Category Archives: writing

Yes, newspapers, you need us!

The story so far:  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece called “Professors, we need you!” in which he mourned the loss of the public intellectual of yonderyear:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

And so on from there.  You’ve heard this song — we speak in our own jargon, we’re obsessed with meaningless turf wars, there’s too much math, “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose” (must we?)

Lots of pushback on this, as you can imagine.  But the predominant tone, from professor-defenders like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo or  Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker and Ezra Klein in Bloomberg View, is that it’s not really academics’ fault our writing is so bad and unreadable and sealed off from the world.  It’s our bad incentives — the public intellectualizing we’d like to be doing isn’t rewarded by our tenure committees and our academic publishing system!

I’d put it a different way.  I think our incentives are fine, because our incentive is to be right about things, which is our job.  Newspapers have different incentives.  I’ve been writing for general-audience publications for years, and I can tell you what editors mean when they say a piece is “too academic.”  They don’t mean “there’s too much jargon” or “the subject isn’t of wide interest.”  They mean “you didn’t take a strong enough position.”  When I write about a matter of current controversy, I often get asked:  “What’s the takeaway?  Who’s right here and who’s wrong?”  In real life there are no takeaways.  In real life one person’s sort of right about one thing and the other person’s sort of right about another thing and understanding the nature of the controversy may require a somewhat technical unraveling of those two different things which are thoughtlessly being referred to as one thing.  Most editors hate this stuff.  That’s why they don’t print it.  But it’s the work you have to do if you want to say things that are true.

I’ve been lucky to have done a lot of my journalism for Slate.  A lot of other academics write for them, too, and you know why?  Because they might tell you “this is too complicated, can you say the same thing but clearer?” but they’ll never tell you “this is too complicated, can you say something simpler and more bullshitty instead?”

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What do Aner Shalev and Nike Vatsal have in common?

My mother-in-law was toting around a book of short stories translated from the Hebrew and I saw a familiar name on the front:  Aner Shalev.  Not the same Aner Shalev as the group theorist I know, surely — but no, I checked, and it’s him!  Good story, too, actually not a story but an excerpt from his 2004 novel Dark Matter (or I guess I should say Hachomer Haafel since it doesn’t seem to exist in English.)  It was good!

Sometime last year I was in a coffee shop in Berkeley doing math with Tom Church and on the bookshelf there was an old issue of Story, and in the table of contents I found Vinayak Vatsal.  Not the same Vinayak Vatsal as the number theorist I know, surely, but….  yep, it was him.  I only got to read the beginning of Nike’s story because I was supposed to be doing math, but that one was good too, what I read.

How many mathematicians are secretly placing stories in literary magazines, I’d like to know?

 

 

 

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Stoner

Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams, has been named the 2013 Waterstones Book of the Year.

Pretty cool to see an old book recognized!  I read this a while back; it’s one of those books often mentioned as a “forgotten classic” and I read such books out of a sense of obligation.  But sometimes, like this time, it pays off.  (See also:  Independent People, The Bridge on the Drina.)  Stoner represents a certain strain in the mid-century American novel that I really like, and which I don’t think exists in contemporary fiction.  Anguish, verbal restraint, weirdness.  Among famous authors, maybe some of Salinger, maybe some of O’Connor (but not glowing like O’Connor, more subdued, and not funny like Salinger, more deadpan.)  Besides Stoner I am thinking of James Purdy and Richard Yates — not even so much Revolutionary Road but The Easter Parade, which is grinding and merciless but at the same time strangely mild-mannered, in the same way Stoner is.

What else belongs here?

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“The global warming crowd has a problem”

Such a weird lede in this op-ed from Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.  “The global warming crowd has a problem” sounds like he’s going to lay down 800 words of climate change denial!  But no — what he means is something more like:

“Climate scientists have a PR problem, because we’re experiencing a short period of flat temperatures, which makes people think incorrectly that warming has stopped — and part of the blame for this is down to climate scientists themselves, who underrated the amount of natural variation and led people to expect an uninterrupted warming trend.”

Cheers to him for trying to say something this complicated in a NYT op/ed (though warning:  if Brad DeLong is right about the way Muller gets his “temperature plateau,” the article sort of falls apart.)

Still:  I wonder what proportion of people read this quickly and took away from the piece that Muller was smacking down the “global warming crowd” and rejecting the claims of climate change as hooey.

This is related to the question of whether Malcolm Gladwell is to blame for people thinking there’s no such thing as talent and all you have to do is practice oboe for 10,000 hours and you’ll be whatever somebody who’s really good at oboe is called.

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Gladwell, Chabris, and the responsibilities of the science writer

It started with Christopher Chabris’s highly negative Wall Street Journal review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath:

One thing “David and Goliath” shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works.

Chabris complains that Gladwell places a lot of weight on a tiny study, which later researchers have failed to replicate, a fact unmentioned in Gladwell’s book.  Chabris went into greater depth in his blog, in a post title “Why Gladwell matters (and why that’s unfortunate)”.  On Gladwell’s readers:

Who are those people? They are the readers who will take Gladwell’s laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; they will tweet them to the world, preach them to their underlings and colleagues, write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell’s claims more than once in his last book), and let them infiltrate their own decision-making processes. These are the people who will learn to trust their guts (Blink), search out and lavish attention and money on fictitious “influencers” (The Tipping Point), celebrate neurological problems rather than treat them (David and Goliath), and fail to pay attention to talent and potential because they think personal triumph results just from luck and hard work (Outliers). It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings, and I think they are more common among exactly those readers Gladwell says are his audience.

Daniel Engber, in Slate, complained that Gladwell’s books don’t send a coherent message:

So which is it: Do the poor get poorer (Outliers), or does being poor make them rich (David and Goliath)? It’s both…. The notion that a rule holds true except for when it doesn’t runs through David and Goliath, and insulates its arguments from deep interrogation.

And today, Gladwell himself weighs in with a testy response to Chabris’s review.  Who told him it would be a good idea to title it “Christopher Chabris should calm down?”  For that matter, who told him it would be a good idea to respond at all?  Don’t get me wrong, I get it — if somebody said those things in the national press, I too would probably say

What is going on here? The kinds of people who read books in America seem to have no problem with my writing.

but I would say it to my wife and my friends — that’s what they’re there for! — and maintain a dignified silence in public.  At least I hope that’s what I’d do.  (A wag on Twitter pointed out that the last guy to write a long public complaint about a bad review from Chabris was Jonah Lehrer.)

Heard enough about Malcolm Gladwell?  Too bad, because now you get to hear my take.  I like Malcolm Gladwell.  I sometimes feel a little bit alone in my defense of him.  I thought The Tipping Point showed a strong intuitive grasp of mathematics.  I don’t care if he doesn’t know how to spell eigenvalue, because I feel like he instinctively gets how differential equations work.  I think he is a superb writer of English sentences and I think people consistently underestimate how much that has to do with his popularity.  (See also:  Nate Silver.)  I can’t defend David and Goliath because I haven’t read it, or Outliers, or any of his books after the first one.

But I want to talk about this point Chabris makes on his blog, which I think deserves focused attention even though I disagree with it:

It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings

Is that true?  Are we, science writers, responsible not only for what we write, but for what careless readers are likely to make out of what we write?  I can’t accept that we are.  I write a lot of articles of the form “People justify X by saying Y but actually Y is not a good argument for X” and every single time I do this, the comments demonstrate that most people read it as “X is false.”  Is there a sentence in the piece of the form “None of which is to say that X is false?”  Of course there is.  Doesn’t matter.  I claim this is not sufficient reason to stop writing articles of that form.  But I think it’s something we all ought to be conscious of as we write:  not just, am I saying what I mean to say, but what are the obvious and inevitable misreadings, and how can we express ourselves so as to make them rarer?

Then there’s the question, more central to Chabris’s criticism, of how thorough science journalists must be in their treatment of the literature.  What Chabris wrote about Gladwell’s use of the small, unreplicated study seemed pretty damning to me.  But then I thought:  well, what do I do in How Not To Be Wrong?  In order to make my point I write about a study — in fact, a study by Christopher Chabris — about genetic influence on general intelligence.  Has Chabris’s study been replicated?  Frankly, I don’t know.

Here’s where I think the difference is.  A book like Gladwell’s is meant to advance a certain thesis, and the studies he cites are adduced as evidence for that thesis.  In my book, the thesis, which is some point of mathematics, is something I know is correct.  So the studies play the role of illustrations, not evidence.  My approach is like Gladwell’s, in that my goal is to tell a story.  But writing about math is much easier, because I know in advance that my story is true.

 

Update:  Andrew Gelman weighs in with a great post on popular science as stone soup.

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Janet Malcolm and the Eileen Fisher sweater

Someone left last week’s New Yorker in the coffeeshop where I’m working right now, or rather “working” because what I’m actually doing is pausing to read the profile of Eileen Fisher by America’s greatest living essayist, Janet Malcolm.

Malcolm arrives in an Eileen Fisher sweater:

The sweater is a remarkable garment.  On the hanger it looks like nothing — it is buttonless and ribbed and boxy — but when worn it becomes almost uncannily flattering.  Everyone who wears it looks good in it.  Eileen then said something surprising, namely that she had not designed my sweater.  Twenty years earlier, she had stopped designing; she had turned this work over to a design team that has been doing it ever since, at first under her supervision and now under that of a lead designer.

Like a tiny short story — Malcolm has brought Fisher a gift, the gift of wearing the sweater she designs, and Fisher, casually and without much thought — “like nothing” — dismisses it.  Malcolm’s disappointment colors the paragraph and retroactively makes poignant her extravagant praise of what is, after all, just a sweater.

This is what the New Journalism — I mean the old New Journalism, not tweetable listicles — was supposed to be about.  Moments where the journalist’s hand is visible:  in the picture, but not obscuring the subject.  Rather, harmonizing with it, in a way that, if you are not Janet Malcolm, is very hard to bring off.

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Who is the British Mark Twain?

By which I mean:  if you’re in the United States of America, and you can find a Mark Twain quote which bolsters a point you’re trying to make, you are golden.  Because somehow Twain is seen as a sort of conduit for the wisdom of the nation, a proxy for American common sense and knowhow.  Nobody ever says “Mark Twain was full of shit.”  You’re kind of not allowed.

I asked an British friend whether there was a British equivalent of this, whether, for instance, it was George Orwell.  He said, no, in Britain, Orwell is seen as being for children, it’s not Orwell.  Then he thought for a while and said, oh, no, obviously, it’s Samuel Johnson.

Agree?  Disagree?  Other candidates?  Is there a French Mark Twain, or a Chinese one?

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Yitang Zhang, bounded gaps, primes as random numbers

In Slate today, I have a piece about Yitang Zhang’s amazing proof of the bounded gaps conjecture.  Actually, very little of the article is about Zhang himself or his proof; I wanted instead to explain why mathematicians believed that bounded gaps (or twin primes) was true in the first place, via Cramér’s heuristic that primes behave like random numbers.

And a lot of twin primes is exactly what number theorists expect to find no matter how big the numbers get—not because we think there’s a deep, miraculous structure hidden in the primes, but precisely because we don’t think so. We expect the primes to be tossed around at random like dirt. If the twin primes conjecture were false, that would be a miracle, requiring that some hitherto unknown force be pushing the primes apart.

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Robert Frost to BF Skinner, 1926

“All that makes a writer is the ability to write strongly and directly from some unaccountable and almost invincible personal prejudice like Stevensons in favor of all being happy as kings no matter if consumptive, or Hardy against God for the blunder of sex, or Sinclair Lewis’ against small American towns, or Shakespeare’s mixed, at once against and in favor of life itself. I take it that everybody has the prejudice and spends some time feeling for it to speak and write from. But most people end as they begin by acting out the prejudices of other people.”

I’m a Frost booster, but I don’t see the stance of being “at once against and in favor of life itself” as sufficiently focused to be called a “prejudice.”

 

 

 

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Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday!

From a New York Times op-ed about the reading and writing curriculum, specifically the decreasing emphasis on prose fiction:

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

But isn’t it also rare to have to write a market analysis?

When we say, in brief, that someone “can write” I hope we are not saying they’re good at creating bureacratic documentation; I think we mean they can share information about a series of facts, events, or assertions concisely and clearly, while maintaining control over tone and diction so as to convey the right emotional relation to the material, and the right status relation with the recipient.

In other words, we are saying they can write e-mail that gets the job done and doesn’t waste time.

I see no reason reading novels wouldn’t teach you how to do this.

 

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