Monday, July 11, 2011

Dean on Concrete Language and Truth Claims

Jeremy Dean, who helms PsyBlog, discusses the connection between concrete language and persuasion. Excerpt:
There are all sorts of ways language can communicate truth. Here are some solid facts for you:
• People usually judge that more details mean someone is telling us the truth,
• We find stories that are more vivid to be more true,
• We even think more raw facts make unlikely events more likely.
But all these involve adding extra details or colour. What if we don't have any more details? What if we want to bump up the believability without adding to the fact-count?

Just going more concrete can be enough according to a recent study by Hansen and Wanke (2010). Compare these two sentences:
1. Hamburg is the European record holder concerning the number of bridges.
2. In Hamburg, one can count the highest number of bridges in Europe.
lthough these two sentences seem to have exactly the same meaning, people rate the second as more true than the first. It's not because there's more detail in the second -- there isn't. It's because it doesn't beat around the bush, it conjures a simple, unambiguous and compelling image: you counting bridges.

Abstract words are handy for talking conceptually but they leave a lot of wiggle-room. Concrete words refer to something in the real world and they refer to it precisely. Vanilla ice-cream is specific while dessert could refer to anything sweet eaten after a main meal.
Read the whole thing. Last Saturday, a marine biologist was talking to me about the lack of biological diversity in North American crops, and I brought up the idea of genetically tailored blights in Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, a reference that netted a slightly puzzled look. Similarly, a theologian appeared perplexed when I asked him if he'd ever heard of noir, a natural question to me since we were discussing mankind's depravity. Scientifically and philosophically minded people love to elevate abstract thought, acting as though raw data and pure proposition reside on some high frame. Yet none of us have ever encountered an uninterpreted fact or evaluated an argument not couched in some form of human communication. As Dean remind us here, our job as writers lies in bridging the gap between argument and experience using the best words at our disposal.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Thomas Hawk; Hat Tip: Tony Chavira)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Good point.

I wonder if one can think about modern "fairy tales" and hardboiled detectives as residing on a scale of metaphor. Even the most grittily grounded fairy tales (such as Jane Yolen's superlative if flawed Sleeping-Beauty-in-the-Holocaust novel Briar Rose, Del Toro's superlative and unflawed Pan's Labyrinth, or Valente's darkly feminist yet surprisingly innocent The Orphan's Tale) tend to draw power from extended metaphors that seem to blossom slowly in the reader's mind before being brought down to earth either as irony or eucatastrophe. It seems a genre where authors are encouraged to think and speak abstractly, especially if those abstractions can be weighed down with the concrete of life's sorrows.

Hardboiled prose seems to do this in fast forward. Phillip Marlowe is always drawn towards an image of himself as an ideal knight, but he seems to be constantly mocking himself for his old-fashioned abstractions before they get a chance to take him away.

To really prove my point (even to myself) I'd need to leaf through some books that I don't have available, but I think Mieville's The City and the City is particularly interesting here. One central question involves whether or not the story is fantasy--it could either exist in a world where our realities find only metaphorical reflections via an elaborate, magical, semi-invisible agency, or it could reflect a much more literal world in which everything has a material explanation. For Mieville, that choice (which he follows Tolkien in leaving to the reader) is the choice between reading his book as a fantasy and as a detective story.

Loren Eaton said...

Mieville loves to mess with perspective and expectation, only not to the degree that he becomes an impenitrable "pomo" writer. Have you read "Reports of Certain Events in London"? You really should.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'm not sure it's how little he messes with expectations, so much as his depth of character involvement (and dedication to solid, self-consistent, secondary-world plots) that keeps Mieville comprehensible. Sure The City and the City is a philosophical meditation on interstitial existence and hybridity and international communities and cultural taboos. But it's also a mystery (following the strictures where the clues are evenly distributed and come together at the conclusion), and a cop story (where the main character is a human, interesting, rather sympathetic character caught in circumstances out of his control.) The key, I guess, is love and understanding. Mieville loves and understands genre fiction, while other Pomo writers may dabble, but don't respect the expressiveness and beauty of genres' invisible rules.

Loren Eaton said...

I probably haven't read enough Mieville to go into that much depth. In fact, I'm sure I haven't. He does seem to have a healthy appreciation of genre, though.