Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Single Reason Why People Can't Write, According to a Harvard Psychologist

I think the headline is overstating it, but this is an important reason why intelligent people don't write well--why they have trouble communicating with other intelligent people.  And, it's a cognitive bias.  As I told you yesterday, they are everywhere.  (here)

The Single Reason Why People Can't Write, According to a Harvard Psychologist by Glen Lebowitz, discussing a book by Steven Pinker.

Here's the subtitle:

"This common affliction is behind so much unclear and confusing writing in the world today."  That's better. 


"For Pinker, the root cause of so much bad writing is what he calls "the Curse of Knowledge", which he defines as "a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose."

The solution:

"How can we lift the curse of knowledge?" asks Pinker. "A considerate writer will...cultivate the habit of adding a few words of explanation to common technical terms, as in 'Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant,' rather than the bare 'Arabidopsis.' It's not just an act of magnanimity: A writer who explains technical terms can multiply her readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk."

"Readers will also thank a writer for the copious use of for example, as in, and such as, because an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all."

"Before hitting publish and sending your writing out to the world, it's better to be honest with yourself about how much your reader is likely to understand a given passage or sentence. Before you commit your writing to print-- or to the internet-- take a few moments to make sure that what you write is clear and understandable by as many of your intended readers as possible."

I treat the "curse of knowledge" in depth in Chapter Four in my book Understanding and Overcoming Cognitive Biases For Lawyers And Law Students: Becoming a Better Lawyer Through Cognitive Science (2018).

I strongly agree with everything in the article, except for the overstated headline, which Professor Pinker didn't write.

It is the role of the writer to communicate with the reader.  If an article is poorly-written, the reader will often just give up.  The writer needs to make sure that she writes so the reader can understand her.  She needs to consider the readers' education and background.  A Harvard physics professor may know nothing about Kant.

Legal writing professors talk a lot about audience when teaching.  A lawyer must always consider his audience.  When I was a lawyer, I sometimes wrote for an in-house counsel of a corporation, while other times I wrote for clients who just had a high school education.  A lawyer must write very differently for these audiences.

The same is true for other kinds of communication.  When teaching, a law professor must realize that her students are novices.  Novice law students do not have the same sophisticated cognitive machinery for law that law professors do.  In other words, law professors must slowly develop law students legal reasoning abilities.  For example, I advocate that first-year professors teach explicitly, rather than by "hiding the ball."  Also, law professors should teach their student mini reasoning skills--rule-based reasoning, reasoning by analogy, distinguishing arguments, synthesis, and policy-based reasoning.  Many law students graduate without truly understanding what "think like a lawyer" means.

I was very happy to read this article about Professor Pinker on how the curse of knowledge affects writing because it illustrates the practical importance of understanding and overcoming cognitive biases.

(Scott Fruehwald)  



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So, I agree with Prof Fruehwald that the title of Mr Liebowitz's article goes too far. But I also believe the article itself, and the underlying claim about Pinker's work, goes too far. The problem is not that the writer suffers from a "Curse of Knowledge." In fact, too much knowledge in the writer is never a problem.

Rather, the writers usually suffer from a lack of rhetorical sensibility, that is, knowledge about and attention to the knowledge, goals, and emotions of the audience. In other words, good writing requires the writer to read the mind of the readers to write text that moves the readers' cognition to the point to which the writer seeks to deliver them, whether to a belief about some state of affairs or to an inclination to act a certain way.

So, for example, no technically trained reader will tolerate communication from a technically trained writer that stops to explain terms that are--at least to the two of them--rudimentary. The technically trained writer writing for a layperson clearly faces a different task. The rhetorically sensitive writer asks, "What does my reader know? What does she want? In what context will she be using this writing?" and then constructs an optimal response to that situation.

Just my two cents.

Posted by: Brian Larson | Nov 19, 2019 2:48:35 PM

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