Sunday, September 27, 2009

When Writers Speak

This is one of those articles that made me internally jump up and down excitedly saying "yesyesyesyesyes exactly!!"

Why, oh why, are in-person meetings considered so crucial and more-productive compared to written correspondence? And why, oh why, are scientists forced to teach?

I'll admit a couple caveats. In person conversation is often faster and at a minimum forces those present to engage rather than skimming your email and then ignoring you or responding with a one line "got your message, sounds good". And I do think that spreading ideas is an integral responsibility of scientists; a thinker who can't communicate his thoughts is as good as none at all. That's about where my empathy for these standards ends.

Why should you force someone whose comparative advantage is in thinking to be judged based on a completely unrelated standard - their ability to speak about those ideas to students or colleagues in person? The world would be vastly better off if students had better choices than research universities with research opportunities and horrendous teaching, or liberal arts colleges with great teachers and little else. And research seminars are only good for debating details and asking questions; I'd always prefer to read the paper and skip to that than waste so much time with powerpoints recited by awkward scientists with thick accents.

And why insist on communicating face to face when writing is more precise, complete, avoids talking past each other, avoids forgetting what was said, and allows for deeper and more careful contemplation before making your next point?

As anyone who knows me even at all can testify, I am an absolute moron at verbal communication. My mind turns into a barren staticy nothingness when faced with the requirement of small talk. Or large talk for that matter. Any talk not written. I never, ever go into a meeting without writing down exactly what I have to say ahead of time. And even then I'm lucky to get a coherent sentence in edgewise and invariably follow up by email to clarify the gibberish. I suspect that with practice and a well-defined script, I wouldn't be the worst lecturer in history. But one-on-one tutoring, requiring verbal give and take? Forget about it.

But writing is a different story altogether. I'm certainly not a great wordsmith but, I think, am perfectly competent at conveying ideas clearly in written form. And, I love doing it (if I weren't a scientist, science writing would be way up on the list of preferred alternatives) exactly because of the phenomenon described by Krystal in the essay linked above -
"‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.' ... And it’s not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought or, at least supplies a Petri dish for its genesis." How true. Even the nibble-sized bits of pseudointellectualism that end up on this blog are only ghosts of thoughts until I actually have fingers on the keyboard and the details and organization spontaneously pop into existence.

And I'm far from alone! Especially in science. Please, let's embrace it.

(And if you're a Berkeley non-macro economist willing to be my advisor and communicate near-exclusively by email, please email me...)