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Caveats: An Antidote

A list member asks how he can stop caveating.

I’m finding surprisingly little written on this subject, considering everyone complains it’s one of researchers’ worst communication habits. If you’ve read, heard or seen something useful, please hit reply and share it.

Years ago, my wife and I were flying from Hong Kong to Tokyo, sitting next to a man who had recently moved from Tokyo to Hong Kong and was missing his former city enormously.

When he found out this would be our first time visiting Tokyo, he offered a piece of advice: “Be very patient. The Japanese can’t tell you directly that they care about you. The way they show it, for example, is by spending 20 minutes elaborately wrapping a trinket you’ve just purchased in their shop.”

I don’t know if he was right, but his framing was helpful. Instead of being driven crazy with impatience during our Tokyo stay, I instead saw everywhere the powerful sublimation of ritualization.

So that’s the way I think about caveating: as a kind of displaced caring, culturally driven by science.

We caveat because we care so much about capturing precision or uncertainty for a scientific audience.

The antidote isn’t to try to caveat less. It’s to intentionally care more about another goal — making a difference to this other audience, one that cares less about the wrapping and more about the gift of insight.

More gift; less wrapping.