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Background

The U.S. government time and again produces public large dense reports that describe specific phenomena in excruciating detail for someone not in the legal or lobbying profession. Every single report that I linked has been the subject of intense controversy, cherry picking, and doubt by people even in the highest levels of government. From a FOIA standpoint, I can understand why these reports are made public; because it must be a public resource for problems to potentially be addressed.

However, there are several hurdles that prevent these documents from being digestible from anyone other than people in the relevant expert professions:

  1. The dense language in each report leaves people prone to misinterpreting the meaning of certain words.
  2. The length of each report makes it difficult for the average busy American adult to fully read it, let a lone digest the content.
  3. If the public considers a government authority to be untrustworthy, how will each report even be trusted, let alone interpreted correctly or completely read? (From the executive point of view, I know that IGs and Special Counsels are there own separate authorities, but not everyone understands that nuance).

With these hurdles, large reports can quickly be muddied and their meaning lost through the reasons I mentioned above, thus preventing people from making an accurate conclusion (from the author's point of view) from reading each report, let alone doing something about it. Hence my question...

Question

Why make such large investigative reports when there are numerous hurdles preventing the general non-expert audience from understanding what the author wrote?

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    Title question and final question in body are pretty different. – Fizz Jan 10 at 20:43
  • @Fizz does the updated question address your concern? – isakbob Jan 11 at 15:58
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    Re there being numerous hurdles for the general public, you could say exactly the same thing about (just for instance) most of my graduate, or even undergraduate, math & physics texts. Does that mean no one should write those texts? – jamesqf Jan 11 at 18:05
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Trying to answer the question from the viewpoint of a scientist, not a member of the administration, but I think the logic is similar, as it is about technical reports.

The dense language in each report leaves people prone to misinterpreting the meaning of certain words.

What you call dense language is actually technical language. It is necessary to have a precise discussion on the matter and avoid partisan bias and interpretation of the vocabulary by the authors and the experts of the question. I guess that you would have the same feeling of dense language when reading a scientific paper in an area you are not familiar with: physics, mathematics, medicine, law, sociology, psychology,...

The length of each report makes it difficult for the average busy American adult to fully read it, let alone digest the content.

Reports are technical writings so they are probably "as long as they should be". Compare to scientific articles. Writing an article is long, tedious, not fun compared to doing actual research. Scientifics have no incentive to write an article longer than it should. On the contrary, they have a few incentives to write shorter, more concise articles: easier to spread their work through the scientific community, editors want them to write shorter papers, with no superfluous material.

The administration may not have the same incentive in writing short reports but don't take long reports as a sign of malicious intent or an attempt to obfuscate the truth.

Transparency

Why does public administration continue to produce these reports if they are easily misunderstood or misrepresented by the audience? The main reason is transparency. These reports are certainly tedious to read but they have the benefit to exist and be publicly available. If someone misinterprets their conclusions, it is then by bad faith or ignorance (and I am not judging people, we are all ignorant in many areas). It is similar to scientific facts: the proofs that the Earth is not flat are now available to everybody, at the cost of a bit of time (to learn the required science) and money (to buy the relevant articles).

Think about the alternative: would you prefer short reports that are incomplete, with ambiguous or imprecise terminology? That would much easier to interpret the conclusion wrongly or with a partisan view. And you are wrong on one point: there are people in the general population that are able to read these reports without being professionals or experts. For example, there are a lot of people reading technical reports and helping others to understand their conclusions at skeptics.SE.

Where you are right is that things could be improved in a modern society. But it is in addition to technical reports, not in replacement of them.

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    There is no guarantee that documents produced by a governmental authority are peer reviewed, unlike in technical or academic papers. – isakbob Jan 10 at 3:28
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    @isakbob: fair point. They are at least internally reviewed before publication and they are publicly available so they are reviewed by public scrutiny. Not all technical reports (from tech companies for example) are peer-reviewed either. Note that academic peer-review process is not about eliminating every mistake, but eliminating most blatant mistake and determining the interest of the article for the scientific community. But the reports from the administration are not under the pressure of "novelty" like academics. – Taladris Jan 10 at 3:42
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This is something that graduate students, academics, scholars and researchers have in common: namely, the ability to read and absorb a lot!

  • read the prologue
  • what chapters are there in the report?
  • Does every chapter have its own summary? Read the summaries (all of them).
  • Is there something in a summary which catches your fancy? Read that after the summaries.
  • An executive summary?

A normal university course (2 months of full-time work) in History at the undergraduate level basically requires you to read around 2000 pages (let's say 10 different books). The teacher doesn't expect you to read the whole lot cover-to-cover, but what they want you to do is to be able to, from those 2000 pages, do a synthesis of the material.

The synthesis, and writing about it in a concise manner, can be said to be the gist of what the teacher wants to see when writing the score.

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The reason is simple, as these documents all are investigations into or charges of violations of the law. In law, words have a specific legal meaning as defined by the statute as to what terms mean, not to mention, relies on a lot of jargon often times, from a language nobody speaks anymore (Common Law, the legal system that underpins U.S. law, is much much older than the nation, dating back over 1000 years to English Law, and has a lot of Latin terms that both mean something when directly translated to English and something not entirely related when used in the legal profession).

There's also the issue that the U.S. government loves it some acronyms for shorthand and can result in some bizarre letter combos that often start with "US-" and then may or may not form something pronounceable that may or may not be spoken as each individual letter. Each of these departments has a predefined term or legal judgement. Additionally, if there multiple counts of the same legal charge, each charge needs to be written to seperately.

Another common turn of phrase is "on or about [date]" which is how lawyers will refer to any date in time and avoid perjury of getting the date wrong. Even if the client can 100% remember the date to the milisecond, the phrase "On or about" gives some legal room so any opponents can't pull the fact that the date wasn't the most precise as a way to toss out the statement (suppose Alice says she saw Bob at the scene of the crime at 8:00 pm. The defense could play a security came time stamped from 8:02-8:03 pm showing Bob at the scene to discredit Alice... however, Alice saying "on or about 8:00 pm" means that Alice didn't speak an untruth... if it was 8:00 pm on the dot, it's "On" and "about" is fairly nebulous in terms of range, especially if Alice got her date based on another time event (suppose she was watching a sportsball game that concluded at 8:00 pm and she saw Bob after watching Sportsball?)

Basically, all three documents are written by lawyers, which is a profession that lives and breaths using very exact meaning so as all concerned are left in no doubt what they meant to say.

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The general public is not expected to understand or even read these reports. The reports are produced for the purpose of an investigation and as such must be comprehensive and technical to ensure the fairness of the investigative process. The report is made public in the interests of transparency and to allow others to reference the content.

The public will generally interface the results through an interpretation in the media, and may wish to check specific parts of that interpretation, but not generally the whole text.

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They must be long and dense, often, to fully cover the topic. Yes, this can make it hard for the lay person to understand, but honestly the lay person probably would never understand most of these topics.

If there is a question of trust in the government, then surely one would prefer a longer more complete report than the government's own summary of such a report.

As to the time available to the average person to read it...this is why there are think tanks, journalists, etc, who will take the time to read it, and then do their best to extract what the voting public needs to know.

Before I get jumped on by the Fake News crowd, I am not suggesting that one think tank or one journalist be trusted. But by having many people knowledgeable on the topic read it and distil it, then there can be discussions about the differences in their interpretations.

Sadly, we have moved into a time when not only do people not trust experts, and think that everyone has the same ability to understand hyper complex ideas, but also and paradoxically, people are willing to trust a single source, be it Fox, MSNBC, or crack pots on the web.

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