The Curse of Knowledge
July 3, 2015 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Why is good writing on technical subjects so hard to find? A popular explanation is that bureaucrats, scientists, doctors, and lawyers who write dense prose are intentionally obfuscating their writing to appear more intelligent than they are. After all, no one likes reading hashes of passive clauses salted with jargon and acronyms--not even fellow specialists. Stephen Pinker, however, has an alternate take on the issue. What if knowing a lot about a topic directly interferes with your ability to effectively communicate it?
posted by sciatrix (56 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Stephen Pinker, however, has an alternate take on the issue. What if knowing a lot about a topic directly interferes with your ability to effectively communicate it?

I read one of Pinker's books and he certainly suffers from this problem, so unreadable.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:43 PM on July 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates.

I wonder what would happen if Steven Pinker actually talked to some technical writers about the area of their expertise? That his imagined technical writer is implicitly male suggests he hasn't spent time with many tech writers.
posted by ddbeck at 9:47 PM on July 3, 2015 [36 favorites]

Uh, maybe it is because the Venn diagram of writing skill and technical acumen results in a very small area of overlap?
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:52 PM on July 3, 2015 [20 favorites]

As someone who both edits the writing of engineers and teaches a class for them on writing, I agree that it is not stupidity at work. If they're willing, though, most of them are entirely capable of becoming better writers.

My engineers usually have two problems: 1. Not enough time for writing (which leads to cut and paste errors, typos, and omissions) and 2. a desire to over-explain. Since the materials we create are going to a mixed audience of engineers and non-engineers, we have to simplify while still being technically accurate. This can be very difficult, and we have a lot of back-and-forth sometimes.

As for being better speakers, it's remarkable how well forbidding them from reading bullet points off of their PowerPoint slides works to sharpen their presentation skills. We allow 2-3 bullet points, at most, and make them practice/speak off the cuff otherwise, using slides only for illustrations and photos. It takes away a crutch and forces them to learn to communicate concepts in the time allotted.
posted by emjaybee at 9:52 PM on July 3, 2015 [17 favorites]

Simple is harder than complex. We have complex writing because nobody has the will or skill to simplify.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:54 PM on July 3, 2015 [32 favorites]

Over the past 3 years I've been studying various metrics for K12 educational reform and in the last 12 months, I've been working for a firm building data analysis tools for early childhood education.

The more I've researched the relevant materials, the more difficult I've found it is to describe the work I do, particularly the confounding problems unearthed in the last ~20 years of study in my new field.

However, I (and I'd like to believe all professionals should ) value honesty in discourse, and some of 'being honest' involves explanations that don't fit on bumper stickers and/or cannot be explained in 15 seconds of conversations.

I find that I can take someone 'fresh off the street', and get them up to speed on what it is I do, and why everything else has generally failed, and why what I do may (but is not guaranteed to be) just about the only thing that can make a dent in closing achievement gaps.

But that conversation will take me between 15 minutes and 1.5 hours, depending on how fast my audience is getting things, and how much groundwork I must cover, and how many myths I must put to bed. It also challenges a lot of commonly held notions, and requires a lot of delicacy so as to not inadvertently reinforce some pernicious already-held opinions as well.

It's a constant struggle to find pithy ways of describing my field that are both correct and unambiguous.

I frequently use the term 'the curse of knowledge' to describe this very phenomenon, and I agree with Pinker entirely.
posted by The Giant Squid at 10:24 PM on July 3, 2015 [11 favorites]

As for being better speakers, it's remarkable how well forbidding them from reading bullet points off of their PowerPoint slides works to sharpen their presentation skills.

Amen to this. I just finished my last class of graduate school yesterday, and I'm constantly amazed how many of my fellow students simply stand there and read their slides. Worse yet, I see it fairly often at professional conferences too.

Not really much point of having a person presenting if their just going to read slides.
posted by Jernau at 10:33 PM on July 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Old conventions and "tradition" can hold a lot - including communication back.

When I was in college, my chemistry instructors insisted that we do everything in passive voice, because "that's how it's done [in this field]".

My geology professor said, "Active voice is used in the preeminent journal, Geology. So that's what you're going to use."

Then when I got to private industry, all our reports were done in passive voice, even though I got my manager to admit that we should be using active voice. Then I got to the part where we avoided stating anything directly because we didn't want to be held responsible for anything. Seminars on risk management, where we were never to call anything an "inspection," only "observations," because, holy crap you guys, we would never want to take responsibility for the work we did if there were every lawyers involved. I was later to learn that obfuscation is the norm any time there's a whiff of liability.

My personal opinion is that anything short of requiring advanced mathematics should be explainable to a high school student or graduate; especially if you can use analogies. All the best instructors I knew could do so.

In private industry, they're not trying to be clear, because there's only disincentives (hence, "corporate-speak"). In academia and education...a lot of the top researchers are not necessarily the best teachers. Or they may be writing to fit a "tradition". Or they're writing to get published or impress their fellow luminaries. If clear communication is the sole thing a writer or lecturer is striving for, they'll probably manage. But just because someone is a teacher or writer or instructor doesn't mean they agree with the "instruct for everybody" ethos".
posted by Strudel at 10:34 PM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

Communication is a skill, different from and independent of other skills.

Being good at a subject does not have anything to do with being good at communicating that subject. (For example) One can be an extraordinary scientist and have no ability to explain one's work. One can be an extraordinary scientist with an incredible ability to explain one's work.

A great many complex subjects include communication as part of their professional work (presenting research, writing documentation, teaching itself in the case of professors) and none of the education to achieve these positions includes learning to communicate well. It's an odd thing. People are communicating professionally without any real practice in it, or understanding of the basics of communication.
posted by galadriel at 10:47 PM on July 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think for scientific papers it's similarly a problem of incentives. You can optimize for technical accuracy or you can optimize for readability, but it's time-consuming to optimize for both, and time is something few working scientists have to spare. The editors and reviewers reading your paper will be scrutinizing your technical accuracy and completeness, so that's where you spend your time. That and making attractive and easy-to-understand figures--in graduate school I learned to read papers figures-first, with the prose being an afterthought in case the figures weren't clear enough. I expect many scientists who are quite capable of clearly explaining their work in other venues nevertheless write rather dense papers, simply because there are so many higher priorities than graceful phrasing.
posted by fermion at 10:51 PM on July 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was certainly much better* at teaching calculus than I was at teaching introductory programming, despite the fact that I have a PhD in CS and had experience as a professional programmer and did not have a PhD math and had never worked as a mathematician.

* Better in a measured sense - my scores on RateMyProfessor were higher and my reviews were better for my calculus classes. I'll make the semi-bold claim that teaching calculus is easier than teaching people to program, but the measured truth is that students thought I taught better when I taught farther away from the things I knew best.
posted by pmb at 10:58 PM on July 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

The more I've researched the relevant materials, the more difficult I've found it is to describe the work I do, particularly the confounding problems unearthed in the last ~20 years of study in my new field.

Yeah, it's like the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect; the more you know about a topic, the more you realize that to give a proper summary there really are a lot of nuances you need to include and that you can use a metaphor to describe parts of it but that kind of falls down because really it doesn't do a thing that way unless of course there's this other thing...and it's really hard to give a clear explanation because you realize the edge cases are so important.

I also think it's easier to explain something that doesn't come to you 100% naturally. I love to read and I was an English major in college and I much, much prefer teaching math (former elementary school teacher). I GET how to teach math; I see how you can break it down, and use manipulatives, and work on different approaches to the problem, and work on number sense, and I understand what's hard and easy about it. Teaching reading is SO MUCH HARDER for me because I can't really explain how to do it. You just read the book. You it. How can I explain to you how to do something that you I have learned a lot about how to teach reading so I can do it and I know how to break it down and what skills are important, but reading was never a struggle for me so I really had to learn how to teach it. It's like someone asking how you chew -- I don't know, you just move your teeth a bunch! What do you want from me? If something makes perfect sense to you immediately, it can be really, really hard to articulate it to someone who's struggling.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:21 PM on July 3, 2015 [25 favorites]

Having taken a few technical writing courses, I think the problem is you are taught to make things sound very dull. Any spark of interestingness can get you marked down.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:14 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

At least in STEM fields, a lack of emphasis on simple, quality writing and desire to over-explain are huge factors. The former doesn't come without concerted effort and practice that most STEM graduate students are not encouraged to do (nor have the time to do). The latter is tripped up by a desire to explain nuances, as Mrs. Pterodactyl says. I recently was tasked with explaining proteins to high school students and thought of comparing amino acids to Legos, where the 20 standard amino acids can be combined in all sorts of different ways and amounts to make all the proteins in our bodies, the same way you can use basic Lego pieces to create a ton of different structures. Except Legos are stacked on one another, where amino acids are strung together in a chain that folds in on itself. And there are technically more than 20 amino acids. And the Lego blocks in my picture on my Powerpoint slide are largely shaped the same, where all the amino acids have different chemical side chains and that's what drives all the different strings of amino acids to fold in different ways to make different proteins. And also the environment these strings of amino acids are in also determines protein shape. And and and

anyway I went ahead with the Lego analogy but by God it bothered me.
posted by schroedinger at 12:25 AM on July 4, 2015 [14 favorites]

Simple is harder than complex. We have complex writing because nobody has the will or skill to simplify.

That's a great point which really abstracts what the other commenters are saying. Which got me thinking, the title here is Why is good writing on technical subjects so hard to find? but maybe it's because bad writing on technical subjects is so easy to identify.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 12:48 AM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

A big problem I didn't see mentioned here is the extreme word limit often imposed on science papers by high-impact journals. If you look at papers from the early 20th century, they are often unbelievably chatty and readable. If you try to read a Nature paper from today, in contrast, it will usually be extremely terse -- and this isn't just a style problem, because it often means there are huge unexplained gaps in reasoning that are only (partially) filled in by a poorly formatted 95-page online-only supplement, which none of the reviewers and few members of the audience will ever actually read.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:59 AM on July 4, 2015 [10 favorites]

This is a version of the Peter Principle at work. A technical person shines in their field and is then "elevated" to a role where they are writing about their field, but they simply lack competence in the new role.

Happens every day, in every walk of life. You're a great programmer? Now you're the technical director. You're a great baseball player? Now you're the coach. You're a great teacher? Now you're the principal. These three new roles all require competence at things the programmer, the baseball player and the teacher never had to worry about.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:16 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I deal with this problem all the time in my work as a TA for theory courses for computer science master's students who mostly have no background in higher mathematics. Learning how to rigorously reason about an unfamiliar math problem and present a clear argument on paper are really difficult skills to learn, and you have to devote some effort to it to make it worthwhile. However, for many of these working, practically-minded students, these theory classes are a hoop they have to jump through to get to the more coding-heavy courses that they actually care about, so it's always an uphill battle to get them to see why mathematical proof is important.

Unfortunately, generally we have two kinds of proofs we can present as examples in class: either it's simple but boring, or it's complicated but interesting. If we present the simple but boring problems, then we're failing to challenge our students and perpetuating the stereotype in America that math is formalistic, impractical, irrelevant busywork. If we present the complicated but interesting proofs, then we have another choice: either we give the important steps and leave out some intermediate justification, or we give a fully rigorous proof. If we do the former, then students will take our presentation as a model for their own work, which means they will not only get sloppy in their proofs, but also in their reasoning, sometimes leading them to wrong conclusions or outright nonsense. If we do the latter, then not only do we take up large amounts of precious class time, but we risk boring and losing students who don't understand what the point of all these little tiny steps are.

I guess my point is that simplification is not always the key to clear communication of difficult concepts, and it can carry its own drawbacks. But I wouldn't say I have the solution either; I've been doing this for two years and I still don't know what's the most effective approach.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 1:33 AM on July 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

One of my favorite mathematicians was at a very small conference at a hotel, and one of the hotel staff approached him to ask what the conference was about. So, he says, 'Oh, we're having a meeting about Whittaker functions.' The staffer has no idea what to make of this, and asks what a Whittaker function is. The mathematician replies, 'Well, you know what a Bessel function is...'
posted by kaibutsu at 1:45 AM on July 4, 2015 [35 favorites]

If you try to read a Nature paper from today, in contrast, it will usually be extremely terse

I agree with the general sentiment, but Nature is a bad example. That particular journal edit the manuscripts significantly post acceptance. The people I know that have published in Nature tell me that their manuscripts are frequently oversimplified for Nature's broader audience. I've published in more specialist NPG journals that have copyeditors, and they generally improve the manuscript quite a bit. The journals that are run by societies, on the other hand, simply don't have the manpower to edit the submissions but nevertheless insist on tight word restrictions that make it very difficult to construct your arguments without 'glossing over' important elements.

The other kicker is the journals' insistence that you only use a limited number of references. I usually draft a manuscript without self-imposing a reference limit, and then find myself having to cut 10-20% of them to meet a journal's pre-submission requirements. That's a 10-20% reduction in the rigour of my arguments.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:20 AM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm proud to be completely unaffected by this curse.
posted by miyabo at 2:34 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

forbidding them from reading bullet points off of their PowerPoint slides

I love you and wish to bring you gifts of fine wines and tales of adventure.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:39 AM on July 4, 2015 [9 favorites]

Pinker alludes to this at the start of the article, but one of my favorite books on teaching and learning has a really straightforward summary of how people progress from ignorance to mastery of a topic -

* you don't know what you don't know
* you DO know what you don't know
* you know what you know
* you don't know what you know

Mastery of a topic eventually involves automatic, unconscious use of many pieces of foundational information. It's a perennial topic of conversation among teaching staff at my college, where it's very easy to accidentally omit important background because you never remember learning OR using it yourself. It's also the reason why people like Eric Mazur at Harvard have started enlisting their own students as peer tutors for each other, on the theory that the best possible explainer is someone who had the a-ha moment 15 seconds ago.

At any rate, my sense is that this has enormous bearing on why technical writing and presenting can be so impenetrable and awful - especially at the forefront, it's super easy to lose track of how much you take for granted that's not going to make it into textbooks for another 5 years.
posted by range at 3:34 AM on July 4, 2015 [12 favorites]

What if complex subjects are just not possible to communicate simply?

As a counterpoint - given that there are recent studies suggesting that Students tendency to actually "learn" and retain given material increases when the explanations are more muddled and confusing. ie. basically that if explanations are simple and straightforward then students tend to gloss over it.

Then wouldn't this clean perfect writing Pinker proposes actually decrease student retention?
posted by mary8nne at 3:47 AM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that scientific research and other complex endeavors are by nature collaborative. Every collective requires a variety of experts and technicians, one of whom should be an expert communicator.
posted by Jode at 3:49 AM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

> given that there are recent studies suggesting that Students tendency to actually "learn" and retain given material increases when the explanations are more muddled and confusing

That is intriguing and counterintuitive. Can you link to some of these?
posted by ardgedee at 3:49 AM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

For years, I was nominally a professional designer. But during my terms at several companies I would usually drift into the role of the communications liaison between the development teams and the creative teams, translating the programmers' issues into terms the designers and writers could understand, and explaining the designers and writers' requirements into terms the programmers could understand.*

Now that I'm nominally a professional developer, being that kind of technical ambassador is a lot harder. The creatives won't deal with me as a peer any more and the devs are suspicious of me when I express an interest in prioritizing some aspect of user experience over building out Yet Another Feature. But it's also because now that I have a much more detailed understanding of how code works, it's a hell of a lot harder to abstract it when speaking off-the-cuff, because it's gotten so much harder to mentally sift out the significant aspects of a thing from all the other working bits that make those aspects work.

*(Programmers think they understand the design. They usually don't. When they think they understand the design better than the designers, they definitely don't. And this is a trap I fall into every damn time during the final sprint to a release, too. So.)
posted by ardgedee at 4:02 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

> students thought I taught better when I taught farther away from the things I knew best.

this could be because you work harder to compensate for areas you're less competent in. maybe that can also be applied to technical writing - people doing technical writing are describing an are they feel confident in, so feel less need to try, while people doing general writing feel less confident and so make more effort?

> you don't know what you don't know ... you don't know what you know

this is similar to shu ha ri as explained by cockburn.

in my own case, i feel part of the problem is that you get very little feedback. i assume that "writers" all hang out discussing what they're doing. but if you're writing about something technical, you typically don't have a community of similar people to discuss with - or, at least, they're discussing "more important things" like the technical subject itself.

[just joined again; was last a member here something like 5 years ago. no longer see any names i recognise. anyway, hello.]
posted by andrewcooke at 4:31 AM on July 4, 2015 [9 favorites]

The other way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar.
I've found a way to improve on this. I let my paper rest, and then re-read it when I'm really tired, or I've had a few drinks . Suddenly, I start writing "huh??" and "what does that have to do with it??" etc. in the margins. Curse of knowledge lifted! Right?

Except here's how pathetic I am: once I'm rested and sober, I go back to my notes and I can no longer figure out what it was I didn't understand. It's all right there! How can I not understand this? So I don't change a thing.

It really is a hard problem.
posted by bleston hamilton station at 4:35 AM on July 4, 2015 [11 favorites]

Simplifying things makes them more wrong. Now, everything is a little bit wrong. The trick is knowing what good enough is for a given audience.

And if you're trying to teach a subject generally, that's hard. Who do you teach to? Do you mention important exceptions for the benefit of the people who are really into the subject and are going to study it more and risk losing the people who aren't ever going to need to go that in depth? Or do you teach more simply and clearly, and give the people who are going to give deeper some information that they are going to have to un-learn later?
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:38 AM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know, as an engineer, with a job where I regularly have to very technical concepts to non-technical people as briefly as possible, I think the issue is more about wanting to make sure you're accurate.

My job is literally to make sure these people have a good grasp of these concepts so they can make important decisions correctly and I have may 30 minutes to distill the equivalent of a graduate degree course as related to the specific circumstance we happen to be talking about. So I have to pick and chose which nuances I'm going to include and hope that not only do I pick the right ones to give them enough depth, but also that their interpretation of whatever metaphors I have to use is accurate. And to make it harder people usually have their own assumptions and biases that often make affect how they 'hear' what you're saying.

This can be incredibly challenging, especially when it's really important.
posted by scififan at 5:17 AM on July 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

As others have noted, this article is silly because it ignores the fact that writing well is very difficult and few have learned how to do it. There's no need for a tenuous and unsupported argument about what is, at best, a minor contributing factor.
posted by snofoam at 5:38 AM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

As others have noted, this article is silly because it ignores the fact that writing well is very difficult and few have learned how to do it. There's no need for a tenuous and unsupported argument about what is, at best, a minor contributing factor.

Okay. Why is writing well very difficult, aside from this issue?
posted by sciatrix at 5:41 AM on July 4, 2015

Thirty students send me attachments named "psych assignment.doc."

It's not a bad example of the point, but email software deserves a share of the blame for that one. Damn straight I'm going to name my files on my own machine in a way that reflects their purpose to me, like "psych assignment.doc" if I'm only writing one. The point at which it makes sense to give it a name suitable for outside consumption is at the interface between my machine and the outside, i.e. when preparing the email. But I can't think of any email system which makes it easy to rename an attachment on choosing to attach it. Instead my usual workflow is to make a local copy of (well, an ln(1) link to) the file with the right name, attach that, and then delete it, and that's a minor pain in the ass.
posted by finka at 5:45 AM on July 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

> given that there are recent studies suggesting that Students tendency to actually "learn" and retain given material increases when the explanations are more muddled and confusing

That is intriguing and counterintuitive. Can you link to some of these?

I don't have links handy, but this is something I've been peripherally involved with in Physics Education Research (where the relevant database is comPADRE and some relevant search terms are "Peer Instruction" and "Active Learning"). You know how sometimes you sit in a lecture with one of those professors who's incredibly clear and direct, and you're nodding along because it makes so much sense! and then you get back to your dorm and suddenly can't remember why anything made sense? On the other hand, if something's confusing and you have to take a moment to understand what's actually happening, work through the implications in your head, convince yourself that it's true or not true, things stick better.
posted by dorque at 6:06 AM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Writing clearly and concisely is a skill. It takes years to get good at it. Scientists and engineers spend those years getting good at science and engineering, and haven't had the time to master writing too.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 6:30 AM on July 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

andrew cooke, i remember.

I work daily with sales teams who have to communicate their ideas with customers who have very different contexts to start from.
I'm not quite clear what the difference is in Pinker's examples, but perhaps because my technical folk are selling something there is money to fund somebody to spend the time to understand what they are talking about (note, not creating the innovation) but articulating it to the masses.
I don't expect my dentist to be a specialist in plumbing, so maybe it is ok to expect scientists to have to also employ specialists to communicate their ideas to wider audiences. This doesn't preclude scientists or other specialists who happen to be good communicators from doing their own communicating (a la Pinker) but is it so troublesome to employ a writer or PR person if you aren't in that way gifted?
posted by bystander at 6:35 AM on July 4, 2015

I think for scientific papers it's similarly a problem of incentives.

I'm not convinced there is any serious problem for actual no-shit scientific papers. They're within-discipline conversations between experts in a field, so as long as other experts in the field can understand what's going on everything is hunky-dory. The problem arises when the same experts, like the biologist in TFA, can't shift gears and explain things to nonexperts.

is it so troublesome to employ a writer or PR person if you aren't in that way gifted?

Yeah, because they cost money. Lots and lots of money. If you're in a grant-driven field, it means taking thousands or tens of thousands of dollars from directly productive activity and/or having to explain to the funding agency/nonprofit why giving you an extra $100000 after university "taxes" to hire a $60000 writer or PR person is better than giving that $100000 to someone else who wants to do research with it. For me, it would mean having to sell my house and move someplace much cheaper to come up with the cash. And I live in Buffalo.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:51 AM on July 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

(Just to be clear, depending on the agency or nonprofit, of course sometimes they're going to be all HELL YEAH HERE IS YOUR EXTRA MONEY because they want direct public engagement)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:58 AM on July 4, 2015

Okay. Why is writing well very difficult, aside from this issue?

In the article, Pinker's thesis is that so much writing is bad because writers with subject expertise can't convey something in terms that laypersons can understand. This ignores the fact that most people can't write well regardless of the subject and their expertise, which is a much simpler explanation.

Why is it difficult? Writing requires constant decision-making, and each decision has near-infinite possibilities. When writing we are typically constructing on multiple scales: words into phrases, phrases in to paragraphs, paragraphs into longer pieces. Good writing conveys meaning and emotion in a distinctive voice. I could go on and on about what—other than expertise in the subject area—makes writing challenging, but I'm sure there are whole volumes written about it already.
posted by snofoam at 7:01 AM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Likely a hidden reverse bias exists. Great writing seems obvious, clear and easy to understand. Thus it was produced "effortlessly". Ergo of less value than the document that is thick and dense the reviewer can barely grasp.
posted by sammyo at 7:25 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

> it's really hard to give a clear explanation because you realize the edge cases are so important.

But the edge cases aren't all that important—not for an initial understanding, which in fact requires a certain amount of oversimplification. We progress from ignorance to oversimplification to more complex understanding, and there's no way to skip the middle step. Of course writing is hard, as snofoam and others have said, but there's also a more specific problem of specialists being unwilling to do the necessary editing of the details of their specialty. (I suspect they have an invisible colleague sitting on their shoulder, smirking every time they leave out some vitally important qualification or edge case.)

Really, I'm just commenting so andrew cooke will see a familiar username.
posted by languagehat at 7:27 AM on July 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

This is a real problem. As a government scientist, I have to write two summaries of every paper I write: a "technical summary", which is essentially the abstract of my paper, and the "interpretive summary", which is a nonscientific summary to be read (if indeed it is ever read) by congressional aides and administrative bean counters. I'm supposed to write it in a way that a 6th grader could understand it (I'd make a joke about congressional aides here, but I met one once and he was very smart). It is really hard to write the interpretive summary. I'd never be able to do it at all if not for the student interns hanging around our lab, forcing me to explain things clearly once in a while. I think it is useful to constantly have to explain things to students and congressional aides.
posted by acrasis at 7:53 AM on July 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

I see this even in creative writing. My students writing screenplays often have real challenges with imagining what a first time viewer will experience watching their film, because they have all this elaborate backstory and thematic knowledge of what they are trying to do inside their heads, but it never makes it to the page because it's too obvious. Then, when the film is done, it's a muddled mess because nothing is clear at all.

Putting yourself into the headspace of someone unfamiliar with what you already know is a very specific, learned skill. I agree with him that external feedback is one of the central ways to overcome it.
posted by MythMaker at 8:14 AM on July 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

Here is one artile about that confusing students to increase "learning". There was also an article by Muller or a Paper I think that had more details but I can't find it:

The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Confuse Students to Help Them Learn
By Steve Kolowich

"Confusion is a powerful force in education. It can send students reeling toward boredom and complacency. But being confused can also prompt students to work through impasses and arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the world."
posted by mary8nne at 8:28 AM on July 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Good technical writing is important, but there's not much incentive for many engineers to create anything more than barely adequate documents. I have struggled with this because I love being an engineer, and I also love writing.

As an engineering major in school, a typical semester for me had 2-4 courses heavy in math and 1 course that had almost no math whatsoever. Problem sets for the math-heavy courses could take over 10 hours each, so I would put the most time and energy into those. Meanwhile, I knew that I could crank out the 5 page essay for that humanities course in a couple of hours. Many years of academic competitions as a child had taught me to write a coherent essay of at least 5 paragraphs in as little as 15 minutes. Was my writing exceptional? No, but it served well enough. I chose to spend my time on the material most difficult to understand.

I'm now on engineering job #3. The first two jobs had major disincentives to creating good technical writing.

Job #1: I worked for the US federal government as an aircraft instrumentation engineer. I was assigned to manage 5 to 7 small projects at a time. Overtime was not authorized (though to management's credit, they also didn't want people working unpaid overtime, either). So with only 40 hours in a week to get things done, there was little time to write an elegant summary of my work on a project. And any projects that were close to completion were cancelled. No one really read the summaries that were written, anyway.

Job #2: I worked for a NASA contractor as a telemetry engineer. The company was so understaffed and overworked that there was zero time to do anything except crank out more missions and write contractually obligated reports. After writing my first report and looking at other reports, I saw a lot of commonality, so I wrote a few scripts and macros to automatically process data and piece a report together from pre-baked snippets of text. This made for writing that satisfied requirements but was not very elegant. No one read these massive piles of paper, either, they were just marked as "RECEIVED" by NASA so that we could get paid for completing them. Heaps of scorn were also piled upon me for daring to script away the report writing process.

Of course, this is all my own experience, YMMV.
posted by orangewired at 9:02 AM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

The problem arises when the same experts, like the biologist in the TFA, can't shift gears and explain things to non-experts.

Given that Pinker is at Harvard, the talk was about DNA, and the expert was inclined to be annoyed rather than apologetic or reflective, I think we might guess that the expert in question was James Watson, which might point us toward other -- shall we say less charitable? -- explanations for the obscurity of the presentation.
posted by jamjam at 9:43 AM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

/rELI5 on Reddit - Explain it Like I'm 5 is a good group of people.

Mrs. Pterodactyl - teaching reading IS hard, but if you look closely you can find individual skills to teach. For example, predicting what the main character might do next, visualizing an important part, re-reading to check understanding, analyzing secondary characters, identifying character traits and changes in his/her worldview, determining the likely historical setting, locating quotes that resonate with bigger literary themes, etc.

And folks, this is just part of what America's kids learn Kinder up to 5th grade (my specialty). It's no cake walk these days. Coloring - gone. Recess - gone. Extracurriculars like art and music - much less. Technology - well, THE TEST uses technology, so ...
posted by beckybakeroo at 10:05 AM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

We have clients at work who consider me so beyond their understanding that they now exclude me from phone calls negotiating the actual technical details of their project. They require that a non-technical person on our team interpret for them. Talking to people who don't have a technical background, or who have less of one than I have*, is always a negotiation where I try to figure out how well they understand the ground rules and attempt to fill in the details, but it always seems to get to an equivalent moment to Ralph Wiggum's "Miss Hoover? Can I be excused? My brain is full."

* My college majors, in order: Architecture, English, Music. I never got a degree. Now I write code.

What I find fascinating (and frustrating) about this is that all I'm doing is taking the business rules they have specified one at a time and turning them into code. They really seem to have a mental block somewhere between "this is a single rule" and "this is how all these rules actually fit together." So they understand each rule in isolation, but if those rules compound or contradict each other, look out.

So yes, there's a Curse of Knowledge, but I want to know what causes the mental block on the other end.
posted by fedward at 11:29 AM on July 4, 2015

dorque, that's a really interesting point. One of my favorite classes had a prof who would go through examples on the board, and would sometimes get stuck, or mess up and then correct himself, and I learned a lot more in that class than I did in much slicker environments. But I think probably dosage is key here: a little bit of choppiness forces you to pay closer attention and engages you more, and gives you opportunities to watch an expert reason through something; but if you go far beyond that you're just going to frustrate people into giving up. And probably where to optimally draw the line depends to some extent on the individual student.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:49 AM on July 4, 2015

I'm not a fan of the "curse of knowledge" framing, but the ideas of understanding audience, purpose, and context and revising based on feedback are all sound, foundational elements of a good writing process. Such skills are promoted by professional organizations that study the teaching of writing: NCTE's CCCC & the online technical writing communities of TechWhirl (the TECHWR-L listserv briefly discussed Pinker's essay).
posted by audi alteram partem at 12:23 PM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

> What if complex subjects are just not possible to communicate simply?

This isn't about communicating simply, but well. I think people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Feynman have proven it's possible to communicate well about complex subjects, and sometimes simplification is part of that.
posted by cardioid at 8:45 PM on July 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Technical subjects are typically too complex to be put in words, and too complicated to be easily simplified, not impossible but very hard. It comes down to the fact that not all recipients are on the same technical level when it comes to the understanding of science or being familiar with technical terminology. I noticed that when I write a technical manual to be read by engineers, explaining how calculations were done and why a certain plot looks the way it does, or detailing certain aspects of the design we're working on, then the manual would look incomprehensible for those who are not really involved in the project, a certain technical common ground would be generally required, but when writing an operation manual for the lab technician, the lines would be short and clear, and they only contain operational instructions like "pressure shouldn't exceed XXX psi" without explaining why it shouldn't. An assumption has been made on the technical level of the recipient, and on how interested in more details the recipient is. In case of conference presentations it is always important to know the technical level of the attendees in order to keep the technical content/terminology within "allowable" limits.
Another issue is the " English" condition, most technical writings nowadays are published in english, and in a multi-nationality companies like mine, english would be the communication language, So not being a native english speaker makes it even harder to elaborate on a technical subject, and more difficult for recipient to understand what was meant to say.
posted by The Wanderer at 11:30 PM on July 5, 2015

Apologies for the typing mistakes ( at least the ones I could spot :-P)

*In multi-nationality companies
*Difficult for recipients
posted by The Wanderer at 1:01 PM on July 6, 2015

I have made a healthy living for decades because I can take what engineers and scientists tell me, and create from it a document that anyone can understand. I have written more white papers than I can count, many of which have been presented at symposiums around the world in fields as varied as neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and supercomputer maintenance. I have written over 2 million words on supercomputers alone...which is something I pull out when people ask why I'm not writing more fiction. I've written more words than most novelists, by far...they've just only been read by like 20 people. Heh.

I may not have the knowledge to be a scientist in those fields, but I understand how to communicate, and how to ask questions. The first question I ask is "Who is the target audience?" Number 2 is "What is their familiarity with this knowledge area?" That said; technical communicators are a ridiculously undervalued worker set. Everyone thinks they can write, and write well, and write effectively. That just isn't true.

I recently had a company ask me to bid on a project for them, and when I came back with the bid they were all "Oh, we thought you could do this for $X an hour", where X was 1/3 of my lowest bill rate and when I said "Oh, goodness, I made twice that fresh out of college in the 80s, I certainly wouldn't consider taking a job at that rate now." What I didn't say out loud was; "That rate says that you buy the lowest bidder on odesk or upwork or whatever they call themselves now. Listen, if you want someone willing to work for minimum wage, get yourself an intern. If you want someone who manages global communication strategies, then I'm your woman. But not at that absurd rate. You've got to be kidding."

Point is, there are lots and lots of talented writers who could be fantastic technical communicators. But tech writers are the red-headed stepchildren of the IT universe, so nobody wants to do it.
posted by dejah420 at 5:37 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

forbidding them from reading bullet points off of their PowerPoint slides

I love you and wish to bring you gifts of fine wines and tales of adventure.

Even better, once they get used to it, they're fine! They are smart people, they know their subjects, they know the project in question, and they don't actually need the bullet points. I like working with engineers, and honestly they treat me fairly respectfully even though I'm not a tech person (which I did not expect). I ask lots of dumb questions when complex concepts are on the table, not because I think I will actually understand how a wastewater treatment plant works but because I'm trying to figure out their story. What do they want the client to take away...that we know this type of plant better than anyone? That we have a new idea for it that will save them money? That we did the plant down the road and no one else has that systemic knowledge? I keep stumping them until they can see what outline we're going towards, and then it all comes together. Then I mostly just find pretty images for their slides and make sure the fonts look ok.

Some fight me pretty hard, though! Lots of them worry that without the bullets on the slides AND a handout AND them stating the same points, the client won't get it. And they are often hostile to the idea that we're selling a sense of security and know-how, not really just our technical expertise--all the competitors tend to have that covered, honestly. We often have to sell ourselves as experts who are also more trustworthy, smarter, and easier to work with. This makes them uncomfortable. But that's what clients are looking for.
posted by emjaybee at 6:31 PM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

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