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Steven Pinker on writing: Where I agree and where I disagree

Linguist and public intellectual Steven Pinker recently published an article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing.” That’s a topic that interests me! Like Pinker, I’ve done a lot of writing, both for technical and general audiences. Unlike Pinker, I have not done research on linguistics, but I’ll do my best to comment based on my own experiences.

Pinker begins as follows:

Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American professoriate may be the prose style called academese. . . . No honest professor can deny that there’s something to the stereotype. . . . But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

I’ll return at the end to the bit about “having a foreign policy”—this is the sort of laugh line that I think works better in a live speech than in a written article—but first I will discuss the ways in which I agree with Pinker’s claim that academic writing is difficult, and how I disagree with his explanations.

Where I agree

Pinker puts it well when he writes:

Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice. The naïve realism and breezy conversation in classic style are deceptive, an artifice constructed through effort and skill.

Writing is non-algorithmic. Just about every sentence I write, I need to reconfigure for the purpose of increasing clarity.

And, yes, I realize that the previous sentence is ugly; that’s actually part of my point, that when we put in the effort to make our sentences clearer, they can get ugly, and the sentences’ ugliness then gets in the way of understanding.

That’s part of what makes writing non-algorithmic: even when we know what we want to say, it can take lots of iterations to get there.

And I agree with Pinker that the lack of good feedback is a problem. Academics, like most other people, don’t get a lot of direct or indirect comments on their writing style, so they don’t learn well what has worked and what has not worked or how to do better.

Where I disagree

OK, so you all know about Sturgeon’s law (see above image).

To put it in the context of Pinker’s article: Why do academics stink at writing? Why does almost everybody stink at writing? Writing is hard.

Pinker writes:

But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

And also this:

A third explanation shifts the blame to entrenched authority. People often tell me 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. This has not been my experience, and it turns out to be a myth. In Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), Helen Sword masochistically analyzed the literary style in a sample of 500 scholarly articles and found that a healthy minority in every field were written with grace and verve.

The above seems completely consistent with the notion that it’s difficult to write well, that academics, just like other people, would like to write well but they don’t really know how.

Partly because the path to writing well is not so clear. If it were clear, we’d all have learned to write well, back in high school.

Also there’s the problem with feedback, as discussed above.

Why is academic writing so bad, and why is this such a surprise to Pinker?

In short, I think most academic writing is bad for the same reason that most writing is bad: because writing is hard. It’s difficult to write clearly, it takes effort and it takes practice, and, on top of all that, many people don’t see the path from bad writing to good writing.

But many people have to write, as part of their job. I don’t mean this cynically, in a “publish or perish” sort of way. I mean that if you do research scholarship, you want to convey this to others, and writing is the most direct way to do this. (Maybe at some point we’ll shift to papers being delivered as Youtube mini-lectures, but we’re not there yet.)

So, to me, the problem is simple. Writing is hard, it’s hard to learn and it’s hard to teach, but lots of people use writing to express their ideas. Academics are expected to write well but they’ve never learned how.

The next question, then, is why is Pinker so surprised? Why does need so many pages to make this point? I’m not sure, but I wonder if he’s forgotten how much work it’s taken him to learn to write fluidly. Writing in a direct voice is easy for him, so it’s natural for him to think that it would be just as easy for other professors to write well, if only they would clear their heads.

For example, Pinker writes:

It’s easy to see why academics fall into self-conscious style. Their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation—an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild. Many of the hallmarks of academese are symptoms of this agonizing self-­consciousness . . .

Sure, defensiveness is part of it. But I suspect that lots and lots of professors (and others) would write more directly, if they just got some feedback on how to do it. It’s my impression that we write prose the way we write code, by working from templates, snapping together segments from different places, etc. And this leads to what looks to Pinker like a self-conscious style but looks to me just like awkwardness, the literary equivalent of someone showing up to a formal event wearing ill-fitting clothes from Sears.

That bit about professors “having a foreign policy”

As promised, here’s my reaction to the very first bit of Pinker’s article, where he characterizes professors for “wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy.”

The profs I know don’t wear earth tones and don’t drive Priuses so I don’t really have anything to say about that, except that I guess I don’t hang out with the right class of professor—maybe I need to spend more time in Cambridge?—but I do have a comment on the “foreign policy” line.

My reaction is: what’s so funny about professors having views on foreign policy? We live in a democracy, and we all have a right to express our views. I teach in the political science department and many of my colleagues have expertise in foreign policy. But, even for profs who have no particular knowledge in this area, they’re still citizens (if not of the U.S., then of some other country).

Let me put it another way. Why is it so laughable that professors express their views on foreign policy and even try to affect policy? Like it or not, we do have public participation in this country, and I see no good reason why active voice on foreign policy should be restricted to the likes of David Brooks, Michael Moore, and whatever companies and P.R. firms happen to be lobbying in Washington, D.C., right now.

Speaking both as a political scientist and as a citizen, I think political participation should be encouraged, not mocked.

P.S. Pinker points out that I mischaracterized what he wrote. He did describe “having a foreign policy” as one of the four “most conspicuous trait[s] of the American professoriate,” but nowhere did he say there was anything wrong or even funny about having a foreign policy.

I was reading the “having a foreign policy” quote as a mockery because of how it is phrased (I’m in agreement with commenter Daniel Lakeland here) but it’s true that Pinker is not saying anything about this directly.

And of course it’s just a throwaway line in his article; it just bothers me because I object more generally when people disparage or mock political participation. In this case, though, Pinker is alluding to a stereotype rather than expressing a position himself, so to get annoyed at him for the “foreign policy” comment is a bit of blaming of the messenger.

53 Comments

  1. I think it’s not “having views on foreign policy” but “having a foreign policy” that is so funny, it evokes images of someone just waiting for their chance to sit down with Obama and whip out a 250 page treatise on how to run every aspect of the country.

    I definitely experienced push-back against clear elegant writing. The title of my paper on soil liquefaction was “Grain motion and fluid flow cause the earthquake liquefaction of sand” until both reviewers and my advisors got ahold of it. It was too much of a smack in the face to the establishment to actually tell them “here’s what causes earthquake liquefaction”.

  2. D.O. says:

    I have no opinion on the general quality of academic writing or lack thereof, but clearly “foreign policy” quip is to highlight that “academics” are not like the rest of Americans (you know, those people who drive Hummers loaded with rifles and decorated in Confederate flags, drinking only Budweiser, eating hamburgers, watching football, lovin Jesus, etc., etc.). After all, there is nothing wrong with wearing earth colors and driving Priuses either (before, it was driving Volvos and eating cheese). I am not sure why making cheap and staled jokes is considered a better writing than other kinds of 90%, though.

  3. Pinker isn’t mocking “having a foreign policy.” He’s mocking people who hold the common anti-academic stereotype of professors as liberal hippies driving Priuses and attending anti-war protests.

  4. Your explanation, that academics write badly because they get little feedback with which to improve their writing skills, would be fine if academics write badly in all venues. I think what Pinker would claim — it’s been a few months since I read his essay — is that academics write badly when writing academic papers, adopting mannerisms that they would not if they were, for example, writing a fun essay about playing chess. Of course, there are plenty of academics who are just terrible writers; as you point out, writing is hard. But they, I think, are not the target of Pinker’s criticism.

    • Thomas says:

      This also my sense. Pinker is almost saying that writing badly is something some academics do well. It’s intentional. The badness results from their attempt to achieve a particular effect, and that effect is not that of making themselves understood. But I think Andrew is probably right in another sense. It’s not writing that is difficult, but making yourself understood that is difficult, and it is when writers shirk that difficulty, not when they fail to overcome it, that the kind of “non classic” writing that Pinker is worried about arises. I’m pretty sure that plain, understandable writing is as rare as it it in part because of the lack of feedback and in part because of the lack editorial push-back. People don’t practice. The problem starts in college.

      • Andrew says:

        Thomas:

        I agree that Pinker is saying that people are writing badly on purpose. Or, not quite that they’re writing badly on purpose; rather, they’re purposely optimizing other goals (defensiveness, self-consciousness, maybe “having a foreign policy”) which interfere with the goal of writing clearly.

        But I’m skeptical of this claim. I suspect a simpler story, which is that profs would like to write better but that they don’t know how, at least, not if they felt any pressure.

        • Thomas says:

          I think this will only change when editors, reviewers, readers, hiring committees, etc. really begin to insist on understanding what they read. Not just evaluating some esoteric “competence” in the author. This ties in with my current interest in patchwriting and what Susan Blum calls “the performance self”. Very much the problem of, as you say, “working from templates, snapping together segments from different places”. We are too ready to approve of the performance in students and peers, rather than really demanding that they say what they mean.

      • Keith O'Rourke says:

        > The badness results from their attempt to achieve a particular effect, and that effect is not that of making themselves understood.

        That was CS Peirce’s take on academic writing – at least in theses – roughly not to communicate important ideas clearly but to impress upon the examiner that the writer deserved to be passed.

  5. Jack PQ says:

    Deirdre McCloskey, a professor of economics, history and literature (!), found that academics are much more hostile to criticism about their writing than about their research. Tear down my model and my regressions, fine. But don’t diss my writing. We take it personally.

    But that’s not enough. After all, journal editors could reject papers for bad writing. It seems that when push comes to shove, they don’t. I’ve reviewed many papers where I complained about the lousy writing and asking the editor to put his foot down. But I don’t remember instances of papers being rejected only for this reason. Many bad papers were rejected because they were bad all around.

    • Rahul says:

      Problem is that who gets to become editor has very little to do with writing ability. I knew my past boss, who was quite a high-profile scientist, & a hard-working researcher & a good lab manager, but his writing totally sucked (but he believed he was a good writer) & yet he was editor on a Journal.

  6. L says:

    Andrew, I don’t think you and Pinker actually disagree that much. Gretchen McCulloch in Slate posed this question: “A lot of style books seem to believe that people write badly because of some moral failing: they’re lazy or ignorant or poorly educated. And yet that’s not the stance you take in The Sense of Style: Why do you think bad writing happens?”

    Pinker’s answer:

    “For a number of reasons. The first is that good writing is hard: It’s not something that people avoid in order to deliberatively sound pretentious and ponderous. In fact, it’s hard work to sound simple and natural.

    “And second, a lot of the sins and failing in language may not actually be sins and failings if you take a more realistic usage of how language is used—they’re fully consistent with how good writing looks in the past.

    “And finally, turgid writing and some of the other flaws of academic prose are hazards of the profession: You forget that the tools that have become clear to you are confusing to everyone else. So you start to start to write about concepts and frameworks, which are tools used by experts, instead of the objects in the real world, which is how non-experts think of things. For example, instead of talking about calling the police, an expert talks about ‘approaching things from a law-enforcement perspective.'”

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/09/30/interview_steven_pinker_on_the_sense_of_style_and_what_linguistics_and_cognitive.html

    (By the way, I really enjoyed Pinker’s book “The Sense of Style” and I think it gives great advice on writing.)

  7. Clyde Schechter says:

    Early in my career, people used to complement me on my clear writing. No more. And when I re-read some of my own recent publications, the prose nauseates me. I have been coerced into writing badly by the rules of the journals I write for (mostly medical journals). They have ridiculously strict word limits. The same goes for grant applications. If you have a study that can’t be clearly described within those limits, there are two choices: eviscerate the content or use obscurantist language. (And abstracts are even worse than journals.)

  8. Phil says:

    I just have to mention Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, who I think is one of the great scientist/writers of all time. I stumbled across his book “How Animals Work” about twenty years ago and it had an immediate effect on me.

    He had some advice about writing science articles (and even choosing titles). Some of his advice was just like what you’d find in Elements of Style or in any other guide for clear writing, but because he practiced what he preached even when writing pretty technical stuff he had (at least for me) more credibility and more value as an example. He edited a journal for a while, and according to his own account he would actually edit articles, including wordsmithing them. He says he would take a sentence like (I’m paraphrasing here) “Desert-dwelling animals, although well adapted to life in arid environments, nevertheless show signs of distress if deprived of water for long periods” and change it to “Even camels get thirsty.” When Andrew and I used to write papers together, one or the other of us would sometimes say “Even camels get thirsty” when we were stuck in a morass of verbiage, to remind us both what we were striving for (and what should be attainable).

    I do think academics are reluctant to use simple language. But it’s not just academics. Have you ever seen what businesspeople write? There’s a tendency for people in general to throw in jargon and buzzwords. Sometimes that’s a good idea: specialized language can save a lot of words. But sometimes people just love to use lots of buzzwords. I tend to be disdainful of this, but I wonder if I’m missing something: at least some of the people who like to use lots of buzzwords also seem to get something out of them in other people’s writing. One person’s buzzword is another person’s usefully concise way of conveying a complicated idea.

  9. Fernando says:

    Why should scientists write well? Why not let others do the careful word smithing? Have we forgotten the notions of team work, comparative advantage, and specialization? Why not simply send your article to an expert editor and have them edit the language?

    Science remains an autarkic, almost medieval, craft. Sure, we have fancy computers and tools but when it comes to writing scientists still have to typeset their articles, format bibliography, edit language, and make sure all style idiosyncrasies of whatever journal they are submitting to are met. Then repeat this process each time the article is rejected and has to be resubmitted. This is a monumental waste of time.

    PS For example, the new “Information for Authors & Reviewers” @polanalysis clocks in at 6,119 words. Your are welcome.

    • Andrew says:

      Fernando:

      Division of labor is a great idea. But who’s going to write my articles for me? Malcolm Gladwell??

      • Fernando says:

        There are a whole bunch of online services that will edit your article. The reason is there are a lot of foreign born scientists in the US who can make awesome discoveries but cannot write English. They use these services.

        Try it one day, and blog about it. Maybe your editor is called Rajeev, lives in Bombay, and writes beautiful English.

        PS I remember you once blogged about your eexperience aving your work edited for some publication.

        • Rahul says:

          Have you ever tried one of these online editing services? What little experience I have says that they are of no use at the level of writing you, Andrew or most commentators on this thread produce natively.

          • Fernando says:

            I have never tried them.

            But I thought this thread was about how bad academics write. If so, I assume they are in the low end of the writing ability distribution. Ergo even a random draw from the population is going to do better than an academic.

            You ate arguing that professional editors, who do nothing but edit, are worse than academics. This is testable.

          • Oliver says:

            I don’t think that it is possible to carry out more than a very superficial edit of a scientific article without a good understanding of the content. Great individual scientific editors exist, but in my opinion specialisation to a paticular field of research is required and I certainly wouldn’t trust the editing services provided by the larger publishing companies.

            My background is in medical publishing and medical statistics, and I have seen countless examples in which a lack of understanding of the content has led to attempted style improvements by copy editors that obscure the intended meaning or are just plain incorrect.

            • Rahul says:

              +1 I totally agree. I also think that people will exist with the domain understanding & writing skills who can make a difference but in general they are too expensive & certainly not in the employ of such agencies.

            • Fernando says:

              I agree in that I would not want an online editor to make substantial changes to the language of a complex highly technical article. However, hard as they try I doubt more than 20% of social science falls in this category.

              Also, I would not not underestimate the time wasted doing minor edits and style type-setting. E.g. reading 6,000+ words of instruction for authors, backing out the requirements, implementing requirements (e.g. footnotes vs endnotes, citation style, formatting of figures and tables, etc..), checking everything is complete, and so on.

              I would say the average article gets rejected 2-5 times before publication, so the process needs to be repeated. And then you might run into a journal that only accepts Word. Pandoc might get your latex 90% of the way there, but the remaining 10% is guaranteed to send you straight into the fifth circle of hell.

            • Martha says:

              A classic example in math of incorrect “style” changes by copy editors:

              The notation [a,b] has a specific technical meaning in an area of math called Lie algebras. (It denotes a type of multiplication with different properties from most common types of multiplication.) So an expression such as [a,[b,c]] has a special technical meaning in that context. But a copy editor applied the rule that “inner brackets are parentheses and outer brackets are square brackets,” for example changing the expression [a,[b,c]] to [a,(b,c)], which would be totally meaningless in context.

              • Fernando says:

                Some people smoke and live to be 100 years old. This is no reason to smoke.

                I feel the same way about all this push back from higly technical fields. I think these make virtue the enemy of the good, and ignore swathes of science that are not that technical.

              • Rahul says:

                @Fernando:

                What are examples of science areas that are non-technical?

              • Oliver says:

                @Fernando:

                My experience is largely in dealing with clinical research, which I do not think would be considered to be at the most highly technical or esoteric end of the spectrum of academic publishing (where I would perhaps place pure maths and theoretical physics). Although there will always be some specialist terminology, such clinical research articles can largely be understood by someone with reasonable background knowledge and Wikipedia on hand, at least if they are well written. However, even in this setting, I have found that copy editors without a great deal of knowledge of the subject matter (or of relatively basic statistics) will make substantive errors that affect the intended meaning.

                It seems to me that articles in any field that is less technical than clinical medicine will rely more heavily on precision of language to make nuanced arguments. In this setting, a thorough understanding of the points being made would still be required by an editor in order to improve the quality of the text without distorting the meaning.

      • Fernando says:

        PPS Of course what you may really want in the not so distant future is that your article be easily machine readable and interpretable.

      • I’ll do it for you, Andrew, and I even have statistical training. My name is not Rajeev, but it almost is, and I’m a great writer.

    • On the rare occasions that my work has been written up for some sort of “synopsis” or commentary by someone associated with some a publication — someone who was presumably hired at least in part for his or her writing skills — the results have been surprisingly bad. In most cases, when going over the drafts, I’ve ended up rewriting nearly everything myself. So even if one one thinks that it would be good to have a division of labor that frees scientists from writing well, I doubt in practice that there’s such a deep pool of good, but also scientifically literate, writers to make this possible. (Personally, I would disagree that this division of labor would be a good thing, but that’s a separate issue.)

      About your second paragraph: this is an interesting point. Back in the “old days,” I’m told, one had secretaries to type articles, format equations, submit papers, etc., rather like one had travel agents to book plane tickets. But, as the technology to do all this yourself has become cheap and “easy,” we do this all ourselves. That’s progress, I suppose. It takes me hours to battle journal article submission sites, but this is economically superior to the university hiring people to do this for me. (At least, that’s the lesson I’m inferring from my lack of underlings.)

      • Fernando says:

        Raghuveer:

        I am sure quality of editing will improve once there is a market.

        Maybe I am being too cynical but my sense is that in some labs secretaries have been replaced by postdocs. Surely they should be doing something better with their time than fiddling with BibTex.

        One interesting question is why journals don’t compete on ease of use, low transaction cost. Part of the problem is the economics of star journals that become almost natural monopolies and behave accordingly.

        • Rahul says:

          Are there actually secretaries that can handle Bibtex?

          • Fernando says:

            Hell, if they can handle Microsoft Word BibTex must be a piece of cake.

            But I’m not asking for secretaries, only outsourcing of menial tasks.

            Here is a piece of advice for Elsevier: If you want to make even more money offer a $500 express submission, where you take care of all typesetting, editing, etc…

            Then as an academic ask yourself how much your time is worth.

  10. Ben says:

    Academics are trained to write poorly. The further I’ve progressed in my graduate training, the worse my writing has become. Anything that smacks of humanity or liveliness is dismissed as not “scholarly prose” and is graded accordingly.

    • Rahul says:

      I think Andrew is too dismissive of Pinker’s critique. There is a real problem here. And you cannot dismiss it by saying all writing is hard ergo even academics write badly just like most other people.

      The question then is, what’s a suitable cohort for comparison. i.e. Academics write worse as opposed to what group? Surely, we aren’t saying that since academics write no worse than the random person on the street, so we are satisfied? Which are the professions that write better than academics & hence we are surprised when academics write so poorly in comparison.

      I offer a data-point: I read for work both papers from academics working in Engineering Depts. & also engineers working for industry (often with the same or similar education & technical focus, perhaps fewer PhD’s though) & the difference in style, clarity, brevity, succinctness etc. is phenomenal.

  11. Martha says:

    Three possibly relevant comments:

    1. “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” — former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

    2. In some classes, I told my students that they should not hand in a first draft of homework, but write up their solutions in a coherent fashion.

    3. When my Ph.D. thesis advisor returned the draft of my thesis (in math) after reading it, his only comment was, “Put more words between the theorems.”

  12. […] Andrew Gelman has a nice piece on why academic writing is bad. Basically two points – writing is hard, and academic pieces are not selected based on their quality of writing. So the quality of writing in such pieces is far inferior to say writing in a newspaper! […]

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    “Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy”

    Pinker is using “30 Rock’s” rule that you need three examples to be funny.

    In general, Pinker has a lot of the pattern recognition skills of a professional comedy writer. When I started reading him in the 1990s, I was struck by similarities between between Pinker’s prose style and that of Dave Barry, the most expert humor writer of the era.

    Of course, Pinker is far more intellectually ambitious than most humor writers. It’s this combination of intellect and accessibility that makes him perhaps our era’s leading thinker.

  14. Dale Lehman says:

    I find it interesting that these comments seem to confuse two things – division of labor and teamwork. I think of these as complements, not substitutes. So, while a professional editor may not produce better writing than me (and that is arguable), I do think that working with a professional editor is likely to produce better writing than I can produce alone. If that were not true, then we should be able to reverse the argument and say that journalists have no need or use for data analysts. It is the teamwork that is more valuable and division of labor is part of that.

    As for the question of why academics are such bad writers, I have to agree with many of the thoughts expressed here. Not only are we not trained to be good writers, and not only are we evaluated by others that are not trained to be good writers, but language is used to set ourselves apart as experts. Look at any field – finance, for example. A few basic intuitive concepts are wrapped in technical jargon so that only a few can claim to be experts. Without that division, our positions in the professions would be challenged. Only a few rise above these personal incentives and are willing to keep specialized language to the minimum necessary (the same can be said about the use of mathematics in publications). I think these problems are even worse in statistics. It is hard to write about statistics without misrepresenting what can legitimately be said about the results of a study.

  15. numeric says:

    My reaction is: what’s so funny about professors having views on foreign policy?

    Your literalness indicates why you are a wannabe author (how many unfinished novels do you have in your desk–or, in more modern terms, on your computer–incidentally, software could now be programmed to write the equivalent of 90% of the novels ever written, I am certain). Pinker’s point is that academics have an opinion on everything, particularly subjects which do not typically matter to the ordinary citizen. He could have used governmental reorganization, social mores in pre-colonial Africa, or the decision to hold the Renaissance in Italy (I plagiarized the last–guess the reference).

    • Phil says:

      Social mores in pre-colonial Africa, and the Renaissance, are now water under the bridge, and whether or not one is interested is just a matter of taste. But in a democracy (or a republic) we should all take an interest in the matters that affect us…including government re-organization (your example) and especially foreign policy (Pinker’s). In fact I would say it’s a moral failing to not have an opinion on these matters.

      • Phil says:

        Whoops, I said “matters that affect us”, but that’s not the reason to take an interest. Whether or not we should support a repressive regime is something we should have an opinion on, not just because it affects us but because it is a moral matter that affects others too.

        I do think it’s a bit ridiculous for the Berkeley City Council to announce a position on, say, Israel’s behavior in Gaza, but not because the people of Berkeley shouldn’t individually or collectively have opinions about it.

    • Andrew says:

      Numeric:

      What can I say, I’m a sucker for trolls . . .

      Anyway, in answer to your question, I’ve never written a novel or even started one. I do have a few nonfiction books planned but, given my track record, I have every reason to believe that I will complete them and see them published.

      • numeric says:

        Well, if you ever want to write one, I would suggest a murder mystery set in a major statistics department. The victim is a senior member of the department known for his adherence to orthodox statistical analysis and the prime suspect is a promising young statistician who has been threatened with the denial of tenure for his unorthodox but novel and brilliant techniques. Over the course of the novel, the untenured professor withstands withering interrogation by the police (consisting of making him watch endless lectures on the derivation of UMVU estimators until he longs to confess), but he is sprung by a coalition of social scientists, who, for some reason, look up to him. Once free and on the lam he uses his unorthodox statistical techniques to proof conclusively that it was another assistant professor, also competing for tenure, who actually killed the doyen, and framed our hero. The final scene of the novel is when the protagonist faces the combined faculty and is informed that he has been denied tenure for the unforgivable crime of being right (in the movie version the denied academic can pull out an Uzi and let the faculty have it, but that’s a little over-the-top for an academic murder mystery).

        Feel free to use this plot without attribution (I think 99.9% of all plots could come out of a computer program now). As for my original point about literalness, I think you and Phil would consider “In a Station of the Metro” to be about forestry.

        • Phil says:

          Wait, me? How did I get into this?

          • numeric says:

            You got into it with the following post:

            Social mores in pre-colonial Africa, and the Renaissance, are now water under the bridge, and whether or not one is interested is just a matter of taste. But in a democracy (or a republic) we should all take an interest in the matters that affect us…including government re-organization (your example) and especially foreign policy (Pinker’s). In fact I would say it’s a moral failing to not have an opinion on these matters.

            The line about the Renaissance I quoted was from Woody Allen (it is a joke, obviously). There was no “decision” to hold it in Italy (which is why it is mildly funny). It is literary license, using incongruity to get a laugh. The rest of your response proves my point–you really do care about government reorganization and foreign policy and further more you think everyone should. I care about these things to and maybe at some level I think everyone else does though I have firm enough grasp on reality to realize that most people don’t and never will. But this is the classic attitude of the academic (“moral failure”, anyone?).

            Pinker is using economy of words and allusion to portray a professorial world view that I have described in some detail in the above paragraph (as does Pound in the poem I reference). This is literary license, and I would say both you and Andrew are irony-impaired in your arguments about concern for foreign policy (see Andrew’s comment: “My reaction is: what’s so funny about professors having views on foreign policy?”). There is nothing funny about that–Pinker is encapsulating a world view in a single phrase. What is funny is yours and Andrews reaction to Pinker (funny in the essentialist Greek meaning in that character is fate–the predictability of both of yours responses is funny).

  16. Eli Rabett says:

    Pinker’s first rule of good writing is insult your audience.

    Really, why bother reading anything else. The whole thing is a meaningless bitch slap.

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