Critical Thinking

Nuance and the Avoidance of Platitudes

Imagine you’re looking at a painting. Maybe you’re standing at a distance and you have a beautiful perspective of the painting’s composition. Maybe you’re standing as close as possible and you can see the detail and mastery in the artist’s brush strokes and color choices.

While both of these perspectives give you insight into the image and are enjoyable in their own right, neither of them fully encapsulate the painting as a whole. In order to truly understand the painting, you must look from a distance and up close. So too with academic topics.

Part of critical thinking is seeing the nuance in any topic we learn about. Upon initial observation, we only ever see a portion of any picture. In order to be good researchers, and practice good critical thinking, it’s crucial that we understand that topics must be closely examined in their individual detail, and also in the context of their field. The difference between academic topics and paintings is that researching the real world never really gives you a nice frame to bound your topic. Our world is so vast and interconnected that we can never zoom out far enough, and at the same time understand with enough detail, that our view of the picture can really be called “complete”. Nuance and critical thinking involves looking beyond the surface-level or simple explanations, and knowing that we’ll never know everything there is to know. It’s about understanding that things are never black or white, but instead are shades of gray.

For example, this comic strip shows a few images that change dramatically as the scope and perspective changes

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-wblutbx_F0w/UnGTPz1futI/AAAAAAAAGLs/4VrJMrEmB7E/s1600/zoom.jpg

Notice how the images themselves are not altered, only the perspective of the viewer is.

How To See More of the Painting

The observer at the art museum can walk around the painting in order to gain perspective, but how can we as academic researchers do the same?

The easiest place to start is by recognizing limitations. Understanding nuance involves recognizing that no singular source or study perfectly encapsulates an entire topic or field.

This same reason is why it is so important to have multiple sources, a practice often called triangulation. Triangulation is when multiple research methods are used to validate findings. Just as the more places the art museum goer stands in the room the better their understanding of the painting becomes, the same goes for research findings.

Another wonderful way to address nuance is by discussion. Among peers or professionals, discussing a topic will give you, literally and figuratively, as many perspectives as possible. However, discussion requires other people, and often people will avoid having to discuss nuances or approach disagreements by using platitudes.

Another metaphor we find useful when thinking about gaining multiple perspectives on a topic is the practice of tomography. A famous example of optical tomography is from a researcher from Portugal, Gabriel Martins, who recreated a 3D construction of an embryo by compilling over 1,000 images. You should approach research similarly. In order to gain a fuller understand of a topic as a whole, take many pictures from many angles, and fit them all together.

Platitudes

A killer of nuance is the habit of using platitudes. Sports journalists, managers in businesses and other administration tasks, trade magazine writers, all fall in to this.

A platitude is an overused statement that might sound deep or meaningful, but often lacks real significance. It’s a cliche, it’s vague, and it lacks substance.

Platitudes are so detrimental to the understand of nuance because they hinder meaningful discussions by catering to superficiality rather than real depth. They frequently leave out or oversimplify complex issues into tweet-able sound bites.

To explain further, we here reproduce, with permission, a brief essay by Jerry Silfer who is a public relations consultant and blogger. It makes this point nicely.

The Platitude Sickness: Taking Out the Trash of Corporate Speak

I sometimes hate what I do for a living.

A sizeable portion of what I write for clients will pass through numerous of filters before getting published. And the end result is nothing but a dwindling tirade of cringy corporate platitudes.

I’m not alone in feeling this way. We’re all exposed to corporate speak. Whether you’re in marketing and communications or not, you’ll see these platitudes everywhere. And for some reason, platitudes are becoming the go-to format for many branded content strategies.

According to Wikipedia:

“A platitude is a trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, generally directed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease. The word derives from plat, the French word for “flat.” Platitudes are geared towards presenting a shallow, unifying wisdom over a difficult topic. However, they are too overused and general to be anything more than undirected statements with an ultimately little meaningful contribution towards a solution.”

Corporate platitudes are such a waste of editorial space. Unfortunately, the platitude sickness tends to do quite well in social media.

A text loaded with obvious statements and no real knowledge can still attract quite a lot of social engagement. People often hit that “Like” button (or emoji-button or whatever) without even reading the actual article it refers to.

“It’s important to have a strategy.”

“Always put the customer first.”

“Be proactive and think long-term.”

“Publish epic content.”

Their engagement reflects how they agree with the headline and how it adds to their own personal worldview. It’s probably also a psychological bandwagon-effect at play, a way of signal belonging to important social circles.

So, how can you combat the platitude sickness in your corporate communication?

Make it your personal mission to find platitudes and to destroy them. As this becomes a ritual, you’ll develop an “allergy” to corporate platitudes — and removing them will become second nature.

Welcome to the fight — I’m happy to have you onboard.

Another Rant Against Platitudes

If you need further convincing, The Speech Dudes have a strongly worded rant about the waste of life that platitudes are. If nothing else, the amount of literature and articles on the nuisances of platitudes should demonstrate to you not only how problematic they are, but also just how prevelant.

They first comment:

More often than not, a platitude simply states the obvious and so would be better off not having been uttered [1]

and footnote [1] is:

[1] With a platitude, not only is there a stating of the obvious but it’s also done in such as way as to have the appearance of being profound or wise. Facebook is full of such pre-digested pabulum that, sadly, spreads like linguistic herpes, passed on by well-meaning but ultimately uncritical people who think that quoting something that sounds smart also makes them sound smart. It doesn’t. Platitudes also seem to aspire to taking on a moral dimension, presumably to reinforce the semblance of profundity.

After personally insulting much of the population that posts on Facebook, a social media platform popular among middle-aged and elderly people, they go on to mention corporate mission statement platitudes:

A mission statement such as “To combine aggressive strategic marketing with quality products and services at competitive prices to provide the best value insurance for consumers” is about as broad as you can get [… this really is the mission statement of a large insurance company]

They finally bring in a criminal organization as an example:

Here’s one you might have heard some years ago: Respect, integrity, communication, and excellence. This was from the company called Enron, which was one of the most notorious business scandals in American history and is considered by many historians and economists alike to be the unofficial blueprint for a case study on White Collar Crime. It’s also an example of a crime against vocabulary for creating such a miserably loose mission statement.

Clearly the Speech Dudes have an axe to grind here, but I find myself in complete agreement that every example they give is awful.

As an exercise, you could visit a rather sad site dedicated to mission statements, and go to the Fortune 500 Mission Statements page [Fortune500MissionStatements] and pick out the few cases in which the company’s mission statement made you think “aha! this is original, bold, and memorable”. Consider, “what makes this better than the others?” “What are they saying that is unique and meaningful?” “How did they say it in a way that avoided platitudes?”

Mark’s Personal Experience

I have worked at Los Alamos National Laboraotry for my entire career. Los Alamos started during the second world war, a group of scientists came together to design and build the first atomic bomb.

Later in its history, Los Alamos developed a more corporate atmosphere, with layers of management and an administrative manual with tens of thousands of pages.

As I was writing this section (May 2021) I looked up what our mission statement was, and found:

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s mission is to solve national security challenges through scientific excellence.

It surprised me for not being awful – maybe just a bit too long. The mission statement from earlier in my career (1994), formulated by former Los Alamos director Sig Hecker, had been stronger, bolder, and more challenging:

Reduce the Global Nuclear Danger. [Hecker1994]

Simple, direct, and packing a punch.