This is a precise language zone. Photographer: Ronda Churchill/Bloomberg News
This is a precise language zone. Photographer: Ronda Churchill/Bloomberg News

Should academics avoid jargon? Should they aim for practical relevance? How much should they contribute to public debates?

In a column last month, Nicholas Kristof created a stir by objecting that “to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.” In his view, academics have marginalized themselves, writing in obscure and inaccessible ways that limit their ability to inform public discussion.

There is a lot of truth in this argument. But it misses something: the importance of inquiring into foundational questions, which may not be immediately relevant to public policy, and which might be best engaged with specialized language.

Consider three passages:

1. “A person is risk averse if he prefers the certain prospect (x) to any risky prospect with expected value x. In expected utility theory, risk aversion is equivalent to the concavity of the utility function. The prevalence of risk aversion is perhaps the best known generalization regarding risky choices.”

2. “It is instructive to compare the outcomes in the previous-actions-observable (PAO) regime to that of the more informative previous-signals-observable (PSO) regime. In the binary signal case, PAO leads to a more uniform outcome. Following any given sequence of signal realizations, the two regimes lead to precisely identical outcomes, until a cascade begins in the PAO regime.”

3. “We have thus far focused on outcome sets characterized solely in terms of individual incomes. Can we employ generalized Lorenz comparisons, the technique of discounting total income by the degree of income inequality, a leximin rule applied to incomes, or some other income evaluation function to rank multidimensional outcomes? One approach that is widely used … is to ‘normalize’ each individual’s income to reflect her non-income characteristics.”

The first passage comes from one of the most influential social science papers in the last 50 years: "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk," written by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979.

The second comes from one of the defining papers of the 1990s: "A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades," written by economists Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch in 1992.

The third is from an illuminating 2011 book: "Well-Being and Fair Distribution: Beyond Cost-Benefit Analysis," by law professor Matthew Adler.

None of this work has immediate implications for public policy, but none can be dismissed as irrelevant. Kahneman and Tversky offer a theory to explain how people deal with losses and gains under circumstances of risk. Among other things, that theory helps illuminate why a small tax on undesirable behavior (a loss) often has a much larger effect than an equivalent bonus for desirable behavior (a gain).

Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer and Welch provide a powerful account of why humans move in herds, giving us insights into the rise of political candidates, the sale of products and the success of political movements (including revolutions).

Adler sets out a path-breaking discussion of whether it is appropriate to go beyond cost-benefit analysis (required by President Barack Obama) to consider the effects of regulations on social well-being and equality.

Kristof objects that “Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” In his view, the resulting “gobbledygook” ends up “hidden in obscure journals” and “university presses whose reputations for soporifics keeps readers at a distance.” (Indeed, the passages reproduced above appear in Econometrica, the Journal of Political Economy and a 656-page book from Oxford University Press.)

Plain language has its virtues, and some academic jargon is pointlessly obscure, but when specialists are speaking to other specialists, it’s perfectly fine to use specialized language. These passages could be translated into ordinary language only at a high cost, resulting in a loss of precision, excessive length and unnecessary definitions. For the intended audience, phrases such as “concavity of the utility function,” “the binary signal case” and “leximin rule” are familiar, not arcane.

Kristof is right to say that academic work should relate to human affairs, but even in the social sciences, practical relevance might not come for a while. Kahneman and Tversky were examining how people make decisions under circumstances of risk. It wasn't readily apparent how their findings might bear on environmental policy or foreign affairs, and they would have been reckless to speculate.

Adler’s discussion has implications for regulatory policy. But because his conclusions come at a high level of abstraction, he is cautious, and properly so, about making concrete recommendations.

Kristof complains that most academics “just don’t matter in today’s great debates.” He’s probably right. But John Maynard Keynes offered a different perspective: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.”