Dr. Fox

If You Can’t Convince Them, Confuse Them

July 9, 2019

Big words sound smart.  

Said differently, intellectual competence is positively correlated with the complexity of one’s vocabulary.  

Readers assume that the more difficult a passage is to read the more competent it must be.  Think about how silly that is for a moment.  

This is actually a thing. It is called the Dr. Fox Effect: an unintelligible communication from a legitimate source in the recipient’s area of expertise will increase the recipient’s rating of the author’s competence.

In a 1980 paper titled, Unintelligible Management Research and Academic Prestige, Dr. Fox, a distinguished, authoritative (and fictitious) character with an impressive biography, lectures about a subject on which he knows nothing. He was provided with the talk, “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The audiences consisted of highly educated social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, and administrators. The lecture was comprised of double talk, meaningless words, false logic, contradictory statements, irrelevant humor, and meaningless references to unrelated topics.

Judging from a questionnaire administered after the talk, the audience found Dr. Fox’s lecture to be clear and stimulating. None of the subjects realized that the lecture was pure nonsense.

See for yourself.


We are naturally impressed by less readable articles.  The more difficult something is to read the more prestige we associate with it. And the greater the difficulty, the greater the need to rationalize the time spent (i.e. if you can’t understand it, it must be a very high-level paper).  

If the Dr. Fox hypothesis is valid, we should write less intelligible papers if we want to impress our colleagues, since we are not impressed by “easy” reads. We should give presentations that make little sense, since clear communication is not appreciated.

Lack of clarity is especially helpful when content is poor. As the old saying goes: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”