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.