Monday, June 09, 2014

Tellin' Me More and More About Some Useless Information

Emrys Westacott:

The reasons for excessive sophistication and complexity vary. Media experts on sport or politics perhaps feel a need to say something "expert" to differentiate themselves from the millions of amateur pundits out there watching or reading what they say. Academics need to publish as part of the tenure and promotion game, so they have to try to find something new to say: in the humanities originality can easily matter more than plausibility since the most plausible ideas are often the most obvious and familiar. And intellectuals generally fear appearing naive or simplistic. The love of paradox and the frequent inversion of conventional opinion that has long been a characteristic of French philosophy seems to be fueled by this anxiety, and something similar affects the work of of those influenced by the leading French theorists.

I am obviously not saying that we should eschew entirely sophistication, subtlety, and complexity. Sometimes truth is complicated, and subtle thinking is needed in order to grasp it. Sometimes challenges to the obvious or the familiar lead to genuinely interesting insights. I am not championing simple-mindedness or philistinism. But we should be aware that there are forces at work driving people to develop analyses that go beyond what is necessary, useful, or plausible. And when we encounter such analyses, we should greet them with a skeptically raised eyebrow and a Gallic shrug.

He started off his post with an example drawn from the gaseous world of fútbol punditry, which was guaranteed to make me swoon. My dad made the mistake over the weekend of asking whether I thought Spain had enough magic left in their golden generation to pull off another World Cup victory, which triggered an impassioned rant from me about the utterly annoying uselessness of most "expert" analysis and commentary.

At any rate, Westacott (who is becoming my favorite of the part-time 3QD writers) seems obviously correct to me in noting how much of a role fashion, the need for superficial distinction, plays in this sort of unnecessary obfuscation. The appearance of novelty might hold long enough to disguise the lack of substance or usefulness, and many people lack the confidence to challenge the apparent social consensus around a nude emperor.