Monday, February 28, 2011

Avoid using multiple hedges (3)

Avoid using multiple hedges; they undermine your credibility. Here’s an example:

During a May 2004 interview, Christopher Dymond, solar engineer for Oregon’s Department of Energy, was asked what motivates him to run his project, “Solar Creek – Clean Renewable Energy for Everybody’s Kids.” Here is his response, in part (boldface added, to highlight hedges):

I guess what motivates me at the core, is that we are now living on a planet with an atmosphere is as different, in terms of greenhouse gasses – the ability of the planet to hold heat around itself like a thermal blanket – it’s as different today, as when there was a mile of ice up where Chicago would be during the last ice age. In other[ ]words, we have as much in common with that ice age period as we do with the period between 10,000 years ago and the 1850’s. Things have changed that much. And it’s going to take many decades for that impact to translate into a different climate[.] The oceans today have huge amounts of thermal mass, so what we’ve done is started the ball rolling, and we haven’t seen it yet go anywhere; it’s just rolling. But it’s going to start changing everything. And the rate at which we are changing is accelerating. It’s not only that we have changed the atmosphere, but we are going to continue to change it over the next many decades. And then when we finally decide to turn this big ship around, it’s going to take several more decades to do this. And every decade that we wait will make it that much harder to reverse the trend. So it’s going to take ten times, a hundred times longer to stop, just to return to where we are now, depending on how long we wait. The ozone layer doesn’t repair itself nearly at the rate that it is lost. Depending on how long [we] wait, it could be three hundred years before the ozone in the atmosphere that we have lost returns just to where it is now. It’s a slow process. So that’s sort of at the core of the issue for me.


First hedge: At the beginning of his response he uses straightforward language (“what motivates me… is”) but he hedges it with “I guess.”

Second hedge: He hedges it further with “at the core.”

Third hedge: Then, after 282 words of detail, he summarizes. But instead of using the word “motivates” or “motivation,” he uses the non-committal phrase “the issue for me.”

Fourth hedge: He further hedges “the issue for me,” making it “the core of the issue for me.”

Fifth hedge: He further hedges “the core of the issue for me,” making it “at the core of the issue for me.”

Sixth hedge: He further hedges “at the core of the issue for me,” making it “sort of at the core of the issue for me.” He keeps backing away.

Most men, when talking about their pet projects, speak in clear, assertive language. In contrast, Mr. Dymond sounds like he is trying to avoid speaking in clear, assertive language.

If Mr. Dymond believes in what he is doing, he should talk more like this:

What motivates me is the threat to the atmosphere. We are damaging the atmosphere, and the amount of damage is increasing exponentially. If we keep delaying the use of solar power, it may take three hundred years for the atmosphere to recover. I want to do my part – right now – to help stop the damage.

The Takeaway: When listeners hear multiple hedges, especially multiple hedges in a single sentence, they stop taking you seriously. They may even wonder if you are telling the truth. If you must use hedges, use them sparingly.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (16) – T. C. Boyle

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s a passage from “All Shook Up,” a short story by novelist T.C. Boyle (pictured). In this passage, a high-school guidance counselor describes his next-door neighbor:

I’d seen a hundred girls just like her – they passed through the guidance office like flocks of unfledged birds flying in the wrong direction, north in the winter, south in the summer. Slumped over, bony, eyes sunk into their heads, and made up like showgirls or whores, they slouched in the easy chair in my office and told me their stories. They thought they were hip and depraved, thought they were nihilists and libertines, thought they’d invented sex. Two years later they were housewives with preschoolers and station wagons. Two years after that they were divorced.

Now, that’s concise: a crisp summary of a way of life, plus an outsider’s opinion of it, in 96 words.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Don’t emulate politicians’ talk or writing (1)

Don’t emulate politicians’ talk or writing. Most politicians, most of the time, talk and write gibberish.

An example of gibberish

Here’s an example of gibberish. In a February 4 interview, Sarah Palin (pictured), the 2008 Republican candidate for U.S. Vice President, said this about U.S. President Barack Obama’s response to statements by Egyptian politicians:

It’s a difficult situation. This is that 3 a.m. White House phone call and it seems for many of us trying to get that information from our leader in the White House, it seems that that call went right to the answering machine. And nobody yet has explained to the American public what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us know, who it is who will be taking the place of Mubarak.

I'm not real enthused about what it is that is being done on a national level from D.C. in regards to understanding all the situation there in Egypt and in these areas that are so volatile right now, because obviously it’s not just Egypt, but the other countries, too, where we are seeing uprisings.

We know that, now more than ever, we need strength and sound mind there in the White House. We need to know what it is that America stands for, so we know who it is that America will stand with. And we do not have all that information yet.

My translation

Based on guesswork, this is my translation of Ms. Palin’s comments into plain English:

Barack Obama should tell us who is going to be the next president of Egypt. Mr. Obama is managing the Middle East ineptly. A Republican could do it better.

I am not singling out Ms. Palin. As I said, most politicians talk and write gibberish. She just happened to have provided a particularly sloppy example.

The Takeaway: Politicians never shut up; they expose you to gibberish every day. Ignore them. Don’t let their gibberish seep into your writing and hinder your ability to write clearly.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (2) – Stephen Sondheim

In his book Finishing the Hat, the great American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (pictured) has this to say about writing and clarity:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I've ever written. In no particular order, and to be written in stone:

Content Dictates Form

Less is More

God is in the Details

all in the service of:


without which nothing else matters.

The Takeaway: Stephen Sondheim’s “three principles necessary for a lyric writer” are also necessary for a prose writer. Following them will help you write more clearly.

Thanks to Paul Henning, a friend and a clear writer, for pointing out this wonderfully concise bit of wisdom.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fallacies (4) - false dichotomy

False dichotomy* is the fallacy of presenting two alternatives when in fact more than two alternatives are available. If done deliberately, it is a form of rhetorical bullying. Here’s a more detailed definition.

Two historical examples of false dichotomy


Fifty-four Forty or Fight” was the campaign slogan of James Knox Polk (pictured). Mr. Polk and other Democrats wanted the U.S. Government to control all the land in the Pacific Northwest as far north as 54° 40′ N. (The government of Great Britain controlled Canada.)

Clearly there were more alternatives than a latitude and a war. For example, what if the government of Great Britain offered Mr. Polk the entire land mass of Australia? Would he have turned it down, stamped his foot like a child, and insisted on Fifty-four Forty?

In fact, after Mr. Polk was elected U.S. President, the two governments reached a compromise at 49° N. Not one shot had been fired.


Florence Reece wrote the song “Which Side Are You On?” A bullying tone is unmistakable in the lyrics, which say that a coal miner in Harlan County (KY) who doesn’t join the United Mine Workers is “a thug for (mining boss) J. H. Claire.”

Clearly a miner would have had several additional alternatives, including seeking another line of work (I’m not saying this alternative would have been easy or attractive, only that it existed).

There is nothing wrong with asking people to choose either of two alternatives. The fallacy – and the bullying – is in the refusal to consider alternatives beyond the two. By refusing to consider them, the speaker or writer attempts to forestall negotiation and to distract the listener or reader from examining the situation for himself. He’s like a used-car salesman trying to hustle someone into signing a contract.

The Takeaway: In any formal writing or formal public speaking, be careful whenever you present an either-or choice. You may be overlooking additional alternatives, which is the fallacy of false dichotomy. Often some of the additional alternatives are obvious (to intelligent readers and listeners if not the general public), as in the above examples. False dichotomy can make you look like a fool or a bully. Your readers or listeners may call you on it.

Related: Fallacies (2) – cherry picking

See disclaimer.

*Also called false dilemma, the either-or fallacy, fallacy of false choice, black and white thinking, or the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses. More here. Dichotomy, from the Greek for cut in two, means division into two usually contradictory parts or opinions. More here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fallacies (3) – anecdotal evidence

There is nothing wrong with the informal use of anecdotal evidence (stories and examples) to explain or support a position or to “prove” a point. For example, we all do it frequently in conversation, and reporters do it in news articles. This use of anecdotal evidence is not usually considered a fallacy.

But in a formal report, such as a report of a scientific study, it is a fallacy to use anecdotal evidence if (1) the evidence is questionable or (2) the amount of evidence, however sound in itself, is insufficient. (More detail here.) Of course, the conclusion may be valid notwithstanding.

An example of the fallacy of anecdotal evidence

For example, during the 1940s the U.S. Government decided to introduce sodium fluoride into municipal water systems in the United States. This decision was based on only one study of fluoridation, conducted in the cities of Newburgh and Kingston, New York. In that study, fluoride appeared to help prevent dental cavities in children between five and nine years of age.

Today, many dentists and doctors are reconsidering whether fluoridation was prudent. I am not arguing for or against fluoridation here; my point is that the government apparently began, based on a small amount of evidence, a massive public health program that treated people of all ages. This action was probably a fallacy of anecdotal evidence.

The Takeaway: If you have occasion to write formal reports, be aware of the fallacy of anecdotal evidence. Ask whether your evidence is: (1) sound in itself and (2) sufficient to warrant generalization.

Related: Fallacies (2) – cherry picking

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Fallacies (2) – cherry picking

Cherry picking is a familiar fallacy in research.* A simple definition of cherry picking is “the intentional or unintentional** selection of evidence to prove one’s point or support one’s position, in research that is presumably objective.” Here’s a more detailed definition.

The activity of cherry picking is very common; so is the allegation of cherry picking. Here are some examples of the contexts in which cherry picking may occur or may be alleged to occur (I do not know or care whether these allegations are correct or incorrect).

Examples of actual or alleged cherry picking

First example

“[News reports that allege ‘Facebook raises cancer risk’ are] based on an appalling article by psychologist Aric Sigman which was published in the magazine Biologist. You can read it online as a pdf and it is a wonderful example of cherry-picking evidence and citing correlations as causes.” Full story

Second example

“[Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council] told TheDC that the SPLC [Southern Poverty Law Center] cherry-picked the scientific evidence it chose to cite against the Family Research Council and other similar groups in its related report, titled ‘10 Anti-Gay Myths Debunked,’ and ignored contrary evidence.” Full story

Third example

“[The United Kingdom’s national weather service] was last night facing accusations it cherry-picked climate change figures in a bid to increase evidence of global warming. UK climatologists ‘probably tampered with Russian-climate data’ to produce a report submitted to world leaders at this week’s Copenhagen summit, it is claimed.” Full story

Fourth example

“[Two researchers who studied the risk of cancer among smokeless tobacco users] make it clear that they produced their summary estimates by either combining risks for exclusive users (i.e. 1.8 and 0.85), or risks for users who might have smoked (0.9 and 1.67). This is both logical and scientifically valid. But which estimates did [another researcher] use? The highest, of course. For the Lancet study he used the estimate of 1.8 in exclusive users, but for the International Journal of Cancer study he used the estimate of 1.67 in smokeless users who might have smoked. His goal was to maximize the health risks from smokeless tobacco use…. The scientific term for this epidemiologic method is cherry picking.” Full story

Fifth example

“Many [securities] trading systems do backfitting, avoiding the recessions or downturns. It is easy to find an indicator that gave a definitive signal when looking at past data. The problem is that such systems, lacking rigorous development of hypotheses, failing to use out-of-sample data, and willing to accept an insufficient number of cases, usually produce post-diction rather than robust predictive models.” Full story

The Takeaway: Remember that clear writing presupposes clear thinking. Try to avoid fallacies such as cherry picking.

See disclaimer.

*In debating, selling, and litigating, the use of cherry picking is not usually considered a fallacy; generally, one is assumed to be subjectively promoting one’s own position. But in research, one is assumed to be striving for objectivity.

**Unintentional (often unconscious) bias is very common; we all prefer familiar evidence to strange evidence and comforting evidence to disturbing evidence. But we must overcome this preference.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A few unintentionally hilarious letters

I’ll say one thing in favor of bad writing: it is often entertaining (unintentionally hilarious). Here are 16 examples; some may be apocryphal.

The Takeaway: Taking the time to write clearly helps us avoid looking foolish.

See disclaimer.