The Nobel Prize for Clarity
Bill Long 4/21/08
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Every year we are inundated with statistics describing how various activities or conditions of the American worker lead to marked loss of productivity. For example, just last month the Chicago-based placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. released a study saying that college basketball's "March Madness" may cost employers at much as $1.7 billion in productivity losses. In 2006 a major study was released declaring employee obesity to be the number one factor in productivity loss. Other culprits for declining productivity are employee sleep deficits, family stress and smoking habits. But all of these studies and facts and figures ignore what to me is, without a doubt, the # 1 factor affecting productivity in the American workplace--lack of clarity in oral and written communication. So prevalent is this disease and so costly its ramifications that if anyone truly tried to measure it, s/he would be astonished. Not only is this communication deficiency manifest in work product delivered to clients but it characterizes the nature of intra-office communication.
Unclarity is not only built into our workplaces; it suffuses our educational system and textbooks. Indeed, I think that people are nurtured in such a web of unnecessary confusion in communication that it often takes dozens of tries for someone to try to understand a phenomen when, in fact, it could easily have been explained the first time if the explainer knew the proper words to choose.
I have been teaching myself several new fields of late in order to understand recent developments in biomedical treatments for those afflicted with autism. One of the first bodily systems I need to understand is the immune system. So, I picked up a standard textbook in the field, by Ivan Roitt, Essential Immunology (9th edition, 1997). What struck me as I was working through the first chapter is how words are used without prior definition, contradictory terms are used from page to page, diagrams don't illustrate what the text purports to be talking about and complexity of enormous magnitude is brought in before the basic principles of immunology are discussed. In short, if anyone reads this book (and I assume thousands of students have done so), they will basically be set back hundreds of hours simply because Roitt doesn't know how to explain something with the proper level of clarity and complexity. Student life is confusing enough without distinguished professors adding to the problem because they aren't able to explain themselves to save themselves.
Let me give you an illustration or two of this. He begins, properly, by talking about the "innate immune system." One of the first concepts discussed is phagocytosis, which has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but has to do with the eating/consumption of harmful microbes by the body's innate immune system. He explains:
"The engulfment and digestion of microorganisms is assigned to two major cell types recognized by Metchnikoff (a pioneer in the field) at the turn of the century as microphages and macrophages," p. 6.
Fair enough. We are talking about eating microorganisms by microphages and macrophages. Then, the first subheading is:
The Polymorphonuclear Neutrophil
Huh? We see some intellectual slippage here already on p.6, which is not a good sign for a book that will be 500-600 pages in length. Of course, I made the assumption that the "polymorphonuclear neutrophil" was either the macrophage or microphage, but why is he forcing us to make an assumption at this stage? Well, his first sentence of the next section runs:
"This cell, the smaller of the two, shares a common hematopoietic stem cell precursor with the other formed elements of the blood and is the dominant white cell in the bloodstream," Id.
So, the smaller of the two cells is the neutrophil, which must be the microphage, don't you think? Well, if you let your eye run down the page, you have a small section on the "macrophage," so if you have put all this together, you can probably conclude that a polymorphonuclear neutrophil is a microphage. But I don't need to belabor my point; he is already bringing in unnecessary confusion. Also, by introducing the words "hematopoietic stem cell" as if any infant should know the term (and without explaining it), he is telling the reader that he is going to take them off to "fog land" really quickly. He is showing no respect for his reader. Well, in his defense, he may not know how to make himself clear. Try pleading that one.
By the time we get to page 8, we are hopelessly lost. He entitles the section "There is an array of killing mechanisms," which is ok, and then talks about "Killing by reactive oxygen intermediaries," p. 8. Again, I am with him. Let's hear his first two sentences on this kind of microbe killing:
"Trouble starts for the invader from the moment phagocytosis is initiated. There is a dramatic increase in activity of the hexose monophosphate shunt generating reduced nicotinamide-adenine-dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH)," Id.
Rather than beginning the section, "Trouble starts for the invader..." he should have said, "Trouble starts for the reader if you plan to read my book..." For the second sentence is impenetrable to around 100% of students, and there is absolutely no way in reading around the pages in the immediate vicinity to know what Roitt is talking about.
As you no doubt believe, I could go on and on. The book is so riddled with unclarities, improper balance between general points and detailed description, that it is nearly useless. This isn't an unusual phenomenon. Most textbooks are this way; most writing is this way. If students want to understand something, then, they not only have to try to grasp the phenomenon, which may be difficult enough to understand, but they have to wade through turgid prose and unnecessary confusion.
There ought to be a Nobel (or Pulitizer or some kind of) prize for someone who can make things clear. Such a person ought to be honored, revered and imitated in our culture. Such a person will not only save American business millions of dollars but will bring hope to millions of people who think they are dumb when, in fact, the dumbness is in the writer and not the reader. How do you make things clear? Well, you have to start with writing mini-essays, like these. These are the building blocks of future knowledge. Every concept known to humanity can be explained in mini-essays. Just go one concept at a time. And the world opens. And, please award me the prize...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long