On a snowy, windy evening the day after the election, author Steven Pinker told a packed audience at Sever Hall exactly what’s wrong with so much academic writing: It’s filled with abstract language, clunky transitions, clichés, “zombie nouns,” and “compulsive hedging,” signified by words like “somewhat, comparatively, and to a certain degree.”In Wednesday’s hourlong talk, “The Sense of Style: Writing Instruction for the 21st Century,” part of the “Harvard Writers at Work Lecture Series,” Pinker also bemoaned the tendency of academics to “write down” to their readers, using what he called “motherese,” the grating, I-know-best tone that a mother might use to explain something to a 6-year-old.“You don’t need abstract language simply because the concept is difficult,” Pinker said, citing best-selling science writers like Richard Dawkins, who’ve succeeded in making complex ideas such as evolution accessible to lay readers. (The modest Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and “The Language Instinct,” could have easily cited himself.)Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and Harvard College Professor, blamed the problem of excessive hedging on a perceived need by academics to “CYA,” which he gently translated as “cover your anatomy,” to the audience’s chuckles. The remedy? “You can count on the common sense of readers to fill in the missing hedges and apologies.”Why is it so difficult to write well? Pinker described the primary culprit as “the curse of knowledge,” which he defined as “the failure to understand that other people don’t know what we know.”While exploring an array of writing “don’ts,” Pinker also debunked some classic writing advice from Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” He described the popular style guide as “often baffling,” as when it assaults the verb “to contact” as “vague and self-important.” Pinker defended the verb as perfectly acceptable in the age of email and social media. He also pointed out several of Strunk and White’s “self-contradictions” and “inept guidance,” as when they attack the passive voice. “The passive voice is usually a better construction” than the active voice, said Pinker, “when the affected entity ought to come earlier [in the sentence] or when the agent of the action is irrelevant.” It has its place, Pinker said. “Otherwise, why would it exist?”Pinker believes “we can [write] better today, by using the science of language” to understand how to better engage readers. He advocated a “classic style” that puts the needs of readers first, with “the goal to help the reader see reality” through a more concrete and “conversational style.” In the classic style, Pinker explained, “the writer points to things in the world the reader can see,” rather than building abstraction atop abstraction. The writer has, most of all, “an obligation to see through the [written] words to see what they represent.” If writers don’t understand their deeper meaning, readers have no chance.Why is it so difficult to write well? Pinker described the primary culprit as “the curse of knowledge,” which he defined as “the failure to understand that other people don’t know what we know.” Pinker recommended a few methods to “exorcise” this curse, including “remember it as a handicap to overcome” and “show a draft [of your writing] to a representative reader” to see if it’s comprehensible. If it’s not, revise for clarity.Pinker made a final suggestion to those seeking to improve their writing. Take a piece of writing (a book, an article, etc.) that you deem exemplary and “re-engineer it,” meticulously examining its component parts in order to understand exactly how the writer constructed it. Writing is an all-important skill, said Pinker, one “many people consider the signature accomplishment of a university education,” and we can do it better.Responses from the audience were enthusiastic. Harvard freshman proctor Josh Bookin described Pinker’s talk as “a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at why and how we write.” Harvard freshman Tyler Jankauskas appreciated both Pinker’s primary focus on readers and how “he reinforced the need for writers to be concise and clear.” Jankauskas particularly appreciated Pinker’s recommendation to resist “using highfaluting language” simply to impress others. Harvard senior Chenglin Yuan echoed the sentiment, saying, “I liked Pinker’s idea of approaching writing as a way to help the reader. Many people seem to write for themselves, not with readers in mind.”If Strunk and White have earned legendary status for their classic commands (“omit needless words”; “place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end”), Pinker has added a few more, updated for the 21st century, urging writers to work tirelessly against “the curse of knowledge” and to avoid the sort of excessive abstraction that causes readers to scratch their heads.
The internet once promised to be the great equalizer. Technology would democratize access to information and remove barriers between people who wished to connect and share ideas, snatching power from a cluster of institutions that had controlled access, such as government and media, and giving it to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. Yet an unfortunate and largely unintended consequence of the rise of social media is that instead of being better informed and exposed to ever-broadening viewpoints, research shows that Americans today are more polarized and draw from shrinking pools of news. Many people now operate in virtual gated communities as a result of their culled Facebook and Twitter feeds and the opaque corporate algorithms that organize people into invisible groups.In a new book, “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media,” Harvard Law School’s Cass R. Sunstein argues that social media curation dramatically limits exposure to views and information that don’t align with already-established beliefs, which makes it harder and harder to find an essential component of democracy — common ground. In an email exchange, Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, talked about how America needs to restore “serendipity” online and bring back the conditions necessary for a healthy democracy in the digital era.GAZETTE: We’re becoming more isolated from a diversity of opinions and information and more closely connected to a homogenous cohort. How did this happen, and was it anticipated?SUNSTEIN: A lot of people love reading things that fortify and confirm their own opinions — and, by definition, people like reading about topics that interest them. So, freedom of choice can produce self-sorting, in which people enter echo chambers or information cocoons. Each of us can create and live in a “Daily Me.” That was not widely anticipated. I wouldn’t say that we are now more isolated from diversity; there’s a lot of diversity out there, in terms of how isolated people are from diversity. But many people do like to isolate themselves, and that’s a big problem.GAZETTE: It’s natural for people to want to avoid things they find irritating or even offensive, and yet you argue that curating your information diet to only reflect what you prefer is damaging. What are some of the actions or seemingly reasonable choices people are making that harm them individually? And while it’s certainly not good intellectually, how does the fragmentation or compartmentalization of news/information undermine democracy?SUNSTEIN: The biggest issue is simple. It’s group polarization, which means that if you listen to people like you, you’ll probably get more extreme and more confident too. If Republicans talk or listen to each other, they’ll probably become more extreme, and the same is true for Democrats. We’ve seen plenty of that, and we’re going to see more. By the way, it happens on university campuses on both the left and the right, and we should worry about both. (I worked in the Obama administration, and I am worried that the left might go nuts in coming years.) In Washington, group polarization makes sensible compromises more difficult and also makes it much harder for people to learn from each other. Some issues — consider increases in the minimum wage — are pretty complicated, and mutual learning is indispensable.GAZETTE: What are some of the “preconditions for maintaining a republic?”SUNSTEIN: A capacity to listen, a commitment to reason, a belief in the good faith of (most) people who disagree with you, a desire to participate, love of country, a concern for the direction in which your country is moving. (Also, a sense of humor, and probably an appreciation of music too.)GAZETTE: You call for an “architecture of serendipity.” What do you mean, why is that important, and what are some of the obstacles or incentives that might hinder its construction?SUNSTEIN: It’s great if you come across ideas and topics that you didn’t specifically select. That can change your day and even your life. A great city exposes you to all sorts of people and ways of life, serendipitously. A great university does the same. So does a well-functioning information market. Serendipity is crucial because it expands your horizons. You need that if you want to be free.GAZETTE: How can that happen amid the growing prevalence of “fake news,” including a misinformation campaign apparently mounted by the Russians during the 2016 election, and other targeted efforts to bombard users with propaganda in order to drown out legitimate voices and news sources?SUNSTEIN: We need to go on several different paths, and at the same time. Serendipity can be promoted by platforms (technology types are already on this), and fake news can be combated by reality checks. Facebook is interested in the latter. I would also emphasize that a sensible government needs to allow people who know what they’re doing to apply their expertise (for example, to reduce deaths on the highway), whatever the background noise from Facebook or Twitter.GAZETTE: So what can be done to rectify the compartmentalization? And do platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others have an obligation to adjust and be more transparent about how they’re selecting what information we see? Is Facebook’s new “disputed” tag to alert readers to fake news an adequate fix?SUNSTEIN: For that one, you’re going to have to read the book.
RelatedPosts Runarsson joins Arsenal on four-year deal EPL: Foxes attack Burnley EPL: Gunners gun for West Ham scalp Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy scored twice as they returned to winning ways with a 4-0 drubbing of English Premier League strugglers Aston Villa at the King Power Stadium on Monday. Leicester’s goal-machine Vardy had not found the net since December 21 but he ended his long scoring drought with two goals after coming off the bench. He converted a penalty kick just past the hour to double Leicester’s lead shortly after replacing Kelechi Iheanacho, and after Harvey Barnes had opened the scoring before half-time. Vardy struck again after 79 minutes to take his league tally to 19 for the season before Barnes claimed his second to make it a miserable night for Leicester’s Midlands rivals Aston Villa. It was the Foxes first win in five league games, ending a slump that had put their top-four place in peril. Third-placed Leicester City began the night only five points above fifth-placed Manchester United but the victory means they have re-established a healthy gap. Leicester City have 53 points from 29 games, Chelsea have 48 and Manchester United 45. All have nine games remaining. Dean Smith’s Aston Villa remain second from bottom, two points below the safety line with 25 points and a game in hand. Reuters/NAN.Tags: Aston VillaEnglish Premier LeagueJamie VardyKelechi IheanachoLeicester City