June 13, 2020

Write using concrete examples

From: https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/

Consider the following proposition: In a study measuring whether implicit attitudes determine an outcome, you need to make sure the implicit attitudes aren’t serving as accurate proxies for underlying fundamentals.

This is the thesis of one of my more popular posts, Perceptions Of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability, but I don’t present it like that. Instead, I start by saying:

Imagine a study with the following methodology. You survey a bunch of people to get their perceptions of who is a smoker (“97% of his close friends agree Bob smokes”). Then you correlate those numbers with who gets lung cancer. Your statistics program lights up like a Christmas tree with a bunch of super-strong correlations. You conclude Perception of being a smoker causes lung cancer”, and make up a theory about how negative stereotypes of smokers cause stress which depresses the immune system. The media reports that as Smoking Doesn’t Cause Cancer, Stereotypes Do”.

Whether or not you understood or agreed with the abstract version thesis, you (hopefully) find the problems with the nicotine example intuitively obvious. Now if I give you the principle in a study measuring whether implicit attitudes determine an outcome, you need to make sure the implicit attitudes aren’t serving as accurate proxies for underlying fundamentals”, that principle makes sense and you will tend to agree with it. Now we can move on to harder problems, like the actual study in the post, where it’s not as obvious and where a lot of people thought they’d proven that the implicit attitude determined the outcome.

If you’re going to be making a complicated point, start with a concrete example. If you’re going to be making a very complicated point, start with a lot of concrete examples. When I wrote Meditations on Moloch, probably the most complicated point I’ve ever tried to express on this blog, I began with fourteen different examples before I even started trying to express the underlying principle. I hoped that readers would be able to triangulate my point by finding what all fourteen examples had in common, and most of them did.

This is related to an idea I keep stressing here, which is that people rarely have consistent meta-level principles. Instead, they’ll endorse the meta-level principle that supports their object-level beliefs at any given moment. The example I keep giving is how when the federal government was anti-gay, conservatives talked about the pressing need for federal intervention and liberals insisted on states’ rights; when the federal government became pro-gay, liberals talked about the pressing need for federal intervention and conservatives insisted on states’ rights.

So if you want to convince someone of a meta-level principle, you need to build it up from examples that support it. And if you want the principle to be well-founded and stable under reflective equilibrium, you also need to present the examples that don’t support it and explain why you didn’t make your principle out of those instead.

And if you want to convince somebody that their meta-level principle is wrong, the quickest and most effective way to do it is to show that it proves too much, then provide them with a better principle that preserves the things they want but doesn’t prove things they don’t want.

But my point is that all of this has to be done on the object-level, with the excursions to the meta-level level being few, far-between, and justified with extensive application to the object-level. Otherwise you’re too likely to shoot off into the entirely abstract and end up sounding like Hegel:

The good is the idea, or unity of the conception of the will with the particular will. Abstract right, well-being, the subjectivity of consciousness, and the contingency of external reality, are in their independent and separate existences superseded in this unity, although in their real essence they are contained in it and preserved. This unity is realized freedom, the absolute final cause of the world. Every stage is properly the idea, but the earlier steps contain the idea only in more abstract form. The I, as person, is already the idea, although in its most abstract guise. The good is the idea more completely determined; it is the unity of the conception of will with the particular will. It is not something abstractly right, but has a real content, whose substance constitutes both right and well-being.

Please don’t end up sounding like Hegel.

And a free tip for this: use words like me” and you” instead of a person” or someone”. Compare:

If someone does the calculations with this methodology, the result will probably be nonsense.” Versus: If you do the calculations with that methodology, you’ll probably end up with nonsense.”

I think the second sounds snappier and more concrete.

Updated Jul, 03 2020


#Writing