Responsible Writing

It’s strange what catches the attention. What I thought was a rather innocuous and boringly-balanced post on the strengths and weaknesses of Rebecca Watson’s recent talk at Skepticon 5 has sparked a barrage of commentary, not all of it flattering to yours truly. Most of the criticism seems to be along the following lines: “You are being too generous to Watson. You are letting her off the hook for her mistakes. We should demand a higher standard!”

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to such criticism: I have become aware that I am often somewhat more forgiving of error than others I know. I have what I believe are good epistemological and ethical reasons for this, but they are beyond the scope of this post. Here, as  companion piece to Responsible Reading, I want to offer some thoughts on Responsible Writing. For, just as readers and audience members have a duty, I argue, to consider the genre, context, and other relevant characteristics of a communication when judging it, writers, too, have a responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively with reference to these same characteristics.

This responsibility goes beyond the basic concern for truth which must be the bedrock of all communication which aims to educate. Obviously a writer is responsible for ensuring that the data they present is as accurate as possible, for organizing the data in a way which is not misleading, and for generally guiding the audience to understanding. But they also need to be careful to pitch their material at  level appropriate to their audience, to think of the audience’s likely prior experiences and to take those into account, and to always ask “Will I likely be misunderstood?”

This last is critical: when writing – either for print or presentation – it is essential to put oneself in the shoes of the audience. The question should not be “Do understand what I mean?” but “How might they understand what I have said?” Much miscommunication can be avoided if people take the opportunity to give their presentation before a critical test-audience and ask them how they understood it. Sometimes the results are surprising. I give a very large number of public presentations, and I’m frequently amazed that things I say are understood in the way that they are. “How could you think I meant that?”, I sometimes find myself wondering.

This practice is particularly important when speaking, because the audience does not have the benefit of referring directly to your words for clarification. In general, I tend to include numerous explicit disclaimers in my talks which I would edit out were I writing for the page. For instance, when speaking I make frequent use of the “anticipatory disclaimer”. It is not uncommon for me to explicitly state what I am not arguing, so that I can be as sure as possible people take from what I am saying what I meant to convey. Combined with the “test run” described above, this can be powerful: the test run offers the opportunity to uncover common misconceptions, and then an anticipatory disclaimer can be added which specifically targets the potential area of confusion.

The problem with all this is that it can be unwieldy. A talk has many purposes, only one of which is to inform. If you also want to inspire your audience, offer them something poetic and rousing,  or make them laugh, constant obsession over explanatory minutiae can hold you back. Furthermore, there is always the possibility of someone misunderstanding you. Even when you have pitched the material perfectly to your audience, have worked to make a section clear, and have included appropriate disclaimers, people will still come away with exactly the opposite view to the one you intended to convey. I was astonished recently, for instance, to receive notes from students who attended one of my talks who seemed to have learned that Humanism is a religion (!) which required belief in God and hoped for an afterlife. Of course I said precisely the opposite. People’s existing schema are very strong indeed, and sometimes they’ll twist your words 180 degrees to fit their preconceptions despite your best efforts.

Nonetheless, you should still make your best effort. Its part of the responsibility of any author to try to ensure they are clearly understood. This is why, in my previous post on Watson’s talk, I agreed that critiques like the one Ed Clint offers are useful and that Watson should change those parts of her talk which were wrong and clarify those sections which have caused confusion. In these areas, she dropped the ball and didn’t write as responsibly as she might. Her response – to acknowledge the errors and say she’ll fix them in an upcoming talk – seems to me the correct one, and we will be able to judge the sincerity of that commitment once the talk has been given again (I, for one, am sure she’ll make appropriate modifications).

So, for the record: I am just as much convinced of the responsibility of speakers to speak clearly as I am of the responsibility of readers to read fairly.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • brad

    I know a few life long public speakers. I’ve received two pieces of advice for successfully communicating a desired message to an attentive audience: pick a topic and stIck to that area of interest- you will never be an expert on everything; and HONE that sucker! I was not impressed with the presentation.

  • julian

    I like this pair of posts. Obviously comprehension is a two way street even if the blame for accidents isn’t always equal. I think that’s what many laws are getting at when they ask “could a reasonable person believe this” although I don’t think it’s spelled out. (I wouldn’t know. I’ve only read a handful of opinions.)

  • NathanDST

    All I can add is that I think the writer has a greater responsibility than the reader to be clear. It’s part of why I tend to be longwinded: because I’m trying to make sure I’m not going to be misunderstood. If you’ll accept a little criticism of your writing in general, I know that in the past I’ve found your writing to be unclear, such that when you would respond in comments to defend and clarify what you said, it would turn out I’d misread you. Indeed, I would wonder how you could have believed that what you wrote matched what you meant. Sadly, because I know you’re wondering, I cannot recall a specific example just now. I don’t think it’s happened recently. So, perhaps you should do a bit more in writing of what you do for presentations? If you’re not doing so already.

  • Tim

    There is a simple question we should all ask ourselves – forget where we stand on one blog network or another.
    Was Ed Clint being reasonable to write the article he did?
    If the answer is yes (I think it is clearly and obviously yes – he is a grad working in that field, why wouldnt he) then we have to seriously ask ourselves what has gone wrong with the skepticism.
    Everyone who steps onto a podium should expect and WELCOME critique of their words

    • baal

      There is critique and then there is the irrational shitstorm that follows RW around. The sad part is that the former gets lost in the later. That’s often intentional on the part of the RW defenders. The solution ought to be multipart including RW (who knows full well that the shitstorm is on the horizon) keeping assertions narrowly drawn to the evidence she has and criticism of RW keeping assertions narrowly drawn to specific errors on RW’s part. I’d rather she take a long break since all sides have a propensity to irrationality when she as a person is involved and folks don’t seem able or willing to set aside passions.

      My token evidence for *shitstorm* is to compare the limited nature of James’s post and the length of the comment thread on Clint /RW vs the usual comment thread on James’ post. You could also look at the tone of comments between the two as well.

  • Pitchguest

    For the record, James, I think you’re being a bit objective in this post than in the other one and for that bit of concession I thank you. However, I have to say that Watson’s response wasn’t much of an acknowledgement. She never said she was wrong to criticise the field itself, but rather the specifics that she got incorrect (like who belonged to which university [that, apparently, according to Watson, should be ashamed] and the percentage of women to men in a study which she still thought was ridiculous). Rather than welcoming the critique, she sort of brushed it off and then said, at the end, said Clint was wrong. She didn’t specify what was wrong that he cited, just that he was wrong. I’m sorry, but the jury is still out.

    I’m actually rather perplexed why you would go to this length to defend — yes, defending — a clearly unbalanced, poorly thought-out speech about the science of evolutionary psychology. She has no extensive knowledge of evolutionary psychology, she has no expertise in it, she didn’t make the proper research (other than articles from the Daily Mail of all places [I trust you know of the Daily Mail?]) and she hadn’t prepared. Giggling and laughing throughout. For a keynote speaker, that’s pathetic. (She obviously didn’t take it seriously. According to some commenters on FTB, it was a stand-up comedy routine, and according to Zvan, she was “just joking.”)

    You’re supposed to be an academic, James. Act like it.

    • A Hermit

      Why is it wrong for Watson, or anyone, to criticize the “field itself?” She should do so responsibly, of course, and she has said she will correct some of the things Ed complained about, which seems reasonable to me. But is EP to be exempt from criticism, like some kind of Papal decree? There are legitimate questions about the field as a whole…have been for a long time…

      • James Croft

        Nothing at all. The only point I made was that if she intended to do so she must substantiate her argument more fully. If her intention in the talk was so to do it was a much more seriously deficient talk than I have judged it to be.

  • Pitchguest

    That should be “a bit MORE objective” and remove the “I think” at the beginning. Urgh.

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  • julian

    Just a quick comment, she should do more (and I hope she does) than what she says in the commet you link to. Starting with good pieces of evo psych would be a bare minimum. Not, of course, to defend t, but to better illustrate the huge disconnect between what you see on television and what you can expect to see published and the reasons for it.

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