Sign in to follow this  
Michael Stuart Kelly

Pinker on Academic Writing Stinks

Recommended Posts

Pinker on Academic Writing Stinks

I don't have time to write in depth about this right now, but the following article is fantastic:

Why Academics Stink at Writing

By Steven Pinker

September 26, 2014

The Chronicle of Higher Education -- The Chronicle Review

Some of the concepts Pinker talks about wed nicely to Rand's theory of concepts in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The technical terms are different, but the concepts are similar.

To be honest, I found Pinker's explanation of metaconcepts (concepts about concepts) easier to understand and more practical than Rand's, but that might be because I have been thinking about this stuff for a while, whereas when I read ITOE (the several times I did) I was still wading through murky waters as a newbie.

Also, Pinker has some brilliant ideas about how to improve nonfiction writing by highlighting pitfalls in academic style. If you use Rand's method of layered editing (although she is not the only one who does this), you can put the following items on a layer checklist (or add them to existing layers), and you will vastly improve your article during editing: metadiscourse, professional narcissism, apologizing for the difficulty of the topic, shudder quotes, hedging (sometimes called weasel words), metaconcepts and nominalizations (this last colorfully called "zombie nouns"), and on a broader bird's eye view level, curse of knowledge, functional fixity and chunking.

If you don't know what some of these things are, read the article.

Maybe later I will go into layered editing. This is extremely important and it is based on what Rand called "crow epistemology" but others call prefrontal neocortex limitations.

If you want to improve your writing, once again, read the article. It's easy to use it as a checklist of things to practice. For example, one day focus on metadiscourse, write a few examples and learn how to recognize it, then try to figure out how to blast that sucker to smithereens in your writing. Then go onto the next. And the next and so on until you have gone through all of the items.

In fact, that is exactly what I intend to do.

Michael

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I haven't read the article yet, but I have this to say about the subject head: Academics are trained to write badly. In most disciplines, by the time an academic gets a doctorate, any ability the candidate had to write clear prose has been contorted out of him/her.

Pinker is an exception - but he writes for the popular market.

Ellen

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ellen,

Here's an interesting observation I got from a lecture I listened to on literary style (I think it was about mystery stories from Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle). I will have to dig to remember the name of the lecturer, though.

He said Britain's Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (or simply, Royal Society), which has fostered the academic style over centuries, started out at a time when people could be jailed and/or executed for heresy. So scientists quickly learned the CYA benefits of the passive voice, weasel words, etc. They needed to distance themselves as persons from the potentially heretical topics they were writing about and give their words multiple forms of interpretation. The price for owning a position contrary to the clergy was not pleasant.

I'm sure the history is more complex than that, but I bet you CYA is one of the main reasons this lousy form of writing has persisted for as long as it has. I excuse it in ancient times. After all, who wants to die before their time? :) But today there is no excuse I can see except for losing out on government money.

And maybe this. Primates learn mostly by imitation and habits are formed by repetition. So most academics have been good little lab monkeys when they learned how to write. :)

Michael

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Michael,

Interesting. Newton was one who had to be careful in getting and keeping his position at Trinity, since he didn't subscribe to the Trinitarian doctrine. Also, he wrote a lot of stuff on alchemy, and alchemical writing in general used convoluted disguises.

Ellen

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Pinker on Academic Writing Stinks

I don't have time to write in depth about this right now, but the following article is fantastic:

Why Academics Stink at Writing

By Steven Pinker

September 26, 2014

The Chronicle of Higher Education -- The Chronicle Review

Some of the concepts Pinker talks about wed nicely to Rand's theory of concepts in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The technical terms are different, but the concepts are similar.

To be honest, I found Pinker's explanation of metaconcepts (concepts about concepts) easier to understand and more practical than Rand's, but that might be because I have been thinking about this stuff for a while, whereas when I read ITOE (the several times I did) I was still wading through murky waters as a newbie.

Also, Pinker has some brilliant ideas about how to improve nonfiction writing by highlighting pitfalls in academic style. If you use Rand's method of layered editing (although she is not the only one who does this), you can put the following items on a layer checklist (or add them to existing layers), and you will vastly improve your article during editing: metadiscourse, professional narcissism, apologizing for the difficulty of the topic, shudder quotes, hedging (sometimes called weasel words), metaconcepts and nominalizations (this last colorfully called "zombie nouns"), and on a broader bird's eye view level, curse of knowledge, functional fixity and chunking.

If you don't know what some of these things are, read the article.

Maybe later I will go into layered editing. This is extremely important and it is based on what Rand called "crow epistemology" but others call prefrontal neocortex limitations.

If you want to improve your writing, once again, read the article. It's easy to use it as a checklist of things to practice. For example, one day focus on metadiscourse, write a few examples and learn how to recognize it, then try to figure out how to blast that sucker to smithereens in your writing. Then go onto the next. And the next and so on until you have gone through all of the items.

In fact, that is exactly what I intend to do.

Michael

Alan Sokal used the style to pull of a famous hoax on the post-modernists.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

See: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/weinberg.html

and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
Sign in to follow this