Cursed by knowledge

Freelance science writer and blogger Neurobonkers reviews Steven Pinker's 'The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century'.

Cursed by knowledge

Style guides aren’t known for being riveting reads, but Pinker’s The Sense of Style isn’t just a style guide but a long hard look at the problems that come with academic writing through the lens of cognitive psychology.

I was initially hesitant when asked to write a review of a book about good writing. The adage of Muphry’s law – an intentional misspelling of Murphy’s law – states: If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written. If these words are anything to go by, then criticising a book on academic style sounds like a dangerous task. Thankfully I found it difficult to fault Pinker’s ‘thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century’, which lays out his roadmap towards good writing.

In 1990 Elizabeth Newton conducted an experiment in which students were asked to tap the rhythm of songs such as ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ using their fingers. They were then asked to guess what percentage of listeners would be able to guess the song they had tapped. The tappers estimated that on average 50 per cent of the listeners would guess the song they were listening to. In reality, participants who listened to their tapping could only guess 2.5 per cent of the songs. The three hits in 120 tries that the listeners correctly guessed, was outside the entire range of the tappers’ estimates. The results of Newton’s study illustrate how bad we humans are at predicting what is going on in another’s head and understanding how others interpret our intentions, when we know something that they do not.

This is the Curse of Knowledge, which Pinker argues is the central reason for the appallingly opaque standard of communication that makes up much of academic writing. If you’re thinking, ‘I’ve heard that one before’, that’s because the Curse of Knowledge or versions of it have come under many names: lack of a theory of mind, mind-blindness, ego-centralism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, to name a few.

In Pinker’s eyes, the problem of bad academic writing is not typically due to a desire to bamboozle the reader or prove the author is serious. Pinker writes: ‘It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.’ This seems generous to many academics who appear to write badly for the reasons Pinker throws out, but Pinker’s explanation at the very least provides an explanation for the conundrum that some of the most influential academics appear to possess some of the worst writing skills.

Pinker partially explains the Curse of Knowledge through the phenomenon of chunking. To process information we store it in chunks, and communication requires whoever we are communicating with to be able to decode these chunks of information. If our reader doesn’t possess the same chunks that we are using to communicate, then we might as well be speaking in gobbledegook. The solution seems straightforward – we must go the extra mile and break down our chunks so that they match the repertoire of our audience. If only things were so simple. Pinker explains that a reason academics find this so difficult is the fear that ‘if our readers do know the lingo, we might be insulting their intelligence by spelling it out’ and that we would prefer to ‘run the risk of confusing them while at least appearing to be sophisticated than take a chance at belaboring the obvious while striking them as naive or condescending’. According to Pinker we need to recognise that we often overestimate our audience’s understanding of the abstract language we use.

Another concept Pinker borrows from cognitive psychology to explain the Curse of Knowledge is functional fixity. In a classic experiment participants are given a candle, a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks and asked to attach the candle to the wall without it dripping on the floor. Participants typically fail to realise that the box of thumbtacks could be tacked to the wall and used to hold the candle, they fail to see that objects can have uses other than their intended function. According to Pinker, academics face the same problem, ‘expertise can make our thoughts more idiosyncratic and thus harder to share: as we become familiar with something, we think about it more in terms of the use we put it to and less in terms of what it looks like and what it is made of’.

Another related reason academic writing can be so troublesome is a ‘dangerous weapon called nominalization: making something into a noun’. Pinker cites as an example of functional fixity the following sentence from the methods section of a research paper: ‘Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.’ Pinker translates this as: ‘We presented participants with a sentence, followed by the word TRUE or FALSE.’ It is notable that Pinker’s plain English translation uses fewer words than the version from the paper, but also manages to be far less cognitively taxing. Pinker uses this example to demonstrate how functional fixity can explain bad writing – the academic uses the term ‘assessment word’ because ‘that’s why he put it there’ – but this information isn’t useful to the reader, nor is it any more precise, we’d much rather be spoken to in plain English, but this isn’t how we think. The skill of good writing is the ability to adapt the language we use when we process information into language that can be easily understood by others.

Allen Lane; 2014; Hb £20.00
Reviewed by Neurobonkers who is a freelance science writer and blogger (neurobonkers.com)

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