The layman’s perspective

1 June 2018

It is decep­tively easy for aca­d­e­mics to sur­round them­selves with per­sons of their field to the point where it dis­torts their view of soci­ety. The idea that most of the world does not think like them quickly fades away to the point where cer­tain fairly common traits step into the pic­ture: one, they take for granted that others have a cer­tain knowl­edge about their field that seems obvi­ous to them; two, they lose con­nec­tion with a mind that does not pos­sess the basic knowl­edge that led them to the place where they cur­rently find them­selves; three, they assume that others are inter­ested in the finer ideas that lead to the larger con­clu­sions in their field (as opposed to the con­clu­sions alone); and four, they are not open to silly ques­tions coming from out­siders to their field.

Of course this descrip­tion is not true of all aca­d­e­mics but it does describe quite a large chunk of them. The idea is that aca­d­e­mics tend to — per­haps unin­ten­tion­ally — look at the world through gog­gles tinted with shades of their own field. They can hardly be blamed for this: such behav­iour is com­pletely nat­ural for some­one who has drenched them­selves in a par­tic­u­lar way of look­ing at things for at least a few years. But the core of the argu­ment remains that in acad­e­mia (and pos­si­bly else­where) the layman’s per­spec­tive is often not given its due recog­ni­tion.

I.

To draw from my own pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences, I can name sev­eral physi­cists I have met who despise pop­u­lar sci­ence lit­er­a­ture. Despite being a pop­u­lar sci­ence writer myself I used to fall into the same cat­e­gory, often blam­ing a lot of such books and arti­cles for under­rep­re­sent­ing the com­plex­ity and nuances of the field. I used to think this was exclu­sive to physics and math­e­mat­ics because we use a lan­guage not com­monly used by the layman — math­e­mat­ics — but it turns out I was wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, while my fiancée and I were wait­ing for our pickup at an air­port, I hap­pened to buy a book that I found rather inter­est­ing: Psy-Q by Dr Ben Ambridge, a psy­chol­o­gist at Liv­er­pool Uni­ver­sity. It was a book that promised to explain var­i­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal analy­ses through simple tests the reader could undergo and it promptly started with the pop cul­ture Rorshach/​inkblot test that is often mis­lead­ingly shown to be the be-all and end-all of psych eval in mental insti­tu­tions in films and on tele­vi­sion.

Even as my puny non-psy­chol­o­gist self started wan­der­ing around the air­port look­ing to buy a pencil and start taking those tests my fiancée picked the book up, skimmed through it and put it aside with a single remark that went some­thing like, This book makes psy­chol­ogy seem like a joke’. And I com­pletely under­stood her per­spec­tive. It’s sim­pli­fi­ca­tion that’s useful for the layman’, I explained. Nei­ther of us both­ered to debate the issue any fur­ther, but this brief exchange has stayed with me ever since.

There are two per­spec­tives com­monly held among people: the truth of the com­plex­ity of their own field and that of the per­ceived sim­plic­ity of another’s. Nobody is to blame for this. The reason most people per­ceive physics as dif­fi­cult is not because they recog­nise the intri­ca­cies of the field but because they know a lot of rig­or­ous math­e­mat­ics is involved and math­e­mat­ics has long been syn­ony­mous with com­plex­ity for some reason. It cannot be over­stated how impos­si­ble it is for a physi­cist to imag­ine a field that exists with­out math­e­mat­ics, a field that is purely based on ver­biage. This has the reverse effect of per­ceived sim­plic­ity where we tend to per­ceive another field as con­sid­er­ably sim­pler.

Undoubt­edly all fields can always be ranked by sim­plic­ity and physics and math­e­mat­ics would prob­a­bly be right at the bottom of such a list but what about other fields? While most per­ceive physics as dif­fi­cult’ do, say, his­to­ri­ans per­ceive lit­er­a­ture as sim­pler than their own? Or do psy­chol­o­gists per­ceive their field as more nuanced than, say, foren­sic sci­ence? That each person appre­ci­ates their own field is a given. How they per­ceive other fields which all speak the same lan­guage — as opposed to physics or math­e­mat­ics — now remains a mys­tery to me.

II.

In the midst of all this then where does the layman come into play? To the pop sci­ence book in my hand I was the layman. To a pop­u­lar physics book some­where else a psy­chol­o­gist may be the layman. The most imme­di­ate effect is build­ing bridges. The iso­la­tion of any aca­d­e­mic field does it little good. Long term iso­la­tion risks being mis­in­ter­preted as irrel­e­vance.

If some­one never hears of, for exam­ple, radi­ol­ogy, they are likely to assume either that it is a dis­tant, little-used field or that it is some fancy new line of study. Why am I only hear­ing about it today? On the other hand intro­duc­ing every single inch of radi­ol­ogy to a layman would not only be a futile waste of time but pos­si­ble also extremely off-putting. When pop­u­lar books reduce a field just enough to explain the pith to a layper­son they help read­ers con­nect with the field enough to like it and take inter­est in it. Whether this leads the reader to explore a more accu­rate ver­sion of the field or not it does bring the field close enough to the reader that they are now aware of it and per­haps even care about it on some level.

If such a long-term strat­egy does not appeal to you con­sider some­thing with a more direct con­nec­tion: funds. Most aca­d­e­mic sec­tors draw funds from either pri­vate donors or the gov­ern­ment. There is the rare bene­fac­tor but those are excep­tions that are oth­er­wise moti­vated. It so hap­pens that nei­ther party has any­thing close to a proper knowl­edge of the field they are invest­ing in and there­fore, like anyone igno­rant, they talk in terms of imme­di­ate, usu­ally tan­gi­ble, ben­e­fits. Pri­vate com­pa­nies look for prof­its and gov­ern­ments — rep­re­sent­ing the tax­payer, a layper­son — intend to be answer­able; both of them seek expla­na­tions that water down a field and skimp over the intri­ca­cies. At this point making a field sim­plis­tic becomes a dire neces­sity.

There is a third, some­what ide­al­is­tic need to pay heed to the layper­son. Per­haps ide­al­is­tic’ is a strong word and does not accu­rately describe the prob­lem at hand, but, seman­tics aside, the idea is that ques­tions a layper­son may raise can some­times lead to inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions. Of course noth­ing dra­mat­i­cally new may come of such talks but the mental flex­ing is some­times its own reward — not to men­tion an exer­cise aca­d­e­mics can never have enough of.

Per­haps it is a reflec­tion of my own (lack of) knowl­edge in my field but I con­sider talk­ing with layper­sons and answer­ing their ques­tions about fun­da­men­tal physics (often mis­taken for dumb ques­tions’) a good test of my hold over my sub­ject. If you can sim­plify some­thing and explain it to some­one you prob­a­bly have a good enough idea about the thing. Layper­sons in this sense are a self-check­ing mech­a­nism we can all ben­e­fit from.

III.

Every­thing dis­cussed so far has been cen­tred around acad­e­mia, but the final reason why com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the layman is impor­tant is a more gen­eral one: it is impor­tant for the sake of com­mu­ni­ca­tion itself. Any aca­d­e­mic field com­mu­ni­cates on two levels: to other aca­d­e­mics of that field and to every­one else. The former is well taken care of, per­haps too well. The latter, not so much. This lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion has dan­ger­ously mutated into out­right mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

An idea that may be com­mon­place in aca­d­e­mic cir­cles can have dizzy­ingly varied opin­ions’ among laymen. Med­ical health research is par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to this trend; take coffee as an exam­ple: comb­ing over about seven to eight years of reportage will likely end up giving you the opin­ion that coffee is both good and bad for nearly every health con­di­tion you can think of. Ian Mus­grave of the Phar­ma­col­ogy depart­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Ade­laide wrote an inter­est­ing arti­cle address­ing this issue nearly five years ago — it is worth read­ing for this line alone: Look up the abstract (not the press release) asso­ci­ated with the study, it may be in tech­ni­calese, but you should be able to get a feel for whether the arti­cle report­ing the study is going off the rails. This may seem like a lot of work, but how much is your coffee worth to you?’

The ques­tion worth asking here is whether the layman can read abstracts at all. Here is an exam­ple from a paper I read ear­lier today:

Opti­cal mixing exper­i­ments show the abil­ity of ampli­fy­ing a weak opti­cal signal by super­pos­ing it with a stronger one. This prin­ci­ple has been demon­strated also for weak sig­nals at the quan­tum level, down to a single photon. In the present com­mu­ni­ca­tion it is sug­gested that the sen­si­tiv­ity of opti­cal mixing between a strong macro­scopic source and a single photon can be fur­ther enhanced as to allow the sens­ing the wave­front of the photon’s mode simul­ta­ne­ously at two or more loca­tions. Key con­di­tions for that detec­tion is reduc­ing the active size of the detec­tors below the typ­i­cal size of the trans­verse modes, and per­form­ing an opti­cal inten­sity cor­re­la­tion mea­sure­ment of the Han­bury Brown and Twiss type. Due to the inher­ent ampli­fi­ca­tion effect of the mixing process, a macro­scopic signal is extracted, out of which the photon wave-front char­ac­ter­i­za­tion at more than one loca­tion is achiev­able with good fidelity even for a single photon emis­sion event. A basic scheme is pro­posed for the demon­stra­tion of the effect, which is ana­lyzed based on a simple quan­tum model. The valid­ity of the model is con­firmed by com­par­i­son with pre­vi­ous the­o­ret­i­cal and exper­i­men­tal reports involv­ing single photon sources.

It is safe to say at this point that abstracts of this sort are best left for other aca­d­e­mics. But it is equally true that the onus is on these same aca­d­e­mics to com­mu­ni­cate their field prop­erly with the layper­son and encour­age at least a brief debate once in a while. Inac­ces­si­bil­ity and the press’s role as the middle-man has open the doors to mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion and it is nobody’s fault — cer­tainly not on pur­pose. Per­haps an arti­cle like Dr Musgrave’s is the best long-term solu­tion after all.

In any case the incred­i­bly valid idea remains that aca­d­e­mics and layper­sons have to com­mu­ni­cate better; the latter will have to make sin­cere attempts to skep­ti­cally reason out what­ever pieces of infor­ma­tion they come across and eval­u­ate the trust­wor­thi­ness of their sources and the former will have to make more attempts at swal­low­ing the pride nursed by the com­plex­ity of their field and dumb things down clev­erly enough for laymen to fully under­stand an issue and have their voice heard in a debate.