August 17, 2023
Academics, especially scientists, tend not to make statements they can’t back up with reams of documentation and sheaves of evidence. In these times of alternative facts, that’s something we should all value.
However, in conversation, most scholars can toss off explanations—while perhaps muttering excuses about “hand-waving” and “spitballing”—to give a big-picture account so the listener, who may not share their expertise, can follow a larger argument or understand an important point. Oral presentations, whether over beer or from a lectern, allow for more generalization.
It’s essential to get things right and to credit information and ideas that are not yours. But it’s also important to recognize that there are levels of accuracy. Decades ago, when I read Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation, I noticed that the autistic author with a Ph.D. in animal behavior would write things like “cows hate yellow” or “white animals are crazy.” She avoided the tendency to hedge and qualify.
Most academics would not be so brave as to make those kinds of assertions. In fact, in peer-reviewed journals, monographs and even writing they hope will reach a bigger readership, they are often unable to write a simple declarative sentence without qualification. But striving for pinpoint accuracy about their particular area of expertise can create big problems when writing for people beyond a specialized niche. By providing explanations that are too detailed, they lose the reader, who does not give a single hoot about the internecine quarrels in the field.
An academic physician friend who is usually careful in his explanations (sometimes to the point of exasperating his listener—me—with unnecessary details), described what he said was the best lecture of his life. Accustomed to doing continuing medical education presentations to doctors who were familiar with jargon and current practices, he had to give a talk to some visiting physicians. From China. Who barely spoke English. He found that instead of taking his usual approach, he had to think hard about his most important points, explain them as simply as possible and avoid anything that would unnecessarily complicate the main message.
This lesson helped with my own writing and in working with academics on theirs. Clear and simple does not mean dumbed down. And there are always levels of accuracy.
Think about how you would approach a topic—nonlinear dynamics, the Haitian revolution, macroeconomics, Paradise Lost—in a graduate seminar. There would be much, at that…