Know It Before You Say It

Mark Tuminello complexPaul Krugman wrote recently about the way in which political scientists write, how they articulate ideas, and for what audience they are writing.  There is a debate going on between how accessible political writing ought to be.  Some say that a broad audiences can’t understand much of new political writing, while other think they are, themselves, writing for a broad audience.  Krugman astutely points out that what’s really at heart here is how well the writers themselves understand what they are saying.  He feels that laypeople are capable of understanding concepts, but not when writers are hazy on the subject matter and consequently can’t articulate it coherently.

While math and political jargon can be essential for a flowing conversation between knowledgeable parties, it can sometimes prevent us from testing our fundamental knowledge on a topic.  After all, if I can’t explain myself in plain english, do I really understand it?  Assuming English fluency, stating a concept plainly ought to be a simple matter of translation.  Well, maybe sometimes it’s more simple than complex, but the point remains.

What can result is that specialists go on discussing theories that are quite unimportant or flawed.  Krugman’s effort to find a simple way of explaining real business cycle theory to undergrads were fruitless.  There was not a single intuitive description by an RBC specialist.  What he finds instead are endless collections of statistics and complex theory.  Had a few of them taken a break to describe the theory in an intuitive way, they might find out that much of the current discussion is only tangentially important, important only to the central math, but not the issue at heart.

For those of you who believe that there are economic theories and principles that your non-economist friends wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand – or even worse, that explainable concepts are not worth pursuing, it’s time for a reality check.  If you can’t explain your work in a way that could be understood by an intelligent individual with no economics training, you might not know what you’re talking about as well as you think.

So make sure you’re able to articulate your thoughts into plain words.  That jargon that so often speeds up a conversation, the math that prevents us from having to re-explain every time a theory is brought up, can sometime impede, not enhance, our deeper understanding.

from Mark Tuminello – latest post by Mark Tuminello

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