File:Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (Vienna) - Google Art Project - edited.jpg

Construction on the Tower of Babel/Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563

Readers may recall the recent revelation that even science journals can be fooled into publishing gibberish.

That’s not because people thought the gibberish made sense but because so few actual people read anything any more.

As soon as anyone did read it, they knew it was meaningless. But the machines that are increasingly used to process text, including grading student essays, had offered no signal that something was wrong. And can be fooled by nonsense. For example,

The good news: A former MIT instructor and students have come up with software that can write an entire essay in less than one second; just feed it up to three keywords. The bad news: The essay is gibberish. Oh, wait, more news: The nonsense essay was fed through an online writing product using essay-scoring technology. Perelman pasted the essay into the answer field, clicked “submit,” and the paper got a score of 5.4 out of 6. The essay, after all, had good grammar and impressive vocabulary words. The end result was nonsense, nonetheless.

The Babel Generator, as it is called, was the brainchild of Les Perelman, who opposes machine-graded essays and wanted to advertise the problem: Ideas don’t matter to machines. Or, as one tech mag put it, “Essay generator can spew out BS, still get you an ‘A’“. And it’s still B.S. And that’s a problem. Perelman, recently retired as director of undergraduate writing, explained the issue to Steve Kolowich at Chronicle of Higher Education,

Mr. Perelman’s fundamental problem with essay-grading automatons, he explains, is that they “are not measuring any of the real constructs that have to do with writing.” They cannot read meaning, and they cannot check facts. More to the point, they cannot tell gibberish from lucid writing.

Now, here in the office, Mr. Perelman copies the nonsensical text of the “privateness” essay and opens MY Access!, an online writing-instruction product that uses the same essay-scoring technology that the Graduate Management Admission Test employs as a second reader. He pastes the nonsense essay into the answer field and clicks “submit.”

Immediately the score appears on the screen: 5.4 points out of 6, with “advanced” ratings for “focus and meaning” and “language use and style.”

The comments following the CHE article are illuminating, mainly for missing the central point: Even a machine can get a degree in an environment where no one reads any more, but what is the point of the environment?

Well, here is one point: If students acquire huge debt loads for certificates entitling them to high wage employment, they may deem the exercise worthwhile anyway. But something else has changed too: Those high-wage/need-a-degree jobs aren’t out there in anything like the numbers they used to be.

As facts like these sink in, people focus more on the problems of higher ed, and some new thinking is emerging. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, for example, will pay students not to get a degree but learn with him in the real world instead. We’ll look at others in later columns.

In any event, if you are prepared to do your thinking for yourself (people have tried that and acquitted themselves quite honourably), maybe quiet music will put you in the mood. If not, find your own source of inspiration for what only you can write.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...