Thursday, October 11, 2007

A widespread virus called Mumbo Jumbo

I am about to spend a few words on a morbid, resilient and widespread virus called Mumbo Jumbo. In the last post I was pointing the finger to the copious outpouring of bad verse, which certainly contributes not a little to the ever increasing entropy of this world. Nevertheless, lame poetry is positively nothing in comparison to the foul mental marshes where Mumbo Jumbo grows and breeds. It has many exotic names, gobbledygook, abracadabra, gibberish, hocus pocus, to quote just a few, but one single meaning: total lack of sense. The scary thing is, almost no one seems to be completely immune from this hardy parasite: even scientists, particularly when they want to impress laymen with so-called popular science, all too often indulge in Mumbo Jumbo, and contribute to its dissemination.

So, why is Mumbo Jumbo so pervasive? There are many answers, but three stand first in my mind:

  • the primary one is simply lack of mental clarity. Contrary to the general belief, real thinking is quite uncommon. Thinking is hard: it requires effort. Most of what we consider thought is really nothing more than mental parroting, repetition of hearsay. We are so crammed every day by thousands of pseudo-ideas that it becomes difficult to wake up and think.
  • the second is power. Here is what the dictionary has to say: -Mumbo Jumbo. A term used to denote an object of senseless veneration, or a meaningless ceremony designed to overpower impressionable people- Yes, to use big words to intimidate the ignoramus is an old trick, but still very much in use.
  • last is fear, sheer fear. Fear of what? Of acknowledging that we do not understand. It requires courage to confess it (even to ourselves). And yet, only by a candid avowal we can make progress on our journey to real knowledge. Till we do, Mumbo Jumbo will provide the veil that hides us from truth.

PS Still like Mumbo Jumbo? Then fear not. There are a few good resources for filling your writings and speeches with nonsense without a single drop of sweat: the dowloadable Nonsense (check its hilarious "stupid laws" demo) does the job for you. Gibberish generator uses markov chains to output nonsense when fed with real text. Here is my little experiment with my own post (I have set it to level 5, done a touch of orthographic cleanup and overall polishing afterwards):

-Jumbo Jumbo grows and breeds I am about to the...... nevertheless, lame poetry is not a little to the ever increasing of bad verse, which certainly contributes to the copious outpouring entropy of the bad virus called Mumbo Jumbo. Mumbo Jumbo, Jumbo Jumbo Jumbo it grows and spreads wide verses, which certainly contributes not a little to the foul mental marshes where is Mumbo. Jumbo Jumbo grows and breeds-

Not bad at all.


andrew said...

It is amazing how difficult it can be to write in rigorous subjects.

In my experience writing purely rigorously can easily result in material that's so overly dense and pragmatic that it doesn't get read. It alienates all but the most dedicated of your audience. Reading it, though worthwhile, becomes an arduous chore.

For example, the book Sight Unseen by Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan is a dialogue between two philosophers, one sighted and one blind. Together they try to ascertain what the true difference is between the universes they inhabit. It's an immensely important and fascinating topic, but their "philosophy-ese" (like legalese: essential but painful) is so long-winded and their terms are so thoroughly defined that it's a pretty trying book to get through.

Conversely, writing very emotionally appealing but ultimately empty fluff can quickly draw an enormous following. Your audience will loyally and aggressively spread (parrot) your message as a work of great philosophical importance, no matter how little true sustenance it provides.

See The Celestine Prophecy for a good example of this. It's the spiritual equivalent of fast food and isn't even good fiction, but tens of millions of copies in over 30 languages have been sold, and it was recently made into a film.

Sight Unseen isn't even listed on Amazon, unless you go to the UK site.

It's tempting to conclude that rigor and impact must come in inverse proportion and that one must always be sacrificed for the other, but I think there are a few great pop science and pop philosophy writers out there who have succeeded in both, as much as one could.

They may be the ones I admire most because they accomplish the entire task of communication, for information that isn't true and information that isn't received are both equally useless.

Polymathicus said...

In my personal experience, there is always a way to convey the most sublime and apparently abstruse ideas without either morphing them into untasty mumbo-jumbo, or casting them into ultra-specialized technical jargon.

However, it must be clearly understood that not all can be communicated in plain common language: specific domains of knowledge forge their own terminology as they deem fit.

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