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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.

(More soon!)

Works Cited:

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.

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18 Comments
  1. Grania #

    Two thumbs up.

    This ought to be required reading, not only for science writers, but especially for those who feel the need to use the word “scientism” without a trace of irony.

    May 12, 2011
    • Thanks, lovely :) & Oh gawd, “scientism” is such a ridiculous word. I should send you that “Feminism & Scientism” paper- it’s hilariously awful on SO many levels.

      May 13, 2011
      • Grania #

        Please do!

        May 14, 2011
  2. What a fascinating post. I think the need for and use of clarity can be extended to philosophy as well as science. The connection between clear writing and perceptual processing is really interesting. I think it would be hugely interesting to try and understand how the brain reacts to deliberate obscurity.

    May 12, 2011
    • Thanks so much, Steve. And yes- so many disciplines/areas of study would benefit from clearer writing, particularly philosophy and literary criticism. Literary criticism isn’t that important in the big scheme of things (and certainly doesn’t have the “high stakes” that science communication does), but so much of it is pointless, intentionally confusing, condescending, navel-gazing, full of ridiculous word games, and focused on the author’s political issue of choice instead of on the text itself, and I fear that perhaps turns people off from literature and the discussion of it, which is sad.

      And yes, I definitely want to learn more about the connection between clear writing and perceptual processing. I had to write this paper in a bit of a rush, so I didn’t have time to find further resources on that topic, but I’d like to. It’s very interesting stuff.

      May 13, 2011
      • “intentionally confusing, condescending, navel-gazing”

        Yes, but it seems to produce a psychological reaction in some readers that make them think that they are accquiring knowledge. I’d love to know what is going on. I have a suspicion that they are getting emotional reactions to the words and mistaking these emotional reactions for the ‘feelings’ of processing information. It might even be possible to do some neurological studies to see what bits of the brain do what when gazing at navels!

        May 13, 2011
        • That’s really interesting- I’m definitely curious about it. And people like Chopra seem to exploit that same sort of feeling of faux-learning, for lack of a better phrase.

          May 14, 2011
  3. That Dombrowski quote – how that brings it all back…

    May 12, 2011
    • Ugh, I know. And it shows how very pervasive that whole “other ways of knowing” nonsense is. It shows up in so many areas of study, discussion, argument, etc.

      In that same article, he also argues that science excludes “women’s ways of knowing and interacting”. Ugh ugh ugh. I find that phrase/concept to be so incredibly condescending. Because, you know, our lady parts make us completely unable to think rationally and understand and appreciate science. Clearly. Ugh! And such arguments are especially condescending coming from a male author.

      May 13, 2011
      • “Other ways of knowing” and “women’s ways of knowing” leapt instantly to mind when I read that. Ick. Just– ick. Condescending is right–that absolutely sets my teeth on edge. I haven’t read his paper, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him blathering on about scientists not having “an objective hermeneutics” (translation: “Ur doin it rong”). Oh…wait–that’s evangelical apologists who use that phrase…

        May 16, 2011
  4. e. t. #

    This is both a “weakman” and a kind of strawman. You’ve taken obscure academic papers and formed some broad argument: a weakman. You’ve conflated the issue of scientific writing and other types of writing and argued against it: a kind of strawman. Also, it’s probably quote mining: you don’t cite enough evidence from the papers in your paper to show they are making the argument you say they’re making or even similar arguments to each other. (Only the third “weakman” cited in your PDF seems to be making a relevant argument.) Plus, ironically, in your PDF and here you seem to conform to the stereotype of both your supporting and opposing academic sources: you’re both pushing an ideology and pushing simple scientific answers. You’ve made so many “rhetorical jumps” (cable news propaganda style) that it would be (once again) quite an effort to unpack it all: so I’ll just say one thing for now (while waiting to see if you’ll engage): you’ve conflated/reduced to obscurity the idea generating aspect of science (abduction), the justification stage, and the after the fact explanation. On “after the fact” you’ve conflated classroom teaching/scientific journals and popular/newspaper journalistic explanations. And you’re whole strawman seems built on the premise of the downplay/devaluation/(misunderstanding?) of the nature of the humanities (i.e. irrationally? demanding they become “scientific”).

    May 20, 2011
  5. e. t. #

    Just so I’m “clear”:

    1. You’re ironically arguing against “ambiguous” language, but blur the distinction between “scientific” communication and the communication of science.

    2. You say “clear, precise, and rhetorically effective,” but what does “science” have to do with persuasion? Perhaps you agree with the philosophy of anti-realist (and epistemological anarchist) Paul Feyerabend, but then why would you sight someone criticizing misleading popular science in your favor? Or maybe you just unknowingly admit that political ends trump “clarity.” (Maybe you (again ironically) confuse clarity with simplicity.)

    3. Your paper (yes again IRONY) is itself not “clear.” You don’t make a coherent argument yourself. If there is an argument it’s in the paper’s you cite (which are hidden behind paywalls). It’s link bait and little else. (An academic “listicle.”) You’re whole argument is the simplistic “clear communication is good,” but you had to ironically invoke scientific authority while failing to communicate the science (doing the thing you’re arguing against). This all the while fear mongering: “failure to communicate will produce a ill-defined “high stakes” slippery slope the likes of which we’ve never seen. Danger, danger.”

    4. Dombrowski says “privileging…is not neutral” so you inexplicably jump past this “not neutral” and jump on “privileging” and assert that “privileging” is really what? a code word? that means “science is oppressive and it has not earned the trust and respect it receives.” Also is science a monolith? You refer to it as if it were. (Also you create ambiguity between “science” as “scientific” and “science” as a body of knowledge. (This is besides the fact he seems to be criticizing science’s cultural impact not “the importance of clear language and the value of science.”)

    I’ll try to go on…but I’m going to post what I have so I don’t lose it/get lost. Sorry, if you think this is “personal.”

    May 20, 2011
  6. e. t. #

    5. Flynn: “beliefs in the objectivity of the scientist…neutrality of the scientific investigation serve…” She doesn’t seem to be arguing against (or talking about) “the importance of clear language and the value of science.” You must have (a separate) ax to grind. Might her argument be about something like which studies get funded or how scientific knowledge gets applied, who benefits and why.

    (I think with Dombrowski you may jumped on his “other ways of knowing” and blindly linked it (guilt by association?) with religious/spiritual/new age “other ways of knowing.”)

    6. Is someone advocating “intentional obfuscation” and if so why?

    I’ve lost motivation to go on…but perhaps your argument is this “People learn better/know more when they have clarity. Certain “clear” texts are proven to work better than others that are less clear. Hence: the mind is not indifferent to presentation style (duh). Therefore: science.” And I thought chart junk was good. Doh!

    May 20, 2011
  7. e. t. #

    I noticed in the comments you attribute “women’s ways of knowing” also to Dombrowski. I don’t know what his argument is without context, but your conclusion based on the information you give seems false. Even if he did say “science excludes women’s ways of knowing” (Again their is ambiguity between science as “scientific” and science as “body of knowledge.”) “unable to think rationally and understand and appreciate science” (because of “lady parts”). So even if he did say and mean that (which I doubt) he may mean (following from that) that only those extra “ways” are excluded not women’s “non-surplus” ways.

    What I think he may be saying (I don’t know.) is that science’s cultural impact can/may have/could devalue non-scientific/not-yet-scientific knowledge/experience. (E.g. instinct, “intuition, tradition, personal experience”.) And not because these are “scientific” but because they inform our everyday decisions which are largely non-scientific. (Again, I don’t know. And I’m not making this argument. Or advocating this position as “the way things are”.)

    May 20, 2011
  8. e. t. #

    Ugh, I messed up that last one pretty bad. I meant to say “unable to think rationally…” does not necessarily follow from “women’s ways are excluded.” This because he could be talking about “surplus ways.” He may even think there are excluded “men’s ways.” (Again, I have no idea what gendered ways he’s referring to or if they exist.) So, again I was saying: He might not mean these “other ways” are scientific (as I think you imply), but that scientific knowledge has a (harmful) cultural impact on these “other ways.” (Again, I’m trying to piece what he means together, not argue his position for him.)

    May 20, 2011
  9. e. t. #

    Okay, I’m an idiot, the full text is available for these. Feel free to delete my ignorant trolling.

    May 20, 2011
  10. e. t. #

    Wrong again: Flynn and Barnard are unavailable. “Koch”, an magazine article, doesn’t appear relevant. (I only skimmed it.) “Dombrowski” is a 17 page “speech” that reads like a reading survey. Only skimmed it, too, but it seems to suffer from a similar problem: it’s arguments seem to be located elsewhere (either in the author’s other work or the works he cites.) So, I’m wondering not only why you chose not only this particular paper (“weakman”), but why you chose this paper from among this author’s papers.

    I’ll try to look over your other “support sources” (which are lengthy), but I’m not positive I will. I would say perhaps you’re using unnecessary citations to appear “authoritative.” Some of the quotes are relevant, though you ironically go against them and most of the arguments within your paper seem unsupported. But maybe you expect people to read your source papers. The irrelevant quotes are maybe “ax grinding”/authoritative effect, but I don’t know. (Maybe the “ax grinding”/authoritative effect is to create a “narrative” (rhetorical/propaganda effect) for your audience with the bad logic (They’re wrong (they use the familiar phrases) and we’re right (we cite science articles).)

    Alright, sorry about cluttering your comments. (Defacing your property.) I won’t think less of you for deleting my “spammy” nonsense without response. Or later, even if you do politely respond. I’m sorry myself I’ve posted. (1. This isn’t very important. (Or at least I’m not very important.) 2. I’m ignorant and have dug my own grave. 3. I’ve “talked” way too much. (And probably with myself.)

    May 20, 2011

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