The importance of clarity (part one)
(A few months ago, I wrote a paper called “The Clarity Imperative”. The .pdf is available here. I’m going to present excerpts from it (slightly edited and with added hyperlinks, etc.) as a series of blog posts, both because I think that the issues it discusses (the relationship between clarity and rhetorical effectiveness, the democratization of knowledge, the effective communication of science, etc.) are important and because I’m interested in starting a conversation about these issues. Please do comment if you’re so inclined. Thanks!)
Clear, precise, and rhetorically effective communication of science is a high-stakes endeavor. If attempts at such communication prove unsuccessful, the consequences can range from public confusion about scientific facts, to a widespread dismissal of the importance of science and of evidence-based argument, to the dissemination of false and potentially dangerous information. Science communicators should always work to produce and promote rhetorically effective expository and/or argumentative writing that uses clear, precise, and unambiguous language.
Unfortunately, the effective communication of science is currently under threat, and these threats could have devastating consequences for both the public understanding of science and the general democratization of knowledge. This danger comes from those rhetoricians and writers who vociferously deny both the importance of clear language and the value of science. Such rhetoricians and writers argue that clear language and scientific thinking are dangerous and oppressive. For example, Paul M. Dombrowski, in “Post-Modernism as the Resurgence of Humanism in Technical Communication”, claims that ”the privileging of scientific knowledge in our society is not neutral or innocent because it disprivileges other sorts of ‘knowledge’ such as intuitions, traditions, and personal experience” (172). Dombrowski’s word choice is key:“privileging” implies both that scientific knowledge is oppressive and that it has not earned the trust and respect that it receives. Similarly, Elizabeth A. Flynn, in “Feminism and Scientism”, asserts (referencing the arguments of various feminist scholars) that “beliefs in the objectivity of the scientist and the neutrality of scientific investigation serve the interests of those in positions of authority and power, usually white males, and serve to exclude those in marginalized positions” (358).
However, neither of these assertions are correct. Quite the opposite, in fact: clear and precise communication of the knowledge derived from scientific studies transmits useful facts, encourages an appreciation for evidence-based argument, democratizes knowledge, and may even promote greater equality. As Davida Charney, in “Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word”, explains, the successful communication of scientific findings that were reached through the use of objective and quantitative research methods “creat[es] alternative entrance standards that diminish the power of exclusionary and elitist networks of clubs and informal contacts” and “bring[s] both criteria and results into the open” (572).
Dombrowski’s and Flynn’s assertions are typical of those rhetoricians who are opposed to clear communication and scientific knowledge. This attitude is dangerous, as it promotes the devaluation of both clarity and evidence-based rhetoric, scientific or otherwise. As rhetoricians, it is our responsibility to emphasize the importance of clarity and to strongly oppose these threats against scientific communication and the dissemination of information.
The effective communication of science is a vitally important task, one that must be able to proceed in an unimpeded manner. Michael E. McIntyre, in “Lucidity and science I: Writing skills and pattern perception hypothesis”, explains why effective science communication is so essential and explains how the “increased ability of working scientists to alleviate confusion and to contribute to the public understanding of science” can provide “incalculably greater long term gain both to science itself and to human society” (199).
A science communicator who wants to “alleviate confusion” will use clear, lucid, and precise language and will present their facts and/or claims in the style that is most likely to increase their audience’s understanding. Clear and precise language is a science communicator’s most important tool. As such, authorial intent and awareness of the needs of one’s audience play a key role in determining whether or not facts will be successfully transmitted and arguments will be rhetorically effective. Relatedly, a writer who does not want to be understood and is not concerned with informing or persuading their audience will choose the vague, imprecise, and confusing language that fits their goals. Their intent is not to “alleviate confusion”. In fact, many such writers, through their choice of language, actively work to cause confusion.
Scientific research explains what clarity is and why knowledge is most effectively transmitted through clear writing. These findings successfully refute the claims that clarity is undefinable, that it is an arbitrary construct that is ideologically-motivated, and that it upholds the oppressive power structure and thus should be avoided if one does not want to contribute to the persecution of the disenfranchised (Barnard). For example, McIntyre explains that “[h]uman perceptual processing [what he refers to as “the pattern perception hypothesis”] has remarkable properties, the properties that enabled our ancestors to survive” (199). He goes on to show how clear and lucid writing successfully “exploits those properties” (207) by using the reader’s perceptual machinery in the most efficient and effective way possible. This helps to illustrate why some writing styles increase lucidity and clarity, while others do not: for the reader, lucid writing speeds up the act of perceptual processing and rapidly and unconsciously simplifies the massive amount of possible internal models (207). McIntyre also details how writers who want to communicate in a clearer manner can use various perceptual phenomena to their advantage. These phenomena include “unconscious gap filling and grouping, and the sensitivity to organically changing patterns” (199).
McIntyre explains that the act of perception functions as “an unconscious model fitting process, an unconscious ‘science in miniature’” (199) and asserts that such functioning suggests to us a view of science that is “simple yet coherent” (199). The implications of this research may have an enormous effect on the public understanding of science. He supports his assertions with findings from scientific studies regarding pattern perception, which, in the context of reading, is a very complex activity, one which requires the reader to “decode” (200) what they are reading.
One of McIntyre’s examples comes from the field of molecular biology and references the computational theory of perception and cognition. In “Computation and the single neuron”, Christof Koch explains how “the latest work on information processing and storage at the single- cell level reveals previously unimagined complexity and dynamism” (207). The findings of these studies may help writers to produce clear and rhetorically effective scientific writing, writing which, as McIntyre puts it, “should not only engage the reader but should also be lucid” (199).
Using these findings, McIntyre is able to explain the difference between writers who want to effectively communicate information to an audience and writers who prefer to write in an ambiguous and confusing fashion, explaining that the the pattern perception hypothesis “helps one to distinguish what engages the reader from what indulges the writer, and to distinguish what clarifies one’s thinking from what muddies it” (200). Additionally, he asserts that, in contrast to those who argue that the standards of clear, precise, and rhetorically effective writing are completely subjective, the pattern perception hypothesis “suggests that much of the real experts’ advice is not an arbitrary matter of style or culture but, rather, a reflection of how the human brain works – the result of biological as well as social evolution” (200).
It is important to remember that clear writing is not necessarily simple writing, nor does clarity preclude the use of descriptive and evocative language, or, in the case of science communication, the use of the complex and specialized words that best describe the scientific findings under discussion. In order to preserve the lucidity and precision of writing, however, it is essential that each word a writer chooses is the clearest and most descriptive word for that specific context. As such, a writer who wants to produce clear prose and has the needs of their audience in mind will avoid word games and intentional obfuscation and will ensure that each word they use has a precise meaning. In other words, complex language does not make writing unclear, as long as each complex word has a specific and clear meaning and is the best possible word for that particular context. McIntyre explains this well: “[a]nyone who thinks that all this will cramp their ‘style’ – and that unlimited variation, and departures from coherent ordering, are needed for ‘interest, variety, and stylishness’ – should look at the many writing techniques that offer interest, variety, and stylishness without sacrificing lucidity” (208).
More specifically, in the context of science communication, a writer must thoroughly explain any specialized or complex scientific language they use. By doing so, the writer shows that they want to increase their audience’s knowledge and that they feel confident in their audience’s ability to understand specialized and complex language if it is explained clearly. This attitude indicates that the writer understands the importance of both the public communication of science and the democratization of information.
Barnard, Ian. “The Ruse of Clarity.” College Composition and Communication 61.3 (2010): 434-451. Print.
Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” College Composition and Communication 47.4 (1996): 567-593. Print.
Dombrowski, Paul. “Post-Modernism as the Resurgence of Humanism in Technical Communication.” Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 27 December 1993. Conference Presentation.
Flynn, Elizabeth. “Feminism and Scientism.” College Composition and Communication 46.3 (1995): 353-368. Print.
Koch, Christof. “Computation and the Single Neuron.” Nature 385.6613 (1997): 207-210. Print.
McIntyre, Michael. “Lucidity and Science I: Writing skills and The Pattern Perception Hypothesis.”Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 22.3 (1997): 199-216. Print.