18 February 2017

“Explain it like you would to...”

People like to tell scientists what sort of explanation counts as “clear.”

So you get clichéd advice like, “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to a six year old child.” (Maybe this is why doing a Google Image search for “explainer” gives me the results above: the top results are all simplistic, almost child-like, cartoon images.)

Well, I’m sorry, but there are some things that a young kid is just not ready to understand. Differential equations? Quantum mechanics? Tesseracts? There are tons of perfectly fine scientific concepts that are no less legitimate because kids won’t get them.

Meanwhile, at the AAAS meeting in Boston, Mike Taylor tweeted another “explainer” cliché:

Claudia Dreifus: “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, don’t bring it to a reporter.”

The “Explain it to your grandmother” cliché makes me even grumpier than “Explain it to a child.” Why is “grandmother” become a synonym for “uninformed person”? And it’s always, and I mean always, a “grandmother.” Never a “grandfather” or a “grandparent.” So there’s an assumption that women are the uninformed ones that need to have things explained.

Then there’s the age issue. Plenty of older people are perfectly clever. Indeed, some of them are called, “professors.” Other examples:

All three of my children’s grandmothers have college degrees, including graduate degrees and a law degree. - Keith Bertelsen

My kids’ grandmother was one of first women to enter IT in the 1980s, and she does not appreciate condescension. - Miriam Goldstein

My grandmother is one of the sharpest and most well-informed people I know, so def seems like an odd use of “grandmother” to me - Rachel Fritts

Friend of the blog Al Dove raised one good point in defense of the “grandmother” advice:

I’m 99.9% certain grandma was picked to mean “be RESPECTFUL,” not because she’s old and dumb.

Being respectful is a good goal in communication, but given the baggage that “Explain it to your grandmother” has, I think it’s best to look for a new metaphor. The desiderata might be someone who is:

  • An adult with some education, although not an expert.
  • Someone you should treat with respect.
  • Someone whose time is limited and valuable.

My suggestion for an imaginary target audience is:

“Explain is like you would to a world leader.”

A prime minister, president, and the like are all people that any scientist should aspire to be able to coherently and concisely explain what they do and why. Justin Kiggins arrived at similar advice to me independently. But while he was being facetious, I am being sincere.

But even that will have it’s limitations. Politicians are people who often think very short-term (new cycles and next elections), which can be tough for a scientist. This reinforces a lesson I have seen many writers: “There is no ‘general public.’”

Update, 23 May 2017:  Ed Yong suggests, “Explain it like you would to an airport security agent.”

Airport security lines, it turns out, are a fantastic venue for scientists to try their hand at outreach. Various scientists are said to have claimed that you don’t really understand something if you can’t explain it to your grandmother, a barmaid, a six-year-old, and other such sexist or ageist variants. But how about this: can you successfully explain it to an TSA official—someone who not only might have no background in science, but also strongly suspects that you might be a national security threat? Can you justify your research in the face of questions like “What are you doing?” or “Why are you doing it?” or “Why are you taking that onto a plane?”

Hat tip to Megan Duffy.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

Just a point of clarification: I was quoting word for word what Claudia Dreifus said in her talk, not using the explain-to-your-grandmother trope myself. The irony here is that Dreifus is herself a 73-year-old woman. So I guess you could take it up with her? (Though I warn you from the Q&A that followed the session, she does not take even the mildest criticism kindly.)