Steven Pinker is a Harvard psychologist who has spent the last few years studying language and morality. You may recognize his curly grey locks from his 2007 TED talk on the international violence rate: “The surprising decline of violence.”
In a new column posted to the Chronicle of Higher Education this week—just in time to drive traffic to his latest book—Pinker turns to academic writing. Why, he asks, is scholarly writing so dense, what are the philosophies that encourage complexity, opaqueness, directness, and clarity, and how does the academic profession discourage its members from learning “good writing”?
Pinker doesn’t quite justify his philosophy of “good writing” in the Chronicle article; maybe he does in the book. Instead, he argues for good writing’s practical impact: good writing is “good” when it helps readers to understand: when it is direct and descriptive rather than self-conscious, full of hedges and vague qualifiers, or self-referential.
Pinker also explains why experts may be great at thinking and combining ideas but weak at writing those thoughts for others to read and learn from:
Scholars lose their moorings in the land of the concrete because of two effects of expertise that have been documented by cognitive psychology. One is called chunking. To work around the limitations of short-term memory, the mind can package ideas into bigger and bigger units, which the psychologist George Miller dubbed “chunks.” As we read and learn, we master a vast number of abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit that we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name. An adult mind that is brimming with chunks is a powerful engine of reason, but it comes at a cost: a failure to communicate with other minds that have not mastered the same chunks. —Steven Pinker, “Why Academic Writing Stinks,” The Chronicle
The second expertise effect Pinker mentions is functional fixedness (his term is “functional fixity”). Functional fixedness is the tunnel vision created by over-identifying with what we use a tool or concept for and so not seeing its other possible uses: seeing a hammer only as a tool for pounding nails, not as a possible doorstop, or weapon, or ice-breaker, or…
Combined, chunking and functional fixedness create the challenge of communicating across knowledge and experience gaps that I tried to explain in my recent post about incommensurability. Experts and lay people are “worlds apart” because knowledge separates them at the level of thought as well as socially and by worldview.
Progress can start with being aware of the gap and understanding that it’s a fact of cognition, not a malicious expert plot to hide what They/We know from the People. Pinker’s assumption is that this communication gap can in fact be bridged—and that’s good news for all of us who’ve learned a little bit about anything (i.e. gone to grad school!) yet struggled to explain it to those who haven’t already learned what we have. It’s also great news for all of us beginning to learn about complex issues from faith and sexuality or the tangled threads of rhetoric and science in climate change.
Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, is already a top-seller on Amazon after only a few days after its official release. Consider yourself a “thinking person” regardless of whether you agree with his ideas, and get yourself a copy.