Don’t Say Too Much (or Too Little)

This week NESTA‘s Executive Director of Research Stian Westlake wrote a piece for the Guardian science policy blogs about those who offer scientific advice. If you want to find out why wonks should avoid being either a ‘berk’ or a ‘wanker’ I’d recommend you read his piece. However he made some telling points which go far beyond policy wonks and are perhaps worth rehearsing in a wider context. So, if you are about to write a thesis or a committee paper, if you are about to sit down to formulate, in writing, your strategy position on some key matter – or even if you are going to offer verbal advice to a family member or friend – you may want to ponder on the following useful pointers he highlighted (the three bullet points are taken directly from his text).

    • Neither glibness nor prolixity make for useful advice.

I would go further and say that in any situation, for any piece of prose that you are called upon to write, this bullet point is a good starting point. I have seen draft theses which fall into one or other of these camps. There are writers who think superficiality is adequate because their data is so convincing they can skate over the niceties of other people’s research that doesn’t fall into line with their own. There are writers who think that in order to demonstrate their competence they have to include references to every conceivably relevant article with a précis of its contents and believe that all techniques have to be described in exhaustive detail. Neither approach makes for pleasant reading, although in my view the latter is easier to correct than the former.

But it isn’t just theses to which this applies: position papers presented to high level committees with 165 numbered paragraphs are distinctly soporific and encourage the reader not to concentrate. The worry is that that is the intention and that in paragraph 161, something really sneaky and important has been introduced with the expectation that the committee will have lost the will to live long before this point in any discussion is reached. Prolixity, one feels, is a Sir Humphrey tactic that unfortunately may equally well turn up in an academic situation.

    • Good advice is not just a matter of providing information, or summarising research. It also involves making a judgment about the balance of facts, helping frame the issue, and communicating in a way that the person you’re counselling will understand and act on.

Scientists aren’t always familiar with the idea of framing, or at least that is my personal experience. I certainly only came to appreciate its importance relatively late in life largely as a result of reading Mike Hulme’s excellent ‘Why we disagree about climate change‘. Framing is certainly more likely to matter in a policy situation than when writing a physics thesis. Nevertheless, even for the latter it is the case you need to think about the balance and relevance of those facts you are presenting and not get hung up in one corner, as it were.  For instance, when presenting results that sit at the interface between fields it is important to highlight the relevant parts of each field, not slavishly write down everything you can or – just as bad – cherry pick the bits that fit. Maybe you can construct a model based on sub-field A, but if sub-field B says the assumptions you need to use in order to solve the model are invalid you are not going to make genuine progress, although you can generate data, graphs and all the rest within the model.  They are just meaningless graphs. You cannot only focus on one part at the expense of the other, and that is where I think there is a loose connection with framing (or rather, absence thereof).  I am aware this does not precisely fit the social scientist’s definition of framing!  Nevertheless, not infrequently the inexperienced fail to make an appropriate judgement about the balance of facts and end up generating useless thesis fodder.

    • Clarity, brevity and a sense of narrative are all important parts of good advice

Yes indeed! Would that we could all follow these wise words all the time. I know that upon occasion a friendly voice has pointed out to me that all my punchiness has deserted me in my prose, that the narrative has got lost in a series of nested brackets and that a single sentence has run on to occupy a whole paragraph. We can all be guilty of sloppiness from time to time as deadlines approach (and again, to focus on thesis writing, one is almost invariably up against a deadline). As various people, ranging from Blaise Pascal to Winston Churchill via Mark Twain, have been alleged to say ‘I would have made this shorter had I had the time‘. Brevity and clarity do not come the first time a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter are set down. It takes an eagle eye to remove unnecessary circumlocutions and hesitancies. My own drafts tend to contain a lot of weasel words like maybe, perhaps and probably which are nearly always best excised; probably that ‘nearly’ fits the bill too! That’s why hitting deadlines destroys the beauty of the prose, as it becomes impossible to sleep on the waffly words so that in the morning a fresh brain can be surgical about the excisions.

So, read Stian Westlake and realise that most of what he says applies equally well to your own attempts to tell a story, describe an experiment or set out a position paper. It isn’t only policy wonks who should think about the best way to put across advice and evidence.

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3 Responses to Don’t Say Too Much (or Too Little)

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    When writing reports for MoD, it was always impressed on us that the only part that the decision-makers would read was the Executive Summary. This was normally limited to 2 pages of A4.

    Taking an example from a completely different area, there is a fine quote from C S Lewis on Theology that sums it up: “I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your own thoughts into uneducated language [i.e. without jargon], then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood your own meaning.”

  2. Cromercrox says:

    [likes]