Why I ...recommend the the joys of obfuscation

August 10, 2001

Obfuscation and a lack of clarity can be useful for academic authors. The more confused and unclear your style, the more chance you have of convincing at least some readers that what you have to say is worthwhile. And if you manage to achieve the right degree of tortured difficulty, no one will really understand what you are saying and you will avoid the possibility that anyone will be able to criticise you. In the prestigious peer-reviewed journals that are essential for building an academic reputation, clarity might indeed be taken as evidence of simplicity.

Here we offer three easy steps to success: First, choose your words carefully. Use big words where small ones would do and difficult words where possible - words such as "obfuscation" and "erudition".

In general, it is best to introduce difficult words without explaining their meaning - that way readers who do not understand what you are talking about will assume that they are at fault and not you. Use jargon where ordinary language would convey meaning better. Doing so can see off potential critics because they fear the dreadful consequences of appearing ignorant. Using jargon from your speciality helps to convey a sense of tradition. But even more useful is jargon from other fields, the more remote from your own the better, because there is less chance of being found out.

Second, make liberal use of references with no real reason for doing so. In every discipline there are authors whom it is worth citing if you want to be taken seriously, even if you have not read them in detail (or at all) and therefore cannot make substantial use of them. You must learn these relevant names and utter them frequently.

Curiously, you might do even better by citing a range of famously difficult theorists in other areas. For example, if you work in education, you might want to drop in a few references to obscure works of sociology or philosophy, preferably continental. Your readers will probably be unsure about these and so will be unlikely to challenge you.

Finally, try to avoid structure so that your reader never quite knows where she or he is going, but sprinkle your work with structural signposts that actually mean nothing. For example, you might refer back to something you said earlier, even though you did not say it. Liberal use of words and phrases that seem to imply an argument is especially helpful - such as "therefore" or "however" - but only if you assiduously avoid arguing and do not allow logic to enter the picture.

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