Lifting the ‘curse of knowledge’

Steven Pinker’s new style guide draws on what cognitive scientists know about how human minds process language.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
People in a bus are driven past the Bank of England in central London's City financial district.

“Move over, Strunk and White” seems to be the call whenever a new guide on writing style comes out.

In the case of one new book, “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” the call is likely to be heeded. Writers of all stripes will make room for it on their shelves alongside Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” 

The author of the new book is Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker of “The Language Instinct” fame. His style guide is one informed by a scientific understanding of how human minds process language. 

In a chapter called “The Web, the Tree, and the String,” he explains “the three things that grammar brings together: the web of ideas in our head, the string of words that comes out of our mouth or fingers, and the tree of syntax that converts the first into the second.”

A main theme here is what he calls “the curse of knowledge” – bad writing by experts who have forgotten that some perfectly bright people don’t know, off the top of their head, what “quantitative easing,” for instance, is.

In his poster-child example, he traces the evolution of the wording of a warning sticker on a portable generator. An early version read, in part:

“Mild Exposure to CO can result in accumulated damage over time.

“Extreme Exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms.”

A revised version read, in part:

“Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES.

“Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide. This is a poison you cannot see or smell.”

The revision used the emotive words “kill” and “poison” and specified a time frame. It also used “carbon monoxide,” instead of the more cryptic molecular formula.

We all “chunk” our knowledge; we let a key phrase summarize a whole set of complex ideas or events. “Quantitative easing,” a term of art among economists, is a chunk, shorthand for a process of, essentially, printing money to stimulate the economy. 

Six syllables is not much of a shorthand. But it gets worse when cut to simply “QE.” When I hear or see “QE,” it invariably cues up mental imagery of a great ship turning around – slowly – in the North Atlantic. By contrast, “printing money” brings up an image of a thundering press spewing out sheets of uncut greenbacks. QE doesn’t exactly mean printing bank notes, but I have nothing in my internal video library for “creating electronic cash.” 

The curse of knowledge often afflicts the most thoroughly schooled writers. As Mr. Pinker notes, the advice to “remember the reader over your shoulder” doesn’t always work: “When you’ve learned something so well that you forget that other people may not know it, you also forget to check whether they know it.”

Professor Pinker, welcome to my bookshelf

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