Popular (ist) writing

Every now and I then I read some piece written to explain my (or related) fields in non-technical ways. The best people—think Milton Friedman in economics—explain the basic ideas in clear, simple, logical, and believable ways. The worst (who I just read, and won’t cite, but it’s laughably bad) write long, eloquent passages with beautiful metaphors. But I can never tell what they are talking about; the ideas are so confusing as to be useless to me. There is no simple, testable structure to what they are writing. It is written to impress, be vaguely scientific sounding, and to make the reader feel like an idiot, so that the reader will have to argree by authority.

It’s like listening to your crazy uncle who reads ‘deep’ books trying to explain the ideas to you. And telling you that you are not deep enough when you try to get to the bottom of what he is telling you. Or listening to the conspiracy theorists, but written much better.  Or to the people in graduate school who have a grand theory of everything, that will prove the current paradigm is wrong.  (I know, not all of them are like that, but I wasted so much time in grad school trying to understand these deep guys who never finished a coherent paper in their lives because the system was out to get them, man.)


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2 responses to “Popular (ist) writing

  1. On the other hand, a while ago I had an article rejected, and the reviewer said that it was well written, which only served to demonstrate that my argument was simplistic. He/she is probably the type of person who wrote the thing you’re referring to!

  2. Yup, been there, too.

    It’s actually an argument I sometimes get into with a co-author good and friend. He believes in the write clearly point, but just because it’s the right thing to do, not becuase you are immune to all the other reviewing issues. Me too, and I even use confusing writing to reject manuscript–even if I could figure the arguments-or what I think might be good arguments in the paper with creative reading. I then get upset with the flowery stuff, thinking how unfair it all is. My friend just points out that muddled elaborate writing shows confused thinking—and so what if they get some short term gain by getting their papers into print perhaps with higher probablity than the ideas deserve.

    There is a payoff to being viewed as practitioner of the magic in your papers—fancy words, elaborate notation, and so on; they make you seem more scientific. But those magic peoples’ papers seem to end up unread in the longer run.

    In my own experiences, the easier papers to publish were the best written at submission in terms of clarity. The confused ones left too many confusing things to attack.

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