Baffle ’em with BS

by Hans on 2005/04/15

A few years back, when I was a co-op student, a manager gave me a piece of advice that I’ll never forget: “When in doubt, baffle them with BS”. In his many years of experience, he found that most people will try to *sound* impressive by using big words in non-coherent sentences. When challenged (which most people don’t do), the person usually doesn’t have a response (obviously – because they just made some stuff up). What I found most interesting is why people don’t ask the person to explain what they just said – I suppose it has something to do with not wanting to look “foolish” or less intelligent in front of others.

Often, as I’m reading scientific articles, I wonder what the authors are actually saying. Nevermind that the topics can be pretty complex, but writing is generally of poor quality. Prof. Guy Allen (University of Toronto) goes so far as to say that 90% of all scientific publications are crap – no-one can produce that much high-quality writing. Therefore, the quality goes down and we are left with what we have. I guess at times, I’ve wondered whether I’m just not smart enough to understand the paper, or whether or not the authors are purposefully trying to obfuscate and baffle readers. I mean, I have had some training and experience reading this stuff, but I really don’t understand how “lay” people can read journal articles – maybe that’s why they don’t.

CNN.com reported an interesting article about a few MIT graduate students who created a computer program that generates “scientific-sounding” computer science articles that are just random collection of words. They created this program to test a hypothesis that a particular conference wasn’t really scientific. Anyway, this randomly generated article was accepted! The actual program is available on the grad students homepage – SCIgen. I took a look at some of the sample articles and visually, they look impressive (references, charts, and diagrams are all randomly generated).

Apparently, there was a previous incident where a randomly generated paper was accepted by a journal and published! So, I’m left to wonder about the integrity of the peer-review process. If, as a society, we are moving away from what Neil Postman calls a “typographic society” to one that is more visually oriented (and thus entertainment driven), what does that mean for social institutions like school and “science” in general? I would suppose that Postman would say that nothing good can come of this shift. Maybe I’d have to agree. I’ve written about how other social institutions are starting to behave like corporations rather than *institutions*. Is it only a matter of time before *science* is co-opted and reduced to the largest headline or most marketable idea? What about the pursuit of knowledge and truth?

** On a side note, I’ve noticed that grad students (at least some of those with whom I’ve worked) seem less open to objectively critiquing work, particularly their own. Honest comments about the work seem to be taken personally – as if suggesting improvements is somehow an personal attack. I just don’t get it. Whatever happened to openly and objectively examining the work and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses?

Oh well, maybe it’s only time before medical journals start publishing randomly generated articles. I mean, research produced by the pharmaceutical industry is often viewed with considerable skepticism, as if the numbers are randomly generated to make their drug(s) look good.

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