Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Why is Academic Writing so Bad?

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In his recent article “Why Academic Writing Stinks”, Steven Pinker highlights many examples of bad academic writing. He argues that academic writing is mostly bad because writing well is hard, writing well about academic subjects especially so.
Pinker mostly discounts the idea that bad writing is a deliberate choice by individual writers made in order to “dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.” Pinker admits that this happens occasionally, and is ironically especially common among professors of English.

While I think most of Pinker’s article is great, I want to push back against his complete dismissal of the idea that “that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness”. Pinker calls this a “myth”, but I have first-hand experience that it happens.

I have repeatedly been told by referees that my writing style is “too casual”. It’s not totally clear what they mean, but I (perhaps self-servingly) take them to be complaining about the very things that Pinker, and other well-regarded academic writers like Dierdre McCloskey, insist are part of good style: not using big words when small ones will do, avoiding jargon when possible, using the first person and active voice- “We run a fixed-effects regression”- instead of the third person and passive voice- “the approach of this paper is to run a regression, utilizing fixed effects.”

I try to explain my work in a way that will be relatively accessible to non-specialists; at the very least I would like economists outside of my field to be able to understand my papers. But referees often ask for such explanations to be cut. Contra Pinker, I think this is exactly meant to “prove my seriousness”- including too many explanations for people who aren’t in my sub-sub-field leads to referees saying that a paper “reads like a grad-student paper”.

Once a referee asked me to cut a paragraph explaining why I used a certain technique because “everyone knows about that”. Clearly not everyone does- at best every applied microeconomist does, though even this was doubtful since the first paper on it had been published only 8 years earlier. I think what they meant was that that anyone who would read this paper should already know about it. But that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy- if you make your papers unreadable to 99.99% of the world, not many people will read them.

So while I somewhat disagree with Pinker, I hope every academic will read his article. I don’t think this will help much. I agree with Pinker that academic writing in general is likely to stay bad- the cost of writing well is putting in hard work to do so, and the benefits to most academics of improving their writing is low. But if more people understood how bad standard academic writing is, they could at least refrain from spending time and effort pushing others to conform to academic writing norms.

PS- Did you know that Dierdre McCloskey’s Economical Writing is available online for free? Highly recommended to anyone who writes in a technical field, or anyone who could believe that a book with the title Economical Writing is actually pretty hilarious.

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Written by James Bailey

September 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Thinking, Fast and Slow

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Daniel Kahneman’s new book amazes me. Not so much due to the content, though I’m sure that will blow your mind if you haven’t previously heard about it through studying behavioral economics or psychology or reading Less Wrong. It is the writing style: Kahneman is able to convey his message succinctly while making it seem intuitive and fascinating. Some academics can write tolerably well, but Kahneman seems to be on a level with those who write popularly with a living- the style of a Jonah Lehrer or Malcolm Gladwell, but no one can accuse the Nobel-prize-winning Kahneman of lacking substance.
This made me wonder if it is simply an unfair coincidence that Kahneman is great at both writing and research, or causation is at work here. True, in more abstract and mathematical fields great researchers do not seem especially likely to be great writers (Feynman aside). But to design and carry out great psychology experiments may require understanding the subject intuitively and through introspection. This kind of understanding- an intuitive understanding of everyday decision-making- may be naturally easier to share than other kinds of scientific knowledge, which use processes (say, math) or examine territories (say, subatomic particles) which are unfamiliar to most people. Kahneman says that he developed the ideas for most of his papers by talking with Amos Tversky on long walks. I suspect that this strategy leads to both good idea generation and a good, conversational writing style.

Written by James Bailey

April 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm