On bullshit: the value of clarity, precision and economy

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“Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.” Ezra Pound

I’ve always been of the opinion that saying what you mean clearly, precisely and without undue verbiage is something of a boon to understanding, but it would appear that to some such writerly virtues actually reduce meaning. For instance in this publication from Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain we’re told that

Today’s ‘clarity- mongers’ are not attacking metaphysics, as did past empiricist/analytical philosophers in the Anglophone tradition. Now, crudely, they don’t like what they can’t understand… philosophers’ ‘clarity’ might not be clear to others… Well-known analytical philosophers of the last century, such as A.J. Ayer, were said to be ‘deceptively clear’. The clarity was superficial and, on deeper examination, many key assumptions and concepts were very far from clear… In his classic 1945 article ‘Clarity is not enough’, Price claimed that some very important things cannot be said clearly. (p. 18)

How have we arrived at a point in time where saying what you mean, intelligibly, explicitly and with no room for confusion, is something to dismiss as the concerns of ‘clarity-mongers’? Is it fair to scoff at those who struggle to understand the abstruse as just not liking what they don’t understand? And can it really be true that there are some very important things which cannot be clearly articulated?

In his 1986 monograph, Writing with precision, clarity, and economy, magazine editor Dick Mack was at pains to point out that “verbiage, obscurity, and imprecision in manuscripts slow the editorial process and ultimately hamper communication.” Ultimately, this matters because we want our thoughts to serve some sort of purpose and be remembered. What’s memorable is “…clear, brief, and forceful. No one would willingly consign his work to obscurity, but we do so with imprecise, ambiguous, and verbose manuscripts.”

In the prologue to Plain Words, Ernest Gowers put the problem like this:

The fault of bad writing is not that it is unscholarly but that it is inefficient. It wastes time: the time of the readers because they have to puzzle over what should be plain, and the time of the writers because they may have to write again to explain their meaning. A job that needed to be done only once has had to be done twice because it was bungled the first time.

In contrast, as ex-Tesco boss, Terry Leahy said in Management in 10 Words: “Trying to express complex thoughts in simple English… is demanding, challenging and takes time.” In order to be clear, precise and economical you need to know your subject matter inside out. I’ve no doubt there are very many things which, no matter how clearly expressed, I would struggle to understand but to state that the deficit is with the student (in this case me) and not the teacher is, perhaps, the most abysmal of educational excesses. Clarity may not be sufficient, but it is most certainly necessary.

If you want to conceal your own lack of understanding then it probably helps to obscure and obfuscate your meaning behind a veil of critical theory and postmodernism, or, to put it another way, “pseudo-profound bullshit“.

In The Dark Side of Loon: Explaining the Temptations of Obscurantism, Buekens and Boudry  suggest the motivation for obscurantism is to “set up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.” That which Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit” by any other name would smell as sweet:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to. (p. 14) [My emphasis]

Shakespeare might have talking about the same phenomena when he noted that “Life… is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For Macbeth, it is only the shadow of imminent annihilation that alerts him to the full extent of the bullshit by which he’s surrounded. Then again, Shakespeare was an inveterate bullshitter and he may have just have thought it sounded good.

Most of us, when we’re not entirely sure of our facts, have an understandable tendency to bullshit. It is, perhaps, unfair to label everything which lacks the properties of clarity, precision and economy as ‘bullshit’, but it does seem reasonable to suggest that the more obscure meaning is, the greater the capacity there is for someone to “deceive us about … his enterprise” and convince us that their expertise is greater than we would allow if it was actually clear what they meant.

And in a world where we are likely to encounter ever increasing quantities of bullshit due to the rise of information technology, we need to be increasingly watchful. “Bullshit is not only common; it is popular” and “…using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia.” Pennycock et al (2015)

Communicating with clarity, precision and economy not only demonstrates our mastery over content and allows us to better share our understanding with others, it also helps keep us honest.

Further reading: Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

25 Responses to On bullshit: the value of clarity, precision and economy

  1. deedadog says:

    Let me sum up this post with clarity, precision and economy: make sure you can back up your arguments!

  2. I’m sure we agree — all things being equal, why wouldn’t you try to be as clear as you can?

    I also agree that you need to be on the watch for bullshiters.

    What I disagree with is the idea of the “bullshit test,” the notion that if someone is being unclear then we would <a href="https://twitter.com/LearningSpy/status/696784322272043008"do well to assume that they're full of shit. I think there are tremendous costs of going about the world in this manner, and ultimately it’s a form of bias.

    There are all sorts of reasons why a person might be telling the truth and yet write unclearly. Here are some of them:

    * Personal shortcomings as a writer
    * The difficulty of the ideas make clear writing difficult
    * A deliberate need to write obscurely, if some ideas are truly dangerous for the writer
    * Certain aesthetic traditions value traits that override considerations of clarity
    * A text may be entirely clear in the context of a certain community, but if one isn’t part of that community the writing will be obscure
    * Cultural or historical differences in expectations of clarity and explicitness

    I’m sure there are others, but in closing I’ll mention the most important one:

    * Personal shortcomings of the reader

    It has often happened to me that, when I’m confused by a text, it’s because I wasn’t ready to read it. Often this happens when I’m missing knowledge that a text supposes I’ll know. (We all agree, I’m sure, on the importance of content knowledge for reading comprehension.) It also often happens when I’m distracted, or just not bringing all my resources to bear on the task at hand.

    This recently happened to me as I was reading up on Cognitive Load Theory. John Sweller is not the clearest writer of all time. For a while, I was stuck trying to understand what his core commitments were. (He had defined elements in 1994 as “things that need to be learned.” Vague, also false within CLT!) In my head I heard the voice of my philosophy professors: read humbly. Assume that the writer is smarter than you, try to figure out how they make sense. And, I did.

    And that’s my biggest issue for me with the “bullshit test.” When a text is unclear, that’s when I want to commit especially hard to understanding the writer. Yes, this puts the responsibility on the reader. I accept that responsibility to work hard to understand people who don’t make sense to me, and I think the world would be a better place if more people did as well.

    Yes, it’s true, some people are full of shit. More often we have people who just aren’t clear for whatever reason, and it would be a shame if we were in the habit of dismissing everyone who we don’t understand as full of it.

    So, that’s my plea: give the writer the benefit of the doubt for as long as is humanly possible. Assume the best intentions for as long as is humanly possible. Assume the worst of your own instincts when you move to dismiss another person’s writing. Assume that you’re a fool, someone who just doesn’t understand the other person properly yet, for as long as is humanly possible.

    Conclude that someone else is a bullshitter as a last resort, when all other interpretive options have failed.

    • David Didau says:

      Hmmm. Maybe not as a last resort but I kinda take your point. I do agree with the principle of charity – as long as a text isn’t pointlessly obscure or dense I’ll make a valiant attempt to decipher it. And yes, bad writing is absolutely not the same as bullshit. Worse than Sweller is the evolutionary psychologist David Geary (who I’ve been reading a lot of recently.) It’s clear to me that there are complex ideas he’s trying to communicate and it’s also clear that he’s not a gifted communicator. I’ve worked hard to get what he means and now I think I’m ready to communicate what i think he means better than he has (I might be wrong!) This is all very different to bullshit. Bullshit is intentional, and I suppose the only true test is to say tht bullshit is like pornography: you know it when you see it.

      • I hear you, David. But are there really that many intentional bullshitters in education? I struggle to name anyone who i disagree with (and I have some strong disagreements!) who I think is intentionally obscuring the truth by writing unclearly.

        There are certainly people with radically different epistemologies, and people who talk about teaching without much experience, and people who I think are essentially ideologues, and people enamoured with their own lousy style, and people who are in love with jargon and so on and so on, but I can’t think of anyone who I suspect to be writing unclearly to intentionally tell lies.

        To say “you know it when you see it” in the case of people lying about education through lousy , well… I hope no one ever accuses me of intentionally writing unclearly to obscure the truth! I don’t know how I would defend myself, other than to say that I believe what I think and to deny the accusation.

        If we care about evidence-based education, I think we should also care about evidence-based claims of all kinds. These accusations seem unfalsifiable to me.

        • David Didau says:

          Michael, we *all* bullshit all the time. I agree that most people in education are well-intentioned, if only by their own lights, but that doesn’t stop them bullshitting. Bullshit is not the same as lying.

  3. I would add that the founders of progressive theory, particularly Dewey, were renowned for obscuring their ideas with verbose jargon. One key effect of this was to create a kind of professional cult from which the uninitiated layman was excluded. Undoubtedly, the rise of progressive ideas was accompanied by a transfer of power from laypeople to professional experts who spoke to each other in impenetrable language. All of their obtuse monosyllables and specialist terms would contain ideas that would be rejected outright if they were expressed plainly, such as ‘we think many children are too stupid to learn to read’.

    • I would add that the founders of progressive theory, particularly Dewey, were renowned for obscuring their ideas with verbose jargon

      What do you mean? Renowned by whom? Do you have a source from Dewey’s contemporaries that they complained about his verbiage?

      It’s not so much that I’m skeptical of the idea (though I am) as much as I’d like these sorts of claims to be supported with evidence instead of just flung around.

  4. debrakidd says:

    I’m confused. You seem to be saying that if a text is difficult to understand then it isn’t worth reading. That the writer is in some way deficient. This is what a lot of kids I’ve taught over the years have tried to claim when they’ve encountered difficulty. I used to see it as my job to help them to navigate that difficulty and appreciate the complexity and beauty of language. Perhaps I should have just told them to file those texts under “bullshit”.

    • David Didau says:

      No Debra, I’m not saying that. I’m saying bullshitters obfuscate in order to conceal the shallowness of their knowledge and that good writing is always desirable.

      Hope that’s helped resolve your confusion 🙂

      • debrakidd says:

        So good writing can be obscure or difficult as long as the underpinning ideas are not shallow (in the opinion of the reader)? It’s not actually writing at all that you are attacking then, but the quality of ideas. And whether or not they are “bullshit” is dependent on the subjectivity of the reader. Is that what you meant?

        • David Didau says:

          No. I’m writing in praise of clarity.
          Bullshit is something we all indulge in form time to time but some of us attempt to conceal this with deliberately difficult language.

          I’m really not at all sure what your objection is – is there something in particular you think I’ve attacked that you feel the need to attempt? Maybe there’s something you like which you suspect I’ll dismiss as impenetrable guff masquerading as profundity?

          Clearly anyone can fling the bullshit appellation around as they see fit and regardless of anyone else’s opinion.

  5. debrakidd says:

    I’m not objecting to anything. I’m just trying to understand your point. Maybe I need to read it again.

    • David Didau says:

      Here’s the final paragraph again: “Communicating with clarity, precision and economy not only demonstrates our mastery over content and allows us to better share our understanding with others, it also helps keep us honest.”

      That’s what I mean.

      • debrakidd says:

        But you can lie with clarity, precision and economy. You might argue that this is how propaganda operates. And it suggests that simplicity is preferable to complexity which brings us back to Shakespeare in my mind. There’s a man who could have said what he wanted to without inventing a few hundred more words, but we’d be poorer for it. There seems to me to be no logic in your argument – I’m not offended by it, but I genuinely think it’s flawed.

        • David Didau says:

          Of course you can. Lying though is distinct from bullshit. Clarity is not the same as simplicity: look again at that Leahy quote. And bullshit can be beautifully expressed. I really have no idea what you’re disagreeing with.

  6. debrakidd says:

    Once again, I am not (necessarily) disagreeing with anything. I am trying to understand your argument and struggling. Lying is a fair antonym for honest, but perhaps dishonest would have been better. So clarity, precision and economy do not make us more honest then? But you claimed they did. Perhaps your point is clearer than I think and I’m just missing it. Or perhaps you’re making a point so important that it can’t clearly be articulated.

    • David Didau says:

      I honestly thought my point was clear but am willing to admit the possible that I have failed and you are not deliberately misunderstanding. How’s this?
      1: If you are attempting to communicate, then you should try to make yourself clear.
      2: If you are writing for aesthetic purposes then it’s a bit different, but to debate, discuss or explain, clarity must be key.
      3. It may be hard to communicate complex ideas simply but the effort is worth making.
      4: Deliberate obfuscation is suggest dubious motives at best.

      And finally I did not “claim” clarity, precision and economy do not make us more honest. I said they help.

  7. Lizzy Nesbitt says:

    Was it Einstein who said, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’? Possibly another misappropriated quote, but I think this is what you are arguing. Intelligence in a teacher should be manifested in their intelligibility, not by incomprehensibility. It’s from a place of clarity that we can lead students to a place where they can confidently navigate complexity.

  8. chestnut says:

    As soon as I read your post I thought of David Brent!

  9. Josh says:

    This critique is somewhat misguided. The argument challenged pertained mostly to academic philosophy, in which precision of language is crucial. Precision of language can require less accessible terminology, either because of the need for a technical term or simply because there is no appropriate synonym. While synonyms can be similar in meaning, they generally aren’t identical and often carry slightly different connotations which can influence understanding. And so, one can, in the process of attempting to convey complex concepts with clarity and simplicity, lose crucial nuance and precision.

    Moreover, I get the impression that we’re not all on the same page with respect to what ‘clarity’ entails. I think clarity should be the aspiration of every philosopher, or communicator more generally. But clarity should refer to clarity of meaning through precision in language, and not merely clarity of language (i.e. simplicity). They often coincide, but it’s a mistake to conflate the two.

    If one needs a dictionary (technical or general) to understand a given text but, upon understanding the words, the meaning is perfectly clear and precise, then clarity has been achieved although simplicity has not.

    Simplicity, on the other hand, often masquerades as clarity. Simplicity is a rhetorical technique used to hide bullshit as often as complexity is. In fact, in political discourse, the phrase “it’s simple” is usually a good sign that it really isn’t.

    Anyway, I’m in agreement that clarity behooves understanding and we should all aspire to be as clear as possible in our communication. But, I’m wary of those who hide behind this position in order to condemn language that facilitates precision and accurate understanding but may require a comprehensive vocabulary and some familiarity with technical terminology specific to the discipline.

    Now hopefully there’s nothing I’ve said that an advocate of ‘clarity’ would disagree with. But that itself underscores my point. With proper elaboration on what advocates of ‘clarity’ meant by ‘clarity’, or what the authors of the PESGB segment meant by ‘clarity’, there wouldn’t be much disagreement. In that case, using the term ‘clarity’ as a catch-all rather than supplementing the more verbose ‘balance between precision of language and facilitating understanding’ (for example) is causing needless antagonism.

  10. […] written before on how to spot and avoid bullshit: it’s a fine line between calling bullshit and applying the principle of charity. A good […]

  11. […] to reduce to pithy one-liners, we should strive mightily to say exactly what we mean by being clear, precise and concise. It’s also an injunction against ‘truthiness‘: things which sound true without […]

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