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Formality and credibility

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

A good scientific paper could be typset in Comic Sans and would still be a good scientific paper. It might be hard for typography snobs like me to see it for what it was, but we can all agree that a fun font cannot actually drag good writing and data down with it.

You could also sprinkle that paper with memes, puns, curses, movie quotes, and links to Wikipedia and it would still be a good paper.

You could even swap out some of the dense academic jargon for folksier language, and it would still have the scientific goods, as long as the right information and references were preserved. It would just be easier to read.

Let’s flip that script now

A rotten paper cannot be saved by Times Roman any more than a good one can be ruined by Comic Sans. Bad writing and weak evidence cannot be made more credible by the exclusion of dad jokes, Star Trek references, or lolcats.

Nor will its sins be redeemed by formality, jargon, verbosity — not for a smart reader.

An amateur will probably be fooled though, because formality, jargon, and verbosity are practically synonymous with credibility in most people’s minds. When people don’t actually know how to critically evaluate information, they fall back on shortcuts like this. They ask themselves, “Does it seem academic?” And what seems academic, to most people, is just boring and difficult, like a kale salad without dressing, virtuously bland and fibrous.

If they see a strawberry, they tend to assume it can’t be academic.

Pros are guilty too

Amateurs aren’t the only ones busily conflating formality and credibility. Pros often look down their noses at writing that doesn’t conform to scholarly conventions, even when it’s actually substantive in every other way that matters.

Many of the conventions of academic writing exist for good reasons, but many others are just dogmatic elitism that are mainly virtue signalling, telling other snobs that you are a fully paid up member of their club. It is possible to be formal without being stiff and tedious, but it’s a juggling act that takes more writing chops than most academics and scientists will ever have. So they stick to “the rules” … and then sneer at writers that don’t.

The shame of Wikipedia

Some people actually believe that any reference to Wikipedia is a crime punishable by contempt for the article and its author. I’m not speculating here: the author was me, and the article was my post on about the strange ending of my career in massage therapy. I kicked off the article with a “traditional curse” — May you come to the attention of those in authority — and I linked to a Wikipedia page elaborating on the origins of this idea (which are quite interesting).

That little link to Wikipedia was loudly declared to be a fatal flaw by some commentators. 🙄 What twaddle. It’s color commentary, a whimsical digression. It’s mainly there to show the reader that the article that lies ahead won’t be paralyzingly boring. It was not a pillar propping up my thesis. There was no need for a citation to a peer-reviewed journal for that purpose. But to elaborate on a quirky digression? That’s completely unimportant in any way.

The idea that any reference to Wikipedia is an unacceptable foul, regardless of context or rhetorical stakes, is childish elitism and nitwittery, and you can’t miss the point of an article much harder than these trolls did.

Turns out childish elitism and nitwittery is actually a bit of a thing on the Internet

That kind of complaint is nowhere near as rare as I wish it was. It’s disheartening to see how many people get twisted knickers when they visit and discover both informality and footnotes in the same place (“cats and dogs living together…”). The horror! Most just aren’t aware that this combination is, in fact, “allowed.” How dare I break writing “rules” they learned 20 years ago and haven’t thought about once ever since?

It’s silly, but they know not what they do. And, happily, many soon realize that is properly scholarly where it needs to be scholarly.

Holier-than-thou trolls

A few take their outrage at informality much more seriously. Bottom-of-class clinicians, “educators” with dubious credentials and affiliations, or third-rate academics who have published a one or two peer-reviewed papers that aren’t fit to line a birdcage (happens all the time). These emotionally fragile cranks get upset by my brand of casual scholarship, and can’t shut up about it, endlessly bitching about everything that doesn’t really matter (like references to Wikipedia) and nothing that actually does.

And how odd that these critics’ beliefs just happen to be threatened by what I’ve written. A coincidence, I’m sure.

This post was motivated a deep desire to tell these people to suck it (while also musing about the whole quality-credibility relationship). To conclude, I will link to the (excellent) Wikipedia page on the Dunning-Kruger effect, which they all desperately need to read and understand, but won’t and can’t.