Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pinker on When Being Too Bright Ruins Writing

In the September 27-28 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Steven Pinker discusses why a surfeit of smarts can destroy an author's writing. Excerpts:
I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. ...

Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The term was invented by economists to help explain why people are not as shrewd in bargaining as they could be when they possess information that their opposite number does not. Psychologists sometimes call it mindblindness. ...

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine 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 so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). At the beginning of his piece, Pinker addresses the oft-repeated claim that Ivory Tower types and various other elites pen opaque prose because of an innate sense of superiority. Goodness knows I've implied as much about the literary set. But Pinker wisely draws attention to a little maxim known as Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Perhaps one ought to add the clause "or to lack of empathy," because that's what Pinker really addresses here. Rarified types aren't necessarily mean or stuck up or smitten by superciliousness. They simply haven't placed themselves in the audience's shoes. Perhaps this explains why literary fiction and hard SF alike both struggle to acquire new readers. They've forgotten that sterling style and technically proficient predictions don't necessarily draw everyone's delight.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Chris Goldberg)

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