Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Technobabble: The Official Style in Science

          The official style is often criticized for being obtuse and unreadable. Richard Lanham, the man who first quantized and named the official style, was so disgusted with it that he waged a war against everything it stood for, even creating his own remedial “paramedic style” to be applied whenever possible. And while it is true that, to the majority of readers, the official style is frustrating if not completely useless, its elements have their place. As with many things in rhetoric, the practicality of the official style is not a black and white issue. One area in which the official style is both common and practical is among academic papers. Many of the official style strategies, while too cumbersome for every-day writing, actually help in the transmission of academic ideas.   
            Nuclear Physics B journal. While it is available online, it’s hidden behind a paywall of thirty-five dollars. This context is important to consider. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and what may appear absurd in one situation may be (and often is) perfectly reasonable in another. Context can also reveal clues as to the motivations of the writer. The exchange of ideas and information from writer to audience and the wider world always influences what’s being written, on some level. In the case of “Loop space,” the goal of its writers was, at least partially, to be published in Nuclear Physics B. The title of the journal alone lets the reader know what they’re in for. It is clearly by academics, for academics, within a highly specialized field which only a relative few people on Earth truly understand. In submitting to Nuclear Physics B, the authors open themselves and their work up to peer review and criticism. The need to appear official and authoritative is understandable. The issue of the paywall may also have influenced the decisions of the authors. Knowing, as they surely did, that their work would be published in a journal that requires a significant price to be accessed, it’s not difficult to believe that the authors would try their hardest to make their submission up to snuff. But were these the only reasons for the use of the official style? And how exactly did the authors apply the hallmarks of the style to their writing?
For the purposes of this critique, a document was chosen to represent certain elements of the official style. In this case, the document was an abstract from a paper entitled “Loop space representation of quantum general relativity.” The full paper was published in the February 1990 edition of the
            The abstract reads as follows:
“We define a new representation for quantum general relativity, in which exact solutions of the quantum constraints may be obtained.
The representation is constructed by means of a noncanonical graded Poisson algebra of classical observables, defined in terms of Ashtekar's new variables. The observables in this algebra are nonlocal and involve parallel transport around loops in a three-manifold Σ. The theory is quantized by constructing a linear representation of a deformation of this algebra. This representation is given in terms of an algebra of linear operators defined on a state space which consists of functionals of sets of loops in Σ. The construction is general and can be applied also to Yang-Mills theories.
The diffeomorphism constraint is defined in terms of a natural representation of the diffeomorphism group. The hamiltonian constraint, which contains the dynamics of quantum gravity, is constructed as a limit of a sequence of observables which incorporates a regularization prescription. We give the general solution of the diffeomorphism constraint in closed form. It is spanned by a countable basis which is in one-to-one correspondence with the diffeomorphism equivalence classes of multiple loops, which are a generalization of the link classes studied in knot theory. Then we explicitly construct, in closed form, a large space of solution of the entire set of constraints, including the hamiltonian constraint. These turn out to be classified by the ordinary knot and link classes of Σ.
The space of solutions that we find is a sector of the physical states space of nonperturbative quantum general relativity. The failure of perturbation theory is thus shown to be not relevant to the problem of the existence of a nontrivial physical state space in quantum gravity. The relationship between this new loop representation and the self-dual representation of Ashtekar is illuminated by means of a functional transform between states in the two representations. Questions of the completeness of the solution space, the meaning of the physical operators and the physical inner product, are discussed, but not, so far, resolved.”

At a glance, it’s an eyeful. It’s easy to become lost in only the first several sentences. Pushing through and actually perusing the paragraphs, several official style strategies leap out. Passive voice is used repeatedly: “solutions of the quantum constraints may be contained,” “The theory is quantized,” “The Hamiltonian constraint…is constructed.” Nothing in the universe does anything, it seems, but are only involved in things that happen. Latinate diction abounds (“quantized,” “regularization,” etc.), but most of all, the abstract is absolutely filled with jargon. “Quantum constraints,” “Noncanonical graded Poisson algebra,” “Ashtekar’s new variables,” “parallel transport,” “three-manifold Σ,” and all within the first three sentences. To an outsider it renders even a single sentence virtually unreadable, and to read it aloud would require speech therapy. Even the title of the paper, “Loop space representation of quantum general relativity,” is 70% jargon. The effect is a feeling of moving further away from reality the further one reads into the document. It climbs the ladder of abstraction with each sentence, until the (every-day) reader is left uncertain of whether they read anything at all. It wouldn’t be out of place in a bad Star Trek script that needed some technobabble padding.
            The obvious question here is, what’s the point? Not just in the jargon (although that seems to be the most offensive), but in any of the strategies present? Generally it could be said that, within the official style, passive voice is used to distance ones’ self from what is being written, to avoid any real responsibility. And while the passive voice is present within the abstract, that doesn’t seem to be its function. In a trend contrary to typical official style documents, the few places where passive voice is not used are where the authors do take responsibility: “We define a new representation for quantum general relativity,” says the opening sentence. Placed within the context of academia, this choice can be easily understood. It could be argued that half the point of publishing anything in a scientific journal is to claim credit for your discoveries. Whatever happened in this paper sounds like it was a lot of work; it’s understandable that the authors would want credit where it’s due.
            The Latinate diction, viewed in the context of an academic paper, can also be easily explained. After all, Latin was once the language of academia. Its spirit still flows through universities today, in the bloated papers of college kids everywhere. Latinate diction provides a sense of authority, something the authors likely strived for. And while it is present in the abstract, it isn’t necessarily obtrusive or unjustified. “Quantized” refers to the act of narrowing something down, from the general to the specific, a concept that applies directly to quantum physics.
            But can the jargon be excused? One of the goals of scientific work is to pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and good scientific ethics demand that that knowledge be made available to all members of the public. What good is that if this knowledge is hidden behind jargonistic phrases like “nonperturbative quantum general relativity” that require a doctorate to understand? Combined with the steep paywall that prevents access to the full paper, it is easy to see a somewhat malevolent motivation behind the use of so much jargon. Scientific knowledge, arguably some of the most profound and important knowledge currently possessed by the human race, becomes a commodity, accessible only by a select few. A sort of classism arises, between those that understand the jargon and those that don’t. Knowledge becomes hidden, and the ethics of scientific study are tossed aside.
            It is easy to levy such criticisms against academic articles like this one. Nobody enjoys feeling like an outsider, especially if the Other is privy to the secret knowledge of the universe. Unreadability is one of the main assaults against the official style, and a valid one. But, again, context must be considered. What is unreadable to some is not unreadable to others. The truth is, papers like “Loop space representation of quantum general relativity” was not written for the masses. It seems to be aimed at an inner circle because that is exactly who it was written for. Never mind credibility and paywalls; quantum physics and general relativity are heady topics that necessitate specialists if humanity is to understand them at all. The use of jargon may exclude the majority of the public, but for those specialists it makes things much easier. It functions as short-hand, conveying ideas and concepts so complicated the only other way they could be fully expressed is through Einstein-level mathematics. The information is not being hidden, simply unboxed. It needs to start somewhere, and after the academic articles have been published and reviewed in journals like Nuclear Physics B, then the knowledge can be disseminated to the wider public through publications like New Scientist. This too requires some level of specialization: the ability to translate official style into common style, while still maintaining a coherent message. It all comes back to context.

            Too often, it seems, the official style is torn down. What few people realize is that it has its place. This applies to both critics and supporters. Certainly the average customer shouldn’t have to wade through reams of legalese in order to understand what they’re agreeing to when they sign up for iTunes, but the quantum physicist should be free to communicate in a language they understand in order to fully convey ideas. Richard Lanham seeks to eradicate the official style completely, but to do so would be a mistake. Like most things in life, the answer to “Is the official style useful?” is, “It depends.” The official style has its place, but is it always worth muddying the ethical waters? Before we throw it out completely, we should consider: Is there a better way?
                      -- Christian Velguth

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