October 25, 2010 1 Comment
A wise professor once told me, If you don’t publish your research you might as well have not done it in the first place. Because what good is it if no one knows about it? Well, I’d actually take it one step further and say that if you can’t make other people understand what you’ve done, you might as well have not done it. Because even published papers need to be readable and understandable to other scientists at the very least, or there’s no way to determine if the results of the experiment are meaningful. And this isn’t just applicable to science. In math, business, law, medicine, philosophy, and even politics, it is critical that you keep your message as simple and as understandable as possible.
Unless you’re trying to take over the world, or something. In that case you should never explain what you evil plan is or how your doomsday device works until after you’ve already succeeded. Movies, cartoons, and comic books have taught me that.
But seriously, the world we live in is becoming increasingly complex, which means the need to be able to simplify things is becoming increasingly important, so that the public in general can make informed decisions about issues that are relevant to our entire species, and by extension to the rest of Life on our planet as well.
At least until my doomsday device is ready, anyway. After that it won’t really matter what the rest of you think about anything.
Back when I was living in England, I visited Newgrange with my parents. Newgrange is a 5,000-year-old Neolithic site in Ireland where they did…stuff. Basically it’s like Stonhenge, but in Ireland. And completely different. Regardless, what really struck me was when our guide mentioned that the people who built Newgrange had the exact same intellectual capacity we have today. In fact, the main difference between them back then and us here now is that in order to figure out when the winter solstice was back then, they had to sit around for years staring up at the sky, while we can just Google it.
Also, I bet we could totally kick their asses. And completely scare the crap out of them with our cell phones.
The point is, we really haven’t evolved that much in the past 5,000 years, and the only thing that separates us from our ancestors is the knowledge that we’ve accumulated during that time. And the fact that we’ve killed off pretty much every other animal on the planet that could pose a serious threat to us. But as our knowledge and the complexity of our daily lives increases, it is critical that we keep things as simple and accessible as possible to as many people as possible, so we don’t end up destroying the planet. Or electing Sarah Palin.
Which is basically the same thing.
A good friend of mine came to Beijing this last weekend. He’s a process engineer for Intel. I’m a computational biochemist. And we can pretty much talk to each other about our work on a scientific level. But neither of us is stupid enough to try and explain to our families or other non-science people exactly what it is that we do. He tells people he makes computer chips. I tell people I design cures for cancer. Neither of these things is exactly true in the strictest sense, but it’s more useful, more meaningful, and more relevant information is conveyed than if he simply tells people that he’s a process engineer. Or if I tell people that I’m a computational chemist.
I guess what I’m getting at is this: the meaningful transfer of useful and relevant information is CRITICAL if we are to continue to advance and thrive as a species.
Also, I like boobs.
Honestly though, I find it so bizarre that so many otherwise intelligent people seem almost utterly incapable of simplifying their arguments. Like lawyers who constantly cite obscure legal cases and spout phrases in a dead Romance language. Seriously, these guys need to understand that in some circumstances it’s just not appropriate to whip out your little Latin. And I’m speaking from experience here. Or doctors who insist on using medical jargon in daily conversations. Hell, even mathematicians and philosophers are guilty of this; quoting obscure dead people and theorems to support their argument when no one else knows what the hell they’re talking about.
By the way, I’m not talking about anyone I know personally here. Because I do have doctor and lawyer friends, and they’re not the ones I’m thinking about. No, who I’m talking about, obviously, is people on the internet. Because the pontificous douchbaggery of the internet quite literally knows no bounds.
Case in point: this blog.
Really though, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people use obscure jargon from their professional field to try and win an argument on the internet. And I don’t know if they think it makes them look smart or something, but it really, really doesn’t. I mean, when it comes down to it, knowing a lot of jargon and fancy equations is a sign of intelligence, but knowing when it’s appropriate to use them is a sign of wisdom.
And wisdom is something we really need right now. I mean, we’ve got Global Climate Change, the Financial Crisis, Fundamentalist Terrorist Douchebags, Poverty, Fox News, and Health Care Reform just to name a few, and I think these are all issues that we technically have enough information to solve, but we’re just not getting the right information out there to the right people in the right way. After all, the Protestant Reformation in Europe was one of the fundamental turning points in Western history because suddenly everyone had access to the Bible and was thus free to interpret it how they saw fit. Yeah, it was still available before that, but only if you could read Latin. Which for most people meant they were stuck relying on a few talking heads from the Church to tell them what was moral and what was immoral.
I really think we need something similar today. Because there is just so much information out there, it’s hard for non-experts to understand it all or even know when someone is trying to sucker them. I think teaching more critical thinking in schools would be a good start, but I also think the burden should be on professionals to report what they do in a simple, honest, and clear way.
Of course, none of you guys will have to worry about that once my….I mean….um….
Hey, what’s that over there??!!