Objectivity in technical writing

Alice with Tweedledum and Tweedledee
“You won’t make yourself a bit realler by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “there’s nothing to cry about.”—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass. Shutterstock image.

Part of professional engineering practice is objective communication. In fact, it’s so important that the Engineers’ Code of Ethics calls it out specifically. How do we achieve objectivity in technical writing?

Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony…—National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics

We’ve discussed the ethics of technical writing in a previous blog. The main points are to do good science and never cross the line between science and advocacy. Technical writing should rely heavily on objective observations and data, not subjective emotions.

Objectivity is important in journalism as well. When I was a university student, I subscribed to a popular news magazine to keep up with current events. After a while, though, I became more and more annoyed with its tendency to editorialize on every page. They could never discuss the Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, without referring to him as a madman. Why couldn’t they just describe his words and actions and let me decide what to think of him? When I told my father why I was letting my subscription lapse, he noted that I was keeping up a family tradition. He’d cancelled his subscription to the same magazine for that very reason when he was about the same age. And his father had done the same when he’d had enough of their editorializing about Franklin Roosevelt.

Making the case

If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.—Carl Sandburg

Of course you can simply assert opinions as if they were incontrovertible facts. If you state them strongly enough, you may be able to bully people into going along with you. But if they don’t already agree with you they’ll probably tune you out, just as I did with that news magazine.

How do you achieve objectivity in technical writing? Essentially, you make your case with evidence. Over the past few months I’ve been reviewing my students’ reports. I keep highlighting subjective judgments, suggesting that the authors delete them in favor of objective facts. I also encourage them to quantify as much as they can.

For example, say the students are developing a stent for heart patients. They could just assume the reader knows that anything to do with the heart must be important. But it would be much more meaningful to describe the relevant medical condition and how many patients suffer from it. They could describe the shortcomings of stents currently on the market and how they affect patients. Then they could show how their design improves on existing stents using data and observations.

This kind of presentation builds the reader’s confidence both in the authors and in the case they’re making. It’s clear that the authors have done their homework, that they know what they’re talking about. It’s also clear that they aren’t trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. And the facts support their decisions regarding the design. They don’t have to say they’ve made good decisions because readers can see for themselves.

Believing in science—and scientists

During the pandemic, our country has sharply divided between those who denigrate scientists and those who “believe in science”. But whether they believe in it or not, how many members of the general public really understand science? Many people didn’t know what to do when the advice of public health officials kept changing. They weren’t comfortable with experts changing their message as new information became available. And they preferred then-President Trump’s definitive optimism to Dr. Fauci’s nuanced caution. That is, they doubted the very people who were being the most honest about the limits of their knowledge and were most concerned about the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

A previous blog about distinguishing lies from statistics cited Darrell Huff’s classic book, How to Lie with Statistics. Huff provides a list of five questions to ask yourself when anyone rattles off statistics. Two of them are relevant here: “Who says so?” and “How does he know?” That is, you need to consider the character and competence of the person regarding the topic at hand, as well as the basis for their conclusions or recommendations.

When someone asserts something as fact, I tend to ask a lot of questions. Where did they get the information? Can they explain why and how it works? Why do they believe it’s true? “It’s worked really well for me,” is a lot less persuasive than, “A controlled, double-blind study of 30,000 subjects demonstrated 95% efficacy.” That is, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. If I know the investigation made good use of the scientific method, I have more confidence in the results.

Pointers for objective technical writing

  • If you want credibility for your work, strive for objectivity in technical writing. Reliance on objective data and observations shows that you’ve carefully considered them in forming your conclusions.
  • Avoid subjective terms in favor of objective evidence. Let your readers decide how they should feel about the evidence. Don’t appeal to their emotions; just stick to factual, emotionally neutral terms.
  • If your readers aren’t well versed in science, you’ll need to explain some concepts in simple—but not simplistic—terms. If you know who your reader is, you’ll know how best to do this.
  • Don’t go beyond what you know. That is, limit your discussion to the scope of the data and observations, and to your own expertise. Or work with a coauthor who can bring additional expertise. In any case, be open about what you don’t—or can’t—know.
  • Remember that correlation is not causality. Just because two things coincide doesn’t mean either of them caused the other. That’s especially important with tables and figures, as the juxtaposition of two or more factors may encourage the reader to see a causal relationship where none exists.