Eschewing Obfuscation & Obscurantism (With Help from Einstein)
You might call this the dictionary.com blog post. Let’s start with “Eschew Obfuscation” a once-popular ironic saying. dictionary.com offers this definition for obfuscate:
Which brings me to David Brooks of the New York Times, the philosopher-king of newspaper columnists who confused and bewildered (but did not stupefy) me recently. Increasingly over the years, Brooks has moved from economics and politics to deeper insights into psychology and, yes, philosophy. The volatile situation in Ukraine led him to write this in a column published March 4: “To enter into the world of Putin’s favorite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions.”
That word — “eschatological” — sent me scurrying to dictionary.com where I learned:
Since I was at a computer keyboard at the time, my scurrying to the online dictionary was figurative, but it did tear my attention away from Brooks’ column and the only reason I returned — much later — was to finish reading it to see if he had deployed any equally obfuscatory words so I could mention them in this blog. (He had not.)
Brooks’ use of “eschatological,” reminded me of Richard Starnes, a columnist for the late New York World-Telegram and Sun. Starnes would write his column then dig into a well-worn thesaurus looking for a few obscure words to replace common words. Then he went to the thousand-page dictionary which was on a lectern near my desk in the city room and looked up thesaurus words to make sure he was using them properly. His goal, he told the cub reporter who inquired (that would be me in 1962) was to send readers to the dictionary to learn at least one new word with each of his columns. Lofty as that goal might have been, I suspect he was really trying to impress readers with how sophisticated and well-educated he was. In doing that he was guilty of obscurantism. Again, dictionary.com:
Starnes was practicing the second definition of obscurantism (deliberate obscurity) and, as a consequence, effecting the first definition (opposing the increase and spread of knowledge). The reason I said he was “guilty” of practicing obscurantism is that a journalist’s job it to communicate not to confound.
In my media training and presentation training workshops I urge clients to eschew both obfuscation and obscurantism — although not in those words because saying it that way IS obscurantism.
In interviews, news conferences and presentations we want to deploy our agendas clearly and comprehensively. In interviews we should try to speak in soundbites — even for the print media. Obscure words invite a print reporter to rewrite what we say and a broadcast reporter to simply not use the quote. In a presentation or a live broadcast interview, there is no better way to turn off a listener’s attention than to deploy a word or phrase he does not understand. When speaking to mass market media or presenting before a non-expert audience, agenda points should be phrased in language the average grade level will understand. In the United States, the average grade level is somewhere between the tenth and eleventh grades, so rounding down to the tenth grade, we want our agenda points to be comprehensible to a sixteen-year-old. (And not the sixteen-year-old prodigy; rather, we want the agenda understood by the average sixteen-year-old.)
Some clients, particularly scientists and financial sector spokespersons, deal with complex matters and it requires significant effort to reduce some of their agenda points to accessible, tenth grade language. I tell them that when it can be done it is worth the effort. When it can’t be done, explain why. Oftentimes the explanation suffices.
My advice appears to fly in the face of two quotes attributed to Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” above, and “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” An intensive web search failed to find any first-hand citation for Einstein having written or spoken either of those phrases. There seems to be a cottage industry out there manufacturing pithy quotes and attributing them to Einstein.
But there exists legitimate Einstein quote that is relevant. In a 1933 lecture he said: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Bet you’re unfamiliar with that one. But you’ve likely read the user-friendly soundbite that an anonymous paraphraser drew from that statement: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” The soundbite version is universally attributed to Einstein who never said it in those words.
Unlike Einstein’s 1933 statement, some concepts can’t be reduced to a soundbite. But those that can be, should be.
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