In layman terms

Though it was supposed to be a work-free holiday, and even though no internet connection is available there, during my recent vacation to Cuba (yay) I could not avoid spending some time working (mostly in the evenings and/or early in the mornings — depending on how many mojitos I had the evening before).

The day after tomorrow, the first draft is due of a book chapter on which I should have been working over the past two months, if my time during the Fall term had not been consumed almost entirely by teaching. It is a chapter on the properties of clusters of hydrogen (obviously nanoclusters, goes without saying), which I am planning to upload on ArXiv early next week. It is going to be included in the upcoming Handbook of Nanophysics.

Although I am describing work that has been done over the past few years, and about which I have published a few articles which I could use at least in part as a template, to make things particularly difficult this time is the explicit request of the Editor to make the material “accessible to a non-specialist”. In the words of the Editor: “Imagine for example a molecular biologist at a cancer research center who is interested to connect cells to a nanoelectronic circuit or a physicist who plans to do work in nanomedicine” [0].

This is not the first time I receive a request of this type, and I am sure some of my fellow science bloggers are encountering it often too. These days, statements for the “general public” are required almost ubiquitously; for example, they must accompany most research proposals; then there are short articles written for one’s department, or college of science newsletters, as well as popular science magazines [1]. All of that is part of the public relation, outreach effort in which every scientist must engage. It is usually a difficult proposition, though, mostly coming from the simple fact that scientific results that are worth publishing are not exactly the type of things that lend themselves to simple descriptions in “layman terms”.

In the case of this handbook, the stated aim is more ambitious, as the final result is supposed to help a “non-specialist” become proficient in an area of inquiry that can be fairly removed from his/her expertise, to the point where (s)he may be able to start independent research work in that area. After all, interdisciplinarity is the name of the game these days, is it not ? Everybody has to know “a little bit of everything”, I guess…
Particularly telling is this specific piece of advice given by the Editor, regarding references to be included at the end of a chapter:
“readers are scientists like you and usually very busy; they don’t want to take the time to look up references. Sometimes a few additional sentences in the manuscript may help to make this unnecessary.”

I don’t know, maybe I am just reading too much into this but… for some reason it rubs me the wrong way. The contention that a professional scientist, supposedly eager to master the basic elements of a new field, can’t be bothered to look up and study original references, is just bizarre. It is all too reminiscent of the request from students of introductory physics that I “just teach them what they need”, “skip over the mumbo jumbo”, and mostly “avoid the math”. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I am all for trying to make things accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and utilizable by colleagues in many different fields. However, there is a point where this objective, sensible and commendable as it may sound, becomes meaningless, and seriously risks turning into an exercise in vacuity in the best case, spreading misinformation in the worst case.

If there was a way to make a subject on which people write PhD theses, easily “accessible to the layperson”, would universities grant PhDs on that subject ? Would they hire specialists to teach it ? Would it be considered “advanced knowledge” ? If a biochemist could become versed in spintronics in a few weeks, by reading a chapter of two of a handbook, why would physics graduate students spend years specializing in spintronics ? Should they get a degree in biochemistry and read the same chapters instead ?
There is something profoundly silly, disingenuous and insulting in the very notion that expertise acquired by a scientist over the course of years of hard work, study and research, can be summarized in “a few additional sentences”, or even forty pages, and that from a whole body of knowledge a minuscule fraction can be excised of “stuff worth knowing”, which can be expressed in “layman terms” — all the rest is just a pile of “mumbo jumbo” with no real use. It shows scarce understanding of science, but more importantly little respect for scientists and the scientific enterprise.

Some of the general ideas can be explained in simple terms, but most of them cannot. Trying to do that anyway is likely to generate only confusion and misunderstanding, achieving precisely the opposite of what “divulgation” aims at accomplishing. For examples of how this routinely happens in physics, you may read ZapperZ’s excellent blog (especially what he calls “bastardizations of quantum mechanics”), but the very same point is made in this article by Nobel laureate Paul Krugman about economics. Krugman chastises precisely the habit of many, including some of his most respected colleagues, to skip over, or dismiss the importance of the “technical” and mathematical aspects of his discipline. I cannot express it more eloquently than him:
“There are important ideas in [economics] that can be expressed in plain English […] but there are also [some] that are crystal clear if you can stand algebra, and very difficult to grasp if you can’t.

At the cost of sounding like an old fart, I do believe that years of hard work are not just an unfortunate, pedantic requirement, much less some kind of “rite of passage” imposed on the younger generations. Rather, an essential part of the process of learning and comprehension. It is the very individual process of spending hours, months, years thinking about a subject that underlies knowledge, and the ensuing appreciation for the field and for science in general, much in the same way one does not become a musician in a week. Perhaps nowhere as in science the devil is in the details. Trying to by-pass that, advocating the idea that it can all be reduced to “pills”, and even promoting the teaching or the divulgation of science by short-cuts may be politically appealing, but is going to be detrimental to science literacy. In the short term it gives rise to the type of confusion that leads politicians to make uninformed decisions, and (even more importantly) in the long term it will promote a superficial approach to science.

Notes
[0] What the heck is “nanomedicine” anyway ? I am a long time detractor of everything “nano”, but really, this is going way too far…
[1] I also remember getting into an argument with an NSERC administrator, who insisted that my bio was not written in a way that would make it “accessible to the layperson”, and kept taking the liberty of making changes — problem is, the person had no clue about what it is that I do, and therefore wrote nonsense, inserting random text copied off some encyclopedia, changing words into others that had different meaning, and in general misrepresenting my work, all in the name of “divulgation”.

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9 Responses to “In layman terms”

  1. ScientistMother Says:

    Happy New Year massimo! That was heavy thinking early in the year. I too find it odd that a professional scientist doesn’t want to have to look up original references. But unfortunately its true. Many articles now reference review articles (ie as reviewe in xxx). I, for one, prefer original articles as you can learn so much more about the thought processes that went into a discovery or more importantly, how something was overlooked.

  2. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Happy New year to you SM ! “Heavy thinking” ? I think “gibberish” is more like it… I just blame it on mojito withdrawal 🙂

  3. Cherish Says:

    I understand what you’re saying, but I shall play devil’s advocate anyway. There is a lot of interdiscplinary research, especially in nanoeverything, and generally someone who is collaborating with someone else is not going to be viewed well if they stand up and say, “I can only talk about this part of my research because so-and-so does all the other stuff.” It’s good to at least have a passing knowledge of so-and-so’s area of research. When approaching an area from an outsider, it can be very frustrating to go through the daisy chain of papers just because you may want to understand something is somewhat general terms. If you have the time and inclination, looking up the papers is awesome and a great way to expand your knowledge…but sometimes that isn’t what you need. And if you are trying to get papers out, you probably don’t have the time.

    (Says she who has had a taste of engineers and chemists collaborating…)

  4. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Cherish, I understand what you are saying and it’s fine, but sooner or later you get to a point where you simply want to put a reference and move on. First of all, making a short digression every time in order to explain everything, no matter how tangentially related to the main subject of the article, is detrimental to the flow of the narrative, and makes the article too lengthy. Secondly, if it is work done by someone else it is OK for me to summarize it, but I feel more comfortable leaving it up to the author to explain in detail the conclusions — I don’t want to risk misrepresenting their work or looking like I am claiming credit for someone else’s contribution.
    Third, regardless of whether I include a short summary or not, I don’t see how I can avoid putting a reference to the original work, if nothing else for the sake of completeness. The purpose of a review article is also that of providing an overview of the literature.

  5. Cherish Says:

    All the points you make are valid from the author’s point of view, but have nothing to do with how the reader will take it. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass to write all those explanations when a reference will do, and no, I don’t think you can avoid putting references even if there is an explanation. An analogy from the reader’s perspective, however, is that they don’t want to read the Principia when an undergrad physics textbook will get them there just as well and probably make more sense (especially if you don’t know Latin). 🙂 Those short digressions, even if only summaries (or maybe I should say especially if they are summaries as that often presents things at a higher level which is usually conceptually easier to grasp), may ruin the flow for you but can be awfully illuminating for someone else.

  6. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    may ruin the flow for you but can be awfully illuminating for someone else

    Actually, I meant that they ruin the flow for the reader. I know I get terribly confused when I read a review paper and the author makes a digression every other paragraph to explain something from first principle, especially if it is something like, a well-established result. In that case, I am happy to take it for granted without seeing it re-hashed, particularly if it is only tangential to the main subject.
    I think in the end it’s a matter of proportions, but to issue a blanket statement to not to put too many references seems silly.

  7. JT Says:

    Happy New Year.

    In terms of “dumbing it down” for interdisciplinary researchers (or, equally applicable, for students beginning their research career), that is probably more harmful than it is beneficial, unless I have a misunderstanding of the scope of the directive. It is worthwhile to try to structure reports so that a sufficiently motivated “outsider” better knows where to start (as opposed to writing the paper/chapter only for the 2-20 other scientists actively working in your area). Keeping the lay, or near-lay (like that summer research assistant), audience in mind while preparing a manuscript is a good idea nonetheless, if for no other (internal) reason than to save yourself some work later. However, to try to make any original research work “self-contained” is indeed folly (for a variety of reasons).

    That said, I still see two important (external, public relations, whatever) reasons for putting (what may seem to be undo) effort toward translating key portions of the more technical language into “more accessible terms”. I still don’t know how to do this properly, but am keen on “improving”.

    First, as a matter of preemption. In the event that one’s research finds its way into the popular science press (or better/worse, the press writ large), you may not be contacted to check the veracity of the to-be-published science-to-J-school translation. Journalists and K-streeters will take the path of least resistance – so provide one which reflects what you would want reflected. Otherwise, who knows what kind of bizarre garbage might be forever associated with your name (yes, a correction may be printed on page 17F, sandwiched between the quasi-spam advertisements which are reproduced in every printing).

    Second, as a good faith offering to the public (who ultimately fund our research – or at least have some say in the process every 2+ years). Honestly, this aspect is symbolic for the most part (I mean, how many people are going to head over to the public library to photocopy a paper on spin ice or conformal field theory? Or even download a paper from a free online repository), but we should do it anyway.

    So to say that one should make work “more accessible” has a variety of facets. I realize emphasize here will detract from the science (as an abstraction), and is, in all likelihood, something that will not be appreciated (nor be of personal future ‘internal’ utility) – it is easy to see why the idea is viewed with distaste. I still think it is worthwhile.

  8. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    It totally depends on context, in my opinion. A lay summary of publicly funded grants is important for continued public support of scientific research. Lay summaries of published papers help the public to cut through the crap introduced by some journalists and go straight to the source. Pop sci books are also very important – I haven’t studied physics since 1993, but loved E=mc2 by David Bodanis.

    But in a handbook on a very specialised subject such as nanowhatsits, then yeah, keep it focused and make the buggers read the original references. OR provide a website of supplementary materials / explanations / etc to support the book. (My sister works in non-fiction publishing and says that more and more authors are choosing this option).

  9. R Says:

    I am coming in late to the conversation, but I thought I should throw in my $0.01 (sorry, with the crisis I can’t make the $0.02).

    Writing anything at a high level seems as if the author is trying to keep the stuff a secret since nobody outside the field will understand what they mean. On the other hand, I think some articles do need the “difficult” mathematics and/or concepts in them.

    The editorial comments on some journals, like Nature and Science, make an attempt to water-down the paper’s content. For example, many times I have found papers in these magazines that look interesting, but the details are way over my head. On top of that, we all know that you have to be really familiar with a topic to know what the important questions are. I can read a paper, and maybe understand what it is saying, but if I am not in that field there is a good chance that I misinterpret the importance of, or completely miss, the question they tried to answer.

    Maybe what the editor is looking for is a compromise between the typical article and an editorial comment on it. Can this always be done? I don’t know, but if someone can it would be the expert on the field.

    We should maybe ask Brian Greene how much he thinks people are missing by reading his books instead of the papers.

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