Explainers Shoot High. Aim Low!

Fol­lowup to: Illu­sion of Trans­parency: Why No One Un­der­stands You, Ex­pect­ing Short In­fer­en­tial Distances

A few years ago, an em­i­nent sci­en­tist once told me how he’d writ­ten an ex­pla­na­tion of his field aimed at a much lower tech­ni­cal level than usual. He had thought it would be use­ful to aca­demics out­side the field, or even re­porters. This ended up be­ing one of his most pop­u­lar pa­pers within his field, cited more of­ten than any­thing else he’d writ­ten.

The les­son was not that his fel­low sci­en­tists were stupid, but that we tend to enor­mously un­der­es­ti­mate the effort re­quired to prop­erly ex­plain things.

He told me this, be­cause I’d just told him about my ex­pe­rience pub­lish­ing “An In­tu­itive Ex­pla­na­tion of Bayesian Rea­son­ing”. This is still one of my most pop­u­lar, most blogged, and most ap­pre­ci­ated works to­day. I reg­u­larly get fan mail from formerly con­fused un­der­grad­u­ates tak­ing statis­tics classes, and jour­nal­ists, and pro­fes­sors from out­side fields. In short, I suc­cess­fully hit the au­di­ence the em­i­nent sci­en­tist had thought he was aiming for.

I’d thought I was aiming for el­e­men­tary school.

To­day, when I look back at the In­tu­itive Ex­pla­na­tion, it seems pretty silly as an at­tempt on grade school:

  • It’s as­sumed that the reader knows what a “prob­a­bil­ity” is.

  • No sin­gle idea re­quires more than a sin­gle ex­am­ple.

  • No home­work prob­lems! I’ve got­ten sev­eral com­plaints about this.

(Then again, I get a roughly equal num­ber of com­plaints that the In­tu­itive Ex­pla­na­tion is too long and drawn-out, as that it is too short. The cur­rent ver­sion does seem to be “just right” for a fair num­ber of peo­ple.)

Ex­plain­ers shoot way, way higher than they think they’re aiming, thanks to the illu­sion of trans­parency and self-an­chor­ing. We miss the mark by sev­eral ma­jor grades of ex­per­tise. Aiming for out­side aca­demics gets you an ar­ti­cle that will be pop­u­lar among spe­cial­ists in your field. Aiming at grade school (ad­mit­tedly, naively so) will hit un­der­grad­u­ates. This is not be­cause your au­di­ence is more stupid than you think, but be­cause your words are far less helpful than you think. You’re way way over­shoot­ing the tar­get. Aim sev­eral ma­jor gra­da­tions lower, and you may hit your mark.

PS: I know and do con­fess that I need to work on tak­ing my own ad­vice.

Ad­den­dum: With his gra­cious per­mis­sion: The em­i­nent sci­en­tist was Ralph Merkle.