Lying With Style

Clear and Simple as the Truth, the best book I've read in years, explains the virtues and lies of a very popular writing style.  Excerpts:

A [writing] style is defined by its conceptual stand on truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships. … Classic style is in its own view clear and simple as the truth. It adopts the stance that its purpose is presentation; its motive is disinterested truth. Successful presentation consists of aligning language with truth, and the test of this alignment is clarity and simplicity. The idea that presentation is successful when language is aligned with truth implies that truth can be known; truth needs no argument but only accurate presentation; the reader is competent to recognize truth; the symmetry between writer and reader allows the presentation to follow the model of conversation; a natural language is sufficient to express truth; and the writer knows the truth before he puts it into language. …

Classic style is focused and assured. Its virtues are clarity and simplicity; in a sense, so are its vices. It declines to acknowledge ambiguities, unessential qualifications, doubts, or other styles. It declines to acknowledge that it is a style. It makes its hard choices silently and out of the reader's sight. Once made, those hard choices are not acknowledged to be choices at all; they are presented as if they are inevitable, because classic style is, above all, a style of presentation with claims to transparency. …

Classic style is neither shy nor ambiguous about fundamentals. The style rests on the assumptions that it is possible to think disinterestedly, to know the results of disinterested thought, and to present them without fundamental distortion. In this view, thought precedes writing. All of these assumptions may be wrong, but they help to define a style whose usefulness is manifest. …

Writing in this style requires no commitment to a set of beliefs, only a willingness to adopt a role for a limited time and a specific purpose. The role is severely limited because classic prose is pure, fearless, cool, and relentless. It asks no quarter and gives no quarter to anyone, including the writer. … The human condition does not, in general, allow the degree of autonomy and certainty that the classic writer pretends to have. …

A [birding] field guide, in its stand on truth, presentation, scene, cast, thought, and language, fits the classic stand on the elements of style perfectly. Its implied model is one person presenting observations to another, who is in a position to verify them by direct observation. … It strives to be brief and efficient. It seeks to present the birds it describes specifically and precisely enough for the reader to recognize them in the field.

The writing in a good field guide is certainly the product of deliberation and revision but sounds like ideal spontaneous speech, as if an accomplished companion in the field wanted to tell you something. There is a symmetry between writer and reader: although the writer knows more about the subject than the reader, the reader would know exactly what the writer knows had he seen what the writer has seen in the past. And the guide's purpose is to put the reader in a position to achieve that parity.

The writer needs nothing from the reader. The writer's purpose is purely the presentation of the truth. Neither writer nor reader has a job to do. The writer writes and the reader reads not for the sake of some external task–solving a problem, making money, winning a case, getting a rebate, selling insurance, fixing a machine–but rather for the sake of the subject–in this case, the birds–and for the sake of being united in recognizing the truth of this subject. The writer takes the pose of full knowledge, since nothing could be more irksome to someone in the field than a passage clotted with hedges about the writer's impotence.

The authors explain why students should learn this style:

Classic style is also an incomparably effective style for American students to learn, because classic style is associated in America with intelligence and distinction, even though classic writing does not draw attention to itself or appear to be trying to promote the writer. Having learned to inhabit the classic stand and to write or speak from it gives the student an invaluable instrument for dealing with any moment that calls for self-presentation or persuasion, because classic style in America is taken as a mark of the superiority of the writer. The ethos carried by classic style gives an implicit but powerful picture of the writer which often accomplishes all by itself the task the student faces. The writer confronted with the law school application, the blank "Statement of Purpose," the application to graduate school, the job interview, the brief interval in which she may be allowed to pitch whatever it is she has to pitch, has a great advantage over competitors if she can assume the classic stand and speak from it.

Classic style is elastic over personalities, allowing the student to develop an individual style that is none the less classic for being individual. La Rochefoucauld, Thomas Jefferson, A. J. Liebling, and the authors of the Audubon Guide to North American Birds are all distinct and well-formed individuals, but they are all prototypical classic stylists.

Classic style offers the student exceptional pleasure since it is flattering to the writer, flattering to the reader, and intellectually collusive. It takes the stand that there is no external pressure on the writer and certainly nothing that the writer is trying to beat out of the reader – a grade, a letter of recommendation, a contract. The writer is unquestionably competent, absolutely interesting, entirely disinterested, at leisure, and articulate. The writer's security as a thinker and a writer is not at issue.

I admit it: by writing in this style I implicitly tell flattering lies about myself and my readers.  But this classic style seems so very convenient for so many purposes; how can I lie less while retaining its virtues?  A very vigorous hat tip to Alexis Gallagher.

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  • http://atheorist.livejournal.com Johnicholas

    One way to be more truthful might be a brief disclaimer referencing this book, or this post, something like:

    “In this essay, I will be using what Thomas and Turner call ‘classic style’. [reference]”

    It’s not an elegant solution, but it might be a first step.

    By the way, this is an awesome post.

  • Marshall

    I would have thought, that this style could be readily confused with arrogance. I would also expect resistance by the many who do not feel flattered and who cannot “collude” with the speaker or the truth. Its modesty being only enjoyed by the few. In other words an acceptance of its impotence and an apology for one’s arrogance would greatly reduce its lie.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Johnicholas, how about just a generic disclaimer “Don’t interpret anything I say as reflecting badly on me if another interpretation is possible.”?

    Marshall, what specific writings in this style have struck you as arrogant?

  • Cyan

    When the “vices” of the classic style are being discussed, this text, written in the classic style, is (probably deliberately) criticizing itself through indirect self-reference. What has it left unsaid?

  • frelkins

    @Cyan

    What has it left unsaid?

    When Robin asks how he can “lie less,” what he leaves unsaid – even though we here all know it – is the fact that deception and self-deception are crucial to monkey success.

    The tension here is that the less Robin “lies” through the kinds of behind-the-scenes selection the post describes, the less successful his seemingly unPersuasive writing might be.

    The classic style perhaps is the ultimate in social proof, and its comforting voice of neutral authority is sought after by a society in need of feelings of safety, the appearance of expertise, and control.

  • Marshall

    Robin: I wasn’t really thinking of texts – more social interactions, where if you don’t pay lip-service to the audience and only collude with the truth you will be misunderstood. The audience/group requires first and foremost loyalty to itself which is signalled by misrepresenting (slightly or greatly) the truth. Cool detachment is an insult. A textual examle could be Eli’s sometimes rambling texts which create more followers than your compact texts.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    frelkins, yes other styles may make me seem less impressive, but they can also just be slow and awkward.

    Marshall, I was talking about writing, not general social interactions.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Well, there’s my own approach of deliberately signaling non-authority by sticking out my tongue, often in some direct proportion to how much I feel that my own writings don’t deserve to be treated as authoritative. I have little hesitation about writing in classic style about known science which I trust (although if I’m not worried about being taken seriously, that also creates more opportunity for fun). Conversely, if I’m worried about my arguments not being taken seriously enough – especially if I’m talking to an unfamiliar audience not already inclined to defer to me – then I may try to write in more classic style, on the theory that it will merely balance the apparent “silliness” of the subject matter.

    Not saying it’s the only approach, just that it’s the one I seem to have ended up taking.

  • http://atheorist.livejournal.com Johnicholas

    @Robin The essay says that classic style “makes its hard choices silently [...] all of which may be wrong”. You could take a sequence of disclaimers, such as: Despite appearances in this essay, I have other motives than disinterested truth. Despite appearances in this essay, I am not an unquestioned authority on this subject. Despite appearances in this essay, I do not have complete confidence in these claims. Et cetera.

    I was trying to compress that sequence of disclaimers into a shorter disclaimer “I will be using classic style.”

    Does the disclaimer “Don’t interpret anything I say as reflecting badly on me if another interpretation is possible.” expand out to the same sequence? I can’t tell that it does.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/halfinney Hal Finney

    In some situations you are pretty much forced to write in classic style, such as an academic paper. But for blog postings, you could adopt a more warm, humanistic approach. Include anecdotes, talk about how you came to consider a topic. Discuss the uncertainties and confusions that you went through as you came to your conclusions.

    A mathematical proof is completely different from a description of how one came to discover the proof. In some contexts the latter is far more interesting and useful.

    In software there is a not-much-used technique invented by Donald Knuth called literate programming. It tries to move away from the program as a static object, with its constrained sequences of variables, data structures, functions and algorithms. It allows a more discursive and roundabout way of presenting the program, one which exposes the author’s reasoning and something of the sequence of thoughts he went through to develop the program. Basically, the writer can intersperse program code with commentary, in somewhat arbitrary order, and then there are tools that can go through, extract and re-order the software fragments, and assemble a classical program. Other tools can produce outputs focusing more on commentary or documentation. While these techniques are not perfect in terms of presenting the act of creation of software (they don’t seem to facilitate backtracking and recording mistakes) they do offer an interesting alternative way to look at software creation.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    The postmodern style takes the opposite tack: Assume everything is ambiguous; instead of refusing to acknowledge doubt, refuse to acknowledge certainty; instead of transparency, attempt to draw attention to the style; instead of communicating truth, communicate that there is no truth.

    Yet it has the same function. It “is flattering to the writer, flattering to the reader, and intellectually collusive. It takes the stand that there is no external pressure on the writer and certainly nothing that the writer is trying to beat out of the reader… The writer is unquestionably competent, absolutely interesting, entirely disinterested, at leisure, and articulate.”

  • Diana

    Interesting. Especially interesting in the context that the classic style is basically derived from Cicero’s writing style in Latin. Cicero was probably the first writer who crafted his political and legal arguments precisely to convince the judge or the voter that his “purpose is purely the presentation of the truth. Neither writer nor reader has a job to do. The writer writes and the reader reads not for the sake of some external task–solving a problem, making money, winning a case, getting a rebate, selling insurance, fixing a machine–but rather for the sake of the subject–in this case, the birds–and for the sake of being united in recognizing the truth of this subject.” But of course inherent in the classical style is that this purely fact-based, utterly rational manner is in fact the most persuasive of all, which is why Cicero’s style became the mainstay for rhetorical argument over the centures.

    • http://www.gwern.net/Against%20The%20Miletians gwern

      What makes you tie this to Cicero specifically? The Sophists were active centuries before Cicero, specializing in forensic oratory and arguments.

  • Pablo

    Here’s a recent talk by Steven Pinker on writing style and science communication. (Pinker’s forthcoming book will be a style manual informed by cognitive psychology.)  He relies heavily on, and speaks highly of, Clear and Simple as the Truth.

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