Making Things Perfectly Unclear


The Atlantic's blogs are set in Georgia, a typeface brilliantly designed by Matthew Carter to be equally legible both on screen and on paper. It has been included with Windows and Mac computers for nearly fifteen years and is one of the best fonts of all time. But maybe legibility is not such a good idea, according to forthcoming research previewed in the Boston Globe:

It almost goes without saying that one should write clearly. But that depends. According to a new study, if your goal is education, you may not want to write too clearly. In one experiment, people read a short story by Mark Twain that was printed in a font that was either easy or difficult to read; the story was also presented as either a "Historical Analysis Study" or a "Short Story Study." When read as a short story for enjoyment, the story was rated better in the easy-to-read font, but, as a historical analysis, the story was rated better in the hard-to-read font.

This reminds me of a provocative essay by the political scientist James Miller in the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca, "Is Bad Writing Necessary?"  on language and the Left:

On one side stand academic luminaries like University of California at Berkeley rhetorician Judith Butler and University of Pittsburgh English professor Jonathan Arac, who take their inspiration from critical theorists like Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno. Arguing that their work has been misunderstood by journalists on the left, these radical professors distrust the demand for "linguistic transparency," charging that it cripples one's ability "to think the world more radically."

On the other side are ranged a variety of public intellectuals and journalists like UCLA historian Russell Jacoby, feminist writer Katha Pollitt, and NYU physicist Alan Sokal. Intolerant of bewildering jargon, they cannot see how deliberately difficult prose can possibly help change the world. As their patron saint, they often nominate George Orwell, the very image of a man who spoke truth to power and spoke it plainly.

Respect it or detest it, difficult writing is not just lazy thinking. It's often, as comments in Miller's essay show, a deliberate strategy. When I was in science publishing, another editor quoted one of his philosopher authors as striving for a purposely "knotty" style to provoke deeper thought from his readers. And there's another benefit of complexity. It's hard to refute someone whose meaning isn't completely clear; he or she can often find a way to say that a critic has missed the point. Not so with plain English. That doesn't mean, though, that anybody can put together a successful jargon-filled argument. It takes years of training and peer criticism to do it well enough to impress other users of the same lexicon. Medical researchers, scientists, and lawyers use difficult expressions, practitioners observe; why shouldn't equally successful professional humanists and social scientists? Of course their Old Left detractors like the late mathematician Norman Levitt say that's exactly the problem: tenured theorists have become another elite interest group. They cite a story, probably apocryphal, about a prominent academic literary critic who was asked why she wrote so badly. Her reply: "Because I'm paid so well for it."

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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