Welcome to our May 2015 newsletter: The curse of knowledge
As science communicators, how much do we need to know about the science?
Yes, knowing little about a topic can be daunting. But knowing too much can be a trap.
The curse of knowledge, a term borrowed from economics, is defined by Steven Pinker as “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know”.
This month we share our thoughts on the curse of knowledge.
As always, we’d love your feedback via Facebook, Twitter or email.
Regards from the @EconnectTeam:
Understanding the culture of science
By Jenni Metcalfe
I’m a journalist with qualifications in biochemistry and environmental science.
I got my biochemistry degree more than 30 years ago and I graduated with my masters in environmental science in 1986.
Even if I’d studied science more recently, I couldn’t hope to keep up with the latest knowledge in these fields of science, let alone any others.
So I am necessarily a generalist, not a specialist, and I still need to dig into the science and try to understand it before I explain it to people with less science knowledge than me.
What my science studies and experience have given me is knowledge and understanding about the culture of science and the specific needs of scientists.
I know that scientists want us to:
- distil their science rather than oversimplify it
- convey clearly the levels of uncertainty they work with
- treat their science seriously rather than sensationalise it
- explore their knowledge so that we can explain it accurately to other people
- check back with them that we have correctly interpreted the science.
Shielded from the curse of knowledge
By Mary O’Callaghan
In ‘Why academics stink at writing’, Steven Pinker claims that the curse of knowledge is a major reason why good scholars write bad prose.
I’m a science writer who is not a scientist, which I hope shields me from the curse, and which affords me some advantages:
- I come with an open mind, perhaps with little knowledge of the topic but without tightly held preconceptions or opinions (usually!).
- I am forced to listen to understand when I am interviewing a scientist. Listening is always good.
- I easily spot jargon. It’s a foreign language to me.
- I detect vagueness and gaps in explanation as I try to understand. Sometimes, as I tease these out, and am perhaps struggling to ‘get’ something, I unearth a sensitivity that is lurking below the surface. With experience, I’ve learnt to trust my intuition that if something doesn’t seem quite right, it probably isn’t. And I’ve learnt to be confident that if I don’t get it, other people won’t get it either.
- I can ask, ‘What does that mean?’ and, ‘Why is that important?’ without embarrassment about my ignorance. And I have yet to talk to a scientist who wasn’t delighted to explain their work.
Surviving The World Lesson #1507 Stupid questions
Lifting the curse on cancer research
By Mary O’Callaghan
In a brilliant example of trying to lift the curse of knowledge, the US National Cancer Institute invited Arizona State University’s Prof. Paul Davies—an astrophysicist—to bring a fresh perspective to the complex problem of cancer.
“I know nothing about cancer”, he said.
“Perfect”, they said.
He now heads up a cancer research team that includes 5 physicists (not physicians).
“One reason to bring in physicists into this field is that they can ask really stupid questions, seemingly without embarrassment”, he says in his talk, Rethinking cancer, which he gave at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas.
“And sometimes those really stupid questions like, ‘Explain to me how that works’ and, ‘Supposing you ran it backwards’ and, ‘Would it matter if you turned the temperature up a bit’—all these sorts of questions, cancer biologists often say, ‘Oh, well, nobody has ever asked that’ or, ‘That’s a very good question’ or, mostly, ‘Well, nobody knows’”.
I find this whole approach to solving problems refreshing, and Paul Davies’ talk exhilarating.
Have a listen or read the transcript.
When you know a subject too well – 4 strategies
By Sarah Cole
Working with our long-term clients has few disadvantages but one is that you can get to know their field of research so well that you forget to explain things that have become familiar to you.
Here are my 4 strategies for combating the ‘autopilot’ of writing when you know more than your audience:
- Think about how you would explain the topic at a barbeque. It’s a great way of figuring out how you might distil the work, and especially why the reader/listener should take notice. I recommend you explain it out loud instead of starting with your keyboard—writing (instead of talking) immediately changes the language you’d use.
- I often find that when experts explain their work they gloss over the big-picture impact. Remember to ask them (or yourself) higher and higher level ‘why’ questions until the impact of the work is clear. [Why is that important? What is different about this?]. For instance, perhaps a small change to a pesticide prevents expensive, long-term weed-resistance problems.
- Find and kill the jargon. Ask someone outside of the field to read a draft and circle all the terms they don’t understand. Also, check out our tips on spotting and avoiding jargon.
- Most importantly, ask someone to review your work—ideally, someone who is representative of your intended audience. Look for frank feedback about the content (do they understand the benefits, the detail, the call to action) and the style (do they understand the words and explanations).
Check out our top tips on writing in plain English: 8 sentence-level techniques that really work.