July 26, 2006

How to Make Our Ideas Clear — to Others

Cross-posted to Crooked Timber
In the comments to my post on Onsager, Maynard Handley explains why he finds himself somewhat unsympathetic, as Onsager apparently did not expend the effort necessary to make himself understood by others.
You, the author of the paper, have a responsibility to make your ideas comprehensible. If the first method you choose to explain them fails, then you listen to what people say about where they lost all track of understanding and write a new paper with NEW explanations, not the same explanations that failed last time only renumbered. ... [This is] not something that is drilled into young scientists; that it is YOUR responsibility to make your ideas clear to others, not their responsibility to try to figure out what you are talking about. As science grows ever larger and ever more complex, I think it is time for all scientists to be much more explicit and much more ruthless on this point.
Whether this is really a fair criticism of Onsager, I couldn't say, but the general point is true, important, and a perfect hook for the next thing I wanted to post about.

Science is a social, collaborative process, so part of being a good scientist is effective communication. Scientific communication is overwhelmingly written communication (scientific disciplines are, in a sense, literary communities), so part of being a good scientist is being a good writer. Unfortunately, scientists get little training in writing, and much of that consists of being advised to follow the rules found in horrid little compendia. Fortunately, there is some actual research on effective written communication, that is, on how to arrange your words so that their readers tend to acquire clear notions of your ideas. The best practical guide here, I've found, is Joseph William's Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. However, I have just discovered (via Paradise Blogged) a fine essay by George Gopen and Judith Swan, "The Science of Scientific Writing", which gives a clear yet concise presentation of the work. (Gopen and Williams are collaborators.) Here is their own summary of how to be clear:

  1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
  2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize.
  3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
  4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
  5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
  6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
  7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.
If these rules, and the notions behind them, are valid, they should apply to more than just scientific writing; in particular, they should hold for other kinds of academic prose. Looking at their examples of revising scientific writing, expressing the same complicated and precise ideas in more easily grasped ways, I couldn't help but be reminded of the humanistic "bad writing" controversy, where the case for the defense often seems to rest on complexity, and the example of scientific jargon. The examples of Gopen and Swan, Williams, etc., show that those defenses do not hold. Scholars of the humanities may have reasons for being unclear which don't apply to scientists, but I can't think of any good ones.

The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at July 26, 2006 00:53 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth