Tone, Substance, Truthiness

Edu-twitter is awash with mutual complaints. Sometimes, edu-blogs are also awash with complaints, often in the comments. The complaints are about Tone of the argument as often as they are about Substance of the argument. Some people imply that Tone is indicative of the worth of the argument, whereas others assert that Tone is irrelevant; it is only the Substance that counts. I’ll come back to this.

Science writing comes in a number of different forms. There is main stream journalistic pieces, science magazines, journal review articles, and peer reviewed research articles. Each of these is a different beast, with its own characteristics (particularly with respect to rigour). Almost nothing I’ve ever read in a main stream journalistic outlet which covers an area of Science I know a lot about would I describe as accurate. Usually, the Science has been simplified to the point of inaccuracy, and the conclusions drawn are suspect. Such pieces are invariably heavily skewed by bias. Objective, they are not. But, then, who believes what they read in newspapers? More enlightening is that even science magazine articles are often very selective and often seek to impress a point of view on the reader. Journal review articles are better, but by their very nature have to leave out most of the detail. They are often a useful introduction to a field of study. However, if, as a Scientist, you really want to understand an area of study, you have to read the original peer reviewed research articles. Peer review is essential, here. It helps to ensure that the required information is presented, and that the conclusions drawn are a fair reflection of the data.

These peer reviewed articles are often very dull. They have to be. They are written in a peculiar way; as deadpan as possible, presenting information with brevity, but accuracy. The data presented is put out into the wider world for other scientists to consider, weigh and test. The explicit aim is to further the knowledge of Science. Opinion as to meaning of evidence is clearly presented as such, to be discarded if the data (in the article) on which that opinion is based does not appear to fully support the assertions being made. This is pretty much a unique form of writing. As I said, unless you really, really want to know what the article says, reading it will not be entertaining. Also, because the article is tightly focussed on the findings, most articles are very limited in their scope. Lots of articles need to be read to cover any appreciable ground. Quick, it is not. You can also see why Scientists take a dim view of anyone who takes their research straight to the press without passing through the medium of peer reviewed research article.

Scientists understand all this. It’s how they work. But I would guess that few others understand this. Most people can’t wait for the weight of robust research to accumulate before deciding on a course of action. Decisions have to be made.

What’s this got to do with Tone and Substance? The form of a piece of communication is often closely associated with the intended function of the piece of communication. If I read a peer reviewed research article, I know what to expect, and I know how to interpret it. The same with a main stream piece of journalism (I’ll be looking to see what the writer’s, or the paper’s, agenda is rather than expect to be enlightened about the science). The form of the writing, including the choice of words, will be part of the communication process. Both what is said, and how it is said, communicate meaning. If the writer of a peer reviewed article tries to use hyperbole (fantastic, great, awesome) or tries to undermine a rival piece of work using words such as ‘stupid’, ‘grossly mistaken’ or ‘crap’, this will not survive the peer review or editing process. Use of such words is just not acceptable in a peer reviewed article. Only Substance counts. Likewise, sarcasm or irony are not appropriate. Or humour.

In the search after Truth, clearly Substance is what matters. Sifting through evidence and data requires enough cognitive effort such that distractive use of language (e.g. non-relevant adjectives) is very unhelpful. Only discussion of the data is appropriate, any attempt to impute weakness in the Substance by nefarious reference to the author (or the author’s friends or supporters) muddies the waters. But, we are only dealing with Truth in peer reviewed articles. In every other form of writing (and, I admit, this might be an overstatement) we are actually dealing with Truthiness.

Now, truthiness is a word recently brought to our attention by @JamesTheo, here. It means ‘how true this thing sounds’. So, something might strike us as being true, but actually might not be. There is the opposite, of course, something might sound untrue, but actually be true. I don’t know what the word for this is (non-truthiness?). If we are seeking the Truth, then we need to deal in Substance. If, however, we are trying to convince others of Truth, then, I contend, we are dealing in Truthiness instead. It doesn’t matter how true something is, if people don’t see the Truthiness of it. And, I’m afraid, Tone is a very important part of Truthiness. If the writing is to encourage people who already have the same view of Truth as the writer, then sarcasm, hyperbole and irony are fine (even satire), but if the aim is to convince those who don’t already share the same view, then this approach will not present as Truthiness. Instead, only the non-Truthiness will be conveyed.

Tone, then, is critical to Truthiness.


3 thoughts on “Tone, Substance, Truthiness

  1. teachingbattleground

    You seem to be concluding that if your concern is to fool people into believing something for reasons unrelated to whether it is true, then tone is important. I don’t think anyone disputes that a plausible tone is vital for lying and bullshitting. What is usually at issue in discussions of tone is whether somebody responding to the tone, rather than the substance of an argument, is behaving as if they are indifferent to the truth.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      Indeed, if the aim of the writing is to fool people that what is being said is true, when it is not, then tone is, of course, very, very important. However, I think it is also true that if what is being written by the writer is believed (by the writer) to be true, then (if the medium isn’t peer reviewed scientific literature) tone will also be very, very important, because the writer is attempting to persuade the reader to believe the truth of what they are writing. I agree that when somebody responds to the tone, rather than the substance of an argument, they are behaving as if they are indifferent to the truth. I would also say, though, that when the writer is indifferent to the tone they have adopted, then they too have missed something important. Mixed writing is the most difficult…(mixed in the sense that it contains clear logic and reasoning, and presentation of evidence, but also contains insults and general ranting)… because it makes it difficult for the reader to know how to respond. For example, satire is often cruelly amusing, unless you are the target of the satire; but it seldom changes minds. Readers are effected by tone, so communication needs to accommodate this if the aim is maximum persuasion.


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