I very often agree with Pinker’s insights and criticisms, especially regarding linguistic and intellectual matters. And in this case I think he has a point as well. At least in part.
On the other hand the equally weighty criticism of this critique of the audience is as follows: 1) it assumes that every reader and audience (or even a significant proportion thereof) is ignorant, whereas in fact literacy is at an all-time global high, and most people intentionally ignorant of a particular subject matter would not be reading your words in the first place if they truly were, 2) it assumes that your insights, definitions, and assumptions (as a writer or supposed expert) about a particular subject matter are the correct ones (and that in itself is a patently false and often easily disproven position), and 3) it assumes that the writer himself is a sort of knowledge expert (as modern men wantonly and ignorantly define the term “expert“), and few things are both as personally disgusting to me and as effortless to successfully dispute as the idea that the majority of writers are expert (modern or otherwise) on any given subject matter in any way at all. (Of course I could easily marshal other such arguments against the “curse of knowledge” premise, – sounds awful scary doesn’t it, but that is enough to work with at the moment.)
In other words just because you are writing on a given subject matter, or feel yourself qualified to write upon a given subject matter, is not evidence of any kind that you actually are qualified to write on a given subject. That shouldn’t stop you, and indeed it won’t stop most writers, and throughout history has never stopped most writers, but it should at least give you symbolic pause about your own expert assumptions about your own supposed expertise.
I do not in any way assume my audience is automatically ignorant or uneducated on any subject I write on or they read on, I do not assume that even if they were ignorant (of either a term or an idea) that they could not easily rectify this situation themselves with a modicum or research and effort, I do not assume that my writing will be “bad” merely because my audience’s intellect does not soar to my vaunted levels of erudite elocution and elucidation (interject here the proper level of sarcasm you feel might be warranted by this comment), and I do not assume that merely because I am well educated on a subject that either my conclusions, theories, or definitions cannot be incorrect. Those would be wholly unscientific and ridiculous assumptions on my part about both myself, and you, the reader.
This is the multitudinous, pretentious, and totally self-fabricated bullshit of the modern writer, modern literary theorist, the modern “expert,” and the so-called writing coach. (Or indeed almost any kind of modern coach.) It is everywhere and reflexively repeated as the common and self-evident wisdom of all good writing – Dumb it down boys and girls for you are the rarefied mental wonder of the ages whereas your reader is the dim-witted lackey who struggles to pace himself against your enlightened – whatever it is you are so dammed enlightened about (and it must be something important, after all, you’re a writer – so Hooray for you Einstein)!
Truth is this is merely a modern conceit to the modern man about what he assumes about the modern mind. That being his own mind. The modern man thinks himself smarter than everyone else and he does so without even a hint of self-irony or self-reflection. And this is, to a very large extent, why modern man is as modern man so obviously is.
I am no dammed “modern expert” on any subject matter and have no wish to be. I hold forth on probabilities as related to reality as best I can determine such things, I do not hold forth on my own expertise. To hell with that, and the probabilities entailed by it.
Modern writers often border perilously close upon the idea that subject-matter knowledge makes their writing automatically admirable, correct, useful, and illuminating. It only makes their writing informed. At least informed about what they are informed about. Which may or may not be correct. But they assume that just because it is informed this is the same as being correct. Whereas I know human nature and psychology far too well to automatically make any such laughable assumption about any information presented to me on such a flimsy foundation of validity – informed and correct can lead to entirely different conclusions about reality. I’ll let you guess which one is likely to prove the more accurate of the two approaches, because Truth be told, I suspect you don’t need my help at all.
See how that works?
I have no more automatic respect for the supposed genius and infallibility or absolute correctness of a writer, any writer, including myself, than I believe most actors give Wise Life Advice.
We (writers of any kind) like to think ourselves brilliant and Wise. Truth is we’re a dime a dozen and that’s intelligence and Wisdom on the cheap. Sure enough.
I always try to keep that in mind when examining my own ego and assessing my own writings.
Updated Sept. 25, 2014 12:06 p.m. ET
Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?
The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy. Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.
But the bamboozlement theory makes it too easy to demonize other people while letting ourselves off the hook. In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it’s often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.
I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. Apparent to everyone, that is, except the eminent biologist. When the host interrupted and asked him to explain the work more clearly, he seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed. This is the kind of stupidity I am talking about.
Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The term was invented by economists to help explain why people are not as shrewd in bargaining as they could be when they possess information that their opposite number does not. Psychologists sometimes call it mindblindness. In the textbook experiment, a child comes into the lab, opens an M&M box and is surprised to find pencils in it. Not only does the child think that another child entering the lab will somehow know it contains pencils, but the child will say that he himself knew it contained pencils all along!
The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it. Thirty students send me attachments named “psych assignment.doc.” I go to a website for a trusted-traveler program and have to decide whether to click on GOES, Nexus, GlobalEntry, Sentri, Flux or FAST—bureaucratic terms that mean nothing to me. My apartment is cluttered with gadgets that I can never remember how to use because of inscrutable buttons which may have to be held down for one, two or four seconds, sometimes two at a time, and which often do different things depending on invisible “modes” toggled by still other buttons. I’m sure it was perfectly clear to the engineers who designed it.
Multiply these daily frustrations by a few billion, and you begin to see that the curse of knowledge is a pervasive drag on the strivings of humanity, on par with corruption, disease and entropy. Cadres of expensive professionals—lawyers, accountants, computer gurus, help-line responders—drain vast sums of money from the economy to clarify poorly drafted text…