Analyzing Government Communications

Any piece of government writing can be analyzed using the binary dimensions of purpose and audience.

PURPOSEanalyzing government communications

In government writing, having a clear purpose means being able to write high-quality content (content that works) without losing sight of the overall strategic goals of the department or organization. Before writing, ask yourself:

  • Are there any background issues that will put your writing in an appropriate context for the readers? Are there any specific policies or reports the reader needs to know about to fully understand your communications?
  • Does your document strike a balance between being objective – not overstating facts and clearly articulating the down sides of an issue or project – and making the information persuasive?
  • Since government documents are often both records of and basis for action, they must be accurate, complete and objective, but they must also — and importantly — be reader-centred, clear, concise and written in plain language. (Plain language tips.)
  • Useful documents are those whose overall design contributes to readability, not just those that incorporate relevant information. So don’t stop at high-quality copy-writing; ensure that the document design is easy to understand, interesting and in line with the formal departmental requirements. (Plain language design tips.)
  • If in doubt, consult a communications professional who should be able to provide you with examples of finished documents that are similar in content and structure to what you need to write or revise (and which you can then use as a template and style reference).

AUDIENCE

The value of your government communications will be directly proportional to your understanding of the audience; and the audiences for government writing can be extremely diverse. analyzing government writingBefore writing, ask yourself:

  • Is the audience internal or external to the department or to the organization?
  • Are they experts? Decision makers? The public?
  • What do they already know? What do they need to find out?
  • Will they use the information as a reference or a decision-making tool?
  • How much convincing is required? How little?
  • Is there more than one audience? Can a single communication address the needs of all the audiences?
  • Do you understand the cultural background — attitudes, beliefs, values and expectations — of your audience?
  • Is there any way you can get audience feedback and incorporate suggestions into your document?
  • Is there any other way you can test your communications for plain language use?
  • Do you understand your perceived credibility with the audience?

Finally, like all great communication, government writing is a not just about information exchange, or content, but about positioning what you want to say in an appropriate and convincing context; that is, skilfully balancing the purpose and audience elements discussed above.

analyzing government communications

Verbs in Science Writing

verbs in science writing      Life on earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, re-creates and outdoes itself.” – Lynn Margulis

Verbs are words that indicate — and indeed express — an action or a state of being. When used with care, verbs are the most expressive part of language.

Plain language writers – especially those writing in the sciences and technical fields — should avoid using nouns when an equivalent verb is at hand.

Here are a few examples:

  • emphasize not place emphasis on
  • suggest not is our suggestion
  • need not be in need of
  • reduce not effect a reduction in
  • conclude not bring to a conclusion
  • think not it is our opinion that
  • use not make use of or utilize
  • must not is required to
  • indicates not is an indication that

Science-specific verbs include:

  • classify
  • estimateverbs in science writing
  • hypothesize
  • identify
  • interpret
  • observe
  • predict
  • publish
  • record
  • research

Here, however, are some cliché verbs and phrases to avoid altogether:

  • utilize
  • finalize
  • normalize
  • prioritize
  • in lieu of
  • stabilize
  • input (as a verb)
  • in receipt of
  • our records show
  • remit
  • the utmost care
  • predicated on the assumption
  • opine
  • sincerely hope

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verbs in science writing

The Science of Objectivity

The way we understand something will limit how much of it we allow ourselves to see.

If we understand science as the application of an objective scientific method — a method that is applicable across all situations — we will overlook the large and small idiosyncrasies that characterize all the actual theory and experiment.

But if we “zoom in” to pin down these idiosyncrasies, we’ll find that the details which differentiate them from what we might consider to be the more objective aspects of science get quite blurry.

(So blurry in fact, that it may become clear to us right then that the objects of experience are not simply perceived but constructed in the process of perception.)

Similar logic applies to the concept of objectivity in science.

blog3photoThe common sense understanding of objectivity relies on the presumption that behind the apparent objects lie actual objects. When I’m looking at a tree, for example, I’m looking at it in one of thousands of possible ways I could look at it. And though each perspective may be different, we tend to think that it is the same object, the same tree, that’s being looked at.

In other words, we think that “behind” what we see, and indeed behind what anyone can possibly see, lies the object itself — something more or less independent of my experience of it, something that perhaps even causes experience.

But how does this presumption relate to the actual ironclad facts of your experience?

Ask yourself: Have I, or has anyone I know, ever experienced anything other than experience? Is there anything in my actual experience that is made out of something other than my experiencing it?

Clearly, the answer is that I have never in fact experienced an object that exists apart from my experiencing it.

So, in assuming that such an object exists behind the veil of appearance — and thinking that this is what in fact does the appearing — we mistakenly take what is simply “a subjective experiencing” to be “my subjective experience of the object”.

As a result of this confusion, our common sense concept of objectivity — which is derived from and so based on this simple misunderstanding — points to a mere imaginary object, a taken-on-faith doctrine, a kind of pseudo-scientific unicorn that refers to nothing whatsoever in our actual experience.

(The interesting observation here is not so much that we believe that there exists an objective reality and then act as if this was true, but that we find ourselves acting as if it was true and then convince ourselves that what is merely a fairly boring imaginary abstract construct, “the real world”, is in fact a real thing!)

Okay, you may say, so there cannot be any evidence that objective reality exists, that much is clear. But is objectivity not a necessary presumption in principle, if not in fact?

Yes, the concept of objectivity is necessary if we want to understand the structure of thought and experience — or how thought thinks and how experience is experienced. But our common sense take on objectivity is absolutely unnecessary, and is indeed quite volatile and destructive.

So a better question would be this: Are we stuck with the dogmatic and basically fundamentalist-religious image of objectivity described above? Or can we develop a concept of objectivity that is grounded in and responsive to our actual experience?

In fact, there is a simpler and more direct, if somewhat counter-intuitive, way to conceptualize objectivity. One which, in the spirit of Occam’s razor, allows us to cut the number of taken-for-granted presuppositions, and do away with the rather silly common sense notion that some imaginary objective world is the cause of experience.

In this second, let’s call it post-modern, understanding experience is not a reflection of the imaginary objective reality, as it is in our common sense understanding, but the source of it — a source for both the subjective (our sense of “I exist”) and the objective (our scientific descriptions).

According to this second understanding, no particular experience or form — whether material (sensation or perception) or symbolic (language or image) — has a referent on the presumed objective side because no such other side exists as separate from the actual experience.

In the common sense understanding of objectivity, our experience of the world was derived from the unsupported and unsupportable presumption of a reality behind appearances that is independent of our experience, but which nonetheless makes our experience possible.

In the post-modern understanding of objectivity, our experience of the world is a result of the way in which our present understanding of the world — a historically and linguistically conditioned objective idea, now without an ideal ancestor — interacts with the present perception.

Since our present ideas about the world are themselves both the means of scientific objectification and its context — that is, they determine what “counts as” experience and are themselves experience — as they change, so will change the objective reality itself, not just our concept or idea about it.

For example, not only is the idea “tree” constructed differently by each perceptual-conceptual apparatus (i.e. mind) at different times, the very object “tree”, since it cannot be abstracted away from the process of understanding, will change depending on perspective (à la Quantum mechanics).

So indeed, if we are going to do science — if we are going to try to figure out how the thing works — we need to set up a tentative objective idea “tree”, so that we can compare what we observe to what we think is going on (always being careful not to take “what we think is going on” for “what is in fact going on”).

But instead of a correspondence between what is apparent to what is presumed real, what in this new understanding constitutes the criteria of objectivity becomes a matter of coherence — “Is our understanding of the concept “tree” appropriate to the context in which it is being used?” — and sense — “Does this understanding do what we want it to do?”

In other words, the questioning here shifts away from “It this true?” or “How closely does this finding represent reality?” to “How does it work?” and “How can it be used as a tool?” “What new problem or problematic does it make possible?”

This second, much more nuanced, if a little tricky, understanding of objectivity in science — unlike its common sense predecessor — makes more sense to us simply because it is better aligned with our actual experience.

But it could also go a long way in shedding light on the nature of what The Structure of Scientific Revolutions refers to as paradigm shifting science events, and replace the wild sociological and metaphysical speculations with solid philosophy of science.

science of objectivity

Plain Language Techniques

Plain language writing is about creating communications materials that are easy to use. But more importantly, it’s about managing information quality and providing context-specific solutions. Here are 9 steps that will help you to align the two:

  1. Identify your audience and know what they want to know.
  1. Organize information logically and exclude unnecessary details.
  1. Explain how the text is organized and how to use it.
  1. plain language techniques

    Plain Language Checklist

    Provide general information first, and add specific details as needed.

  1. Use descriptive headings, connect related concepts, describe processes in chronological order, use parallel structure lists.
  1. Use simple, everyday language, short sentences and paragraphs, avoid introducing too many ideas.
  1. Use active voice, action verbs, present tense, and pronouns (you, we, and so forth) to engage the reader.
  1. Define technical terms, minimize the use of acronyms, abbreviations and symbols, and use them consistently when they’re essential.
  1. Verify the accuracy of references and cross-references.

plain language techniques

What Science Knows

“Scientific materialism is neither an implication nor a presupposition of doing science. Rather it is a metaphysical and sometimes religious stance that some people have toward science.” ― Angus MenugeAgents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science
 

Here is the thing. Whatever anyone, including science as a whole, could say about how things are is always a reverse-engineered knowing based on what we think is happening. This is not at all the same as knowing what is happening.

What science knows

Source: Wikipedia

Think about all the things that are taking place as you sit here reading this post, things you don’t know about. Think other cultures, other times, other ideas, other species, and infinite other ways of knowing and being.

How much, in this context of numberless knowers and knowns, do we really know? Do we really know where or who we are apart from the names we made up for things? Do we even know what experience is?

To say that our ignorance massively overwhelms whatever we may think we know is a serious understatement.

Whatever we do know is never known in terms of all that is happening – who can claim the perspective of all that’s happening? — but only in terms of the limitations imposed on knowing by our space-time specific coordinates, or our own perspective.

Knowing, in short, is dependent on the knower and his present understanding of what reality is like, whether this knowing is subjective, meaning limited to one person, or objective, meaning limited to what the scientific community believes is true at any given time.

This simple yet radical limitation of all reverse-engineered knowing – including all knowing that is science — is not always clear to our public science educators, especially the new generation of the so-called science popularizers.

Sagan, Dawkins, Dennett, Tyson, Pinker, Krauss and even Hawking persistently confuse what is being pointed out here: knowing what we think is happening is not at all the same as knowing what is happening.

And since no one (apart from Richard Dawkins perhaps) can lay claim to a universal viewpoint that trumps all of space-time, our belief that “knowing what we think is true” and “knowing the truth” are in any causal relationship whatsoever is just that – a belief.

As powerful a method as science has proven to be, it isn’t and has never been about capital “T” truth, but about what works, or what is reproducible under very specific circumstances.

The belief that science must be true because it works, or that science is about what is true, is not only a logical fallacy (as there is no necessary connection between what works and what is true) and an empirical absurdity (correlation can never imply casualty), but effectively a leap of faith — a deeply non-rational, perhaps even a religious gesture.

Indeed, our new generation of science dogmatists stands in radical juxtaposition to the older generation of more philosophically literate scientists – Bohr, Einstein, Gödel and Heisenberg – who readily recognized that even scientists who reject the value of philosophical inquiry outright, are always already doing philosophy in the sense that they must presuppose a philosophical context (a pre-scientific and taken-for-granted metaphysical position; “scientific realism”, for example).

The older generation of paradigm shifters in science have also been careful to communicate to us that the key pre-scientific assumptions within which all science operates – e.g. time, space, causality – are themselves non-scientific, meaning that they are the necessary conditions of experience (what must be true so that we can experience) rather than experience itself, and as such are metaphysical (axiomatic) rather than empirical (testable) notions.

Our popular science apologists, enamored as they are with a rather childish notion of rationality, have been telling us an extremely silly, one-sided story about what science is, does and knows.

Recognizing this is especially important today because after over a century of scientists’ and philosophers’ continuous attempts — and rather miserable failures — to articulate a demarcation line between science and non-science, and so a clear-cut scientific method, the academic community seems to have understood that such a categorical line is simply not meaningful.

Scientific discovery is so complex and so enfolded into the process of life as a whole that it cannot be abstracted away from it and set up as some kind of pinnacle of human understanding, a final means to discovering the truth.

If there is one thing we should learn from the real giants of science, it must be that science, right from the start and in principle, is a tool-making rather than a truth-yielding activity.

That at its best, it is an intensely dynamic and creative form of art which can never be formalized, and not a follow-the-scientific-method (the stuff we made up yesterday) ritual leading to some imaginary higher-order rational truth that transcends the human experience.

Related articles:

what science knows

Plain Language Science Tips

writing services ottawaBy popular request, here are more tips on how to eliminate pomposity, exaggeration and archaic language from government, legal and science writing. 

                     Instead of                                 Use

  • for the purpose of                         to
  • with a view to                                to
  • in order to                                      to
  • due to the fact that                       because
  • in view of the fact                         because
  • inasmuch as                                   because
  • for the reason that                        because
  • with regard to                                about
  • with reference to                           about
  • with respect to                               about
  • relative to                                       about
  • in the amount of                           for
  • at a cost of                                      for
  • for a sum of                                    for
  • fully cognizant                             aware
  • at this point in time                    now
  • whether or not                             whether
  • despite the fact that                    although
  • at which time                                when
  • a sufficient quantity of               enough
  • in the near future                        soon
  • during the time that                   while
  • by means of                                   by
  • in excess of                                    over/above
  • in view of the above                    therefore
  • in the course of                            during
  • the majority of                              most
  • in conjunction with                     with
  • in the event that                           if
  • at the present time                      now
  • a limited quantity of                    few
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Plain language checklist in PDF.

Eliminate redundancies:

  • “my personal opinion”
  • “rectangular in shape”
  • “two equal halves”
  • “large in size”
  • “new innovation”
  • “consensus of opinion”
  • “past history”
  • “hot water heater”

Cut unnecessarily pompous legalese:

  • pursuant
  • heretofore
  • appraisement
  • herein
  • finalize
  • predicated
  • consummate
  • above-referenced
  • fully cognizant
  • opine

Finally, the structure “The … of” is a sure indicator the writer is using meaningless or obvious information. As in:

  • … in the province of Ontario …
  • … estimated at a cost of ….
  • … during the month of September …
  • … rose to a level of …
  • … located in the city of Toronto …
  • … are currently in the process of requesting …

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