My first exposure to real writing advice was Deirdre McCloskey’s “Economical Writing“, which is excellent. Recently I’ve been reading “Clear and Simple as the Truth“, which is about a style of writing called Classic Prose. The authors hold that a style of writing is determined by an author’s stance on fundamental questions such as the purpose of writing, who the reader is, the nature of the subject matter, and the author’s stance on the nature of truth and knowledge.
The Purpose of Writing
The purpose of writing is communication. The writer should have clear idea before writing begins of what information or thoughts they want to impart to their audience before putting fingers to keyboard. I write to help my readers understand the world. What matters for social scientists is not the Truth, but rather what is useful. No economic models are purely true, just as no maps are perfectly accurate. Mental models can be highly useful in explaining events and making conditional predictions. All writers have a bias, even if it a subconscious one. I do my best to be fair to my those who disagree with me and present my knowledge in as direct a manner as possible.
Time is Valuable
Every unnecessary moment the reader spends puzzling out the meaning of a sentence is time wasted. Easy reading is hard writing. Omitting needless words is effortful, but because there are many readers for each author, it is worthwhile. Unclear writing is a sign that either the author doesn’t expect to have a large audience or that their audience’s time is not valuable. Neither option is flattering.
I disagree with those who claim clarity is a matter of style. Disorganized sentences show lack of both skill and effort. If you can’t explain a concept to an intelligent non-specialist, it’s probably nonsense. The number of deep truths in the world that are legitimately hard to understand when simplified down to the purest essentials are few and far between, and I’ve never encountered one in the field of economics. Blaming the audience for not understanding or the subject matter for being complicated are poor excuses of weak writers.
I either target the intelligent non-economist or a particular economist I’m writing to. The more people you try to imagine as your audience, the worse your writing gets. Writers often try to signal to certain audiences that they are members of a particular group, and appease critics they know they will have. But each caveat and hedge distracts the core audience from the message. Any side tracking must be carefully weighed against the cost of distraction. In the internet age, critics can be debated in the comments section and citations can be hyperlinked.
Limitations of the Written Word
In the mind, thoughts and ideas link to one another in a gigantic web of associative memory. Each thought relates and reinforces others. Economic explanations frequently require that the economist hold several ideas in their head at once and apply them to the problem at hand.
Writing, on the other hand, is by its very nature linear. Teaching requires that the student get a foothold on some basic knowledge before the student progresses to more complex ideas. By grasping at complex ideas, the student learns the basics more thoroughly. A student never fully understands an idea until they use that idea to solve a brand new problem. The author must sort through and organize their thoughts in order to cope with the inherent disorder of the mind. Because of the organizational process, writing itself is one of the best ways to learn a subject for yourself. As the saying goes, writing is thinking.
Suppose I am driving down a long road. I tell my passengers that I intend to keep the car in the center of the lane. Suddenly, there is a curve in the road. I turn the steering wheel and the car remains in the center of the lane. One of my passengers says “If it hadn’t been for that curve, you would have driven into a ditch on the side of the road”. To quote Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, “Well, if you’ll excuse me saying so, sir, that would be, to my way of thinking, rather… well, rather an odd way of looking at it.” It is technically true that given the steering wheel’s movements, without the curve the car would have driven off the road. But that’s ignoring the intentionality of the driver.
If one variable is being held steady by a purposeful actor, there will be no correlation with any other variable. You can’t get a correlation out of a straight line. Furthermore, if a variable was once following a random walk and then becomes a straight line, that seems to me evidence for purposeful control.
Scientific journals have a bias toward positive results and are hesitant to publish replications. To anyone familiar with the scientific method, that is a major problem, as science requires unbiased and repeated tests to verify results. Therefore, I propose the following reform for evidence based scientific papers:
1.) Papers are accepted or rejected before the data are collected. The scientists submit their abstract, data collection methods and the tests they will run. Ideally, the paper will be accepted before the data itself is even collected so that the researchers themselves are unbiased. Failing that, at the minimum, journal editors will not be able to select for studies which agree with their ideological biases, because they won’t know the results until it is too late to reject.
2.) Immediately upon accepting a paper, the journal releases the paper for other scientists to verify. Anyone who wanted to could begin running the paper with their own data and try to pre-replicate the study. At this point, they would know the methods, but not the “original result”. Thus, replicators would not be biased in either direction. The more common bias would be to confirm the original study, because the researchers typically do not want to rock the scientific boat and offend the original researchers. Conversely, ideologically opposed groups might want to counter the conclusions of the original researchers for the notoriety of contradicting their opponents.
3.) Both papers would be published simultaneously regardless of their outcomes. The original paper’s authors would get access to both datasets and research notes so they could reconcile any differences. Perhaps the discrepancy would be a difference in testing or in data sampling and seemingly contradictory results could be reconciled.
4.) All data and methods would be published for independent re-replication. Scientists who did not publish their data and methods would be treated as frauds and shunned (as they should be!).
The way journals are run today is shocking. That so called scientists could refuse to publish their data and not face widespread condemnation/dismissal is mind boggling to me. That’s pretty much explicitly saying you falsified it, or you have something to hide. That journals can reject a paper just because it disagrees with their biases is likewise troublesome. To quote one of my favorite philosophers, “You don’t use science to show that you’re right, you use science to become right.”