimatory, or ‘crying,’ behavior forms.” If you can keep this up for fifty or sixty pages, you will get a large government grant.

From David Barry’s “On College”

However, this kind of writing is not typical of academic work. Academics worry about good academic writing, especially in the humanities and social sciences, being something like bullshit.

Professional rewards like tenure, promotions and grants come from academic reputation, which comes from publication. The reward system encourages the academic writer to emphasize/exaggerate the influence of what they’ve written. Yet, in the academic community, there is nothing especially deceptive about this construction of ethos.

Academic writing generally aims to refute, qualify, or expand positions taken in other academic publications. However, even when the author vehemently disagrees, the opponents' professional reputation must be respected. The writer’s tone is that of a dispassionate expert trying to expand a fund of knowledge despite the writer’s actual disposition. However, academics do not considered this as prototypical bullshit.

References

  1. A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing. Eubanks, Phillip; Schaeffer, John. http://writing2.richmond.edu/training/383/383restricted/bullshit.pdf . Feb 1, 2008.