Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Platinum Rule meets The Curse of Knowledge

One of the most difficult things for journalists to do is escape "The Curse of Knowledge.” The concept is discussed in the book “Made to Stick,” which is one of the reasons I’m requiring the book in my media writing course this term.

The knowledge curse is that as a knowledgeable reporter you are often blind to your reader’s lack of knowledge. Excuse me for sounding a little like Donald Rumsfeldt*, but a reporter's awareness of the reader’s ignorance is essential to writing an understandable story.

“Made to Stick” authors Chip and Dan Heath also discuss the need for simplicity in order to make ideas stick. They use proverbs, such as The Golden Rule, as examples of sticky communication.

But, as it turns out, the Golden Rule suffers from its own twisted Curse of Knowledge. We know what we want others ”to do unto us, “ but that may be a useless guide when it comes to "doing unto" others.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” fails to capture the intended meaning. What the proverb really means has come to be called the “Platinum Rule”: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

My wife likes to cite the Platinum Rule when, following the Golden Rule, I give her socket wrench sets or books such as “The Idiot’s Guide to Motor Scooters” or “Basic Typewriter Repair.”

The Curse of Knowledge and the Golden Rule have much in common. The Golden Rule’s assumption that you, the gift recipient, will want what I, the giver, wants bears a close resemblance to the writer's assumption that you, dear reader, know what I, the writer, knows.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Chip and Dan, take note: The Golden Rule may be simple, but it has been hexed by “the Curse of Knowledge.”

*If ever anyone was cursed with and befuddled by knowledge, it was Secretary of Defence Rumsfeldt. Here is his famous dissertation on the subject: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

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