Professors Need to Write Clearly, but Columnists also Need to Read Carefully

Nicholas Kristof has written an op-ed “Professors we need you,” in the New York Times.  His point is that that professors like me need to write and express ourselves more clearly so all our presumed smartness is accessible to people like Kristof.  Partly I agree.  But partly I don’t.  I also think that people like Kristof and the policy-makers he advocates for need to read more carefully.

This is a sore point with me, especially since I was lectured a couple of times by policy-making types about writing in op-ed length of about 750 words chunks—that is the sort of thing that Kristof is really good at writing.

My muttered response: Oh that’s how decisions about invading Iraq were made by Congress, in 750 word chunks.  I occasionally write in 750 word chunks, and it is a fine way to make one very clever point to adjust a discussion.  It is though a lousy way to make public policy.

But good public policy also requires the reading of books.  Whole books.  Lots of books.  Books which deal with generalities and not just specifics.  Books that help you think, as opposed to op-ed which in 750 words typically appeal to emotion.

The kind that make long complex argument if, for no other reason, that questions of why people go to war (and do many things) are complex.  Sometimes it even helps to use big words and complex sentences, too–maybe then you will think a little more carefully about invading countries, like Iraq.

This type of reading is work–but it pays off in the long run.  Just ask the Germans who did not invade Iraq–my students in Germany complained that my readings were too easy, and “too popular.”  In other words, bye-bye Jared Diamond, hello Eric Wolf.

And see, I just made that point in 350 words, while appealing to emotion by using an anecdote, and an unsupported correlation.

The point of course is that not only do writers need to write clearly like Kristof points out, readers also have a responsibility to wrestle with complex ideas, and maybe even numbers.



3 thoughts on “Professors Need to Write Clearly, but Columnists also Need to Read Carefully

  1. I just checked out Kristof’s bio at Wikipedia. There is this congratulatory comment:

    “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says that a page one article by Kristof in January 1997 about child mortality in the developing world helped direct the couple toward global health as a focus of philanthropy. A framed copy of that article is in the gallery of the Gates Foundation.”

    I love op-ed, and actually usually like Nicholas Kristof’s columns, in part because he writes clearly, and is easy to read. But is op-ed really a sound basis for directing major policy changes, whether at the Gates Foundation, or the government? I understand that Bill Gates is a great reader of books, too. Wouldn’t it be an indication of engagement with books, or a literature than a 750 word column?

  2. He has some peculiar ideas about economics. I’m not sure academic economics can be said to be engaged with the “real-world” seeing as it is the most quantitative and technical of the social sciences. Nor do I think the presence of Republicans magically makes economics relevant to policy debates – technical debates are still technical. And economics certainly doesn’t have the narrative strength of history or area studies.

    In any case, I can’t help but agree with his point about turgid prose.

  3. In my own social science, I tend to shy away from current debates–and aim for timeless truths. At the moment, my wife are translating Max Weber’s essays on politics and bureaucracy which were written almost 100 years ago. These are difficult to read, but loaded with timeless truths. Not all social science (or natural science) need be about “solving problems.” Sometimes brains need to turn to the timelessness of philosophy, too, including the truth that “not every problem has a solution.”

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