Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Cargo cult writing

Richard Feynman coined the term cargo cult science, which can be defined thus:

"Cargo cults ... focus on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture by imitating the actions they believe cause the appearance of cargo ... Similarly, although cargo cult sciences employ the trappings of the scientific method, like an airplane with no motor they fail to deliver anything of value."

Increasingly, I'm seeing in undergraduate student writing something that I think is best described as "cargo-cult writing". By this, I mean the construction of phrases that seem focussed on sounding scientific rather than communicating clearly. If you skim cargo-cult writing, it can appear scientific, but when you  read it for meaning, it is unclear, often ungrammatical, and says very little of substance.

Somehow, we need to focus students back on the idea that science is about communicating clearly, in the plainest English possible. Using complex, difficult-to-read language is sometimes a byproduct of talking about complex issues with precision -- but it's not a goal in itself!

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