Friday, January 27, 2012

Is the power of LaTeX a disservice to the reader?

CLOSED: 2012-01-27 Fri 20:56

Nearly three years ago, as March went out like a lamb, I pondered the ways in which LaTeX may hinder communication and wrote the letter below.

Yesterday I spent a terrifying number of hours in Microsoft Project analyzing why the equation

Duration = Work/Units

was not an equality for the scheduled tasks. In the midst of the enquiry my thoughts turned philosophical in an attempt to escape this mathematical morass.

I began to see how some of the recent efforts to incorporate LaTeX in our toolbox may actually be an obstacle to resolving larger problems in our communication. For example, the FDA reports that µ g should not be used in handwritten medication orders because it can be ``mistaken for "mg" (for milligram), creating a 1000-fold overdose''. In light of the serious health consequences it should not be a surprise that the recommendation is to ``write mcg'' instead. One of the reasons that doctors may be lured to handwrite µ g is the fact that it appears in printed form. Indeed, it may behoove authors for certain audiences to refrain from the troublesome symbols. Writers who use wordprocessors are ahead of the trend because symbols are so difficult to obtain.

Acronyms are another area where LaTeX functionality is actually a step backwards in the quest for clear communication. Simply put, acronyms should not be used since they interrupt the narrative flow and sometimes even obscure the meaning to the uninitiated. The feature of including expansions for all acronyms in a LaTeX document appears at face value to be a benefit. On the other hand, it could be contended (and quite convincingly so) that this feature simply perpetuates a practice that should be abolished altogether. Since thorough acronym lists are difficult to write and maintain with wordprocessors, those authors are working hand-in-hand with the frustrated reader of the unexplained acronyms to hasten their demise in written communication.

In retrospect, I am quite surprised at how long it took me to realize how using LaTeX can actually hinder the reader's intellect. In all my jabbering about ``coherent documents'' and ``clear communication'' in symbols and references and styles, it never once occurred to me that the reader might need something different. For instance, documents that have symbols in equations that do not match symbols in the text are encouraging the reader to take an active part in learning the material. The astute reader will immediately note the mismatch, and a myriad questions will flood their mind. The author has, wittingly or not, invited the reader to an invigorating journey of discovery to understand the true intent of the writing.

Continuing on those same lines, providing links or even simply references to numbered objects in the document allows the reader a lazy approach. Instead of using their own brainpower to recall what has been written and where, thorough and correct references provide no impetus for the reader to delve deeply into the document. On the other hand, a work without such referential spoon-feeding is one that demands from page one that the reader be completely engaged and attentive, remembering for themselves what and where the important bits are. Of course it is almost inevitable that the reader miss or forget a vital or central idea, but then the pleasure begins anew as they search from front to back, having opportunity to learn even more. A burst of happiness is their reward upon finding the object of their search, and if they do not happen upon their quarry they may use their own judgement to conclude that it is not important anyway.

To simplicity,
Timothy C. Burt
01 Apr 2009