On being deserted by the Explanation Fairy ™

By skepticlawyer

One of the things I’ve always strived for when I write is clarity.  Most of the time in my writing career, I’ve been successful in achieving this clarity, and people haven’t had to come back to me with queries like ‘what does this mean?’ and ‘please explain’. Other faults — my disagreeable politics, my abysmal taste, my reprehensible attitudes, my [insert critical view du jour] — have at least been obvious, thanks to a clear style.

However, for the last month or so, I’ve felt like the Explanation Fairy ™ has gone on holiday. First there was a torturous attempt to explain just how difficult it is to incorporate morality into law on this abortion thread over at LP. Then I had people thinking I’d abandoned my willingness to defend freedom of speech in this post nominating Danny Nalliah and his wingnut friends for the Australian Skeptics’ ‘Bent Spoon Award’. To cap it all off, I got about 15,000 words of my thesis back from my supervisor with the comment ‘please explain’ (and variations thereof) appearing multiple times. (In case anyone is wondering, he’s not Australian, so ‘please explain’ has no particular cultural resonance for him). 

And, reviewing his comments — as I have been this afternoon — I can not only see how easy it is to fix in all but one section (which needs, I fear, reordering in order to work properly). I’ll also have to give myself a sound kick up the backside for failing to get something so basic as clear explanation right in the first place.

I know some people think that clarity is a cover, and that academic writing is doomed to be dense and unreadable. Fortunately this attitude hasn’t invaded either Oxford’s Law or Economics faculties. Both value clear exposition as much as I do.

Has anyone else ever been abandoned by the Explanation Fairy? Is it unusual to get this irritated, or is it only me?

26 Comments

  1. Posted February 14, 2009 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    I’ve never been lucky enough to have the Explanation Fairy live at my house.
    I’ve always been cursed with the Foot-In-The-Mouth Pixie or similar disastrous imp (which once saw me effectively dismantle forever a uni exam which abrogated the student’s right to voluntary self-disclosure just because a senior lecturer wanted to ‘harvest’ the essays for her own study).

  2. Posted February 14, 2009 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    For people 15,000 words into their Masters thesis, my understanding is that this is quite a common occurence. (Wait until you’re 25,000 into your DPhil…)

  3. conrad
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    I think many people have this problem (including myself) — especially when judging their own writing, which of course always tends to sound good to the writer. This is especially true when articles get long (say +20,000 words) and when articles have a non-linear structure.

    I have a number of strategies that make writing easier (some of which you can’t really use writing a thesis). All of these apply to science writing, not fiction, where I wouldn’t have the foggiest (I’m sure you don’t need any suggestions from someone like me there!). Here is a list:

    – Get your co-authors to really be co-authors! I think this is in fact surprisingly rare, despite the football teams you see on many articles. Often people just write a few comments, rather than offer more constructive things like alternative structures
    – Get your co-authors to be honest. If it doesn’t make sense to them, it won’t make sense to other people either. You need to know this. English people (and some other groups) are often too “nice” to say some things.
    – Try and forget about what you wrote for a few weeks, and then come back it. You will then have a much more critical view of what you wrote.
    – I don’t know if this one helps other people but try changing the formatting. This forces you to really read the document again, rather than skim over bits you thought were fine. (This one is mainly good for nit-picking sentences, rather than getting good conceptual structure).
    – Work on little chunks wherever possible (say 1,000 words).
    – Use simply structured sentences .
    – Use embedded structure as much possible, even if you later have to take the titles for each section out.
    – Know what things you are good/bad at. I know have the habit of writing things in a way that is too convoluted, and I often go into too many details. Resist things you do poorly, and make sure collaborators are willing to cross things out!

  4. Posted February 14, 2009 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    I agree with DeusExMacintosh. (Love the name, by the way.) My (minor) thesis had numerous supervisor comments. Most of them were very very sensible. Eventually I got the hang of it.

    I always thought my academic writing was clear, but as Blaise Pascal wrote:

    “Mes Révérends Pères, mes lettres n’avaient pas accoutumé de se suivre de si près, ni d’être si étendues. Le peu de temps que j’ai eu a été cause de l’un et de l’autre. Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”

    In English folklore this has become something like: I did not have time to write you a short letter so wrote you a long one.

    Re-writing and editing helps immensely.

    That is why clarity sometimes flees when writing smaller pieces with daily deadlines.

    As to the fires and free speech comment, this was a political comment, not one aimed at your clarity of expression. It was aimed not at your arguments about the Catch the Fire maddies but at the fact you argued that we shouldn’t speculate on the causes of the fires or debate those issues.

  5. Posted February 14, 2009 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Your original comments on Danny Nalliah were perfectly clear to me, but then I don’t have the kind of weird knee-jerk obsession with free speech that says it must always trump everything else. At no point did I think you were advocating gagging anybody, merely exercising your own right to free speech in order to say that a nice hot cup of STFU when it comes to barking fundie finger-pointing might be in order in the name of half-decent human behaviour, at least while there are still people dying in hospital of their third-degree burns or looking for the charred bones of their families. Made perfect sense to me.

  6. Posted February 14, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Hear, hear.

  7. saint
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I find you one one of the clearest writers in the Aussie blogosphere. And I wouldn’t worry too much about some of the comments you got. People tend to skim read online and lose the plot after a couple of hundred words or so. It’s the nature of the medium, which is why the best websites limit the amount of text on each page and include a fair bit of white space etc.

    The Explanation Fairy was never resident in my house (and I have to work hard to catch it when it visits). At uni and even in employment, I find the Obtuse, Opaque and Incomprehensible Elves run rampant . Economics journals were the worst in my uni days.

    Personally I adopt a few strategies in my own work, which I discard with careless abandon on my blog.

    One I used at uni was to avoid jargon or technical terms common to the field. I figured that if I cannot explain a technical term in plain English, then I obviously do not understand it and so really can’t explain or critique it with any clarity. In attempting to translate into plain English I found many terms were rather slippery and disentangling that mess was often the source of some good critiques or other insights. Many of these I thought ended up being just plain common sense, but it’s amazing how many in academia (at least in my day) thought common sense was brilliance or originality.

    I also used (and still occasionally use) mindmapping to either keep track of or map out longer more complex arguments.

    And of course draft, leave and revise; draft, leave and revise…

  8. Posted February 14, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Oh SL if you have a problem with clarity the rest of us are in deep trouble. Consider the following extract regarding Herbert Spencer’s description of evolution:

    Article: The Language of genes
    Authors: Steve Jones

    Notes:
    6,7

    He [Herbert Spencer] wrote with a true philosopher’s clarity: ‘Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity, to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, through which continuous differentiations and integrations.” He was parodied by a mathematical contemporary: ‘A change from a nohowish, untalkaboutable all-alikeness to a somehowish and in general talkaboutable not-all-alikeness by continuous somethingelsifications and stiicktogetherations.’.

    154

    “There are two cultures in science: one (to which most scientists belong) uses mathematics and the other understands it.”

    226

    “I sometimes illustrate using family similarity to establish the importance of biology by asking what, of our attributes, is most similar among British parents and their children – or their sisters and their cousins and their aunts. The answer is bank-balance.”

  9. Lang Mack
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    The only problem I had with clarity in the Bent Spoon award was when I clicked the link to ‘Catch the Fire’. The only clarity there is that they are a mob of nutters. And possibly dangerous.

    I’d like to see at least a try on incitement against that mob.

  10. Posted February 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    For me the most embarassing Explanation Fairy departure was in a tute with the dep head of the department, clustered around a small table, early in the morning after a looooong night. He handed me a jar and said
    Him: “Tell us ALL about it”.
    Me: “It’s a liver”
    Him: “Yes, Mr Bath, but this is pathology not anatomy”
    Me: “Biliary cirrhosis and portal congestion”
    Him: “Tell us what evidence before you leads you that conclusion and what other alternatives there are”.
    Me: (Pause while Explanation Fairy engages hyperspace drive at Warp 10) “aaaargh” (loud whomp as interdimensional portal closes behind departed Explanation Fairy) “it’s just giving off biliary cirrhosis and portal congestion type vibes, you know”
    Him: (long pause, fixed stare at my bloodshot eyes while taking the liver out of my hands..) “Miss Brown…”

    I was right… but the vibe it was giving off was so strong it precluded alternatives and reason. Rob Sitch was in my group. Have you seen “The Castle” courtroom scene?

  11. Posted February 14, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments… and Dave, at least your Explanation Fairy departure led to one of the funniest lines in cinema 🙂

    I suspect (with my thesis at least) that lack of ‘leaving’ (as saint mentions) may be partly at fault, although I do think I’ve just been careless, too. I’m generally good at explaining, so haven’t been careful enough to be alert to those times when the Explanation Fairy has simply shot through and left me stranded.

    It was aimed not at your arguments about the Catch the Fire maddies but at the fact you argued that we shouldn’t speculate on the causes of the fires or debate those issues.

    What I was trying to get across is summed up neatly by PC above; you can speculate all you like, but this close to the event, expect people who are suffering to be very angry with you if you do — to exercise their speech in response to yours. A lot of people fail to realise that freedom of speech is only partly about the right to say what you like. You also have to bear responsibility for your words. Of course, people can’t respond violently, but they can mock, deride and otherwise call you out.

    This is what I was doing to Nalliah (the worst of the maddies), but applies in weaker from to the nitwits running meaningless internet polls on the ABC site on whether the fires were caused by climate change, or Miranda Devine laying all the blame at the feet of ‘green’ local councils.

    Now I can see how many of these arguments can be made without rancour and partisanship — Jim Belshaw does a very good job here — but while any attempt to use the tragedy for point-scoring should not be silenced, we should be free to treat it with scorn.

  12. Posted February 15, 2009 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    Thanks SL and LE. Blush! I did try to write the post in question very carefully. I am glad that it was appreciated.

  13. Posted February 15, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I swing between two extremes. I have, for example, given a completely off the cuff speech to a group of eminent and intelligent legal individuals with no notes or preparation which said exactly what I wanted to say in exactly the way I wanted to say it, and received a corresponding response. Similarly, I once did well in an exam in which I knew practically nothing, on which the marker had actually written “this was largely devoid of content but so beautifully expressed that I had to give you a good mark”.

    Yet other times I stand up in court for a completely trivial directions hearing or similar and find myself totally tongue-tied.

    My favourite loss of expressiveness comes when I have written something flash, like written submissions for an appeal to the Full Court of the Supreme Court or similar, and then some QC or other Brilliant Person mentions it and I say something incisive like “oh yeah, I, um, wrote that… stuff… about, you know, that legal point that was in that… appeal.”

    Two huge contributing factors for me:

    1. Attention span of approximately 2 nanoseconds

    2. Excellent short term memory coupled with very poor long term memory

    So I can read and absorb every major case on a particular point of law, churn out something accurate and well written about it, but then completely fail to express myself on the same topic a few days later. This has always been a hindrence for me in writing longer pieces – for example my honours thesis in law was a relatively puny 12,000 words and said virtually nothing I actually wanted to say because after all the wading through background and setting up context I was so separated from my initial thoughts that I lost most of them.

    However, I have learnt to take heart from the fact that half the time when I think I have come across like a tongue-tied moron, whoever I am talking/writing to thinks the opposite. SL I think you must be the same – I didn’t think your skeptics/Nalliah piece was at all unclear.

  14. Posted February 15, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    And, hilariously, my post above (a) contains several typos/grammatical errors and (b) makes me sound like an arrogant twat, neither of which was intended. I guess I’m also in a ‘non-eloquent’ cycle…

  15. Posted February 15, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    A lot of people fail to realise that freedom of speech is only partly about the right to say what you like. You also have to bear responsibility for your words.

    Or if you like:

    A lot of people fail to realise that freedoms are only partly about your rights.You also have to bear responsibility.

    Anyone seen Burn After Reading?

    In it a woman attempts to sell what she falsely believes to be US state secrets to the Russian Embassy. When a Russian spook says something she believes to be a threat she gets all righteously indignant and says: I’m an American citizen. 🙂

  16. Posted February 15, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I know some people think that clarity is a cover, and that academic writing is doomed to be dense and unreadable.

    This is the conventional neo-bourgeois reaction to post-situationist agitationary spacialities of neo-formalatist questions of counter-architectural nominalism. The Neo-Facetitinian impetus to undermine Phallo-aphorisms of supra-domintro vectors of linear considerations present us with the problems of hyper-contemporaneitydecipherability.

    Obviously.

    optimacy

  17. Lizzie
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Stop imitating Klaus, Adrien.

  18. Posted February 15, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Paul, I’ve fixed the mistakes that stood out to me — because I thought you made a good point. There are times when I’ve done some similar things, especially walking out of an exam/court hearing thinking ‘well, that’s gone down the gurgler’ and I’ve actually been fine.

    And don’t underestimate the complexity of directions hearings. I used to hate noting up the files as an Associate, and I don’t like much doing them as a barrister, either. Sometimes it gets awfully close to Monty Python territory — ‘stand on one leg, whistle Dixie, spin round three times, touch your toes, then come back here in three weeks and do the same thing in reverse’.

  19. Posted February 15, 2009 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    SL,

    Stumbled upon this today. May be of benefit for yourself. As I have a particular interest in such issues and know a clinical psychologist who is a whiz on matters of the cerebellum, I hope to follow through on this at some later date. So if you would like to be kept abreast of what I uncover, please email me.

    http://www.dpag.ox.ac.uk/research/molecular_neuroscience/john_stein

    Developmental Dyslexia
    10% of all children have exceptional difficulties learning to read despite normal or high intelligence (developmental dyslexia).  This condition is strongly hereditary.  Building on Prof Stein’s research elucidating the visual control of movement in monkeys, his team runs clinics in Reading and Oxford for studying and treating children with visually based reading problems.  They investigate why these children have such problems, focussing on Prof Stein’s hypothesis that they have genetically based impaired development of the magnocellular systems of neurones in the brain.  The function of these neurones can often be improved using simple visual treatments such as coloured filters or improved nutrition.  Magnocellular neurones appear to be particularly vulnerable to lack of dietary omega-3 essential fatty acids (normally derived from oily fish) and, with Dr Alex Richardson (Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics), they have been able to show that supplementing the diets of children with dyslexic, dyspraxic, or attentional problems can greatly improve their concentration and reading .

  20. conrad
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    JH,

    You want to forget about all that magnocellular stuff (and definitely chuck the cerebellum stuff out!). Apart from John Stein, I think most people believe that that theory has pretty much gone the way of the dyslexia theory graveyard.
    .
    If you want to do a simple experiment to show you the biggest cause of reading problems, just go to a low SES school. Same genetics, same magnocellular function, massively different levels of problems. As for the kids smart kids that got a good education that do still have reading problems — there are no doubt numerous causes. Think of it like you would think of your car — multiple different things can and do go wrong. There’s no singular magic deficit that they all have, no matter how much people want to tell you there is.

  21. Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Hey Conrad,

    Certainly there can be multiple causes but that does not exclude the cerebellum as a possible cause. When I checked the data last night there is still a lot of interest in this area and the findings do support cerebellar involvement in some cases. I have not suggested a singular deficit, I am well aware of multiple causes giving rise to similiar symptoms, and I am also well aware that statistical analyses can mask this multiplicity of causes.

  22. Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I know John Stein through Pro-Test (the Oxford group that finally and irrevocably painted the mad animal libbers SPEAK and friends into a corner, and often gaol). He and Tipu Aziz are extraordinarily gifted researchers, such that even if they were contradicted by every other scholar in their field on this point, I’d be tempted to bet on their findings, or at least make a weighted each way bet in their favour.

  23. conrad
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve no doubt John Stein is a smart guy also — and in areas like psychology, it’s always good to push theories as far as they can go (especially since testing for these things is essentially free), so I’m quite happy for him and a few other people to see how far they can take the magnocellular stuff.

    As for the cerebellum stuff, I think it’s the least likely of the causes that has been suggested (say, compared to the magnocellular stuff, which, if it made a comeback one day, wouldn’t be a surprise). There’s essentially no real evidence for it — most of the evidence for it was created by people trying to rip off gullible parents — which was one of the reasons the board of Dyslexia were booted for scientific fraud. If you’re lucky enough to have a free subscription, this is documented here:

    http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v10/n2/full/nn0207-135.html

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