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.…