‘Perception’, by Liza Andreyeva.
‘Perception’, by Liza Andreyeva.

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.

Finished reading?