Aping Insight

Editors at top publications often do amazing jobs; the quality you see if often more a credit to editors than authors.  But at mid and low rank publications, editors often frustrate good writers.  Focusing on obscure anal rules about grammar or citations, they waste enormous energy adding little communication value.  Why do they bother? 

Similarly, it seems to me that while a wide vocabulary enables more eloquence from the best writers, most writers who use obscure words communicate less well than if they had used common words.  Why do they bother?

In these and many other cases, it seems to me that folks are aping insight – they are imitating the surface features of the insightful, to look insightful in the eyes of ignorant observers.  After all, only relatively insightful people can see clearly when others are insightful – other folks find it easier to rely on surface indications.  (I’m granting the benefit of the doubt here to talk about "insight"; the game is probably really about looking impressive.)

If you just want to look insightful yourself, then you’ll want to ape insight like everyone else.  Use big words, attend to anal formatting rules, use many citations in academic articles, clever turns of phrase in popular articles, and so on.  In literary articles give many quotes, in science articles show many data tables and statistical tests, etc.

But if you actually want to be insightful, you face a harder problem.  Once you realize that most folks are merely aping surface features thought to correlate with insight, you see that doing this yourself may not actually help you to be insightful.  You may face a choice between looking insightful and being insightful. Yes for some factors that correlate with insight, increasing your score on such factors will tend to cause you to be insightful, but for many other factors such an increase will reduce or have no effect on your insight. 

Now this conflict is minimal when you have insightful readers and editors, who care primarily about insight.  But if you have uninsightful readers and editors, or if while capable of insight they care more about looking insightful to others, you may prefer to forgo the rewards of looking insightful, to try to actually be insightful. 

Of course don’t try this if you can’t afford to do without those rewards, at least for a long time.  And beware: you may well care more than you realize about what folks think of you.  Also, you can’t conclude you have real, not fake insight, just because you fail to acquire the usual surface features of insight, nor even if you see yourself consciously choosing something else over acquiring those surface features.   Finally, since most people who ape inisght fool themselves into thinking they have real insight, your subjective feeling that your insight is real is also not enough.

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