Explain Like I’m Five: Your Audience Might Not Know What You’re Talking About

The other day, I saw a shirt which said “I’m only responsible for what I say, not for what you understand.” At first I laughed and thought “I need a shirt like that”. But then I got to thinking a little more about what it meant. And I realized that it reflects a misconception that academics need to overcome. We sometimes feel isolated within our communities, and our research and work is addressed primarily towards our colleagues. Our language allows us to communicate our ideas, but it can also create a barricade between us and those not in our field.

Scientists are often not the best communicators. We are used to using highly technical language, and sometimes just don’t speak good English. Bad grammar and poor writing can be overcome with practice and a good proofreader. But harder to correct are seemingly obvious statements that may leave a reader confused.

When I’m talking to one of my peers, I might say things like “contour integrals”, “data reduction”, or “libration”. To someone who isn’t a physicist, I might as well be speaking gibberish. Sometimes it’s because I’m using specialized words whose definitions other people don’t know. But other times it’s because they don’t know the context behind my words. Most people know what the words “data” and “reduction” mean. But they most likely do not know that the process of “data reduction” is to analyze raw data to render it down into a simple, conclusive whole.

I came across a good example of this a few days ago when watching an episode of CrashCourse Astronomy. Now, if you haven’t seen CrashCourse, they make great videos covering various academic topics in great detail. Their Astronomy series is hosted by Phil Plait, who runs the blog Bad Astronomy. Contrary to the name, Bad Astronomy is an excellent source for learning about astronomy.

In this particular episode, Phil says “Unlike the spiral arms, where stars are still actively being born, all the blue stars in the bar are long dead, exploded, leaving behind billions of lower mass, redder stars.” To an astronomer, this statement makes sense. You have a population of stars, the blue ones die quickly, but the red ones take longer to die. So after time, all the blue stars are gone, and you only have red stars. But this statement can be interpreted in a slightly different way. It could be read to mean the blue stars explode, turning into red stars, leaving them behind as remnants.

When you know the correct meaning of his statement, the incorrect interpretation seems somewhat ludicrous. But many people do not. In our academic areas, we are steeped in the context that enables us to interpret statements like this correctly. To give credit where it is due, Phil has much, much, much more experience than I do when talking to people about astronomy. But this just goes to show that even the best of us make these kinds of statements without even thinking about it.

For another example, one of my professors said that he once had a student tell him “I was looking through a telescope, and I think I saw a star move off the main sequence!”. We all laughed at that, but it was clear that this student didn’t understand what was meant when we talk about things moving on a graph. He thought that the object was actually moving in space, when really it’s just that the temperature and luminosity were changing. So even something as simple as saying that a star is moving on a graph can be confusing to some people.

When in doubt, you may need to explain the knowledge that you take for granted. I always wince a little when I hear someone begin an explanation with “obviously”. It may be obvious to you, with your background knowledge of the material, but not to your audience.

So to my sarcastic shirt-wearing classmate, you are responsible for what I understand, at least partially. If you try to explain something to me and I don’t understand it, it doesn’t mean that I’m not intelligent. Perhaps it just means that you are explaining things poorly.

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