"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Explaining is Hard

h/t David Appel

An interesting comment on YouTube: "I bet Carl Sagan could have explained it without being a dick."

But he couldn't really. He could conceivably have evaded it more elegantly, perhaps. But the question is unanswerable at the level of sophistication of the questioner.

It started off on the wrong foot because the question was asked so awkwardly that there was some effort at first trying to figure out what the question really means, too.

This is all too familiar. I'm not saying climate science is pure physics, or climate scientists are as smart as Feynman or anything, just that sometimes the best answer is "because that is the way it is, you'll have to trust me; it would take a lot of effort on both of our parts to come up with something better." At least in the case of a magnet, it's part of ordinary mundane experience.

Lucky for Feynman he didn't have Barton commissions and Heartland institutions coming after him.

Still, the fact is that there really isn't a very kind way of saying "I don't expect you to understand this but you really ought to trust me".


David B. Benson said...

I once had lunch with Richard Feynman, just the two of us. I assure you that some (a few) climatologists are just as smart.

Brian Hayes said...

Explaining is everything. And now, it is forever.

Steve L said...

I'm sure there are some cases in which being a dick (on purpose) yields a better answer. Especially in an interview meant for consumption by a broader audience -- perhaps if only exceeding a polite answer in terms of entertainment value. I'm not arguing that it's always the case, since that would be silly. But sarcasm is widely used, for example, and I have no doubt that wide swaths of the populace appreciate skillful application of it. Some people might appreciate it too much, though I think it could also be underappreciated by some. Feynman wasn't sarcastic here (to his credit); however he may have been a bit of a dick. In any case, I thought it was a good answer and I'm gonna watch it again.

skanky said...

I don't think he was a dick in any way. I thought he was remarkably patient - if you think that every time he spent any time with non-physicists he was probably asked similar questions.

I program for a living, and get asked all sorts of questions about computers. The askers don't want the answer I need to give to explain it properly and it gets very frustrating (and difficult) to try and explain it at a level that they want to know.

With magnetic forces, people tend to accept the abstract explanation as it has no impact on them - magnets work. In computing they sometimes do, and they sometimes don't. The times they don't is because the software (normally) works in a way that's different to the way they want to work (they may be justified at times in not liking that), and they start to try and pick holes in my explanation. That is what happens a lot in climate science. People want "high level" (abstract) summary, don't like what it says and try and pick holes in it.

Thus the explanation needs to go deeper and deeper - just like Feynman's - until at some point they get lost.

Anonymous said...

Of course, as we all know, the generic questions on any scientific or technical topic by a non-scientist or non-technician can be summarized as follows:

First question: Oy, so can you explain this stuff in a way that we lowly ignorant plebs can understand?

Second question: Why do you keep talking down to us like we're lowly ignorant plebs?

And this is how crap happens.

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

Frank, my point exactly. Yet we can't just bail out, either.

n-g said...

I have a hard time in my intro to atmospheric science classes when I get to the part about storm intensification. My understanding of the process is so simple, yet requires so much prior understanding and mathematical conceptualization that it would be completely inaccessible to them. So I am left with the choice of explaining the process slightly incorrectly, or letting them rely on the textbook, which describes it even more simply and even more incorrectly. I have yet to find a way out of this mess, since my students (bless their hearts) won't accept "just because" for an answer.

Anonymous said...

Ah well. Donald Knuth writes in his TeXBook:

"Another noteworthy characteristic of this manual is that it doesn't always tell the truth. When certain concepts of TeX are introduced informally, general rules will be stated; afterwards you will find that the rules aren't strictly true. In general, the later chapters contain more reliable information than the earlier ones do. The author feels that this technique of deliberate lying will actually make it easier for you to learn the ideas. Once you understand a simple but false rule, it will not be hard to supplement that rule with its exceptions."

-- frank

Aaron said...

Richard Feynman was called “Dick”, by his friends and critics.

During WWII, Feynman had real experience dealing with institutional stupidity. If Barton / Heartland came after Feynman, they would "find their O-rings in a glass of ice water" just as NASA did.

We do not have anybody like that anymore. Hanson is smart and honest, but he does not have the flair that Feynman had. After all, Feynman was a good conga drummer – and that takes showmanship. Teaching (at the congressional committee level) takes showmanship. Now, we have people that go and testify to congress in a polite and deferential manner. We need people that have the courage to stand up and "dance a conga" while explaining climate science to congress.

manuel moe g said...

You are not entirely fair to Feynman: the instructive story about space aliens quizzing about an aunt slipping on ice was wonderful. And he whole answer is full of gems of communication and understanding.

Marion Delgado said...


This (you have to explain every element live in a few sentences, and to anyone) is all POLITICAL crap. Period.

No one says a person with 20 years as a nuclear plant engineer has to be able to explain how to do the most micro-fine adjustments and do every item in a checklist to do, say, a slowdown and test. And why. For each step. and so on. An operator has to know that, but, say, a journalist covering it has to mostly know where to look.

No one says this about anything - anything at all - that takes a long time to learn.

I found the analysis on rabett run which started at saturation and went into depth with it interesting - all the anti-science trolls had to beg off. Because, frankly, they didn't - any of them - have a very good background in the right math or physics. Their bullshit gibes and canned slogans fell away fairly quickly. When forced to put up, they shut up.

Science is 90% trusting the likelihood of tens of thousands of dedicated researchers and no more than 10% reinventing the wheel and proving everything for yourself.

The hubris involved here is pretty breathtaking.

Rattus Norvegicus said...


If only English grammar was presented so clearly...

Anonymous said...

We need people that have the courage to stand up and "dance a conga" while explaining climate science to congress.

What is Gloria Estefan up to these days? ;-)

Marion Delgado said...


I got to talk with Feynman a few times, he came to our classes and also spoke publicly at my U (the same Uni as Kramm and Akasofu). My favorite response was when I asked him if he couldn't differentiate among the popular but New Age-y physics books some good and some bad. He said he would try to read them - any of them - and would get to a point where "I could not physically turn another page" because they were so offensively hare-brained, basically. As I get older, I understand that better.

WV: Trityl - an actual word.