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Clear writing produces clearer thoughts

Paul Romer's picture
The oral tradition at the University of Chicago attributed the observation that “sloppy writing reflects sloppy thinking” to Milton Friedman. Of course, it echoes George Orwell’s claim that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Neither Friedman’s word “reflects” nor Orwell’s phrase “makes it easier” go far enough. The right verb is “produces.” Clear writing produces clearer thoughts. Sloppy writing produces sloppier thoughts. This is a natural consequence of the fact that anything stored in connections between neurons is part of a biochemical and electrical dynamic feedback loop. When we access one of these loops, we change it and connect it to other loops. To use an analogy from computer science, accessing neurons is never just a read. It is always a read and a rewrite.

Talking about Theory and Practice

Silvio Waisbord's picture

I attended the conference of the International Studies Association in New Orleans. Its theme “Theory versus Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners” is surely relevant to anyone interested in aid, communication/media, and governance. The question prods us to think about whether the two professional communities are inevitably opposed, and if not, then, how collaboration is possible.

In an ideal world, scholars and practitioners may not necessarily hold hands and sing kumbaya, but they could find common ground based on mutual respect and recognition. In reality, however, my experience tells me that something completely different happens. Even theorists and aid practitioners working on related issues and holding similar normative ideals, rarely see it eye to eye. Despite sporadic goodwill, encounters tend to be filled with tensions. If (sotto voce) dismissive words are not heard, participants loudly speak about different concerns. “Wait, there is a huge literature on that issue” warn academics when they hear simplistic arguments. “That works in theory, not in practice” practitioners respond and rattle off experiences that disprove theories. One’s theoretical excursus makes the other yawn. One’s case analysis meets indifference in the other. One asks about conceptual clarify and rigor, the other begs for simple concepts to use.