Saturday 19 September 2015

Two feasts, The Curse of Knowledge and Good Night


Tonight the traditional banquet will take place, involving some calories, some delicate imbibing of local wines, and the production of more decibels than a stadium of orators. By a further tradition, no specific mention is made of subjects discussed, nor of the persons showing up very late the following day. Anyone can oversleep.

Before that banquet, another feast. Steven Pinker, who has written so well about psychological matters, will be talking about the craft of writing. He identifies one of the strangest states into which any thinking person can fall, particularly when they consort with other thinkers: the delusion that, having understood something, anyone else can also understand it, and probably already knows it, or will very soon .

By way of tantalus, he says:

As a user, promoter, and occasional practitioner of intelligence research, I discuss a little-appreciated aspect of scientific practice that has significant implications for the future of the field: writing. Most academics are terrible communicators. Why do the world’s most cerebral people find it so hard to convey their ideas? And how can we learn to do better?

The classic style manuals are based on the personal intuitions of journalists and writing instructors and tend to mix some helpful hints with some harmful folklore. I suggest that the modern sciences of mind and language can provide sounder and more systematic guidance to writers today. Thoughtful writers should begin with a clear idealization of the simulated scenario in which they are communicating with their readers. They must overcome The Curse of Knowledge – the inability to imagine what it’s like not to know what they do know. They should understand how syntax works and thus how best to deploy the grammatical resources of the English language. And they should know how to think about the rules of correct usage, distinguishing the ones that enhance clarity and grace from the shibboleths and superstitions.


  1. Jolly good. What harm could there be in repeating what we were doubtless all taught in secondary school?

    I must admit I was a better writer when I left school than when I had completed my first degree. Science lectures and exams, particularly in Chemistry, had harmed my writing ability, as had lack of practice at writing essays as distinct from lab reports and project reports. I have one suggestion: make all scientists read at least one great piece of scientific advocacy or one well-written piece of scientific historiography. An abridged version of The Origin of Species would do very well, or The Double Helix.

    On the other hand: all scientists, indeed all scholars, have doubtless attended lectures done well and done badly. There's no sign that most of them have the intellectual inclination thereby to learn how to lecture well. So reading good writing might teach many of them nothing whatever about writing well.

    What might influence them much more is facing referees and editors who are prepared to reject papers simply on the grounds of bad writing. Even scientists respond to incentives. Then all that would be necessary would be to learn how to recruit referees and editors capable of that job. If there are any.

    1. Papers should be rejected on the basis of bad writing, as you suggest, or just because they are written in an affected style. Requiring one joke per paper might also brighten up the journals.