Wednesday, 13 July 2016

On Writing Well

Noah Berlatsky recently wrote a post with the provocative title "Why Most Academics Will Always Be Bad Writers." For the most part, his analysis seems spot-on. For instance, he notes that too many academics equate obscurity with profundity: i.e., you know that what I say must be really smart because you don't understand it. That's just silliness, of course, because if you cannot understand what I am saying then you cannot know whether it is smart or otherwise. There's another part of his analysis that I find somewhat troubling, however. Towards the end of the article he presents an example from Steven Pinker's writing, wherein, in the name of writing clearly, Pinker makes an argument that is demonstrably false. It is demonstrably false because Pinker states as unequivocal fact what is in fact quite uncertain. Berlatsky thus argues that Pinker was clear in his writing precisely when he should have been vague. I am not so sure that I agree with that.

Berlatsky's argument here seems to turn upon the supposition that clarity of writing entails the absence of complexity. Pinker was mistaken because he failed to attend to the complexity of the matter, instead presenting it as simple fact. As such, I would suggest that Berlatsky is conflating terms here, such that what he means by "clear" is really "simple." As such, what he means by "vague" is really "complex." I would like to suggest a heuristic distinction here. Clarity (and unclearness, including but not limited to vagueness) pertain to form: they are how one communications. Simplicity and complexity pertain to substance: they are what one communicates. Granted this, there seems to be no reason that one cannot clearly present complex arguments.

Allow me to demonstrate this using an example from my own obsessive-compulsive area of interest, namely the chronology of the New Testament era. If someone asked me "In what year did Jesus die?" I could answer with "30 C.E.," because that is what I think to be the case. Perfectly clear, and quite simple. But intellectual integrity would really require that I respond with "Most likely 30 C.E., but it might have been 33," because I know that I cannot rule out 33. That is a perfectly clear answer. It's also a more complex one, because now I've introduced two alternatives and ranked their probabilities differentially. If I was asked either "How do we know this to be the case?" or "How do we determine which year is correct?" then I would have to give even more complex responses. I would have to discuss the data indicating that Jesus died in Judea whilst Pontius Pilate was prefect and the years in which that have possibly been the case; the data in the gospels which indicate that Jesus was probably killed on a Friday, either on 14 or 15 Nisan in the Jewish calendar; the astronomical and calendrical data that allows us to determine that during Pilate's time in Judea 14 or 15 Nisan fell on a Friday only in 30 or 33. I might then talk about how I find that it is easier to construe the data relevant to the chronology of Paul's life if we assume that the crucifixion occurred in 30 rather than 33, and could go at length over that material. I could mention that when the early church set about trying to synchronize their calendrical systems they seem to have fairly consistently arrived at 30 for the crucifixion. Etc. None of this is simple. It's all quite complex, especially in aggregate, and would get only more complex as I look ever more closely at the details. Yet I can work at making all of it as clear as possible.

There is a further consideration, namely of audience. What counts as clarity varies, depending upon whether one is writing for a popular audience with little to no knowledge of New Testament studies; or for a popular audience that consists of laypeople and clergy whom one can expect to have a degree of knowledge in the area; or for fellow New Testament scholars; or for New Testament scholars whom one knows to specialize in historical Jesus studies or matters of chronology. Clarity varies with these audiences. For an audience consisting of New Testament scholars clarity is often best achieved by presenting Greek words untranslated, on the supposition that these scholars have the training and experience necessary to do that work themselves and that in fact the act of providing a translation might well be distracting. For a popular audience such a practice would be utterly elitist and really quite obnoxious. This speaks to the specialization of knowledge. Academics are all highly specialized, such that very often, when I read what some of what my colleagues in New Testament produce, I am utterly baffled: not because they are bad writers, but rather because there are not enough hours in the day for me to be equally proficient in all things. As a consequence, what might appear to me to be quite opaque might to the specialist be crystal clear--and that's only a problem if the specialist is intentionally trying to write for non-specialists. If I am not the audience of the writing in question then my failure to apprehend said writing really does not speak to its quality. It is hardly a critique to say that something did not achieve that for which it did not aim. This of course brings up the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is not just about incompetent persons overrating their own competence but also competent people under-appreciating the extent to which others do not share in that competence: precisely because a specialist takes so much for granted, at times she or he will have notable difficulty recognizing what must be spelled out explicitly and what must not.

The above is all to say that writing clearly is not simple.

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