The Decision Hedgehog

December 4th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, badscience | 114 Comments »

I’m honestly not wanting to be mean here. Seriously, I’m sure there’s value in this paper:

“The Decision Hedgehog – Enhancing Contextual Knowledge For Group Decision Authoring And Communication Support”

But I just can’t help daydreaming about the bit in the seminar where the audience start thinking, you know, I could see where you were going with this initially, but I’m just not sure if the hedgehog thing is going to carry the whole thesis…



The diagrams are what really hangs it all together for me.




Read it for yourself here:



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114 Responses

  1. Gimpy said,

    December 4, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    In the current era, there are as many paradigms as there are problem solvers – (Deleuze and Guattari,
    1988). Successful decision-making is predicated on the presence and visibility of as much external
    contextual knowledge as possible at the outset. Following Burridan, this implies that there is not just
    one global truth, nor is their one subject or one object. There are many perceptions of truth, many
    objects and many subjects, each framing their own contextual experience of the world. Each requires
    acknowledgement at the start.
    GDACS holds that problem solving becomes then not the elimination of external knowledge in order
    to bound the problem within the restricted frame of contextual knowledge, but the co-authoring of
    entirely new contextual knowledge, which may or may not be a synthesis of pre existing contextual
    knowledge. The generation of new contextual knowledge, of a similar granularity and dimensionality
    at the level of the group becomes useful then for that moment in time. It becomes regenerated itself
    as it moves through time, and context shifts

    Am I stupid if I don’t understand this?

  2. emilypk said,

    December 4, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    A hedgehog with rhizomes? Sorry… I didn’t get past the abstract. But that isn’t rare with theses outside my area these days. I do thing theses should come with plain language abstracts if only to prove the candidate understands their work well enough to explain it ot someone in the filed who might actually whant to use it (whatever ‘it’ is). One program I worked in liked to send graduate student to explain their work to 7-8 year old students, in a second language (french).

  3. confuseling said,

    December 4, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    Self explanatory, no?

    You want really REALLY good painkillers, you get chummy with an anaesthetist.

    You want cod philosophy bearing the indelible leitmotif of years of next-gen psychoactive self-experimentation / abuse, you go to an occupational psychologist.

  4. dbhb said,

    December 4, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud.

  5. raygirvan said,

    December 4, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    I suggest a better way. Write possible choices on apples, then let a hedgehog loose nearby. You choose the option on the apple that the hedgehog first impales on its spines.

  6. PhilEdwards said,

    December 4, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    Not just post-modernism, not just management bollocks… it’s post-modern management bollocks!

  7. jackpt said,

    December 4, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    What we should all be asking is whether we can replicate and test the decision hedgehog, or find ourselves with a significant quandary mouse. Or the dreaded badger of indecision. The bristles of either provide ample room for the contextual deconstruction of the delineation of ideas relative to truth.

    Given it’s open season on bollocks.

  8. Bob O'H said,

    December 4, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    “One prick against many”

  9. Terrible Al said,

    December 4, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    Hmm. Why do I have the horrible feeling that this will come up in a training presentation at work within, say, two years? After all, we’re the sort of place that does Lean, Quality, 5S, Six Sigma*, ISO9001 etc, and are expected to make use of formal brainstorms, Five Why, Ishikawa diagrams, MECE, VAFA, Crtitical To, Tazeko Kensei** and all other sorts of rubbish.

    *Worse, a company branded/renamed version.

    **maybe not this one. That’s me watching too much Heroes.

  10. emilypk said,

    December 4, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    “dreaded badger of indecision”


    Or the rabid rat of I don’t give a….

  11. Filias Cupio said,

    December 4, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    Beware of speakers bearing pyramid diagrams. They are most frequently used to wallpaper over a mess of incoherent thought and pretend that it has structure and validity.

  12. sictransitgloria said,

    December 4, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Will Level 1 hurt?

  13. quietstorm said,

    December 4, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    That’s one analogy that’s got seriously out of hand… hedgehogs with rhizomes? Do they have plant parasites? I am confused. Can’t help but feel that this particular branch of study has started using words which mean one thing to those of us who don’t study “the Decision” (which I notice now merits a capital letter) and a different thing for the people in that field. And I don’t mean in a “common misconception” way, in the manner that people sometimes don’t realise the correct meanings of words like theory or energy, but rather in a way that suggests that they couldn’t be bothered making up a new word for this concept that they’ve invented, so they’ve poached another one that they will probably never have to use in it’s proper context (e.g. rhizome)

    e.g. page 6 – “At the social level, the rhizome is activated, extended and revised by the participants in the group, through making and exchanging stories about discovery and innovation in the conceptualisation, utilisation and transformation of resources for living.”

    Section title: “How can the decision-hedgehog best be nurtured?” – seriously, was this just part of a big joke, a dare? Perhaps one of their colleagues made a bet that they couldn’t get the word “hedgehog” into a seminar, and then it all got out of hand?

    jackpt – thanks so much, that was a “milk-out-of-the-nose” moment, my office-mates now think I’m a loony. I’m off to find a quandary mouse.

  14. Dr Aust said,

    December 4, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    I’m 100% with Filias C here. These kind of daft conceptual diagrams started off in sociology (with nods to the structuralist pranksters) but are now rife in management and, in University science departments, in presentations that we are force-fed about “the student learning process” and other “research on pedagogy”.

  15. emilypk said,

    December 4, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    I have a button on my ejector seat labelled ‘pedagogy’. If that word is used it is time to leave.

  16. emilypk said,

    December 4, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    p.s. the hedgehog is obscuring the miniblog :(

  17. Al Kaholic said,

    December 4, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    Will this wanker get rich shoveling this into various HR departments who will inflict it on hapless workers as company-embiggening “initiative”?
    Flip a coin.
    Or just consult random-boolean-generating Thompson’s gazelle.
    If Ben doesn’t want to be mean, I do. What self-respecting editor wouldn’t just stamp “needs work” on this and send it back.

    Hey Terrible Al, just curious: Novartis?

  18. Elo said,

    December 4, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    Before people start the inquisition against everything they don’t understand, the Hedgehog is an image in decision theory. It is not my field so I have no idea what it entails. Decision theory is part of the political sciences and social psychology. Valid or not I couldn’t judge, it is not my field.

    Dr Aust, you fired across sociology’s bow in a complete gratuitous manner. I fail to see how what you call daft diagrams originated in sociology. Care to explain this argument? (you seem to confound the whole discipline with management literature).

  19. Mojo said,

    December 4, 2007 at 10:05 pm


  20. quetzalcoatl said,

    December 4, 2007 at 10:15 pm


    An “intellectual imposture” in my book (cf Sokal and Bricmont), but nowhere near the standard of their paper: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.

    (wiki overview here: )

    Even so, I can’t help admiring the ‘creative’ thinking behind the ‘decision hedgehog’.

  21. Gimpy said,

    December 4, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    Well if were are being rude about the ‘creative’ thinking behind the ‘decision hedgehog’ then it is only fair to mention those merry Drosophila pranksters who called a gene sonic hedgehog for the most spurious of reasons and inspired a whole genre of stupid gene names.

  22. peelie said,

    December 4, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    hehe confuseling do i know you! :)

    is it me or maybe a peculiarity of pdf rendering but i am certain that in the “case study application” section (page 9) the words “MSc dissertations, as well as how to collectively gain mutual support for is work and for their
    career paths beyond this time.” seem to be in a bigger font? (the grammatical era there is another thing!)

  23. Ed Yong said,

    December 4, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    I think the metaphor is faulty. In my experience, most management types use a tool called the Indecision Porcupine, which is structurally similar to the Decision Hedgehog but differs in its use.

    When faced with a potential threat or “choice”, the experienced user of the Indecision Porcupine runs screaming a*se-first into the problem, ramming as many “action points” into it as possible and crippling it by leaving painful, barbed “decision-spines” in place which cause paralysis and, thus, a total inability to get anything done.

  24. Elo said,

    December 4, 2007 at 11:18 pm


    Ed Yong, you made me laugh. Indecision porcupine! I think I will write this down if you don’t mind.

  25. John_M said,

    December 4, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    1) This indeed seems like classic postmodernist stuff with which Alan Sokal would have good fun; it certainly is written in that style.

    2) However, the following may shed light on why hedgehogs are now cavorting around LSE:

    a) This likely started with the old saw “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

    Google: fox hedgehog OR
    Google: fox hedgehog isaiah berlin

    b) In 2001, a very popular management book was Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”, in which Chapter 5 is “The Hedgehog Concept”, and the idea (company focus ==> success) is used extensively through the book, albeit using straightforward language lacking rhizomes, dimensionalities, etc.

    c) Of course, we know what happens when a simple term appears in a best-selling management book…. it mutates and proliferates widely, growing more spines to adapt to variably-contextualizing requirements (or something like that).

  26. PO8 said,

    December 5, 2007 at 12:24 am

    Honestly, I can’t see that this paper is a big deal on the “Bad Science” scale. It’s just a harmless little academic publication. At best, someone will find value in it. At worst, it’s merely worthless. Whether it’s a prank, a joke, or (Heaven help us) a career move on the authors’ parts, it’s unlikely that it will injure or defraud anyone, or damage the reputation of science.

    Surely there are bigger fish to fry than this. Or hedgehogs, or something.

  27. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 5, 2007 at 12:31 am

    good point PO8, you’re right, i forgot you personally employed me to pursue a sanctimonious public service remit.

    i’m very, very sorry and i’ll try to pay more attention to your personal needs in future.

  28. Humphrey said,

    December 5, 2007 at 1:27 am

    Spiny Norman?

  29. Twm said,

    December 5, 2007 at 1:27 am

    a prick in reality..hehe

  30. mjs said,

    December 5, 2007 at 2:43 am

    poor hedgehog. no organs!

    when it comes to gene names, though, i have to say you don’t forget the ones like sevenless (sev), bride of sevenless (boss), and sonic the hedgehog (shh). i wouldn’t want every new gene to be named so capriciously, but as the rare spark it’s amusing. :)

  31. mjs said,

    December 5, 2007 at 2:45 am

    er, the site deleted my image html & link.

    in the tradition of lolcats, sonic sez:i’m in ur brawl / makin fans happy

  32. Daniel Rutter said,

    December 5, 2007 at 7:55 am

    See also “Relativity Summed Up”:

  33. Michael Power said,

    December 5, 2007 at 7:58 am

    It’s winter. Hedgehogs should be hibernating. Don’t disturb them.

  34. superburger said,

    December 5, 2007 at 8:54 am

    i wouldn’t invoke the wisdom of Mis s Tiggwinkle when it comes to making decisions on road crossing, or whether a nice kip in an unlit bonfire is a good idea, that’s for sure.

  35. mikew said,

    December 5, 2007 at 9:24 am

    Just don’t call it M*h****d.

    (Well, you could literally call it that, but not the unasterisked version)

  36. cvb said,

    December 5, 2007 at 9:41 am

    Personally I could not understand a word of it. I even had to look up rhizome.

    p.s. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

  37. PhilS said,

    December 5, 2007 at 9:48 am

    @Elo: To put this paper/over-stretched metaphor into context, a simple google search brings up this little gem

    “Great scientists come in two varieties, which Isaiah Berlin, quoting the seventh-century-BC poet Archilochus, called foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Foxes are interested in everything, and move easily from one problem to another. Hedgehogs are interested only in a few problems which they consider fundamental, and stick with the same problems for years or decades. Most of the great discoveries are made by hedgehogs, most of the little discoveries by foxes. Science needs both hedgehogs and foxes for its healthy growth, hedgehogs to dig deep into the nature of things, foxes to explore the complicated details of our marvelous universe. Albert Einstein was a hedgehog; Richard Feynman was a fox.”

    I don’t think one’s primary field needs to be “Decision Theory” to appreciate that this paper is clearly bollocks.

  38. Diotima said,

    December 5, 2007 at 10:19 am

    They have evidently been brooding on the old joke that a camel is a horse designed by a committee and have decided to improve on it.
    EmilyPk, yes, an old friend of mine (an economist–they are not all barking) would say at the end of an over-complex presentation, ‘Could you give me the 5 minute version in Baby-talk, please?’

  39. FlammableFlower said,

    December 5, 2007 at 11:29 am

    My brain just curled up into a little defensive ball…

  40. Gimpy said,

    December 5, 2007 at 11:34 am

    Regarding the use of ‘rhizome’, apparently Jung said,

    Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above the ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away—an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost the sense of something that lives and endures beneath the eternal flux. What we see is blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.

    so that’s cleared that up.

  41. zlsiida said,

    December 5, 2007 at 11:39 am

    I think the people restructuring IT at Manchester University may have put too much faith in this hedgehog paradigm.

  42. maninalift said,

    December 5, 2007 at 11:50 am

    quietstorm (#13). It is worse than that. It is not a matter of a word being given another meaning but of a word being given a lack of meaning.

    “The generation of new contextual knowledge, of a similar granularity and dimensionality at the level of the group becomes useful then for that moment in time.”

    Yummy, soup.

  43. NuttyBat said,

    December 5, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    I’d like to point out that my user-name does not mean that I am a social-psychologist! Although I could be used as a model for chaos theory….

    However, I am now tempted to flit off to consult with the Decision Hedgehog, as I’m having probelms deciding which Christmas parties to go to.

  44. warumich said,

    December 5, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    I’m slightly unhappy with some of the assumptions being made in this thread. While I don’t mind rubbish being outed as such, I haven’t quite seen that here. There are many words in the paper that I didn’t understand, but as this is a professional piece rather than a popularisation, the authors should be allowed to use jargon, no? Heck I don’t understand even half of what’s written in physics journals, but I don’t take that as evidence that it is all pomo bullshit.

    Now I don’t see what’s so objectionable about
    “There are many perceptions of truth, many objects and many subjects, each framing their own contextual experience of the world.”

    Social psychology is all about how people collectively make sense of the world, and you will be hard-pressed to discuss the issues that arise without having to make distinctions between how things really are, and how different people and different groups of people interpret the world around them. Surely you don’t deny that different people see the world slightly differently? That’s why soc. psy. talks about “different individuals’ truths” as a kind of shorthand, which may sound like rampant relativism, but isn’t really. What you are doing in effect is misunderstanding a piece of jargon from a different discipline and laughing about it. Quite unfair I feel.

  45. Dr Aust said,

    December 5, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    Elo spotted I was having a sideswipe at sociology. This is probably coloured by my received view that much of the post-modernist / structuralist psycho-babble that plagues academic discussion these days started with sociologists. But I would agree that I am saying this from a position outside sociology looking in.

    I did know one very eminent sociologist personally when I was younger – Prof Basil Bernstein, who was a family friend. He was one of the wittiest talkers I ever met, but was, I discover, renowned for the impenetrable jargonism of his published work, which ended up tangled in incomprehensible neo-struturalist conceptualisms. This seems somewhat paradoxical, so maybe that was in my mind too.

    My personal experience of this sort of babble is in higher (science) education, where, as I said before, it turns up increasingly often these days in the guise of “pedagogical research”. In general, the Univ teachers I know ask the one question “will this stuff help me in doing my teaching in any practical or useful way?”. The answer with pedagogical research as we encounter it (usually being lectured at by its enthusiasts) is a resounding “no”. The late Ted Wragg used to make the same point repeatedly about much educational research relating to schools.

    Often when we get arm-twisted into another “educational pedagogy” seminar the jargon of the speaker – typically a grand visiting expert – is so incomprehensible we have to ask for simultaneous translation. The “pedagogic research” people who started out as actual practitioners (teachers or researchers) in another subject – definitely a minority – can usually just about translate into English if pushed. The true full-timer “education technology” types invariably can’t, and generally look amazed that anyway would ask.

  46. Dr Aust said,

    December 5, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    PS I’m now waiting for Warumich to shoot me down..!

  47. spk76 said,

    December 5, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    Jargon is acceptable when necessary to convey complex ideas in a kind of academic shorthand amongst colleagues but its unnecessary overuse should be actively discouraged, especially when it is used to dress up simple ideas and common sense in scientific-sounding verbiage that serves only to obfuscate and divert attention from the core message – this is true regardless of the field.

    A complex physics paper will necessarily use some subject-specific terminology and jargon but a well-written paper can still covey the author’s ideas without resorting to the sort of extended pomo bullcrap we find so often in the so-called social sciences. Okay?

  48. warumich said,

    December 5, 2007 at 2:43 pm


    I sympathise with both your points to be honest, the overuse of silly diagrams in the social sciences is annoying (and, Dr Aust, you only have to sit through them, I have to professionally engage with them, which is even more soul-destroying). And I agree that you should definitely try to limit jargon if you can, only I can’t judge if the authors in question have done so or not, as it’s not my discipline either (I have some professional contact with social psychology, but it’s a large and diverse field).

    Still, a badly written paper is a paper that is written badly; that’s not the same as “dangerous pomo nonsense”.

  49. spindle said,

    December 5, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    Can a well-written paper in chemistry, for example, convey the author’s ideas to someone who knows nothing about chemistry (a homeopath, for example)? Warumich is absolutely right – if you don’t know what the jargon means, how can you possibly tell whether the paper is nonsense or not? If people are having to look up “rhizome” in a dictionary, rather than recognising it as a widely-used concept in Deleuze and Guattari’s writings, they aren’t in any position to judge the rest of the paper – it’s a little like someone looking up “unstable” in the OED, and concluding that a chemistry paper is bollocks because molecules can’t show a sudden tendency to mental or emotional changes.

    Having said that, the paper looks to me like an attempt to dress up trite observations about decision making theory in the clothes of continental philosophy. There’s nothing at all profound there, which is probably why they have had to resort to using pictures of hedgehogs to distract the reader.

  50. emilypk said,

    December 5, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    I was willing to laugh along until we get to “we find so often in the so-called social sciences.”

    Really. There is a fairly even layer off bullshit found across *all* the so-called sciences, not to mention the arts and humanities. Only the exact nature of the bullshit in question varies and we normally can’t smell out own.

    If this is some kind of ‘are you hard(science) enough’ contest I could do without it. That isn’t a scientific attitude at all (so-called or otherwise) but a stereotype based on anecdote and innuendo.

    I have plenty of very useful sociology papers in my index right next to the toxicological, veterinary and biomedical ones.

  51. warumich said,

    December 5, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    Acleron, I see what you are trying to say, but I’m not sure you’re right though. It may seem to us (yes, us) that the language is being used to deliberately sound obscure, but that is quite an accusation! As Dr Aust has shown, even when some professionals are charged with explaining their stuff to laypeople they often fail miserably, “looking baffled” that their audience fails to understand what they think was easy enough.
    So I don’t deny that there may be a problem of translation, but to accuse people of being deliberately obscure is something else.

    PS: I think that some of the proper pomos tried to be deliberately obscure, but proper postmodernism is a surprisingly small and maligned school within the social sciences.

  52. quetzalcoatl said,

    December 5, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    I fully agree with Acleron.

    As mentioned before, Sokal and Bricmont have already deconstructed the (mostly French) post-modernist writers (like Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, Guattari, Irigay, Kristeva et al). Not much more needs to be said.

    Meanwhile, even though this style of discourse utterly mystifies most scientists, at LSE it’s all taken very seriously for their course in Social Psychology:

    What really puzzles me is how on earth the organless body of a hedgehog becomes a rhizome……it’s truly perplexing.

  53. Gimpy said,

    December 5, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    warumich I have always been led to believe that the logic of a scientific paper should be visible to the lay reader. They might not understand some of the shorthand jargon but they should be able to understand the flow of the argument and the experimental choices made. Of course many papers don’t manage this but remember universities teach how to read a paper, not how to read a paper in a particular field after you have spent decades learning obscure jargon. The fact that I nor anybody else actually seems to understand what the hell these guys are on about in confirms that it is a bad paper and the hedgehog detracts from whatever the point is.

  54. Gimpy said,

    December 5, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    gah buggered up my italics

  55. sockatume said,

    December 5, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Localised processes developing proceduralised contexts for
    constructing and exploring prescriptions for action within a plethora of decision spines are rooted in
    this rhizome.

    I’ve read this sentence about seven times now.

    Localised processes developing proceduralised contexts for
    constructing and exploring prescriptions for action within a plethora of decision spines are rooted in
    this rhizome.

    I understand all the words. I can see the structure of the language.

    Localised processes developing proceduralised contexts for
    constructing and exploring prescriptions for action within a plethora of decision spines are rooted in
    this rhizome.

    I have not got a clue what the heck this is actually saying.

  56. bootboy said,

    December 5, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    Seems like a pretty typical decision theory paper to me. The hedgehog metaphor is simply an extension to the spine metaphor that is already an established part of the field (we could decide on multiple courses of action rather than just one!). Other than that it says that having a nice environment and cool stuff can help cooperation in decisions and that’s about it…

    Actually, I’d rate it as a better than average paper in the field. It may boil down to totally ungrounded musings in obscure jargon, but it appears to be slightly more sensible than the work on which it is building.

  57. Dr Aust said,

    December 5, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    For a splendidly splenetic flaying of po-mo “science appropriation”, in the form of an extended review of Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures, see here.

    The author is Prof Raymond Tallis, doctor (geriatrician) turned philosopher.

  58. Dr Aust said,

    December 5, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    PS point taken, Bootboy, but…

    …if this is a “better than average” paper in the field of decision theory, what does that say about the field?

  59. quietstorm said,

    December 5, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    hi spindle,

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to respectfully disagree:

    “it’s a little like someone looking up “unstable” in the OED, and concluding that a chemistry paper is bollocks because molecules can’t show a sudden tendency to mental or emotional changes.”

    If you look up unstable in the OED, then there are many meanings, one of which implies the specific definition in Chemistry, giving a few examples.

    There are no examples in the OED of rhizome being used in the same context as in this paper. Is it a brand-new thing? If so, shouldn’t there be an adequate definition in the paper? This kind of thing does happen throughout the sciences – no question of that – but my point is that many people know what a hedgehog is, and can maybe put together the spine/hedgehog metaphor, even if it seems to have been taken to extremes in this paper. I have a big problem with people using perfectly good scientific words which have specific definitions to mean something entirely different just so that they can sound a little bit more impressive. We have to name new concepts as they are discovered, else we wouldn’t be able to talk about them, but I do not see the logic here.

    But perhaps I was already biased against the paper because words like “proceduralisation” are (a) made up and (b) simply an overly complicated way of expressing something which can be said in plain English. How is someone for whom English is their second or third language supposed to understand something like this?

  60. spk76 said,

    December 5, 2007 at 7:51 pm

    You know, the paper actually got published:

    The Evolution Of Group Decision Support Systems To Enable Collaborative Authoring Of Outcomes
    World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution, Volume 62, Number 3, Number 3/April-May 2006 , pp. 193-222(30)

  61. spk76 said,

    December 5, 2007 at 7:56 pm

    The man himself:

    I wonder if it was via the good Professor’s health care management work that Ben stumbled across him…

  62. McDorian said,

    December 5, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    To Warumich
    Way back in 1998, Richard Dawkins wrote the review of Intellectual Impostures for Nature (, from which I shall copy a few quotes:

    “Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.”

    And later

    “No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference?”

    The wonderful beauty of Bricmont and Sokal’s hoax was that it showed even the so-called experts in sociology couldn’t tell the difference. Rather sadly, looking at this hedgehog cobblers, it appears that no lessons have been learnt from this episode in the sociology world.

    It also seems to me that there is a connection between this type of academic nonsense, and other irrational world-views, like homeopathy: spurious jargon; construction of elaborate theoretical schemes without any recourse evidence; reverence of “pioneers” such as Hahnemann and Deleuze.

  63. aswdodge said,

    December 5, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    While reading this I couldn’t but help think of that famous Discworld song:

    “The hedgehog can never be buggered at all”

  64. emmer said,

    December 5, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    I do hope these social scientists haven’t actually tried to genetically engineer one of these so-called “decision hedgehogs”. If they did, with a rhizome instead of body organs I’m sure the hedgehogs would be in excruciating pain and probably die within a few hours as decision spines are no use to a poor creature without lungs.

  65. Acleron said,

    December 6, 2007 at 1:20 am

    “Acleron, I see what you are trying to say, but I’m not sure you’re right though. It may seem to us (yes, us) that the language is being used to deliberately sound obscure, but that is quite an accusation! As Dr Aust has shown, even when some professionals are charged with explaining their stuff to laypeople they often fail miserably, “looking baffled” that their audience fails to understand what they think was easy enough.
    “So I don’t deny that there may be a problem of translation, but to accuse people of being deliberately obscure is something else.

    PS: I think that some of the proper pomos tried to be deliberately obscure, but proper postmodernism is a surprisingly small and maligned school within the social sciences.”

    In reverse order

    Proper modernism? Small and maligned? This has already been shown to be a load bollocks? They have tried for some sort of certification by calling themselves social ‘scientists’. Look up what a scientist is, it does not involve this sort of inane posturing.

    The problem with this sort of malarky is not a problem in translation it is a total lack of comprehensibility unless relayed to to somebody who buys in to a similar amount of bullshit.

  66. don_pedro said,

    December 6, 2007 at 1:27 am

    Jargon, and not knowing to what it refers, is not the reason postmodern claptrap is meaningless.

    It’s meaningless because the jargon usually doesn’t refer to anything at all – indeed avoiding any hint of consistency in the use of terminology is seen as a positive, ‘transgressive,’ virtue.

    Postmodern claptrap is dangerous, and invidious, because it promotes comical lunacies like “there are no factual truths.”

    The more people pretend that such lunacies are worth taking seriously, the more they will be used by anyone who finds the facts inconvenient – especially quacks.

  67. Dean Morrison said,

    December 6, 2007 at 1:45 am

    You do know that there are some people who complain that:

    ‘Postmodernism is misunderstood” or:

    “you can’t explain what postmodernism is” or:

    or: “the guys you are talking about don’t describe themselves as postmodernists”

    “I’ve studied this for along time, and for reasons you can’t understand as a common scientist – there is much value in our superior form of thinking”…

    ……….. far as I’m concerned the word “Deleuze” carries a similar cultural meaning to “McKeith”.. 😉

    ..neither of them would understand that of course – although I’m sure McKeith’s lawyer husband will when he sees this 😉

  68. Martin said,

    December 6, 2007 at 1:54 am

    Ah, I was wondering how long it would take to get a Pratchett reference in. I was trying to formulate a sentence containing Rhizomes and Nanny Ogg, but failing badly.

    While I’m not trying to support the apparent clap-trap spouted in the article, I’m not sure you can berate the use of “proceduralisation” as a word.

    It might not be ‘correct’ English, but English is an evolving language and new words are absorbed continuously. As a mate of mine once told me: you cannot use English incorrectly, only in a way in which it has never been used before. (Which doesn’t explain how I only got a ‘B’ in my English GSCE.) But as my mate has a degree in English he probably knows more than I do.

    At least you (sort of) know what the author means by “proceduralisation”. The use of “rhizome” also seems to be at least 20-year-old jargon (if the quote from Deleuze and Guattari (1988) is correct) so while the definition may not be in the OED, it does appear to be in use in the field. Words get new meanings all the time (see Victoria Coren’s Balderdash & Piffle).

    I’m glad I’m not being subjected to managerial enhancement lectures any longer. I’ve had my fill of Myer-Briggs and 4-panel matrices. Can you really call a 2×2 table a matrix?

  69. raygirvan said,

    December 6, 2007 at 2:15 am

    > spindle if you don’t know what the jargon means, how can you possibly tell whether the paper is nonsense or not?

    To a large extent, experience. It’s perhaps a fuzzy judgement, but I think there’s an overall stylistic flavour – the way ideas are organised – that distinguishes meaningless text from meaningful text using unfamiliar jargon.

    Broadly, I think the Decision Hedgehog paper is meaningful, but stylistically appalling. It’s essentially exploring decision-making algorithms that break away from the traditional process of rapidly homing in a single consensus, after which other options are quickly discarded, in favour of ones that first explore multiple options in some depth to get more insight into the problem (or as they put it, propose a fundamental evolution of decision support models from the traditional single decision-spine model, focusing on a single proceduralised context to the
    decision-hedgehog. It positions decision making through the construction of narratives making the rhizome that constitutes the body of the hedgehog with the fundamental aim of enriching contextual knowledge for decision making

    But for whatever reason they’ve dressed it up with abstract language, elaborate metaphor and arty quotes from Eeko and Fooko. Maybe it’s down to academic pressure – fear that expressing something simply and clearly would be viewed as unscholarly?

  70. Elo said,

    December 6, 2007 at 6:06 am

    Dr Faust,

    I understand why this impression is an easy one to get. Sociology is in trouble, I believe and I am part of this broad academic field.

    I do share your views on poststructuralists and postmodernists. I can also tell you that they are far from popular. They are spreading among all social “sciences”. They are more present in nursing, literature studies and education for example. I am a purist so I tend to be overly critical of these.

    We have a few in sociology, I admit. However, most of those are seen as cultists and not part of the larger community. We have our issues as a discipline. It has a very long tradition and somewhere in the 1960s and 1970s, dubious philosophers, social thinkers, psychotherapists attracted disciples. We are still cleaning up.

    I belong in the Durkheim tradition and I am working with others to establish standardized reviews. Our discipline had to live through many clan wars and I am sadden by the state of things. However, the challenge is there and I believe the study of the social conditions of life is a valid object but we need to bring back logic and standardized reviews in the process.

    There are so many things to talk about on this subject. However, just keep in mind that the cultists of postmodernism and poststructuralism are definitely not the bastard children of sociology. These are part of a long time running movement which has seducted more recent “intellectuals” in many field of the humanities I think they call it, whatever it means. They are more concerned with books and celebrity than research. Somewhere down the road they stopped being an intellectual debate and became a cult movement that would damp pragmatism. Many of us are starting to stand up to clean up. I am one of them.

    As for Mr Humpreys’ publication, I am far from being knowledgeable in social psychology but some notions and references he invoked are indicators of certain influences. (Not ones I would look upon favorably admittedly)

    Just keep in mind that its not because you fail to grasp a concept that it is bollock. We are not all experts in all things and we have to accept that some fields breed their own theoretical constructions.

  71. warumich said,

    December 6, 2007 at 10:08 am

    Morning badsciencers,

    seems that I have inadvertantly slipped into the role of pomo apologist – not at all my original intention.

    I don’t understand a word of Deleuze and I struggle with Deridda, but unlike in homeopathy I’m perfectly well allowed to criticise them in sociological journals. Have a look yourself – you’ll find many papers that critique them. My current favourite is a paper titled “Incredulity toward Lyotard” (R Nola, G Irzik – Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 2003), which in my opinion did a much better job at demolishing postmodernism than Sokal ever did.

    I have to say I get slightly fed up at the “argumentum ad Sokal” in this forum. Sokal has shown some very interesting things, but he has not shown that everything you don’t understand is bullshit. Deridda may be as incomprehensible to you as Lyotard or Latour, but he does not feature in Sokal and Bricmont’s book, because they themselves say they have no bone to pick with him.
    Regarding what the hoax proves and doesn’t prove Sokal has written this:

    “From the mere fact of the publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It certainly does not prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science, or sociology of science, is nonsense” (p. 16 A. Sokal 2001, “What the social text affair does and does not prove”, in Ashman and Baringer (eds) “After the Science Wars”)

    Apart from that I have nothing much to add to Elo above. Hear, hear.

  72. superburger said,

    December 6, 2007 at 10:10 am

    “Can you really call a 2×2 table a matrix?”

    mathematically speaking, yes.

  73. Dr Aust said,

    December 6, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Re. M. Deleuze, who seems to be one of the original fountainheads of much po-mo obscurantism – the temptation is to steal a line from (and I truly never though I’d write that) and say:

    “Up yrs, Deleuze”

  74. neilcam2001 said,

    December 6, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    All this is very amusing but , after the successful attack on Panorama’s Wi-Fi story, I’m waiting for Ben to tackle a more serious issue and give his verdict on the appalling story of abuse of neuroleptic drugs related on Monday’s programme.

    Homeopaths and hedgehogs are easy targets. Why doesn’t Ben and his cheery band of fans turn their thoughts to the uncomfortable issue of how medical science abuses people diagnosed with mental illnesses. I would rather take my chances with a homeopath or a hedgheog than some of the psychiatrists out there.

    Come on Ben. Let’s hear what you think about how psychiatrists and GPs prescribe anti-psychotic medication rather than wasting time with all this ho ho ho hedgehog rubbish.

  75. spk76 said,

    December 6, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    neilcam2001 – To repeat the response that Ben has already given to a similar criticism: “you’re right, i forgot you personally employed me to pursue a sanctimonious public service remit.

    i’m very, very sorry and i’ll try to pay more attention to your personal needs in future.”


  76. R.B. said,

    December 6, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    Postmodernist essay generator:

  77. physics bloke said,

    December 6, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    sorry to split hairs, superburger, but any old 2X2 table isn’t necessarily a matrix unless it has particular properties under well defined operations.

    I’d also agree that jargon is a disease we have to suffer in all spheres. I’m a physicist and I read a paper only this morning which kept banging on about SCF without mentioning what SCF stood for. My good lady works in play development for a charity and she continually comes across acronyms, jargon, management speak etc etc. No one is safe – perhaps Panoramus should do a feature on how it could harm our kids…

    Maybe we should apply for alternative jargon/bullshit cleansing treatments via homeopathy on the NHS (sorry, NHS stands for national health service). Or, maybe someone should staple a “crystal” or “magnet” to a piece of plastic, market it as a “natural language clarification device” =bullshite remover, punt it to the woos and hope it works, causing the whole lot of em to disappear up their own fundaments — KERPOW!


  78. Junkmonkey said,

    December 6, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    I wonder what would happen if like Stickly Prickly in Kipling’s Just So story the hedgehog was subjected to rapid Lamarckian evolution.

    The Armadillo of ambivalence?

  79. Junkmonkey said,

    December 6, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Kinetic ERadication Of Woo

  80. superburger said,

    December 6, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    ““Can you really call a 2×2 table a matrix?””

    sorry to split hairs backatcha physicsbloke, but yes, you can. (i.e. there exists at least one such matrix)

    Can you call *every* 2×2 table a matrix? No, you can’t. I think that’s what you were trying to get at.

    sorry for being a penguin of pedantry…

  81. briantist said,

    December 6, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    I feel that I’m having a David Brent moment with the Decision Hedgehog!

  82. wulftheo said,

    December 6, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Let’s hear what you think about how psychiatrists and GPs prescribe anti-psychotic medication rather than wasting time with all this ho ho ho hedgehog rubbish.

    That would be practical and even necessary. If it is like other countries, don’t hold your breath waiting for a good quality discussion. And before anybody quotes the most popular self-critical papers in the BMJ, has anybody done a study on how many of the readers were doctors or nurses rather than other groups such as patients or their friends and family?

    In the world of work where other people may have influence over career prospects or grant applications, it is one thing to criticize the ethics and regulations of small targets, it is another to criticize yourself and your colleagues. That further includes organizations of which one is a part or a calling in which one wishes to make progess.

    Even an enfant terrible who is popular in his kindergarten for his smarts and facility with gotcha taunts may recognize the need for professional pragmatism. Surely that is behind the recent findings reported by Blumethal et al:

    [A]lthough 96% of respondents agreed that physicians should report impaired or incompetent colleagues to relevant authorities, 45% of respondents who encountered such colleagues had not reported them.

  83. misterjohn said,

    December 6, 2007 at 6:30 pm


    I think you’ve taken the p

  84. mjs said,

    December 6, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    hi Acleron,

    i’m coming back to this thread quite late, and sorry to bring up something this far after it’s over. in response to your comment (#44), “One comment claims it does little harm,” i assume that you were referring to my defense of the occaisonal use of oddball gene labels? i’m not sure what comment it would otherwise be…

    surely, it’s obvious that i was not referring to the hedgehog paper (which i found indigestible), but responding to Gimpy’s comment (#21) that Shh “inspired a whole genre of stupid gene names”?

    my only comment on Humphrey’s work, “poor hedgehog, no organs,” was a literalist joke. i actually thought that the figure legend was fake, er, until i clicked the link.

    you’re correct, of course, that using silly names is not the sole reason Humphrey’s work is getting so much negative attention here, but rather that it looks like so much silly logic.

  85. Neil Desperandum said,

    December 6, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    “The hedgehog can never be buggered at all”

    Course it can.

    We therefore assert our conclusion
    Is incontrovertibly shown
    That comparative safety on shipboard
    Is enjoyed by the hedgehog alone

    Why haven’t they done it at Spithead
    As they’re done it at Havard and Yale
    And also at Oxford and Cambridge
    By shaving the spines off its tail

  86. Junkmonkey said,

    December 7, 2007 at 1:12 am

    Misterjohn, the P is silent.

  87. Acleron said,

    December 7, 2007 at 3:21 am

    “However, the challenge is there and I believe the study of the social conditions of life is a valid object but we need to bring back logic and standardized reviews in the process.”
    How true.
    If the workers in psych/social science were able to produce meaningful scientific theories i.e. verifiable and falsifiable they would advance their field of study. However, by producing papers which have little merit, if any, and obfuscating their conclusions they do themselves zero credit. The reason I put forward that this is harmful is illustrated by the people in this thread who support this totally insensible paper. The claim is that the rest of us cannot understand the paper. On the contrary, we can interpret the words quite easily and find the logic behind them very inadequate. It’s the poor people who fall for this sort of idiocy who are the problem. Sooner or later a Sokal or his equivalent will have to spend time debunking it. Warumich doesn’t like Sokal being mentioned, I wonder why?
    Moving the discussion onwards, nobody has discussed if the conclusions of the paper are correct or not. Could it just be that they have no conclusions, or is that my lack of understanding?

  88. Acleron said,

    December 7, 2007 at 3:32 am

    “Homeopaths and hedgehogs are easy targets. Why doesn’t Ben and his cheery band of fans turn their thoughts to the uncomfortable issue of how medical science abuses people diagnosed with mental illnesses. I would rather take my chances with a homeopath or a hedgheog than some of the psychiatrists out there.”
    A little off topic but worthy of a response. Firstly, you can only slay one dragon at a time. Secondly, if h & h are such easy targets, why are they still troublesome? And thirdly if the non-rational psychiatrists are still there when we get round to them, our skills will be so honed they won’t stand a chance.

  89. robertmaller said,

    December 7, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Looking for bad science? Medco Health Solutions has been selling Humulin insulin as a generic for Novolin insulin. The two are different and word on the street is that two thousand diabetics have been hospitalized because of this. Opps, Medco. Might want to pay attention!

  90. neilcam2001 said,

    December 7, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    spk76 – ‘To repeat the response that Ben has already given to a similar criticism: “you’re right, i forgot you personally employed me to pursue a sanctimonious public service remit.

    i’m very, very sorry and i’ll try to pay more attention to your personal needs in future.”


    Isn’t Ben able to make his own response then? If you can’t think of anything intelligent of your own to say, then why do you take on the task of being his spokesperson by simply repeating his words? Your comment is not OK, it doesn’t answer the points I was making.

    I was making a valid point about a ludicrously silly topic (the hedgehog), which is flooded with banal jokes not worthy of a 14-year-old whose only interest in life is mimicking tired TV comedy shows.

    I was also making the point that Ben and many of his fans make concentrated attacks on easy targets like homeopathy but leave much harder targets unscathed, perhaps because those targets belong to the medical profession which happens also to be Ben’s.

    I was also making the point that ‘bad science’ is not only about bad scientific claims, it is also about scientists who abuse their position, and that includes doctors who abuse people in their care.

    I am also making the point that if Ben rightly attacks Panorama about presenting bad science on one programme, maybe he should make his views known when the same programme apparently exposes bad science.

    I am not asking Ben to cater to my personal needs. I am asking him to comment about bad science. Or did I get the whole point of this website wrong?

  91. shatnersbassoon said,

    December 7, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    As someone who is in his 3rd year of a PhD in psychology on decision making, I read this article with an air of dismayed disbelief.

    Although this thread seems to have degenerated into a bit of a squabble over what constitutes a legitimate target, I am glad that this article has been singled out. It is fuzzy headed nonsense purporting to be science, and it fails on most counts.

    The hypotheses are ill-defined and vague, and are probably not falsifiable. The authors make no proper attempt to test their theory, and instead rely on some sort of uncontrolled anecdotal evidence, which as we should all know by now, is not any evidence at all.

    Testing hypotheses to do with decision making is hard, mainly because most of the time (in real life) the decisions are not repeatable, and you do not have any benchmark for success. So mostly people tend to rely on self-reported satisfaction, which is problematic because it appears to interact with success in a way which is not fully understood.

    Conducting “research” in this way is simply wrong, and not wrong in a scrumping apples kind of way. It is misleading, and it hoodwinks the intelligent layman into thinking that there is an understanding when there is none. Decision making is a crucial human activity, and there are too many incidences in the recent past of very poor decision making in public life to allow misguided nonsense like this to grab the zeitgeist.

  92. Dudley said,

    December 7, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Boy, this is a long post. Hope it’s of interest. Although this is not the only use of the word rhizome in Deleuze’s work, this is the one I’m most familiar with, and should help some of you understand where the Decision Hedgehog is coming from (Which is not to defend that peculiarly muddled animal).

    Deleuze and Guattari propose three models of the text: tree, stump and rhizome.

    The tree is what you might call the standard model: rooted in fact, proceeding along a single path, and concluding with a burst of theories as a conclusion. The classical way of thinking, which could also be represented by 1+1=2, relies on logic and observation. In my own field of literary studies, it would be the equivalent of a good George Eliot novel – realistic and yet moralising.

    The stump is my own coinage for what they call the “radicle-system or fascicular root”. (I’m using a simpler phrase as this is clearly a simpler audience.) This sort of text is created when an author attempts but does not succeed in disrupting the classical model. So when William Burroughs does a cut-up “story”, by cutting up bits of old newspapers and sticking the pieces together in random order, for all that he completely abandons the idea of plot, character and so forth he nonetheless promotes the product as a marketable commodity under his sign (i.e. his name). This continues what Deleuze calls the “logic of representation”, since although Burroughs isn’t representing the world in the same way Eliot is, he is representing “something” – his own internal world, his view of language, etc. Thus even though Burroughs moves away from nineteenth-century realism, he still buys into a form of the logic of direct representation.

    The rhizome is a figure for a text or, even better, a series of texts, that are much more subversive. In contrast to Burroughs-like authors carrying out a full frontal assault on “the novel form”, Deleuze urges us to think of the novels of Franz Kafka. Kafka’s books are strange in a way that defies easy understanding. They seem to speak to a twentieth century history of bureaucracy and mindless, machinic totalitarian oppression, but to even the most casual reader it’s clear that Kafka is not talking about contemporary politics. His mixture of infinitely odd images with everyday mundanity (“Gregor Samsa awoke one morning…”) succeeds in disturbing many readers in some part of their psyche that the more realistic and superficially more disturbing film Schindler’s List (or, for that matter, Hostel) simply does not reach; the part of you capable of horrific cruelty, of disregard for the suffering of others, and so forth. Deleuze and Guattari propose that this effect is reached precisely because Kafka’s books do not simply and directly represent horrors. Rather, they create a world in which things do not mean quite what they seem to mean. The question is how this is doen.

    The figure of the rhizome, as a metaphor for the book, indicates the way that works such as Kafka’s achieve their effects by disrupting the usual logic of representation. So, for instance, dogs recur throughout Kafka’s work, and the way that they are talked about makes them seem as though they are metaphors for something – however, its impossible to work out what that something is. Deleuze and Guattari’s insight is that this effect is achieved by a form of multiplication of meaning. Rather than the sort of stripping-away of meaning that you find in Samuel Beckett (or Tom Ford for that matter), you get a sort of hyper-intensity in Kafka’s narratives that seems to be formed at least in part by chains of these quasi-metaphorical recurring non-symbols. This, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, is a sort of rhizome, a term more usually used to describe the sort of plant that does not have a single above-ground presense, but instead grows horizontally undergound and puts out many shoots at iregular intervals. So, what they are describing is something that operates “under” the level of the text (e.g. the dogs recur in unexpected places).

    This is a good way of starting to think about works such as those by deliristes, obssessives such as Kafka, and writers such as Gerald Vizenor to whom the word “postmodern” is usually applied, but on whom it seems to fit very uncomfortably. Writers who seem to have their own secret and consistent system of signifcation, but in whose works that “secret” is nowehere revealed, probably because they are not completely in control of it themselves.

    I’ve used this figure in my own criticism, and find it a useful and productive way of bringing out certain aspects of certain texts. The key with Deleuze, something that Sokal completely ignores, is that he is joking more than half the time. You don’t want to take individual passages too seriously. The problem is that academic idiots, particularly in the UK for some reason, have fallen into the error of supposing that Deleuze’s work, both in Logique du Sens and in the collaborations with Guattari , is aiming at a total philosophy that could explain everything (in the manner, of, say, Kant). Deleuze is in fact producing a magpie philosophy – dare I by now say rhizomatic? – which plays with language as much as it uses it for communication. Sokal missed this point because he takes on D&G’s “What is Philosophy”, a late and very poor book written after Deleuze started believing his own philosophy.

    Sokal also fails to take into account the academic atmosphere in France in the early to mid 1960’s, when Deleueze did all his best work: a stultifying era in which authoritarian dons pronounced that the only point of philosophy was to annotate the great thinkers of previous times. In that atmosphere, Deleuze’s writings proved liberatory. Even now, used in the correct way, they encourage the receptive reader to think for him/herself, rather than simply bowing down to authority. Sadly, though predictably, the wild liberators of the 1960’s settle down into the authorities of later decades. Used by minds that search for something to latch onto and exploit, Deleuze’s work loses its fun element. When writers like the ones who created the “Decision Hedgehog” above start treating A Thousand Plateaus as holy writ, they produce works like… well, like the Decision Hedgehog, which strikes me as a wholly unsuccessful attempt to employ Deleuze’s wildest metaphors in an environment much too sober to make use of them. Sokal gives several examples, and I could give more, of academics from the humanities mistaking Deleuze’s playful speculations regarding biological metaphors for a new systemic understanding of biology (Keith Ansell Pearson would be one, and late Deleuze would probably be another).

    Many people who work in post-structuralism like to describe the core of that ill-fitting group of theories as “anti-fascism”. And there is definitely a place in literary study, in moral and ethical philosophy, and in some forms of psychotherapy and history, for methods that don’t use formal 1+1=2 logic. I work with literature written by authors from ethnic minorities, and it was only the advent of literary studies that allowed for a certain relativism that allowed us to begin to work with other cultural standards than a rather simplistic version of “good/bad? Canon/not-canon?” Before that point in the 1960’s, a lot of people in the humanities would be happy dismissing the literary work of entire races (e.g. contemporary American Indians) as just not good enough to be worth studying. However, that moment has passed: what the Sokal hoax showed is that what originally began as a challenge to the status quo has ossified and turned into a fascism of its own.

    I’m not alone among my contemporaries in the field of literary studies in moving away from what has become an overly precise and obscure poststructural dogma. But for the frankly ignorant posters above to dismiss it on the basis of what Sokal showed it had become, and a Richard Dawkins quote that reveals his complete belief in the sort of transcendent “truth” that he’d sneer at in an archbishop, simply reveals small minds and closed hearts. It doesn’t discredit the real achievements of critical theory, and by being so dismissive you pretty much fail to even attack it. Sokal (who, by the way, I admire enormously) points out in Intellectual Impostures that literary study has to deal simultaneously with far more variables in a far more limited sample than most scientific disciplines, and that evolving methods of thinking about such complex situations is not a wholly bad endeavour. That’s why there is that demarcation between the sciences and the humanities. The problem has been in the last two decades that far too many people from the humanities have been pretending that their methods of thought can be extended to the actual subjects of the sciences. Some of the results pop up in Bad Science every week.

    But it does seem to me, as someone who knows something about Deleuze, rhizomes and language, that some of the posters here are rather given to the same sort of thinking, assuming that their world view is the only important one. This is the sort of argument from authority and argument from ignorance that both Goldacre and Sokal argue against, and it’s a bit disappointing to see it here.

  93. raygirvan said,

    December 7, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Or did I get the whole point of this website wrong?

    No, but I think you gave the general impression of having an axe to grind (i.e. coming into a discussion on one topic with a complete non sequitur about a different one – that further rings alarm bells for its reputation as a CCHR/Scientology cause). By all means we can discuss that: but the forum is thisaway.

  94. Gimpy said,

    December 7, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Dudley, thanks for that it was really informative. However, what kind of academic discipline permits people to write jokes passed off as serious works without serious reflection about its credibility? Not to have a dig at literary theory but it seems that you are describing a field where using metaphor to describe subjective differences and evolutions in literary forms has led people to see these metaphors as a theory that can be applied to a wider context. They seem to think that because it uses metaphors inspired by the language of science, the theory becomes a science even though it is not falsifiable or testable in any way. This is why it is perhaps easy for people from a scientific background to take the piss slightly. Maybe literary theorists should write in every day language and stay clear of the more exotic metaphors. I think the charge that the language of social sciences is unnecessarily convoluted and seems designed to ward off the outsider seems fair.

  95. superburger said,

    December 7, 2007 at 3:21 pm


    why not start a blog about it? there’s loads of geeky advice on

    if you advertise it there you’re bound to get plenty of hits and same decent comments.

    it’s all about web 2.0 these days or something.

  96. Dr Aust said,

    December 7, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Can I echo Gimpy’s thanks to Dudley – I learnt more from that post than from any of the entries in Wikipedia about said thinkers – cheers Dudley. If only most people writing about po-mo ideas (which I’m using here as a shorthand) could be so lucid.

    Interested by one thing Dudley said of Deleuze, which IMHO I would say was also true of many posters here – we are slightly joking at least some of the time. This was also true in the lengthy threads regarding the equally ludicrous – to the Decision Hedgehog – and far more toxic Dave Holmes et al “Evidence based medicine = microfascism” paper.

    For the later self-styled post-Deleuzian “thinkers” who as far as one can tell do seriously believe – or at least argue – that science, scientific research and the resulting knowledge are simply another text, humourous scorn and a touch of rant seems rather appropriate – didn’t entitle my blog Dr Aust’s Spleen (note shameless plug) for nothing.

    To steal and adapt Alan Sokal’s famous line:

    Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are simply “un texte” produced by a set of social conventions is invited to try “transgressing the hegemonic physics-science-text boundaries” from the 12th floor window of their choice.

  97. superburger said,

    December 7, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    it’s not very satisfying that one apparently needs to ‘know’ that an author is playing a game, or using metaphor in order to ‘see’ the purpose of the text?

  98. spk76 said,

    December 7, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    neilcam2001: “Isn’t Ben able to make his own response then? If you can’t think of anything intelligent of your own to say, then why do you take on the task of being his spokesperson by simply repeating his words? Your comment is not OK, it doesn’t answer the points I was making.”

    Well, yes, quite – Ben had already made a perfectly adequate response to an almost identical criticism earlier; I was just pointing this out to you.

    If you had been following the thread, you would also have noticed my comments regarding the article under discussion – I think you’ll find I make several valid and relevant points, which is more than can be said for your random attack, which isn’t even born out by the truth, since BG has publicly voiced his concerns about big bad pharma, for example, on numerous occasions.

  99. quietstorm said,

    December 7, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Dudley, thanks so much, that’s fascinating stuff. My original criticism of the language used in the paper was simply that I was taking it on face value, like I do any scientific text, and then trying to work out what kind of scientific study and conclusions the authors were trying to put across. I simply assumed that they were needlessly complicating the text with ambiguous words, when I felt that many of the ideas could be expressed more simply. I’ve seen (and refereed!) similar styles of papers in my own field, and usually send them back with a polite request to use simpler, unambiguous English.

    I had no idea of the history of particular key words used in the text, your post was incredibly illuminating – thankyou.

    However, I do believe that the transfer of ideas between many different fields is incredibly useful, and I worry that if journals do not insist on more accessible texts, then there is no way that one will know about good ideas happening in other fields. Not that I necessarily feel that the decision hedgehog is a good idea – jury’s still out – but when you write something that can only be understood by an elite few, then people start mistrusting your work, right?

  100. Dudley said,

    December 8, 2007 at 4:49 am

    Gimpy –

    I’d like to argue with you, but I think you just expressed my views precisely and clearly!

    I don’t think that jokes have any application in most fields of thought. I certainly hope that the chap who designed my car wasn’t fooling around when he designed the brakes. Jokes do, however, have a very real place in the humanities. A joke can often be a good way of getting across an idea in a highly compressed form. Oscar Wilde’s sayings are a good example, since half of them would require a good couple of thousand words to explicate. Jokes can also connect ideas that don’t seem on the surface to belong to the same field of discourse.

    Andrew Crumey’s Mobius Dick has a fantastic piss-take of the sort of people who start taking the effect of jokes, particularly puns, too seriously. I’m always surprised by the number of people in my field who don’t seem to know when something’s revealing and when it’s just a verbal coincidence, though I guess every discipline has better and worse practitioners.

    Here are the opening lines of A Thousand Plateaus:

    “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd […] We have assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we kept our names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel and think. Also because it’s nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it’s only a matter of speaking. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.”

    Everyone will react in their own way to that, of course, but see it in the context of its times and you can hopefully see the gleeful, anarchic energy, the humour and the playing with ideas. Which is why many people have found A Thousand Plateaus an inspirational text, and why it’s such a pity that (as D&G predict in the book) it’s now become a mere repository of dull metaphors.

    I do think there’s an enormous need right now for clear language in the humanities and the more humanities-like social sciences. Honestly, it seems to me that people are half ashamed of how “easy” literary study is. Chemists might get people running for cover when they start talking about their discipline, but at least they don’t have everyone and his dog assuming that there’s nothing to know. Right now (this wasn’t the case in the period 1960-90) you can usually assume that the clearer the language, the more important the thought it contains.

  101. Dudley said,

    December 8, 2007 at 6:50 am

    Sorry, something just occurred to me.

    Deleuze is fundamentally anti-capitalist, and in that phrase I’m using the word “fundamentally” in its strict dictionary definition. Using Deleuzian tropes to produce management theory is like using string theory to tune a violin – both mistaken and impossible.

  102. R.B. said,

    December 8, 2007 at 11:50 am


    Which Richard Dawkins quote are you referring too? From what I understand of Dawkins’ take, using the word ‘transcendent’ comes off like a derogatory misrepresentation of what kind of truth he puts stock in. The point Dawkins’ would make is that physical reality is a certainty, and what truth transcends our capacity for comprehension is only transcendent by virtue of our inability to observe it in it’s entirety, which isn’t to say that, in time, it can’t be inferred (the orbiting teapot.)

    This is actually a form of agnosticism that Dawkins admits he must accept for the sake of intellectual honesty. You might argue that taking a stance on the reality of reality is contrary to that point of view, but I would liken it more to a logical pragmatism that steps away from the old philosophical tradition of arguing just because you can. You could run around in circles until the end of time coming up with propositions like “up is down, left is right, blue is red, the beginning is really the end, and what is real is really imagined.” These might be good exercises in academic rigor for the humanities, but for a man of science, you realize it will get you nowhere.

    This is when I think you’re being unfair when you liken Dawkins to the God botherers he would persecute. Religion is still stuck on this philosophical game of exploring the logical viability of ever single possible thought that can be imagined by a human brain — religion also exploits that game. Whereas Dawkins admits that he has to remain, to some extent, agnostic on the subject of existence in its entirety, in knowing everything about everything, an archbishop, for example, would say that Dawkins’ agnosticism is proof of a particular truth, which is rubbish.

    The Problem that Dawkins has with religion isn’t solely its discourse, its the same problem that you yourself identify in post modernism — its application. Namely, that it can’t be applied. Just as you might cringe when dogmatic post modernist academics try to apply elaborate metaphorical abstractions to the sciences, instead of recognizing the veiled social commentary (by basically replacing coattails with syntactically correct sentences that can possibly be interpreted as a coattail, but have no existential purpose or or meaning that can substantiate a reasonable acknowledgment that coattails are, in fact, being trampled on), Dawkins would cringe when a theologian uses the same too-open-minded-to-hold-an-idea-in-your-head reasoning to affect public policy on matters of science. You can’t prove there isn’t a God, so evolution is a crackpot theory. I mean, you can see how the man could get flustered.

    Also, keep in mind that Dawkins has the same fondness for Sokal’s work that you do, Dudley. As you can read in an article I’ll post below this comment, Dawkins is keenly aware of the difference between the movement of post modernism, and the academic institution that has latched onto it. He also found the same amusement that you had when Sokal exposed the sham.

    If anyone, you should get the biggest kick out of the postmodernist essay generator link I posted above.


  103. Ambrielle said,

    December 8, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    If a paper requires another paper (ie. Dudley’s expansive post) to even begin to understand what is going on, then that paper has failed dismally as something intended to advance knowledge.
    Not to mention a hedgehog without organs is, er, dead, and thus the analogy is literally non-functional. 😉

    Here’s another amusing scientific paper generator:

  104. susu.exp said,

    December 8, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    @Dudley “Deleuze is fundamentally anti-capitalist, and in that phrase I’m using the word “fundamentally” in its strict dictionary definition. Using Deleuzian tropes to produce management theory is like using string theory to tune a violin – both mistaken and impossible.”

    I wouldn´t even start there. The very basic premise of coming up with a single formalized process that leads from the need for a decision to that decision is pretty much antithetical to D&Gs use of Rhizome (as far as I understand it).

    @Dr Aust”For the later self-styled post-Deleuzian “thinkers” who as far as one can tell do seriously believe – or at least argue – that science, scientific research and the resulting knowledge are simply another text, humourous scorn and a touch of rant seems rather appropriate”

    To me the worst thing is the word “simply” in here. It falls into the same category as “only a theory”, I´d argue that all science is text. But that´s not a put down of science, because it´s simply impossible for science to be anything but text. If some idea is to become intersubjective knowledge, it has to be comunicated and that requires it to become a text. If I´ve got a hypothesis I can test it as long as I want, it won´t be science until I publish it, or at a minimum tell somebody over a beer on a conference about it. And where I think poststructuralism can inform science is analyzing the problems that occur in this process. That however requires knowledge of the scientific discipline and for that reason Latour writes glibberish, while Gould, who did read his share of poststructuralists and ocassionally uses the lingo (check the Mismeassure of man for a great treatment on reification) actually does point out where these problems occur.

    He even posthumerously exposed an evolutionary psychologist as quite uneducated:
    “But what in Darwin’s name is an “autapomorphy”? It doesn’t even appear in my beloved, unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (along with several other Gouldisms)”, David Barash wrote in his review of Goulds “Structure”, which he felt was “a platitudinous parcel of impenetrable ponderosity, regrettably but manifestly lacking in clarifying conciseness or concatenated cogency; in short, too many big words.”

    Now autapomorphy gives me 34.500 google hits. And two journals are on the ISI top 10 for evolutionary biology where you´ll have a hard time finding a paper not using this term. It´s also in most undergrad textbooks.

  105. Acleron said,

    December 9, 2007 at 3:36 am

    Susu.exp said “If I´ve got a hypothesis I can test it as long as I want, it won´t be science until I publish it, or at a minimum tell somebody over a beer on a conference about it. And where I think poststructuralism can inform science is analyzing the problems that occur in this process.”

    How does any branch of human knowledge explain anything by obfuscation?

    The whole idea of science is trying understand the world about us. It has done a wonderful job of it in biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics …

    It is natural that some people even scientists are unable at times to express themselves well, but only an idiot would conclude that it’s ok for everyone to express themselves badly and that this should be the main aim of life.

    The post-anything idiots need to get a grip on reality. It is rather stupid to talk about many realities/many truths when you are dressing up both a post- and pre- pomposity to disguise that you cannot understand what is actually going on. No software has yet passed the Turing test, yet software is available to produce the posturing, content free verbal wanderings of these idiots, completely indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing. Go figure!

  106. raygirvan said,

    December 9, 2007 at 3:52 am

    Barash is also mistaken about the nature of dictionaries. Mainstream ones, even top-flight ones like the full OED, don’t necessarily include specialist terminology. “Autapomorphy” is in the pipeline for the OED: it’s in the online edition as a draft entry dated March 2006, with the first citation dated 1959.

  107. warumich said,

    December 9, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Sheesh, Acleron, the postmodern essay generator is a brilliant piece of satire, but do you honestly think it would fool somebody in the field? It may fool you (and to an extent me), but that’s because we both don’t know much of the meaning of the words and therefore can’t spot when they’re applied in a meaningless way.
    Sokal notwithstanding, because he actually did a hell of a lot of research before writing his parody.
    And I seem to remember two computer scientists successfully submitting a generated & meaningless abstract to a conference last year, what’s sauce for the goose…

    Anyway, regardless of the writing skills of the people doing the analysis, willfully obscure or not (for which you still haven’t offered any evidene, I find the accusation crass), the problems susu.exp points to are worth studying, and I would like to hear your opinion about that instead.

  108. susu.exp said,

    December 9, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    @Acleron:”How does any branch of human knowledge explain anything by obfuscation?”

    Good question. Take Newton. Unable to phrase his physics in some understandable way, he invented his own mathematical language, calculus. And even if you understand calculus, the Principia is a tough read, because our modern conventions in the symbols used come from Leibnitz and so you have to try to grasp a quite different system of symbols. Newton thought that Leibnitz was obfusciating though, because d/dx looks like you could simplify it to 1/x.

    “The whole idea of science is trying understand the world about us. It has done a wonderful job of it in biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics …”

    Mathematics is not science. In fact, in mathematics I´d wholeheardedly subscribe to the “multiple truths” idea, because if the truth of Statement A is indeterminable under a set of Axioms B then you can do valid math both with a set of Axioms
    B unified with {A} and B unified with {-A}. I would agree that science does a good job at trying to understand the world. I´m a paleontology student and the last time I checked that was a scientific discipline. But it does encounter problems with communication. I use terms with venacular meanings, I run the danger of being misuderstood, with the techical term being taken in its vernacular sense. I use terms I come up with, I run the danger of not being understood at all.

    I gave Newton as an example for somebody who went with the second route, Darwin would be an example for the other one. And he has been misconstrued through social darwinists, quotemined by creationists and on some questions in evolutionary biology gets cited by both sides (for instance Dawkins cites Darwin as an opponent of group selection, while Wilson and Wilson cite him as a supporter).

    Quite a few poststructuralists have opted for the option to err on the side of not being understood. For historic reasons, Nietzsche being a big influence on Foucault for instance and his Philosophy was abused by the Nazis to support their antisemitism and the holocaust, even though Nietzsche used antisemitism as an example for the human stupidity one was to overcome. So they went with a language that was as impossible to abuse as possible. In some cases ending up with being impossible to use as well.

    Interestingly enough Sokal and Bricmont opted for an easier to understand language and then put out a paper explaining what they did not show. I hear Sokal has another book in the pipeline and I´m looking forward to read it.

  109. Dudley said,

    December 9, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    “If a paper requires another paper (ie. Dudley’s expansive post) to even begin to understand what is going on, then that paper has failed dismally as something intended to advance knowledge.”

    Just to address that point: recently the New Scientist did a feature on the number “e”, which was considerably longer than my post – say, 3-4,000 words. At the end of the article, I still had no idea at all what e was. Assuming that the New Scientist journalist was a reasonably competent writer who knew what they were talking about, that would seem to indicate that it would require a book chapter-length exposition to help the non-specialist understand the mathematical significance of e. That doesn’t mean that any paper utilising the concept of e is failing to advance knowledge.

    I would assume that the intended audience for this Decision Hedgehog paper would understand the deleuzoguattarian concept of rhizome, which has been around for forty years and is a basic concept in their theory. So the authors would not need to explain that concept in the way that would be required if dealing with a non-specialist readership.

  110. raygirvan said,

    December 9, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    >Dudley: I would assume that the intended audience for this Decision Hedgehog paper would understand the deleuzoguattarian concept of rhizome

    Why would you assume that? As I noted above, the paper was associated with an LSE seminar Evolution of Group Decision Support Systems to enable the collaborate authoring of outcomes, where you’d expect delegates to come from a sample interested in Group Decision Support Systems (i.e. computing/management).

  111. NuttyBat said,

    December 11, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    I just came across the “puppy sign”, published in:

    J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2007 Oct;78(10):1055.

    At least the text accompanying the figure is clear and concise – even though the image on the right did initially alarm me and make me question my (admittedly somewhat limited) knowledge of human anatomy.

    Despite the wacky-ness of the article, I often find it easier to remember information presented in an amusing or interesting way – so long as there’s not too much jargon or waffle!

  112. synthesist said,

    December 13, 2007 at 10:24 am

    We have a manager here who absolutly loves this kind of c**p – I was tempted to send him the link, but he might take it seriously and attempt to apply it – I really couldn’t cope with the fallout !.

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