Johann Neem on the Importance of Scholarly Writing

Scholarly-penJohann Neem, an American historian at Western Washington University, is very aware of the fact that academic writing can be impenetrable.  He also believes that it is important for historians and other academics to write for the public.

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Neem defends both kinds of writing.

Neem’s argument makes perfect sense to me.

Here is a taste:

Basic research in the arts and sciences is the source of wisdom. Yet that wisdom needs to be shared. There are in all disciplines scholars who fit Cicero’s definition of the ideal orator, combining eloquence with wisdom. Yet Cicero recognized that the philosophical pursuit of truth requires different things from us than public engagement because it is a different kind of activity. We do neither academics nor the public any service when we conflate the two. Indeed, doing so is a category mistake.

We want physicists who write for each other. I appreciate that, at conferences and in academic papers, they have challenged each other’s conclusions and, in doing so, have pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge. Yet I am also grateful for my scientist friends who posted on Facebook links to videos and essays in which scientists explained, in terms that I could understand, why it was so significant that we had heard black holes colliding.

I enjoyed physicist Lawrence Krauss’s clear articulation of why a citizen like me — who could never understand an academic paper in physics — should continue to support investing oodles of money in basic research: “By exploring processes near the event horizon, or by observing gravitational waves from the early universe, we may learn more about the beginning of the universe itself, or even the possible existence of other universes.” This matters: “Every child has wondered at some time where we came from and how we got here. That we can try and answer such questions by building devices like LIGO to peer out into the cosmos stands as a testament to the persistent curiosity and ingenuity of humankind — the qualities that we should most celebrate about being human.”

I appreciate the scientists who have taken time to write for readers like me about the importance of hearing ripples in space-time. But I am also thankful for the many scientists who spend most of their time talking to each other. Instead of writing for me, they devoted their efforts to producing inaccessible scholarship that, over time, produced public insights of profound beauty.

Read the entire piece here.