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Academics and the Giggle Test

New York University Prof. Alan Sokal, a physicist, recently succeeded in getting the sociology journal Social Text to publish a phony "scholarly" treatise that used unintelligible academic-sounding gibberish to argue that scientific facts such as the law of gravity are untrue.

His coup brought this question to my door: Could such nonsense occur in business academic journals? Sadly, social scientists don't have a corner on incomprehensible research and publications.

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In preparation for a lecture on discrimination issues, I turned to an American Economic Review piece entitled "Will Affirmative-Action Policies Eliminate Negative Stereotypes?" I never made it past this sentence: "For this reason, it is possible that employers' negative beliefs about a group are confirmed in equilibrium, even when all groups are ex ante identical." There you have it. What every human-resources manager has been searching for.

Economists are not alone. A finance journal contained the following: "The results in this paper strongly support the hypothesis that systematic changes in stock prices have not been fully justified by economically pertinent news, despite the possible influence of market imperfections such as tax and institutional constraints. The discovery that the weather in New York City has a long history of significant correlations with major stock indexes supports the view that investor psychology influences asset prices."

Translation: Since we can't explain the stock market, we'll just blame it on the weather. This is snake oil with advanced calculus thrown in.

Often I have difficulty discerning even the subject matter of academic articles. The latest edition of Marketing Science has a piece entitled "Attribute Importance Weights Modification in Assessing a Brand's Competitive Potential." The article proposes a mathematical model to determine what's most important to your customers. Do they want puncture-proof tires or is 40,000 guaranteed miles more important to them? It concludes: "Decision context and the composition of the competitive product set influence consumers' perceptions of attributes' relative importance." Translation: buyers read product labels before they buy.

There's more help for sales people in the Journal of Advertising - "Responses to Humorous Advertising: The Moderating Effect of Need for Cognition." Using unstandardized regression coefficients, the authors conclude: "... for people high in need for cognition and thus presumably more likely to engage in effortful evaluation processing, the presence of humor would have little effect." I would offer a translation of the conclusions of this study, but frankly, after much effortful cognition, I still have no idea.

Often the authors have spent a great deal of their time and someone else's money to establish the obvious. "Critical Competencies and Developmental Experiences for Top HR Executives" offers a model for human-resources managers to use in making themselves indispensable. Step 1 of the model: Find out what your CEO wants done. Cutting-edge stuff.

I'm too embarrassed to list the titles of some of my academic pieces or quote from them. I needed tenure and my evaluators demanded the obscure. Professor Sokal has given all of us a wake-up call. I'd like to propose a model for business academics. It's similar to the critical competency model covered in the HR journal. I developed it without any research, and I have not a single equation to back it up. Step 1: Find out what would help business people. Step 2: Research those areas. Step 3: Write the results in language that passes a giggle test.

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*Marianne M. Jennings is director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University in Tempe.