Peter Bye

As readers will have noticed, the theme of my blog is respect for facts, which is essential for evidence-based policy. In this piece, I’d like to look at a related topic: the need to use plain language – saying it clearly, in other words. After all, if we cannot understand what is being said or written, we are in no position to decide its truth or even its relevance.

There are some subjects that are inherently difficult, requiring specialized terminology. But it is almost always possible to convey basic ideas clearly. The late Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, was a master at explaining quantum electrodynamics – hardly an everyday subject – for a lay audience[1]. His superb communication skills became known to a wide audience when, as a member of the group investigating the Challenger shuttle disaster, he demonstrated on television the behaviour of the O-ring at low temperatures[2].

The key is to understand the audience and communicate at its level. I spent my working life in IT, a subject of some technical difficulty and much jargon. However, there is nothing about its relationship to business that cannot be said in a way that non-IT specialists would understand. There is no need to go into the details of how systems work internally to explain what they do, any more than understanding the workings of internal combustion engines is necessary to choose and drive a suitable car.

The need for clarity is not confined to technical subjects. ‘Management-speak’ and ‘consultant-speak’, two widely-used languages in today’s business world and beyond, can make the obvious obscure and the simple complicated, the straight crooked and the plain places rough.

Why don’t people say things clearly? There are, I believe, a number of reasons. One is a simple inability to write or speak lucidly. There are people who do not seem to have mastered this learnable skill. And it is learnable. There’s no magic, just a willingness to consider the audience, and practise.

There can also be more sinister reasons for a lack of clarity. One is a desire to put something over on the audience. George Orwell remarked[3] that ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. The same could be said, although less dramatically, about management-speak – and a good few other things.

Another dubious reason is to try to appear profound by using obscure language to impress the audience. For those so inclined, technical subjects such as IT are replete with complicated terminology to assist. So-called post-modern literary and social comment appears to suffer from this tendency. At times, there seems to be a belief that the audience will treat obscurity as profundity – if they can’t understand it, it must be important. For a quite magnificent attack on this kind of nonsense, I commend Professor Alan Sokal’s hoax paper ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity[4].

But it doesn’t only take obscure language to leave the audience in the dark. Apparently clear statements may be devoid of meaning because they don’t say anything of substance. Statements such as ‘we will empower the people’, ‘we will extend democracy to the grass roots’ and ‘we will end world poverty’ sound laudable but, without any indication of how they can be achieved, are effectively meaningless. Yet pronouncements of this kind are all too common. I heard a number of them this morning in a news programme.

I’d like to conclude by emphasising a couple of important points.

First, I said that general ideas behind complicated subjects can be made accessible to a wide audience. But the audience should not be misled into believing that the subject is simpler than it really is. In the public arena, policy decisions made on an over-simplified view of the world are unlikely to be effective and will lead to disappointment.

Secondly, it’s quite possible for a statement or longer piece to be clear and wrong – or just bullshit. An obvious recent example was the Vote Leave claim that leaving the EU would save GBP 350 M per week, which would be spent on the NHS. The statement is crystal-clear; it is also a lie.

Notes and sources

[1] For example, see his QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. It was published in 1961 and is available as a Penguin Science book. A video about his life can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyqleIxXTpw

[2] The video on Feynman’s life contains part of his demonstration of the O-ring problem. Going to the link to view the video also shows links to many others about him.

[3] In Why I write, available in the Penguin Great Ideas series.

[4] The hoax paper can be found at http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/ . The site also contains links to a number of pieces explaining why he wrote it.

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