Friday, December 09, 2016

Explaining concepts

Take a look at this amusing clip, it's Prof. Brian Cox trying to explain what a "wave" is to a TV producer who simply refuses to a) listen and b) understand. I experience this problem a lot; people who have never bothered to properly try to understand anything complex demanding explanations for something complex, and then essentially blaming the teacher when they don't understand (of course sometimes it is the teacher). As I'm sure many technical types like me have had that rather ridiculous (lose-lose) conversation thread (usually with marketing and sales types) that goes something like this,

1. (questioner) How does it work
2. (explainer) It works like this...
3. (questioner) But I don't understand, try again
4. (explainer) Well, it's complicated, how about this...
5. (questioner) Nope
6. (explainer) How about this then....
7. (questioner) Nope
8. (explainer) Sorry, I can't explain it to you, try someone else..
9. (questioner, getting angry) But I need to know, why can't you just explain it.
10. go to 1..

The problem is not that someone doesn't understand something, being ignorant is not a crime. The problem is the questioner refusing to accept (at least some) responsibility for understanding, it's a classic misalignment of expectations.

Nobel prize winner and all round maths genius Richard Feynman described the problem really well to another TV producer whilst trying to explain magnetism to him. Feynman illustrated why, in order to pose technical/complex questions (which maybe simple to say) with any expectation of clarification, a certain amount of investment is often required to gain context and foundational understanding, and that it's this investment that enables one to understand the answer.

Understanding things takes effort and work, which is why many people prefer simpler (untrue/incomplete/inaccurate) answers (cue Brexit and Trump)

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