Yesterday the Canadian Press revealed that economists were criticized in an audit for the Bank of Canada for their poor writing skills. According to the report, they failed at “being succinct, grammatically correct, and prioritizing data into useful information.”
These aren’t kids who slept through grammar class, but respected experts with graduate degrees whose opinions determine national and international economic policy. Weighty indeed.
Anyone who has edited economists–or lawyers, medical researchers or practically any other kind of expert–should not be surprised. Like me, they know experts often fling around bloated words and floppy phrases more to impress each than to be understood by people outside their narrow field.
Despite bigger and better data, economic forecasts sometimes miss. But unlike television weather forecasters who make genial quips when the hurricane suddenly shifts course or picnics were ruined by unexpected rain, the economists seem to prefer to obfuscate than fess up. The talking head economists on the nightly news are rarely taken to task.
The same goes for researchers who overlook tiny clues in the complex human body, government policymakers who don’t bet on a small blip multiplying or the tech seers who did not foresee the surge of social media. They do their best with their data and methods. We should not expect them to be perfect.
Shine a light
But we should expect them to be clear. With so many thought leaders, holding forth on so many topics, hiring editors for each one is not practical. Every expert should know how to produce content that’s, as the report suggests, “succinct, grammatically correct, and prioritizing data into useful information.”
They should also be transparent. It’s bad enough that economists cloud their prognostications with muddy writing. To make matters worse, the references to the poor writing were redacted in the original report. The Canadian Press had to make an Access to Information request to read the mostly uncensored audit.
Worse still, the bank’s spokesperson declined to comment on the article, explaining the bank was in a communications “blackout” leading up to their release of the overnight rate that influences interest rates. As if the poor writing and interest rates are related.
I’m not arguing that certain information should not be confidential. Personal financial or health information and some military intelligence easily come to mind. But why would anyone censor a report about poor writing? Why put it on the same level as nuclear war heads in Israel?
But then again, maybe it is just as important. In a world that relies on expert information, maybe we need to demand that experts write clearly so we can understand them. Maybe we need to threaten them with Julian Assange-powered editors if they fail to comply.
Clear, concise and correct writing matters. If we don’t understand each other, we can’t get along or make the best decisions.