Friday, October 13, 2017

Explaining As A Mark Of Intelligence

Shortly after Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was published, a journalist was interviewing Niels Bohr – or so the story goes. “I am told that only three people in the world understand this theory.” Bohr paused and thought about it for a minute. “I’m trying to think who the third one would be.” Now, of course, many people understand it. Albert was able to put the information forward clearly enough that others could follow, even if it was a brand-new idea.

I recall also the Boston public television coverage of the Fischer-Spassky World Championship chess matches in 1972. A chess expert had a chessboard projected on a screen behind him and he was moving the pieces after each new move was announced. He then filled the time until the next move, explaining to the public what the move meant, its strengths and weaknesses, and what general responses might be. I turned it on from time to time, though I didn’t find it that interesting. Yes, children, that was what low-tech educational television was like in those days. There was a move by Fischer late in one game which set the expert back a step. He went quiet, staring at the board, and the silence seemed to go on forever. He went to the side of the little stage and whispered to someone off-camera. Finally he said “That’s…not a mistake…” and after another silence “That’s an amazing move.” He went on to explain it, and I mostly got what he was talking about. When I got back to college I asked a chess-playing friend, one who was already collecting points for international ranking, about the incident. He thought he knew which game and which move I was talking about, agreeing that sometimes a move is so brilliant and startling that it is not immediately obvious. But, he shrugged, this doesn’t last long. People who are experts can piece it out, even if it takes a little bit.

As part of our testing of a patient here at our hospital, we were in communication with a lab up at Dartmouth Mary-Hitchcock/Geisel School of Medicine. Their little introductory blurb came back on page 2 of their fax. “The Pathology Shared Resource facilitates project planning, clinical validation, and implementation of novel translational technology and research in the fields of molecular diagnostics, molecular therapeutics, pharmacogenomics, quantitative morphologic image analysis and immunohistochemistry (IHC) in a CLIA-certified, CAP-accredited laboratory…” At first glance I don’t understand a word of it. However, I can assemble some pieces quickly (enough to see that there is a little bit of high-falutin’ language that could be put more simply), look up another, and shout across the hall for a few more. I could vaguely tell you what is happening, though if you ask me again next week I might have to start all over again. I could get this, if I needed to. Not coincidentally, the two people I would ask to set this out are two of the smartest people I know – even though this is only tangentially related to their field. The ability to explain complicated things is a mark of intelligence.

CS Lewis (of course) had noticed this and commented on it.

“An essential part of the ordination exam ought to be a passage from some recognized theological work set for translation into vulgar English–just like doing Latin prose. Failure on this paper should mean failure on the whole exam. It is absolutely disgraceful that we expect missionaries to the Bantus to learn Bantu but never ask whether our missionaries to the Americans or English can speak American or English. Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.” CS Lewis “Version Vernacular” God In The Dock

There are important qualifiers. There may be legitimately brilliant people who are temperamentally unsuited to simplifying things for others. It may be possible for them to simplify things accurately, but not quickly, and thus they may find it boring. I would be very suspicious of such an explanation, however. If people have taken the trouble to learn or develop complicated ideas, they usually want to share this experience with others, that those might also enjoy. Also, it may not be possible to explain it to everyone, or even most of humanity, even given time, intelligence, and patience. There are even levels of abstraction that few can reach, enormously narrowing the field of people one might explain it to. Yet still, there do remain some who can receive it. If you cannot find anyone who you can explain it to, then I will say the problem is yours.

I’ve had a few hundred psychiatric patients over the years explode in fury and frustration at those who don’t believe their crank theories are not true. Sometimes I can tell at a glance that they have misunderstood some basic concept of physics or theology. The better ones try to redefine terms or invent new combinations.

It’s like Algebra I: Show your work.


james said...

One problem with explaining some things (e.g. "electroweak interaction" per the article, is that the background material can take so long to convey that listener attention lags.

For example, suppose you try to explain why a neutrino telescope is important. One of the biggest reasons is that neutrinos are neutral, and therefore point back to their origin, while other cosmic rays are bent. Why are the others bent? Charged particles (like protons from a supernova) bend their direction when moving in a magnetic field. Where are the magnetic fields? .... and you haven't finished explaining the first reason yet. Whether you try to give the background first or afterwards, the important bits easily get lost in the other information.

Unknown said...

Strangely congruent with today's post at

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have some agreement, James, as it would not only take a long time to explain object relations and countertransference, or more recently in psychology the difference between laying down emotion-laden memories near the amygdala versus the more neutral hippocampus, but not everyone could get it even given time. It takes some sort of intelligence to hold one idea aside but still present while learning a related one, then putting the second into similar abeyance while attending to a third. That network idea at your site is a good one.

Yet you could teach the idea to someone. I confess I am thinking of someone who has some thoroughly opaque theories who claims that he's just that much more intelligent than everyone else and it's our fault for not understanding. I am told he is actually intelligent, but I contend without that explaining piece his claim is wounded, perhaps fatally.

james said...

Unknown, possibly several of us read the same article this morning. (including the inimitable Lubos Motl)

AVI, I understand what you mean (except I have no idea what countertransference is). There's a Japanese mathematician who allegedly has come up with an absolutely amazing new approach, but so far nobody understands it, and coming up to speed on it looks like it will take a couple of years of a really good mathematician's time. There's a lot of "you first"--nobody wants to spend 2 or 3 years on garbage--but the fact that nobody understands the rudiments makes me suspicious. He can't seem to explain his new approach in ways other people can understand...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Huh. No, never saw that article. I've been thinking about the issue for a week or two. Interesting.

Countertransference is a Freudian term, still used in talking about therapy, that may not need to be learned anymore.

Donna B. said...

T-shirt for sale at Walmart:

"I can explain it to you, but I can't make you understand it."

David Foster said...

Explaining has a great deal to do with empathy. To explain something well, you need to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't already understand it.

Also true for marketing, can't write a convincing ad for a new product unless you can imagine being a person who isn't already familiar with it.

Hard for many people to do.

Texan99 said...

I'm reminded of the parable from this morning's lectionary: "The Kingdom of God is like a king who gives a wedding feast on the marriage of his son . . . ."

Richard Feynman was a great popularizer who said much the same thing as Lewis: if you can't explain it in simple terms, you probably don't understand it deeply. That doesn't mean the simplified version doesn't leave out a lot of important aspects, but you should at least be able to get across some broad aspects without retreating to the complaint that the listener can't fathom your brilliance. And I agree with David that often the problem is an abject failure to identify with the state of mind of a listener who is confronting the concepts for the first time. Some teachers have the knack, others don't.

RichardJohnson said...

For explaining things, I am reminded of Tom Lehrer's song about New Math. As Tom Lehrer got a BA in Math at age 18 from Harvard, he at least understands math.
His song helps illustrate what I saw as two big problems with New Math. 1)Especially at the elementary level, many teachers didn't understand it and New Math, with its emphasis on proofs, was more appropriate for top students than it was for mainstream students.
(I loved new Math, but I suspect that not being exposed to it until high school- when I was mature enough to bypass the teacher and learn from the textbook- helped matters. The teacher was bright- Math Phi Beta Kappa from Michigan, but teaching was not her calling.)

I read somewhere that if you couldn't explain something to an 8 year old, you didn't have a good grasp of it yourself.

james said...

Feynman is an interesting example. On receiving the Nobel Prize, he replied to a reporter "Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn't have been worth the Nobel prize."

(See a collection of his quotes here.) (He was not above magnifying his own already impressive skills.)

The _Feynman Lectures on Physics_ was created from lectures to an undergraduate class. It is clear, easy to understand, and seems to be on almost every professional physicist's bookshelf. It is also almost never used to teach undergraduates. It turns out to be easy to understand if you already understand how to do physics.

And yet he did some excellent popularization, and could explain some complex problems clearly, with an eye to seeing the core of the problem. As an example of the latter, during a college argument about whether the bladder emptied by gravity or muscle power, when another man wanted to look up a book on anatomy, Feynman suggested that rather than argue from authority, he simply try to stand on his head to urinate.

Texan99 said...

I don't know how to do physics or even anything close, but I love reading Feynman's three-volume set of Intro Physics, and Q.E.D. It's not as though I can understand it all, but I can grasp more than if I tried reading just about any other textbook series. It's also hugely more satisfying that any popularized physics I've found. There's a certain amount of analogizing and hand-waving you've got to do when the concepts are still murky or require too much math to understand. Most popularizers fall short; Feynman was good at it. But naturally, as I said, any simplified explanation leaves out a great deal, and I suspect that's what Feynman was talking about. There's a big difference between my beginning to get an intuitive glimmer, and being able to make a calculation about particle interactions that will hold up to experimentation and technological implementation, not to mention advancing the field.

The Kingdom of God is a little like a king getting frustrated when he lays out a big feast and your guests can't be bothered to come, or like when a guest finally bothers to saunter in but didn't have enough respect and good sense to wear a party dress. That doesn't mean Heaven is all about a free bar with a rigid dress code and mean bouncers. Just intuitive glimmers.

Uncle Bill said...

I noticed something similar in a different context. I spent my career in R&D, and we were, of course, supposed to document our results. Most people did, but some were very recalcitrant about producing reports. They all used the usual excuses: I'm too busy, something else is more important, my notebooks contain everything important, etc. But eventually, I realized that many of them simply did not have a good understanding of what they were doing. You can sometimes BS your way through an oral presentation, but it is much harder to do when you have something in writing, and the reader can mull it over at his leisure. I generally took the attitude that if someone could not report his results in a coherent, written form, he probably had nothing to report.