Steven Pinker, noted cognitive scientist and best-selling author, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at MIT on September 12. It was the first annual Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering lecture in the new series: Communicating Science and Technology in the 21st Century. In his talk entitled “The Sense of Style”, Pinker explained the importance of communicating complicated scientific ideas clearly and succinctly—an essential skill for future leaders and policy-influencers. His lively hour-long presentation covered a range of topics from the rules in The Elements of Style, to the methods of classic prose, and the intricacies of using language to convey complex ideas.
The Sense of Style: Scientific Communication for the 21st Century
Let's face it: most scientists are terrible communicators. Why do the world's most cerebral people find it so hard to convey their ideas? And how can we learn to do better? I suggest that answers can be found in a number of ideas from the modern sciences of mind and language. Among them are: The Tree and the Chain (how multidimensional ideas are mapped onto one-dimensional strings); The Curse of Knowledge (why it's so hard to imagine what it's like not to know something you do know); and Long Shadow of Mrs. Grundy (how to distinguish rules of proper usage that are worth keeping from those that are bogus).
Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received six honorary doctorates, several teaching awards, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate. He is the Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New Republic, The New York Times, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, and is listed in Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine's “The World's Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and in Time magazine's “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” His latest book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.