Communicating Knowledge: how to write an essay
1. Once you have completed your research, then you are ready to move on to the next step, which is communicating your knowledge. But beware; this is a tricky next step. You cannot just blurt out random bits of information from all the sources you just read. Nor should you ignore the majority of your research by relying on just a few sources. You need to review all of your research to decide what to use and how to use it. You should try to use most, if not all, of your research, which could mean using five, ten, twenty, or fifty sources. But how do you decide? The foundation for any successful writing (academic, business, or personal) is starting with a clear point, which is often called the "thesis." A thesis is a clear statement that your paper will prove true or false by the strength of your evidence, the quality of your reasoning, and the clearness of your prose. But even when you have a good thesis, writing a paper (especially a long and complex paper) is not an easy task.
2. Writing an academic paper takes careful planning, just like building a house. No contractor in his or her right mind would just start nailing boards together to build a house. Every contractor has to first produce a detailed set of plans, called blueprints, which describe the structure of every part of the house, the materials needed to build it, and the order in which parts have to be built. Before any concrete is mixed or any board is nailed, these blueprints have to be examined by architects, contractors, city officials, and, of course, the owners of the new house. You can know everything about a house by looking at blueprints. They outline the entire structure of the house and they show you how everything fits together. By looking at blueprints, an architect or city official can tell if the house will be solid, safe, and energy efficient, among other things. Once the plans are approved, the contractor follows the blueprints exactly and begins to build the house.
3. Writing an academic paper is not really different than building a house. As Stanley Fish (2011) has pointed out, writing is a “technical” activity: It allows us to “organize” and communicate our knowledge of the world (p. 7). Like an engineer building a house, a writer needs to gather resources, make a detailed plan, and then build. Only the materials are different. For writing, the first step (as described in the last chapter) is doing your research to see what others know, and don't know, about a topic. You need to make sure that you are fully knowledgeable about your topic before you begin to write. Once the research is complete, the next step is formulating a thesis statement, which is the clear point that you will prove true or false in your essay. The thesis is your purpose. It explains why you are writing.
4. Your thesis also allows you to make a detailed plan of action, the outline. The thesis tells you which sources will help you explain and prove your point and which sources will not. The outline organizes everything you are going to say in a logical order (and it is important to remember that there are many different logical orders, for example, from strongest to weakest point, or first event to last event). The outline also organizes your sources around the main ideas you will present in order to prove your thesis. The logical organization you have outlined is called the "structure" of your essay, just like the framework for a house.
5. Only after the outline is completely finished are you are ready to write. You need to "think before writing," as the famous writer H. L. Mencken once explained (Teachout, 2002, p. 168). Most students dread writing academic essays because they rarely know what to say. But this problem occurs only if you don't have any knowledge about your topic, or if you haven't organized a plan. If you are knowledgeable about your topic, and if you plan an outline correctly, then "not knowing what to say" should never be a problem.
6. A good writer always knows exactly what to say because he or she has carefully researched a topic and outlined a plan in advance. With a detailed outline, the actual writing of your prose should be quick and easy because you have already organized every point you are going to make and every detail you will use to explain and prove your points. The next to last step in the writing process is sitting in front of a computer and typing up sentences and paragraphs. Once this work is finished, the last step is editing your essay to make sure you explained and proved your points as clearly and logically as possible.
9.1 Making a Point: Topic and Thesis
7. Many students don't fully understand the difference between a topic and a thesis. To fully understand these words, it is helpful to go back to their linguistic and social origins in ancient Greece. The word topic comes from the ancient Greek word topos, which meant "a place." The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle used a variant of this word, topoi, to mean subjects that people commonly discussed or debated - conceptual places, or what we would call subjects. The word thesis comes from the ancient Greek thesis, which meant to take a position on a topic by making a statement that could be proven true or false with evidence and reasoning. The ancient Greeks believed that humans use language to publicly debate different points about important topics in order to try to persuade other people what is true and what is false, and thereby, how people should act on knowledge to create a better society (Burke, 1945/1969).
8. Public debating and persuading an audience is called rhetoric, from the ancient Greek rhetorikos, which meant public speech. Rhetoric is how you talk in order to communicate and move people to act. It is a repertoire of all the verbal tools a speaker uses to communicate effectively and to persuade an audience (Aristotle, 1984; Burke, 1950/1969). In order to talk about a topic, you need to first know about that topic (i.e. research), then take a position on that topic. Taking a position means communicating a thesis. A thesis is a statement about your topic which you will prove true or false through evidence, reasoning, and the effective use of language. Your ability to speak clearly, logically, and persuasively to an audience represents your knowledge and authority on the topic, which you publicly declare as a responsible citizen seeking to make your polis, or society, a better place – an activity the ancient Greeks called "politics." All knowledge is political in this way. We want to not only know, but also to communicate our knowledge. We use our knowledge to be responsible citizens, which includes trying to create a better society.
9. But how do you know what thesis point to make about a topic? The answer comes from your research. When you investigated the secondary research on your topic, you entered into a conversation of experts. These people have been debating what they know and what the public should do about that topic. There are a range of existing positions in any public debate. Your job is to understand these different positions and take a side for, against, or somewhere in between (see chapter 12, section 12.1 for ten thesis statement strategies). Rarely does someone add a completely new insight or position to a debate. Those that can add something new are sometimes called visionaries or geniuses because they make us see existing topics in a whole new way (think of scientists like Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein, or inventors like Alexander Graham Bell or Steve Jobs).
How to Make a Point
10. Most people take an existing position and refine that position in some small but meaningful way by adding new information or a new type of argument. For students, this is what you need to do. As you research, you need to choose a position that seems to be the most reasonable based on the evidence available. You will both agree and disagree with the various sources you read, so you should look for a way to contribute to the conversation with your new information or new argument. The "new" element that you bring to the debating table is your thesis, your point, your contribution that establishes you as an active participant in an important conversation.
9.2 Pre-write: Outline Essay
11. Once you have identified your topic and taken a position on that topic through a clear thesis point, then you are ready to outline your essay. The outline is an overview of the structure of your essay, which includes the major parts organized in a coherent and logical way. Every essay has the same basic foundational parts: topic, thesis, main ideas, details/evidence, and sources. These parts are organized into four major sections: Introduction, Body, Conclusion, and Reference Page. You've already found your topic and formulated your thesis. The next step is to articulate the supporting points (sometimes called main ideas) that you will need to explain and prove.
12. The supporting points are specific points that you will combine to prove your thesis true or false. Each main idea is a point about your topic that you will explain and prove with lots of detailed evidence in your body paragraphs. On your outline, you need to organize these main ideas into a logical sequence (what point needs to come first, second, etc.), and you need to review your research to find the best evidence to explain and prove these main ideas. You are unlikely to use all your sources, and you certainly can't discuss all the evidence that might be available. You must choose the best sources with the best evidence, and then logically organize this information around your main ideas. As you do this, you must make sure to indicate where you got each piece of evidence. Use in-text citations on your outline to save you time later on when you write the essay (see section on Citations below). If you can organize all of your evidence and citations on the outline, then you will have a lot less work when you actually write the first draft of the essay.
Handout: Sample Outline Format
13. The size and detail of your outline will vary depending on your skill as a thinker and writer. A professional academic writer will usually map out only the foundational parts of an essay, but not plan every paragraph. On the other hand, developing writers should not only plan the foundational parts, but also organize these parts down to a specific number of paragraphs and map out all the important parts for each paragraph.
Handout: Two Methods to Organize Paragraphs
14. This may be a lot more work in the short-term, but doing all this work saves you time in the long-term and will ensure an organized and fully-developed essay. By outlining every paragraph, you make sure to fully develop each paragraph with clear topic sentences, enough detail, and proper citation. It also allows you to see how each paragraph logically fits together into the whole essay. Knowing the full structure of an essay will help guarantee appropriate transitions (which can also be placed on the outline). Plus, when you have a fully developed outline, there will never be any “writers block” on the first draft because the outline contains all of the information that will go into the essay.
15. Since developing writers should outline down to the paragraph level, it is important to distinguish between two different methods for organizing paragraphs. A paragraph is a self-contained unit within the larger whole of the essay, just like a house has several self-contained rooms that make up the larger whole. All paragraphs have the same basic function: they contain a point and the details and evidence needed to explain or prove that point. Thus, all paragraphs have the same basic parts: a topic sentence (the point), details (to support and explain the point), and a conclusion sentence (repeats the main point), as well as the transitions needed to connect these parts, and to connect each paragraph to the other paragraphs preceding and following it.
16. A simple paragraph contains a single main idea and all of the details needed to explain and prove it. But sometimes a point is very large and/or complex, and it will take multiple paragraphs to fully explain it. In this case, students should use the complex paragraph method, which breaks up one main idea into several paragraphs (see chart above). One paragraph could contain the main ideas and some details, and then several paragraphs could follow with more details to explain and prove the same main idea. This method is especially useful if you are using scientific studies as your evidence. You might introduce your main idea and then go into one study in a single paragraph. Then you might take three more paragraphs to explain three more scientific studies, all proving the same main idea introduced in the first paragraph of this section of your essay.
Sample Student Argument Outline
9.3 Academic Essay: Reporting Knowledge
17. The academic essay has one specific purpose: to communicate knowledge. This information includes explaining what is known and unknown about a topic. It also includes arguing with other knowledgeable people in order to point out agreement or errors. But how does an academic writer know what is true or false, what is fact and what is erroneous? This question is actually a very important and difficult, and we discussed it in an earlier chapter. Right now, it’s important to know that all academic essays are based on extensive research. This research consists of the data (also known as facts), which are produced through a vast array of scientific and humanistic research methods. These methods are ways of finding, gathering, and making sense of the data.
18. In this chapter, we will be more focused on how academics write, rather than on what they write about. We will discuss the major writing tools that all academics use to write professional research essays. The purpose of this chapter is to outline and explain these tools so that you can learn how to use them as you begin to write academic essays.
19. The most important and distinctive feature of academic writing is the citation. We use citation as a tool to indicate the source of our information. But it is also a way of rational thinking. For most of human history, it did not really matter where you got your information because there were only a few authoritative places to go for information about the world, and these sources were generally seen as public property. Thus, it was right and proper to simply quote an authoritative passage as if it were your own without any mention of the author or where you found the quote. Many cultures still operate this way. And how did you know if the quote was true or not? Well, no one bothered to ask such questions. Of course it was true; otherwise, why would anyone say it or write it down in the first place? For thousands of years, the basis of all truth has been authority, usually religious and/or political authority. If a king or priest or holy book or teacher said something was true, then it was true – case closed.
20. Although some early philosophers questioned traditional authorities and truths, like Socrates who declared "the unexamined life is not worth living" (Plato, 1997, p. 33), there was no systematic effort to really formulate a new way of knowing what was really true or false until the 17th century European Enlightenment and the development of a powerful new tool called the scientific method. It is important to remember that many early philosophers and scientists were hated and harassed by their society. The philosopher Socrates was put to death for asking questions that threatened the authority of powerful politicians, questions like what is really true or what is really good. Later, the scientist Galileo was threatened with torture and death for discoveries he had made that threatened the authority of the Catholic Church. The threat of excommunication, torture, and/or death has kept many people from questioning authorities and examining what is really true about the world we live in.
21. It wasn't until the 17th century that philosophers systematically investigated the nature of truth by measuring all claims against the new standard of empirical evidence, which is evidence that can be seen and confirmed through our senses (i.e., not taking something as true because of faith in doctrine or trust in authority). This time in history has been called the "Age of Enlightenment" because so many philosophers and scientists were writing and arguing about the truth and searching out new evidence. Echoing the earlier motto of Socrates, the French philosopher Denis Diderot proclaimed, "Everything must be examined" (Gay, 1995/1966, p. 142).
22. These 17th and 18th century philosophers were the first scientists. The practice of science grew out of philosophy, the original organized effort to investigate human knowledge. One of the new methods these philosophers developed was the footnote. This tool grounded truth claims back to a source of rational or empirical argument, rather than repeating the edicts of religious or political authorities (Grafton, 1997). The footnote also demonstrated a method for thinking. The footnote traced back the origin of the cited fact or rational argument. The footnote placed it within the larger context of other writers, which demonstrated a dialogue or debate with other rational participants (Gay, 1995/1966, p. 176).
23. These philosophers were also very concerned about educating the public. They wanted to find ways to teach people how to know the truth and how to make more rational decisions (Gay, 1996/1969, p. 511). The footnote was a way to point out the important texts on a topic so readers could educate themselves by reading the larger debate. The footnote also demonstrated a new way of thinking and writing, which was grounded in the give-and-take of debate. This new intellectual style helped promote both rational thinking and the broader use of peaceful debate to discuss and solve social problems (Gay, 1995/1966, p. 176).
24. We still use this same basic tool of citation today, but now we have many different forms of citation beyond the footnote, and there are also many specific rules about how to properly present specific types of citations within specific academic disciplines. Today we have two basic forms of citation: (1) the footnote or end-note and (2) the in-text or parenthetical citation. Most scholars do not use the footnote anymore, unless they are writing a book, and then the standard has become the end-note, rather than the footnote. Historians still regularly use the footnote in their research essays and books. But, most scholars use the in-text or parenthetical citation method. You may have noticed that this book has been using these in-text citations in order to indicate the sources for specific factual claims. I have been doing this in order to demonstrate how in-text citations should be used in academic writing.
25. I chose APA style because it represents a style of citation that most students will actually have to use in their professional lives. Few students study English or modern languages, so there is no reason to force students to learn MLA only to have to un-learn it later, and then learn a new style in their academic major. Chicago style is mostly used by historians and those that publish academic books for general audiences. APA is used mostly by psychologists and social scientists, but it is also similar to many of the citation styles used in the physical sciences, medicine, and engineering. And unlike these other citation styles, APA is widely incorporated into most writing handbooks.
26. The footnote or end-note is the oldest form of citation. This type of citation is still used to write academic essays in some disciplines, like history, and it is used when writing an academic book. This form of citation can come in two different places: the footnote comes at the bottom (or foot) of the page, and the end-note comes at the end of the essay, or book. A footnote or end-note will include all of the important bibliographic information about a source: author's name, title of source, publication information, and page numbers. But this form of citation can also include extra information, evidence, or sources that may help the reader more fully understand the topic. This form of citation is now rarely used because it takes up a lot of extra space on the page, making the page visually cluttered, and if there is lots of additional information, it can also make extra work for the reader. But this type of citation really gives readers all the bibliographic information they would need to become fully informed about a topic.
27. The in-text or parenthetical citation has the same function as the footnote/end-note, but this form of citation takes up much less space. It also goes inside of a sentence, hence the name "in-text" which refers to the location of this citation inside of the sentence structure, rather than "outside" the text, found at the foot of the page or end of the essay. I've been using in-text citations throughout this book, so you have already been exposed to several examples. This form of citation is used most widely today in academic essays because it does not break up the flow of the paragraph (unless there are several citations used at once). It also creates less work for readers because they do not need to stop reading to go down to the foot of the page or the back of the book to find the citation. In-text citations always carry much less information than footnotes, usually only author, date, and page number, and sometimes (when using MLA format), only author and page number. Finally, there will never be any extra information inside an in-text citation.
28. Whatever method you use, it is important to remember that an academic essay must always cite the source of all information discussed; otherwise you will be accused of plagiarism. This word refers to many forms of academic dishonesty or incompetence. First of all, plagiarism means that you intentionally stole or unintentionally borrowed the intellectual property of another person without giving the owner credit. But it also means that you are a sloppy researcher and writer. It leads your reader to believe that you don't really know what you are talking about because you didn't explain where the information comes from.
29. An academic essay must always discuss sources because you have to explain why the sources you are using are credible, authoritative, and factual. If you don't, then your reader will not trust what you say. You don't really know a fact is a fact unless you know both (a) the source of the fact and (b) that the source is credible and authoritative. Footnotes, end-notes, and in-text citations are different ways of alerting the reader to the source of the information you use in your essay. These tools enable readers (1) to know the broader conversation, (2) to find for themselves the information you referenced in the essay, and (3) to trust you as an authoritative researcher and writer.
B. Summary, Paraphrase, and Quoting
30. Most academic writing involves talking about what others have said, and here are three specific ways to do this important activity: summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. First we will discuss the art of summary, which is the most frequent tool that writers use. Then we will discuss paraphrasing and quotation.
31. A summary has a simple purpose: to restate the idea of another writer, but with less words. How do you do this? While the idea belongs to another writer, the words you use to explain the idea are your own. A summary needs to condense the idea down into a shorter amount of space without losing any of the original meaning. It also needs to accurately explain the idea without changing that meaning, for example, by adding something the author did not say, or leaving out something the author did say. In essence, you are trying to form a generalization based on the original author's essay. In order to do this, you first you need to make an outline of what you read in order to pull out the thesis, main ideas, major details, and some minor details. Second, you need to focus on just the most important parts of the original text. You need to restate and explain the author’s general idea in your own words, without most of the original author's details. You will also need to locate the most important words an author uses so that you can quote these words on your outline.
32. Let us look at an example using the text of the Declaration of Independence. Remember, the purpose of an outline is to break information into core parts (main ideas, major details, some supporting details) organized around the most important part of any essay, the thesis statement. The outline helps you understand not only the point of the essay, but also how that point is broken down into main ideas and how those main ideas fit logically together to support the thesis.
A Sample Outline
Thesis: many “truths” are “self evident” for the people of the new nation: truths about “rights of people and duty of government (author, date, p. #)
1. “all men are created equal” (p. #)
2. “all men” are “endowed” by a “Creator” with “inherent and inalienable rights” (p. #)
3. Three of the rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (p. #)
a. supposed to “secure” the people’s “rights” (p. #)
b. “instituted among men” (p. #) c. gets “just powers” from “consent of the governed” (p. #)
5. A fourth right of people
a. if government is not securing rights (p. #)
b. people can “alter” or “abolish” government (p. #)
c. people can make a new government that will protect tights and create “safety and happiness” (p. #)
33. There are three important pieces of information that you should note when you read a text: the author, the title of the text, and the date it was published. The second piece of information noted on the outline is the thesis statement, which is the main point and unifying idea of the whole text. Sometimes thesis statements are hard to identify and sometimes they are very easy to identify. Jefferson’s text began with a clear subject-verb-object clause (“We” “hold” “truths”), and this clause ended with a colon ( : ), which meant that a restatement or a list would be following. It is clear that Jefferson is providing a list of “truths” because the rest of the abridged text uses the word that to begin five separate ideas and each ends with a semi-colon ( ; ), except for the last, which ends with a period.
34. The outline reproduces the core concept with key words of each main idea. You will also notice that the 4th and 5th main ideas had multiple parts, which required further subdivision. I broke down these larger ideas down into smaller supporting points, indicated with the lower-case letters. Within the thesis statement, I demonstrated my categorization of Jefferson’s truths by breaking down this main point into two categories: “rights” of people and duties of government. I was able to more accurately and clearly explain Jefferson’s ideas with this categorization.
35. After the outline is complete, the next step is to summarize the important information that you have just identified and organized. As already discussed, a summary is a condensed explanation of the main ideas and overall purpose of a text; it restates and condenses the author’s main ideas. However, in order to summarize well, two additional tools are required: quoting and paraphrasing.
36. A quotation is simply a reproduction, word for word, of what an author said. There are three basic rules that should guide when to use quotations. The first rule: Try to quote only those words or phrases that are either clearly important and central to the text or unique to the author. A quote should be a special word, which cannot be paraphrased. If you can paraphrase the idea or word then do so. But be on the lookout for special words that cannot really be paraphrased because the language is subjective value judgment, unique language, or artful language. Jefferson’s phrase “all men are created equal” is important part of the text, and it has a lot of historical significance, so we would probably want to quote it. Jefferson also used two unique words that express subjective value judgments, inherent and inalienable to describe rights, so it would seem appropriate and detail oriented to quote these two adjectives. The second rule: do not quote too much. If you quote too much your voice or your coherence might get lost in the author’s words. Ideally, about 5% or less of the total words used in your essay should be quotes, unless there is some specific reason why you need to quote more, like being a historian and wanting to re-produce the specific words of important people. The third rule: you must explain difficult, unclear, vague, or imprecise words used by the original author. For instance, I wanted to quote “inherent” and “inalienable,” but these words need some explanation. My summary sentence might sound like this:
Jefferson argued that all men had "inherent" and “inalienable” rights that could not be separated from them as human beings.
37. The second tool is paraphrase. This tool is a precise restatement of another person’s ideas, but explained and clarified using your own words. A paraphrase will almost always be much longer than the original because we have to fully explain the author's idea and wording. Most of the time, we need to both quote and paraphrase together because the meaning of an author's words are not always clear. A summary is always shorter, but because a paraphrase seeks to fully explain and clarify an author's idea, this technique is often longer than the original.
38. For instance, Jefferson declared a short phrase that is highly ambiguous, “We hold these truths.” To explain and clarify this statement, I could state,
Jefferson believed the new American government and its people should share certain foundational “truths,” which defined the core principles of the new nation (Jefferson, 1776/1995, p. 341).
Notice that as I begin to summarize, I also include in-text citations so that I do not forget them in the final draft of the essay. As you may have noticed, my paraphrase is much longer than the author’s original words. Sometimes an author will say something complex or profound, and it will take more space to explain exactly what he or she might have meant. When we paraphrase, we often substitute certain words or phrases for the original text so that we can more clearly explain the meaning to a contemporary audience. For instance, Jefferson used the word hold and I interpreted that to mean both believed and shared based upon my understanding of the overall text. We might also add the historical context, which affected Jefferson, but which he did not directly mention in the text because he took it for granted. Thus, I mentioned the new American government in my summary, even though Jefferson did not specifically talk about the new type of political system that he and the other founding fathers were creating. Summary is always focused on what an author said, but it sometimes also needs to include background information, which an author often leaves out because contemporaries within the shared historical context take it for granted.
39. Students or professionals write summaries so they can accurately and concretely restate another person’s ideas. As writers, our primary purpose is often to converse with other people. We read what others have said and we respond to their ideas. Often this exchange of ideas takes place via writing instead of talking directly to a person. Summary is an important part of the conversation process. We need to not only understand other people’s ideas, but we also need to be able to restate them clearly to show that we understand what has been said. As writers, we usually want to respond to, criticize, or argue with what other people have said; however, before we can get to that next stage, we first have to be able to restate other people’s ideas accurately and clearly. We summarize to show that we know what others have said, and to show that we fully understand their claims and evidence. We also need to show that we are honest and trustworthy writers by not misrepresenting other’s ideas, facts, or opinions.
40. When you write a summary, you also need to be clear about when you are speaking (as the summarizer) and when the original author is speaking. To be clear, you need to continually remind the reader by stating the name of the speaker (“Thomas Jefferson said” or “Jefferson argued”), or by using third person pronouns (“He went on to say”). You can also use the first person "I" to refer to yourself ("I think he meant"). There are some basic rules about how to refer to an author. Once you have introduced an author’s first and last name, it is customary to refer to that person, male or female, throughout the rest of the essay by his or her last name or a third person pronoun. Never use an author’s first name unless you know that person intimately, and even then, it is rarely done. The other point to be aware of is time. If you are summarizing a voice from the past, you need to use past tense verbs. If you are summarizing a voice from the present, then use present tense verbs. This seems obvious, but many students refer to long dead authors as if they were sitting next to them in the room.
41. The last point about summarizing is that you should not make any judgments or criticisms about the author’s work. When you summarize, you are simply restating and clarifying what an author has said. You need to understand the author and his or her ideas from the author’s point of view and/or historical context, which may be different from your own. When you summarize, you must refrain from inserting your own reactions to what you read. Imagine that you are a reporter and that your job is simply telling the audience what happened and what someone else has said. The point of summarizing another person’s ideas is so that you can understand that person and his or her point of view. Now, of course, everyone wants to talk back to an author by making a comment, a criticism, or asking a question, but these insertions should always come after you summarize. We discussed how to respond and argue in a previous chapter.
42. I would like to end this section with a sample summary paragraph of Jefferson. Pay particular attention to how I used summary, paraphrase, and quotations. Also, notice how I follow my outline exactly, as I turn each part of my outline into one or two sentences to fully explain each point. Finally, note how I end the summary with a concluding point (in italics) where I insert an argumentative claim, which could then serve as a thesis for longer argument that would follow my summary.
Thomas Jefferson (1776/1995) wrote The Declaration of Independence in 1776 in order to declare the birth of a new nation. He set forth the proposition that many “truths” were “self evident” about the rights of the American people and the duty of their new government (p. 341). He stated first that “all men are created equal” and that they were “endowed” by a “Creator” with “inherent and inalienable rights” (p. 341). Some of those rights included “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but Jefferson made it clear that the people had many other rights as well, although he did not name these rights (p. 341). Jefferson then went on to discuss the role of the new American government. He declared that governments were supposed to “secure” the rights of the people (p. 342). Because governments were made by human beings for the protection of human beings, they should get their “just powers” from the “consent of the governed” (p. 342). The people’s consent would be a way to keep the government responsive to the people it is supposed to serve. Jefferson ended by stating a fourth “right” of the people, which, in essence, asserted that people can “alter” or “abolish” their government at any time if the government is not protecting the rights of the people (p. 342). If the government is not securing the rights of the people, then the people can make a new government that will protect their “rights” and work towards their “safety and happiness” (p. 342). Jefferson’s Declaration made the foundational rights of American citizens and the core role of the government very clear; however, it is not clear at all if the federal government has ever completely lived up to Jefferson’s idealized principles.
43. You should have noticed that my stated purpose was to accurately summarize the thesis and main ideas of Jefferson's text, and thus, I did not critically analyze, question, or disagree with any of his points until the very end of the last sentence. I inserted this last argumentative point to show how you can use summary to lead into an argument; however, if it was not my intention to argue then I could simply delete this last point to keep the focus on Jefferson. It is important to separate the activity of summary from the very different activities of critical analysis and argument. An accurate summary always should before an argumentative claim so that the reader can see that you both knowledgeable and fair minded.
C. Charts & Graphs
44. Charts and graphs are an important component for almost all academic essays. These tools help visually organize and display large amounts of quantitative (numerical) information in a small amount of space. Charts and graphs efficiently organize a lot of information, which both helps the writer better prove a point, and helps the reader comprehend that point, much quicker and easier than reading a lot of words. To put a half page table into sentences and paragraphs would take at least one or two pages of text. Charts and graphs are often based on statistical research, which relies on the quantitative data of numbers. These numbers represent many different empirical examples of the objective world that were collected by a researcher. A claim backed up with a lot data is generally going to be a lot stronger and more true than a claim backed up with only a few data points or no data at all. A chart or graph can quickly communicate to a reader how much data a researcher collected and displays the significance of that data.
45. Charts and graphs are a form of statistical analysis. As already discussed, there are two different forms of statistics: descriptive and inferential. Most charts of graphs used for a general audience will use descriptive statistics. This simple form of statistics takes a bunch of data and organizes that data into specific categories, which are expressed with numerical values, like whole amounts, percentages, or fractions. The second form of statistics is more complex and rarely used for general audiences because it is not as easy to understand. Inferential statistics take two or more variables and try to determine two basic conclusions: how connected are these variables and how strong is that connection. The connection between variables is called "correlation." If there is a strong correlation between two variables, then where you find X, you would also find Y. The strength of a correlation is somewhere between random and perfect. Random implies there is no connection at all, while a perfect correlation means that when you find X you always find Y.
46. I will not explain how to create inferential statistics in this book because it is too complex for most undergraduates, both in terms of the foundational mathematics and in terms of the computer software required to perform statistical analysis. In this chapter I want to focus on descriptive statistics, which are much simpler. Descriptive statistics can be constructed by all academic researchers and they can be understood by all audiences. There are four major types of descriptive statistics: the Table, the Bar Graph, and Pie Graph, and the Line Graph.
47. The Table is simply an organized list of numerical data broken down into categories. Why would you use a table? A table uses space more efficiently than trying to explain all the information with words alone. Now just because you use a table does not mean that you don't still have to explain what is on the table and how to read it. But you don't have to explain all of the data on the table because that would defeat the purpose of the table. You would first need to explain the point in a clear title at the top of the table, and then you would pick out some of the most important pieces of information to explain in the body of a paragraph.
48. The Bar Graph, Pie Graph, and Line Graph are also effective ways to display a lot of data in a small amount of space. These charts and graphs take the raw, organized data from a table and they display part of the data as a picture, which makes it easier to understand. TheBar Graph displays two types of information for comparison. On the left side of the chart is a short horizontal list of variables that are linked to a vertical set of numeric values on the bottom of the chart. The audience will quickly see the differences in height between the variables, which spatially represents the different numerical values. The Pie Graph is used to represent percentages of a whole. A subject is broken down into its different constituting characteristics or parts, which are represented by different size slices of the pie, each of which corresponds to a percentage of the whole. The Line Graph comes in simple and complex forms. All line graphs have one or more variables represented by a line that goes across the graph. The vertical axis is usually some numerical value, and the horizontal axis is usually a period of time. A simple line graph will trace one variable over time to show how it increases and decreases. A complex line graph will do the same with several lines so the reader can compare and contrast the different variables over time.
49. The last step of all types of writing is editing. There is no secret to good writing, just as there is no secret to being good at any other human activity. As already mentioned earlier in this book, success does not depend on "a single skill but rather a large collection of mini-skills" (Gladwell, 2008, p. 238). Every successful person perfects a core group of mini-skills with around 10,000 hours of sustained practice in a specific domain. It’s no different for writing. If you want to write a good essay, it takes practice and hard work.
50. The final stage of the writing process is one of the most important, and one of the most overlooked, especially by students. Nothing is ever perfect, or even very good, when you first put it together. A seasoned craftsperson will always critically analyze and refine the first attempt, whether it is an essay, a book, a sculpture, a house, or an iPod. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, described the greatness of his company in much the same way as I am describing the writing process: "We would start off with a version and then begin refining and refining...It's a lot of work, but in the end it just gets better" (as cited in Isaacson, 2011, p. 419). For writing, most of the refining process takes place in the last stage: editing. Once you have said everything you planned to say on your outline, then you need to read over your essay carefully to understand how you actually wrote in order to look for places where you could be more clear, persuasive, logical, or concise. And, of course, you want to look for any errors you might have made in terms of grammar, sentence structure, and word choice. Every word and piece of punctuation matters, and every error we miss can cause embarrassment, or much worse. Did you know that the state of Maine lost over $250,000 dollars because lawmakers forgot a single comma (Gonzales, 2018)?
51. But there is an important trick to editing well. You must learn to see differently and think differently. So how do you see your writing differently? When you write, your brain knows what you intend to say, but your eyes often see what your brain is thinking, rather than what is actually on the page. You will often make mistakes of syntax, grammar, and word choice without realizing it.
52. If you try to edit while your brain is still in "writing mode," then chances are you will not be able to see your mistakes because your brain will still be reading what it thinks it said, rather than what it actually said. So, the first trick to editing is taking some time, preferably a lot of time, to forget what you wanted to say, in fact, to forget the whole essay altogether. Doing so allows you to come back, say a day or a week or a month later, and then read your writing with a new pair of eyes, a pair of "reader's eyes," rather than "writer's eyes." And while you are reading, you will also need to think differently. You will need to use the dorsal stream of consciousness to really concentrate hard on the words you've actually written and what those words are actually saying (Lehrer, 2012, p. 134). Then you need to compare what you did say with what you intended to say, and make adjustments accordingly. You also need to look out for all the small errors of syntax, grammar, and word choice that you may have made. Fixing these small errors is often called proofreading or copy-editing, which refers to the proof or copy draft of a piece of writing, the very last draft before publication.
53. The other trick that professionals use in the editing stage is criticism. Many people have negative feelings about criticism, but professionals in every field know that criticism is one of the most important and helpful skills that ensures success. Every professional writer seeks out knowledgeable readers to criticize their work. The best way to see your writing differently is to literally get another pair of eyes to look at it. Scientists in particular rely on a critical community to analyze not only the writing itself, but also the data and logical conclusions being presented as truthful.
54. As you edit your own writing, you should also seek out other writers or professionals in your field to read your work as well. These critics will not always find all your errors. In fact, sometimes critics will see errors that aren't in fact problems at all. Regardless if these critics are correct or not, a critical community allows you to see your writing from new points of view. These diverse views will enable you to develop your paper more completely and clearly for a wider audience. Research has shown that people who subject their ideas to critical debate are often much more creative and successful than people who do not (Lehrer, 2012, pp. 159-63).
55. Editing is not easy or fun. In fact, it is the hardest and most uncomfortable part of writing. But it is important. It is perhaps the single most important skill that separates the talented novice from the accomplished professional. You cannot ever become a strong writer without first becoming a strong editor. And further, you cannot become a strong writer without trusted critics. You need to seek out other trusted writers and professionals in your field to ask for critical feedback. But asking for criticism is not enough. This leads to the final trick of professional writers. You must learn how graciously accept criticism and use it constructively. This is especially true when you don't like what others have said or when you don't agree with the points they make.
56. Pixar is one of the most successful movie studios of all time, but even it has made serious errors along the way. The secret is to learn from your mistakes. As Lee Unkrich, a member of the Pixar creative team, explained, "If it feels easy, then you're doing it wrong. We know that screw ups are an essential part of what we do here. That's why our goal is simple: We just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it" (as cited in Lehrer, 2012, p. 69). Every professional makes mistakes. Every first draft is filled with errors. If you want to be a successful professional, then you need to learn how to do the hard work of editing so that you can find your mistakes and learn from them.
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From a scientific perspective, the starting point must be different from that of traditional manuals, which are lists of dos and don'ts that are presented mechanically and often followed robotically. Many writers have been the victims of inept copyeditors who follow guidelines from style manuals unthinkingly, never understanding their rationale.
For example, everyone knows that scientists overuse the passive voice. It's one of the signatures of academese: "the experiment was performed" instead of "I performed the experiment." But if you follow the guideline, "Change every passive sentence into an active sentence," you don't improve the prose, because there's no way the passive construction could have survived in the English language for millennia if it hadn't served some purpose.
The problem with any given construction, like the passive voice, isn't that people use it, but that they use it too much or in the wrong circumstances. Active and passive sentences express the same underlying content (who did what to whom) while varying the topic, focus, and linear order of the participants, all of which have cognitive ramifications. The passive is a better construction than the active when the affected entity (the thing that has moved or changed) is the topic of the preceding discourse, and should therefore come early in the sentence to connect with what came before; when the affected entity is shorter or grammatically simpler than the agent of the action, so expressing it early relieves the reader's memory load; and when the agent is irrelevant to the story, and is best omitted altogether (which the passive, but not the active, allows you to do). To give good advice on how to write, you have to understand what the passive can accomplish, and therefore you should not blue-pencil every passive sentence into an active one (as one of my copyeditors once did).
Ironically, the aspect of writing that gets the most attention is the one that is least important to good style, and that is the rules of correct usage. Can you split an infinitive, that is, say, "to boldly go where no man has gone before,"or must you say to "go boldly"? Can you use the so-called fused participle—"I approve of Sheila taking the job"—as opposed to "I approve of Sheila's taking the job" (with an apostrophe "s")? There are literally (yes, "literally") hundreds of traditional usage issues like these, and many are worth following. But many are not, and in general they are not the first things to concentrate on when we think about how to improve writing.
The first thing you should think about is the stance that you as a writer take when putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Writing is cognitively unnatural. In ordinary conversation, we've got another person across from us. We can monitor the other person's facial expressions: Do they furrow their brow, or widen their eyes? We can respond when they break in and interrupt us. And unless you're addressing a stranger you know the hearer's background: whether they're an adult or child, whether they're an expert in your field or not. When you're writing you have none of those advantages. You're casting your bread onto the waters, hoping that this invisible and unknowable audience will catch your drift.
The first thing to do in writing well—before worrying about split infinitives—is what kind of situation you imagine yourself to be in. What are you simulating when you write, and you're only pretending to use language in the ordinary way? That stance is the main thing that iw distinguishes clear vigorous writing from the mush we see in academese and medicalese and bureaucratese and corporatese.
The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.
That may sound obvious. But it's amazing how many of the bad habits of academese and legalese and so on come from flouting that model. Bad writers don't point to something in the world but areself-conscious about not seeming naïve about the pitfalls of their own enterprise. Their goal is not to show something to the reader but to prove that they are nota bad lawyer or a bad scientist or a bad academic. And so bad writing is cluttered with apologies and hedges and "somewhats" and reviews of the past activity of people in the same line of work as the writer, as opposed to concentrating on something in the world that the writer is trying to get someone else to see with their own eyes.
That's a starting point to becoming a good writer. Another key is to be an attentive reader. One of the things you appreciate when you do linguistics is that a language is a combination of two very different mechanisms: powerful rules, which can be applied algorithmically, and lexical irregularities, which must be memorized by brute force: in sum, words and rules.
All languages contain elegant, powerful, logical rules for combining words in such a way that the meaning of the combination can be deduced from the meanings of the words and the way they're arranged. If I say "the dog bit the man" or "the man bit the dog," you have two different images, because of the way those words are ordered by the rules of English grammar.
On the other hand, language has a massive amount of irregularity: idiosyncrasies, idioms, figures of speech, and other historical accidents that you couldn't possibly deduce from rules, because often they are fundamentally illogical. The past tense of "bring" is "brought," but the past tense of "ring" is "rang," and the past tense of "blink" is "blinked." No rule allows you to predict that; you need raw exposure to the language. That's also true for many rules of punctuation. . If I talk about "Pat's leg," it's "Pat-apostrophe-s." But If I talk about "its leg," I can't use apostrophe S; that would be illiterate. Why? Who knows? That's just the way English works. Peole who spell possessive "its" with an apostrophe are not being illogical; they're being too logical, while betraying the fact that they haven't paid close attention to details of the printed page.
So being a good writer depends not just on having mastered the logical rules of combination but on having absorbed tens or hundreds of thousands of constructions and idioms and irregularities from the printed page. The first step to being a good writer is to be a good reader: to read a lot, and to savor and reverse-engineer good prose wherever you find it. That is, to read a passage of writing and think to yourself, … "How did the writer achieve that effect? What was their trick?" And to read a good sentence with a consciousness of what makes it so much fun to glide through.
Any handbook on writing today is going to be compared to Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, a lovely little book, filled with insight and charm, which I have read many times. But William Strunk, its original author, was born in 1869. This is a man who was born before the invention of the telephone, let alone the computer and the Internet and the smartphone. His sense of style was honed in the later decades of the 19th century!
We know that language changes. You and I don't speak the way people did in Shakespeare's era, or in Chaucer's. As valuable as The Elements of Style is (and it's tremendously valuable), it's got a lot of cockamamie advice, dated by the fact that its authors were born more than a hundred years ago. For example, they sternly warn, "Never use 'contact' as a verb. Don't say 'I'm going to contact him.' It's pretentious jargon, pompous and self-important. Indicate that you intend to 'telephone' someone or 'write them' or 'knock on their door.'" To a writer in the 21st century, this advice is bizarre. Not only is "to contact" thoroughly entrenched and unpretentious, but it's indispensable. Often it's extremely useful to be able to talk about getting in touch with someone when you don't care by what medium you're going to do it, and in those cases, "to contact" is the perfect verb. It may have been a neologism in Strunk and White's day, but all words start out as neologisms in their day. If you read The Elements of Style today, you have no way of appreciating that what grated on the ears of someone born in 1869 might be completely unexceptionable today.
The other problem is that The Elements of Style was composed before there existed a science of language and cognition. A lot of Strunk and White's advice depended completely on their gut reactions from a lifetime of practice as an English professor and critic, respectively. Today we can offer deeper advice, such as the syntactic and discourse functions of the passive voice—a construction which, by the way, Strunk & White couldn't even consistently identify, not having being trained in grammar.
Another advantage of modern linguistics and psycholinguistics is that it provides a way to think your way through a pseudo-controversy that was ginned up about 50 years ago between so-called prescriptivists and descriptivists. According to this fairy tale there are prescriptivists who prescribe how language ought to be used and there are descriptivists, mainly academic linguists, who describe how language in fact is used. In this story there is a war between them, with prescriptivist dictionaries competing with descriptivist . dictionaries.
Inevitably my own writing manual is going to be called "descriptivist," because it questions a number of dumb rules that are routinely flouted by all the best writers and had no business being in stylebooks in the first place. These pseudo-rules violate the logic of English but get passed down as folklore from one style sheet to the next. But debunking stupid rules is not the same thing as denying the existence of rules, to say nothing of advice on writing. The Sense of Style is clearly prescriptive: it consists of 300 pages in which I boss the reader around.
This pseudo-controversy was created when Webster's Third International Dictionary was published in the early 1960s. Like all dictionaries, it paid attention to the way that language changes. If a dictionary didn't do that it would be useless: writers who consulted it would be guaranteed to be misunderstood. For example, there is an old prescriptive rule that says that "nauseous," which most people use to mean nauseated, cannot mean that. It must mean creating nausea, namely, "nauseating." You must write that a roller coaster ride was nauseous, or a violentmovie was nauseous, not I got nauseous riding on the roller coaster or watching the movie. Nowadays, no one obeys this rule. If a dictionary were to stick by its guns and say it's an error to say that the movie made me nauseous, it would be a useless dictionary: it wouldn't be doing what a dictionary has to do. This has always been true of dictionaries.
But there's a myth that dictionaries work like the rulebook of Major League Baseball; they legislate what is correct. I can speak with some authority in saying that this is false. I am the Chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, which is allegedly the prescriptivist alternative to the descriptivist Webster's. But when I asked the editors how they decide what goes into the dictionary, they replied, "By paying attention to the way people use language."
Of course dictionary editors can't pay attention to the way everyone uses language, because people use language in different ways. When you write, you're writing for a virtual audience of well-read, literate fellow readers. And those are the people that we consult in deciding what goes into the dictionary, particularly in the usage notes that comment on controversies of usage, so that readers will know what to anticipate when they opt to obey or flout an alleged rule.
This entire approach is sometimes criticized by literary critics who are ignorant of the way that language works, and fantasize about a golden age in which dictionaries legislated usage. But language has always been a grassroots, bottom-up phenomenon. The controversy between "prescriptivists" and "descriptivists" is like the choice in "America: Love it or leave it" or "Nature versus Nurture"—a euphonious dichotomy that prevents you from thinking.
Many people get incensed about so-called errors of grammar which are perfectly unexceptionable. There was a controversy in the 1960s over the advertising slogan "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should." The critics said it should be "as a cigarette should" and moaned about the decline of standards. . A more recent example was an SAT question that asked students whether there was an error in "Toni Morrison's genius allows her to write novels that capture the African American condition." Supposedly the sentence is ungrammatical: you can't have "Toni Morrison's" as an antecedent to the pronoun "she." Now that is a complete myth: there was nothing wrong with the sentence.
Once a rumor about a grammatical error gets legs, it can proliferate like an urban legend about alligators in the sewers. Critics and self-appointed guardians of the language will claim that language is deteriorating because people violate the rule—which was never a rule in the first place. It's so much fun to be in high dudgeon over the decline of language and civilization that these critics don't stop to check the rulebooks and dictionaries to discover how great writers write or to learn the logic of the English language.
Poets and novelists often have a better feel for the language than the self-appointed guardians and the pop grammarians because for them language is a medium. It's a way of conveying ideas and moods with sounds. The most gifted writers—the Virginia Woolfs and H.G. Wellses and George Bernard Shaws and Herman Melvilles—routinely used words and constructions that the guardians insist are incorrect. And of course avant-garde writers such as Burroughs and Kerouac, and poets pushing the envelope or expanding the expressive possibilities of the language, will deliberately flout even the genuine rules that most people obey. But even non-avant garde writers, writers in the traditional canon, write in ways that would be condemned as grammatical errors by many of the purists, sticklers and mavens.
Another bit of psychology that can make anyone a better writer is to be aware of a phenomenon sometimes called The Curse of Knowledge. It goes by many names, and many psychologists have rediscovered versions of it, including defective Theory of Mind, egocentrism, hindsight bias, and false consensus. They're all versions of an infirmity afflicting every member of our species, namely that it's hard to imagine what it's like not to know something that you do know.
It's easiest to see it in children. In one famous experiment, kid comes into a room, opens a box of candy, finds pencils inside, and the kid is surprised. Then you say to him, "Now Jason's going to come into the room. What does he think is in the box?" And the child will say "pencils." Of course, Jason has no way of knowing that the box had pencils, but the first child is projecting his own state of knowledge onto Jason, forgetting that other people may not know what he knows.
Now we laugh at the kids, but it's true of all of us. We as writers often use technical terms, abbreviations, assumptions about typical experimental methods, assumptions about what questions we ask in our research, that our readers have no way of knowing because they haven't been through the same training that we have. Overcoming the curse of knowledge may be the single most important requirement in becoming a clear writer.
Contrary to the common accusation that academic writing is bad because professors are trying to bamboozle their audience with highfalutin gobbledygook, I don't think that most bad prose is deliberate. I think it is inept. It is a failure to get inside the head of your reader. We also know from psychology that simply trying harder to get inside the head of your reader is not the ideal way to do it. No matter how hard we try, we're at best okay, but not great, at anticipating another person's state of knowledge.
Instead, you have to ask. You've got to show people a draft. Even if you're writing for laypeople, your reviewers don't all have to be laypeople; a colleague is better than no one. I'm often astonished at things that I think are obvious that turn out to be not so obvious to other people.
Another implication of the curse of knowl.edge is that having an editor is a really good thing. Supposedly there are writers who can dash off a perfectly comprehensible, clear, and coherent essay without getting feedback from a typical reader, but most of us don't have that clairvoyance. We need someone to say "I don't understand this" or " What the hell are you talking about?" To say nothing of attention to the fine points of punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and other ways in which a sophisticated copyeditor can add value to your written work.
How much of this advice comes from my experience as a writer and how much from my knowledge as a psycholinguist? Some of each. I often reflect on psychology behind the thousands of decisions I make as a writer in the lifelong effort to improve my prose, and I often think about how to apply experiments on sentence comprehension and the history of words and the logic (and illogic) of grammar to the task of writing. I might think, ", Aha, the reason I rewrote this sentence that way is because of the memory demands of subject versus object relative clauses,."
This combination of science and letters is emblematic of what I hope to be a the larger trend we spoke of earlier, namely the application of science, particularly psychology and cognitive science, to the traditional domains of humanities. There's no aspect of human communication and cultural creation that can't benefit from a greater application of psychology and the other sciences of mind. We would have an exciting addition to literary studies, for example, if literary critics knew more about linguistics.Poetry analysts could apply phonology (the study of sound structure) and the cognitive psychology of metaphor. An analysis of plot in fiction could benefit from a greater understanding of the conflicts and confluences of ultimate interests in human social relationshipos. The genre of biography would be deepened by an understanding of the nature of human memory, particularly autobiographical memory. How much of the memory of our childhood is confabulated? Memory scientists have a lot to say about that. How much do we polish our image of ourselves in describing ourselves to others, and more importantly, recollecting our own histories? Do we edit our memories in an Orwellian manner to make ourselves more coherent in retrospect? Syntax and semantics are relevant as well. How does a writer use the tense system of English to convey a sense of immediacy or historical distance?
In music the sciences of auditory and speech perception have much to contribute to understanding how musicians accomplish their effects. The visual arts could revive an old method of analysis going back to Ernst Gombrich and Rudolf Arnheim in collaboration with the psychologist Richard Gregory Indeed, even the art itself in the 1920s was influenced by psychology, thanks in part to Gertrude Stein, who as an undergraduate student of William James did a wonderful thesis on divided attention, and then went to Paris and brought the psychology of perception to the attention of artists like Picasso and Braque. Gestalt psychology may have influenced Paul Klee and the expressionists. Since then we have lost that wonderful synergy between the science of visual perception and the creation of visual art.
Going beyond the arts, the social sciences, such as political ,science could benefit from a greater understanding of human moral and social instincts, such as the psychology of dominance, the psychology of revenge and forgiveness, and the psychology of gratitude and social competition. All of them are relevant, for example, to international negotiations. We talk about one country being friendly to another or allying or competing, but countries themselves don't have feelings. It's the elites and leaders who do, and a lot of international politics is driven by the psychology of its leaders.
Even beyond applying the findings of psychology and cognitive science and social and affective neuroscience, it's the mindset of science that ought to be exported to cultural and intellectual life as a whole. That consists in increased skepticism and scrutiny about factual conventional wisdom: How much of what you think is true really is true if you go to the, the numbers? For me this has been a salient issue in analyzing violence, because the conventional wisdom is that we're living in extraordinarily violent times.
But if you take into account the psychology of risk perception, as pioneered by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Paul Slovic, Gerd Gigerenzer, and others, you realize that the conventional wisdom is systematically distorted by the source of our information about the world, namely the news. News is about the stuff that happens; it's not about the stuff that doesn't happen. Human risk perception is affected by memorable examples, according to Tversky and Kahneman's availability heuristic. No matter what the rate of violence is objectively, there are always enough examples to fill the news. And since our perception of risk is influenced by memorable examples, we'll always think we're living in violent times. It's only when you apply the scientific mindset to world events, to political science and history, and try to count how many people are killed now as opposed to ten years ago, a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago that you get an accurate picture about the state of the world and the direction that it's going, which is largely downward. That conclusion only came from applying an empirical mindset to the traditional subject matter of history and political science.
The other aspect of the scientific mindset that ought to be exported to the rest of intellectual life is the search for explanations. That is, not to just say that history is one damn thing after another, that stuff happens, and there's nothing we can do to explain why, but to relate phenomena to more basic or general phenomena … and to try to explain those phenomena with still more basic phenomena. We've repeatedly seen that happen in the sciences, where, for example, biological phenomena were explained in part at the level of molecules, which were explained by chemistry, which was explained by physics.
There's no reason that that this process of explanation can't continue. Biology gives us a grasp of the brain, and human nature is a product of the organization of the brain, and societies unfold as they do because they consist of brains interacting with other brains and negotiating arrangements to coordinate their behavior, and so on.
Now I know that there is tremendous resistance to this idea, because it's confused with a boogeyman called "reductionism"—the fear that we must explain World War I in terms of genes or even elementary particles.
But explanation does not imply reduction. You reduce the building blocks of an explanation to more complex phenomena one level down, but you don't discard the explanation of the phenomenon itself. So World War I obviously is not going to be explained in terms of neuroscience.On the other hand, World War I could be explained in terms of the emotions of fear and dominance and prestige among leaders, which fell into a deadly combination at that moment in history. And instead of just saying, "Well, that's the way things are, and there's nothing more we can say about it," we can ask, , "Why do people compete for prestige? Why do people have the kinds of fears that they do?
The answer doesn't have to be, "Because I said so" or "Because that's the way it is." You can ask, "How does the psychology of fear work? How does the psychology of dominance work? How does the psychology of coalitions work?" Having done that, you get a deeper understanding of some of the causes of World War I. That doesn't mean you throw out the conventional history of World War I, it just means that you enrich it, you diversity it, you deepen it. A program of unifying the arts and humanities with the psychological sciences and ultimately the biological sciences promises tremendous increases of depth of understanding for all the fields.
I'm often asked, "Who are the leaders of this movement? Whose writings should we be reading and discussing?" But that misses the point. It's not about individual people. It's more revolutionary than just reading this, that or the other person. There has to be a change in mindset coming from both directions. It's not just a question of getting traditional scholars from the humanities and social sciences to start incorporating more science, to start thinking more like scientists. It's got to work the other direction as well. A lot of scientists really are philistines when it comes to history and political theory and philosophy. We need to break down the idea that there are these separate disciplines and modes of study.
In trying to figure out what would give us the deepest, most insightful, most informative understanding of the world and ourselves, we have to be aware of the turf battles: who gets the franchise for talking about what matters. That is one reason that there is cadre of traditional intellectuals who have been hostile to science. I'm not talking about the climate deniers or the vaccine kooks but those who resent the idea that the discussion of what matters, of morality, of politics, of meaning, of purpose should be taken on by these philistines called scientists or social scientists. They act as if the franchise for these heavyweight topics has been given to critics and literary scholars and commentators on religion.
But we need not give credence to people who are simply protecting their turf. It's becoming increasingly clear over the decades and centuries that an understanding of science is central to our understanding of the deepest questions of who we are, where we came from, what matters. If you aren't aware of what science has to say about who we are and what we're like as a species, then you're going to be missing a lot of insight about human life. The fact that this upsets certain traditional bastions of commentary shouldn'tmatter. People always protect their turf.
That's why I'm reluctant to answer when I'm asked who are the people we should be reading, what names can we associate with this approach. It's not about people. It's about the ideas, and the ideas inevitably come piecemeal from many thinkers. The ideas are refined, exchanged, accumulated, and improved by a community of thinkers, each of whom will have some a few ideas and a lot of bad ideas. What we've been talking about is a direction that I hope the entire intellectual culture goes in. It's not about anointing some guru.
Another intellectual error we must be suspicious of is the ever-present tendency to demonize the younger generation and the direction in which culture and society are going. In every era there are commentators who say that the kids today are dumbing down the culture and taking human values with them. Today the accusations are often directed at anything having to do with the Web and other electronic technologies—as if the difference between being printed on dead trees and displayed as pixels on a screen is going to determine the content of ideas. We're always being told that young people suck: that they are illiterate and unreflective and un-thoughtful, all of which ignores the fact that every generation had that said about them by the older generation. Yet somehow civilization persists.
An appreciation of psychology can remind us that we as a species are prone to these bad habits. When we comment on the direction that intellectual life is going, we should learn to discount our own prejudices, our own natural inclination to say "I and my tribe are entitled to weigh in on profound issues, but members of some other guild or tribe or clique are not." And "My generation is the embodiment of wisdom and experience, and the younger generation is uncouth, illiterate, unwashed and uncivilized." better
There is no "conflict between the sciences and humanities," or at least there shouldn't be. There should be no turf battle as to who gets to speak about what matters. What matters are ideas. We should seek the ideas that give us the deepest, richest, best-informed understanding of the human condition, regardless of which people or what discipline originates them. That has to include the sciences, but it can't come only from the sciences. The focus should be on ideas, not on people, disciplines, or academic traditions.