Informers and Persuaders

Sup­pose we lived in this com­pletely al­ter­nate uni­verse where noth­ing in academia was about sta­tus, and no one had any con­cept of style. A uni­verse where peo­ple wrote jour­nal ar­ti­cles, and ed­i­tors ap­proved them, with­out the tiniest shred of con­cern for what “im­pres­sion” it gave—with­out try­ing to look se­ri­ous or solemn or so­phis­ti­cated, and with­out be­ing afraid of look­ing silly or even stupid. We shall even sup­pose that read­ers, cor­re­spond­ingly, have no such im­pres­sions.

In this sim­pler world, aca­demics write pa­pers from only two pos­si­ble mo­tives:

First, they may have some the­ory of which they de­sire to per­suade oth­ers; this the­ory may or may not be true, and may or may not be be­lieved for vir­tu­ous rea­sons or with very strong con­fi­dence, but the writer of the pa­per de­sires to gain ad­her­ents for it.

Se­cond, there will be those who write with an ut­terly pure and vir­tu­ous love of the truth­find­ing pro­cess; they de­sire solely to give peo­ple more un­filtered ev­i­dence and to see ev­i­dence cor­rectly added up, with­out a shred of at­tach­ment to their or any­one else’s the­ory.

Peo­ple in the first group may want to sig­nal mem­ber­ship in the sec­ond group, but peo­ple in the sec­ond group only want their read­ers to be well-in­formed. In any case, to first or­der we must sup­pose that none of this is about sig­nal­ing—that all such mo­tives are just blanked out.

What do jour­nal ar­ti­cles in this world look like, and how do the Per­suaders’ ar­ti­cles differ from the In­form­ers’?

First, I would ar­gue that both groups write much less for­mal jour­nal ar­ti­cles than our own. I’ve read prob­a­bly around a hun­dred books on writ­ing (they’re ad­dic­tive); and they all treated for­mal­ity as en­tropy to be fought—a state of di­s­or­der into which writ­ing slides. It is eas­ier to use big words than small words, eas­ier to be ab­stract than con­crete, eas­ier to use pas­sive -ation words than their ac­tive coun­ter­parts. Per­haps for­mal­ity first be­came as­so­ci­ated with Author­ity, back in the dawn of time, be­cause Author­i­ties put in less effort and forced their au­di­ence to read any­way. For­mal­ity be­came as­so­ci­ated with Wis­dom by be­ing hard to un­der­stand. Why sup­pose that sci­en­tific for­mal­ity was ever about pre­vent­ing pro­pa­ganda?

Both groups still use tech­ni­cal lan­guage, be­cause they both care about be­ing pre­cise. They even use big words or phrases for their tech­ni­cal con­cepts: To carve out ever-finer slices through re­al­ity, you need new words, more words, hence big­ger words (so you don’t run out of names­pace).

How­ever, since nei­ther group has a care for their image, they use the sim­plest words they can apart from that, and sen­tences as easy as pos­si­ble apart from the big words. From our stand­point, their style would seem in­con­sis­tent, dis­con­gru­ous. A sen­tence might start with small words that just any­one could read, and then ter­mi­nate in an ex­cep­tion­ally pre­cise struc­ture of tech­ni­cally so­phis­ti­cated con­cepts ac­cessible to only ad­vanced au­di­ences.

In this world it’s not just em­i­nent physi­cists who—se­cure in their rep­u­ta­tion as Real Scien­tists—in­vent la­bels like “gluon”, “quark”, “black hole” and “Big Bang”.

Other as­pects of sci­en­tific taboo may still carry over. A Per­suader might use vi­cious in­sults and char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion. An In­former never would. But an In­former might point out—even­hand­edly, wher­ever it hap­pened to be true—that a sup­pos­edly rele­vant pa­per came from a small un­heard-of or­ga­ni­za­tion and hadn’t yet been repli­cated, or that the au­thor of an ex­cit­ing new pa­per had pre­vi­ously re­tracted other re­sults...

If Per­suaders want to look like In­form­ers, they will, of course, re­strain their ad-hominem at­tacks to sound­ing like the sort of things an In­former might point out; but this is a sec­ond-or­der phe­nomenon. First-or­der Per­suaders would use all-out in­vec­tive against their op­po­nents.

What about emo­tions in gen­eral?

Sup­pose that there were only In­form­ers and that they weren’t con­cerned about pre­vent­ing in­va­sion by Per­suaders. The In­form­ers might well make a value-laden re­mark or two in the con­clu­sions of their pa­pers—af­ter bal­anc­ing the prob­a­bil­ity that the con­clu­sion would later need to be re­tracted and that the emo­tion might in­terfere, ver­sus the im­por­tance of the val­ues in ques­tion. Even an In­former might say, in the con­clu­sion of a pa­per on as­ter­oid strikes, “We can prob­a­bly breathe a sigh of re­lief about get­ting hit in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, but when you con­sider the sheer size of the catas­tro­phe and the mil­lions of dead and in­jured, we re­ally ought to have a space­watch pro­gram.”

But Per­suaders have an im­mensely stronger first-or­der drive to in­voke pow­er­ful af­fec­tive emo­tions and lade the reader’s judg­ments with value. To sec­ond or­der, Per­suaders will try to dis­guise this method as much as pos­si­ble—let the reader draw con­clu­sions, so long as they’re the de­sired con­clu­sions—try to pre­tend to ab­stract dis­pas­sion­ate lan­guage so that they can look like In­form­ers, while still lin­ger­ing on the emo­tion-arous­ing facts. For­mal­ity is a very easy dis­guise to wear, which is one rea­son I give it so lit­tle credit.

In­form­ers, who have no de­sire to look like In­form­ers, might go ahead and leave in a value judg­ment or two that seemed re­ally un­likely to in­terfere with any­one’s tot­ting up the ev­i­dence. If In­form­ers trusted their own judg­ment about that sort of thing, that is.

(Per­suaders and In­form­ers writ­ing about policy ar­gu­ments or moral ar­gu­ments would be a whole ’nother class of is­sue. Then both types are offer­ing value-laden ar­gu­ments and deal­ing in facts that trig­ger emo­tions, and the ques­tion is who’s col­lect­ing them even­hand­edly ver­sus lop­sid­edly.)

How about writ­ing short sto­ries?

Per­suaders ob­vi­ously have a mo­tive to do it. Do In­form­ers ever do it, if they’re not wor­ried about look­ing like Per­suaders?

If you try to blank out the con­ven­tions of our own world, and imag­ine what would re­ally be use­ful...

Then I can well imag­ine that it would be de rigueur to write small sto­ries—story frag­ments, rather—de­scribing the el­e­ments of your ex­per­i­men­tal pro­ce­dure.

“The sub­jects were ad­min­inistered Pro­gen­i­torivox” ac­tu­ally gives you very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion, just the dull sen­sa­tion of hav­ing been told an au­thor­i­ta­tive fact.

Com­pare: “James is one of my typ­i­cal sub­jects. Every Wed­nes­day, he would visit me in my lab at 2pm, and, gri­mac­ing, swal­low down two yel­low pills from his bot­tle, while I watched. At the end of the study, I watched James and the other stu­dents file into the class­room, sit down, and fill out the sur­veys on each desk; as they left, I gave each of them a check for $50.”

This, which con­veys some­thing of the ex­pe­rience of run­ning the ex­per­i­ment and just begs you to go out and do your own… also gives you valuable in­for­ma­tion: that the Pro­gen­i­torivox or placebo was taken at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals with the in­ves­ti­ga­tor watch­ing, and when and where and how the sur­vey data was col­lected.

Maybe this is the most effi­cient way to com­mu­ni­cate that in­for­ma­tion, and maybe not. To me it ac­tu­ally does seem effi­cient, and I would guess that the only rea­son peo­ple don’t do this more of­ten is that they would look in­suffi­ciently Dis­tant and Author­i­ta­tive. I have no trou­ble imag­in­ing an In­former writ­ing a story frag­ment or two into their jour­nal ar­ti­cle.

Robin says: “I thus tend to avoid emo­tion, color, flash, sto­ries, vague­ness, rep­e­ti­tion, ram­bling, and even elo­quence.”

I would guess that, to first or­der and be­fore all sig­nal­ing:

Per­suaders ac­tively seek out emo­tion, color, flash, and elo­quence. They are vague when they have some­thing to hide. They re­hearse their fa­vored ar­gu­ments, but not to where it be­comes an­noy­ing. They try to avoid ram­bling be­cause no one wants to read that. They use sto­ries where they ex­pect sto­ries to be per­sua­sive—which, by de­fault, they are—and avoid sto­ries where they don’t want their read­ers vi­su­al­iz­ing things in too much de­tail.

In­form­ers avoid emo­tions that they fear may bias their read­ers. If they can’t ac­tu­ally avoid the emo­tion—e.g., the pa­per is about slav­ery—they’ll ex­plic­itly point it out, along with its po­ten­tial bi­as­ing effect, and they’ll go to what­ever lengths they can to avoid pro­vok­ing or in­flam­ing the emo­tion fur­ther (short of ac­tu­ally ob­scur­ing the sub­ject mat­ter). In­form­ers may use color to high­light the most im­por­tant parts of their ar­ti­cle, but won’t usu­ally give ex­tra color to a sin­gle piece of spe­cific ev­i­dence. In­form­ers have no use for flash. They won’t avoid be­ing elo­quent when their dis­cus­sion hap­pens to have an el­e­gant log­i­cal struc­ture. In­form­ers use the ap­pro­pri­ate level of ab­strac­tion or maybe a lit­tle lower; they are vague when de­tails are un­know­able or al­most cer­tainly ir­rele­vant. In­form­ers don’t re­hearse ev­i­dence, but they might find it use­ful to re­peat some de­tails of the ex­per­i­men­tal pro­ce­dure. In­form­ers use sto­ries when they have an im­por­tant ex­pe­rience to com­mu­ni­cate, or when a set of de­tails is most eas­ily con­veyed in story form. In pa­pers that are about judg­ments of sim­ple fact, In­form­ers never use a story to arouse emo­tion.

I fi­nally note, with re­gret, that in a world con­tain­ing Per­suaders, it may make sense for a sec­ond-or­der In­former to be de­liber­ately elo­quent if the is­sue has already been ob­scured by an elo­quent Per­suader—just ex­actly as el­e­gant as the pre­vi­ous Per­suader, no more, no less. It’s a pity that this won­der­ful ex­cuse ex­ists, but in the real world, well...