- 52) SPECIFICITY
Specificity is critical for scientific communication.
DEFINITION: Specific writing allows an audience to accurately understand what the authors seek to convey without needing additional explanation.
Specificity is critical for scientific communication. For example, the failure to specify the units for measurements caused NASA to lose the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft in 1999 (Physics Today, 2016). Throughout science, specific written explanations are an essential part of archiving information that is useful to future researchers, engineers, clinicians and decision-makers. Specific communication is necessary to clearly convey the exacting measurements and careful analysis that are important for scientific progress.
However, specific expression is often one of the weakest areas of communication for developing scientific writers (McMillan, 2016). One reason is that when we lack knowledge about a particular topic, we (not surprisingly) also do not understand how much there is to know about the topic (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). We are ignorant even of our own ignorance. Therefore, people who are new to a topic can make inaccurate, over-generalized, or ambiguous statements -- sometimes without even knowing that the statements are unjustified.
Poorly defended, overly-general, or ambiguous statements do not contribute to strong arguments and diminish a reader's confidence in an author. Therefore, unsupported generalities or ambiguous statements not only don't help construct strong arguments, but can actually weaken arguments that the statements are associated with.
Conversely, being able make and strongly defend specific statements can be an indication that an author has the requisite understanding to make strong arguments. Therefore, specific statements are often a necessary (although perhaps not sufficient) component of effective arguments.
Because specificity is so important, it is useful to discuss some principles for specific writing, and to practically apply the principles to make writing more specific.