The studied subtexts of academic insults

By Gordon Rugg

The academic insult at its best is a highly sophisticated art form with a long, rich history.

A classic example comes from one of my heroes, Thucydides the Athenian, in his History of the Peloponnesian War. That war between Sparta and Athens took place two and a half thousand years ago. He fought in it, and he wrote its history. He was brilliant by anyone’s standards, and the studied impartiality of his writing is remarkable even by the most rigorous modern standards. Here’s what he had to say about what people’s knowledge of contemporary history.

There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history, which have not been obscured by time. For instance, there is the notion that the Lacedaemonian kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a company of Pitane, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.

It looks like a rant from a grumpy old man just before he yells at some kids to get off his lawn. In fact, it’s an elegant, cutting, multi-level take-down that’s on a par with what the best modern academics can offer.

This article is about the serious, constructive subtexts beneath academic insults, and about what those subtexts say about the nature of research.

Long after the war: Scenes from Sparta and Athens today

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Images from Wikipedia

Much of proper academic research comes down to a variation on “show and tell”. Professionals show something; amateurs claim something. In any halfway sensible environment, showing wins over telling every time. That’s one of the things that’s going on in this insult. It shows that the target person has done something bad. That’s a much stronger attack than simply claiming it. So, just what is going on here?

Who’s the target?

Thucydides isn’t just ranting at random in the paragraph above. In fact, he’s aiming at a specific target, namely the earlier historian, Herodotus.

When you read Herodotus’ work, he comes across as a delightful person, with an endless supply of fascinating stories, and a deep interest in the world around him. He’s not exactly the most rigorous scholar in history, but he’s careful to distinguish consistently between what he saw himself (invariably accurate, even the bit about flying snakes, if you look carefully), and what he hard from other people (weird and wonderful). It’s as a result of this care that most modern scholars believe what he said about the ancient Phoenecians having circumnavigated Africa, and about the Greeks knowing what the cause was of the annual flooding of the Nile, among other things.

How do we know that Herodotus was the target? Because the two specific errors that Thucydides cites are both from Herodotus’ Histories. They’re such obscure points that Thucydides almost certainly had Herodotus in mind.

That’s one of the elegant features of this art form; when you’re really good at it, you don’t even need to mention the name of the target.

What does it mean? The surface problem

Thucydides is showing that Herodotus didn’t do his homework properly, and is making incorrect statements in his history.

What does it mean? The deeper problem

The implication is that if Herodotus was careless about these two points, he might well have been equally careless about others, and that therefore his work isn’t to be trusted. That’s a serious problem in a historian.

There’s a further implication that the truth should come before everything else, including comfort. If finding out the truth is difficult and extremely hard work, then that’s the price that you pay, without hesitation.

That might seem obvious to modern researchers, but it was very different from the view taken by Thucydides’ contemporaries, who thought that histories should be used to demonstrate morally improving and praiseworthy concepts, even if that meant bending the truth a bit to produce the desired outcome.

It’s also very different from the viewpoint of many present-day denizens of the Internet, as demonstrated in most online comments sections…

The typo on p173

You might be wondering whether Herodotus’ supporters could have retorted along the lines of “No, you got it wrong yourself” (Herodotus himself was dead long before Thucydides wrote the paragraph above). However, Thucydides was using a strategy that’s still routinely used by PhD examiners and journal reviewers today. If you’re one of these fine people, you make a point of checking particularly carefully for obscure errors about three quarters of the way through the text. (Note: “particularly” carefully. You read the rest of the text carefully; you don’t skim it.)

Why focus on that place in the text? Because it’s the point where most PhD candidates and new researchers have started to get weary and make mistakes, and it’s also the point where they might innocently think that critical professional readers might have resorted to skim reading. So what the professionals do is to look long and hard for errors there. The subtext is: “I’ve picked up this obscure error on page 173. If I’ve picked that up, it may just have been luck, but it may be that I’ve read the whole damned thing in equally minute detail and can take you apart effortlessly if you test my patience. Now, do you feel lucky, punk?”

The two points that Thucydides picks out, in case you’re wondering, are from the second half of Herodotus’ book, straddling the 75% line.

It’s a very, very different subtext from having the same two errors pointed out by some hobbyist crank who has picked on minor details because they can’t find anything else that’s wrong. Professional researchers are well aware of the surrounding context for the “typo on page 173” type of criticism; amateurs tend to be blissfully unaware of it.

Another point about these two errors is the ground that Thucydides was choosing to make his criticism. Ancient Greek readers of Thucydides would be well aware that he spent years in exile in Sparta, so if he made some specific statements about obscure points of Spartan law or history, there’s a very good chance that he would be right about them, and that he had chosen those points precisely because he had checked them very carefully indeed. Again, professional researchers would almost certainly spot the significance of this point, and would know better than to get into argument about it.

The invisible compliment

The bottom line is that Thucydides has shown that Herodotus was wrong on two specific factual points of contemporary law that would have been easy to check. That’s a serious shortcoming in a historian.

However, after making that point, Thucydides goes on to start the main body of his own history at the point where Herodotus’ history ends. The implicit point is that Thucydides is treating Herodotus as being good enough on the main points to mean that Thucydides doesn’t need to re-write the material that Herodotus covered. That’s a high professional compliment. Like the target of the insult, it’s a compliment that’s invisible to people outside the discipline – he doesn’t actually say something positive about Herodotus, but instead he does something very generous. Again, it’s show versus tell.

A modern example

The academic insult is still very much alive as an art form, with new forms of insult being continually invented.

One widely cited example is the description of a piece of work as “Not even wrong”. There’s a deep subtext there about the nature of scientific investigation, and about the target being so ignorant of scientific methods that their work is nothing more meaningless noise.

Another that’s not so well known outside professional research is: “There’s a literature on that”. This can be a helpful statement of information. It can also, however, be an insult with the following subtext: “This topic has been exensively researched for years, and the fact that you don’t know about the literature on it shows that you’ve got a massive, embarrassing gap in your knowledge, so you’ve failed dismally to do your homework, and anyone who knows the field properly could dismantle your naïve and amateurish arguments in twenty minutes flat, if they thought that you were worth bothering with in the first place”.

Closing thoughts

Academia is like an ancient jungle; a rich, complex eco-system with numerous hidden threats lurking in the undergrowth, ready for the unwary. When you know the environment, then you start recognising the signs of potential trouble – the equivalent of the slide marks where a big croc has come ashore, or the type of cover where a leopard might be waiting in ambush.

That’s a scary thought. A more positive way of viewing this environment, if you’re now feeling depressed, is that what appear to be insults in this world often aren’t insults in the usual sense of annoying personal attacks. Instead, they often fill the role of preliminary warning signals – the threatening growl of a predator whose territory you have invaded, or the sound of a snake slithering through the foliage when you disturb it. If you want to engage in debate about research with professionals, then it’s a wise idea to learn what the warning signals are, so that your expeditions into the jungle are safe and fruitful.

On which encouraging note I’ll stop. I hope you’ve found this useful.


There’s more about academic writing, insults and subtexts in The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, by myself and Marian Petre.

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, 2nd edition (Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg)

There’s more about the background theory for this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

References, sources and links,_Athens_-_Tripopatr%C3%A9ion_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto,_Nov_12_2009.jpg

The Thucydides quote is from The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides; translated by Richard Crawley.



3 thoughts on “The studied subtexts of academic insults

  1. Pingback: Making the most of bad bibliographic references | hyde and rugg

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