Lost in translation?

Long post alert!

As information overload grows, it seems the world is getting lost in translation. This confusion and lack of clear communication goes beyond linguistic and grammatical faux pas. The problem is more serious and manifests in many ways. However the smallest hope of comprehension finds itself inextricably lodged in the cracks, some feel chasms, between disciplines and specialisations.

Examples abound around us. What does it mean to a non-numerate person when the weather forecaster says there is 1-in-15 chance of a shower today? Should he leave his umbrella at home or take it anyway? What does it mean when a business reporter says that the sub-prime crisis was precipitated by the excessive lending by banks to ninjas? (No, not the mutant turtles or Japanese specialist warriors, but people who have No Incomes, No Jobs!).

There is buzz in the blogosphere, predictably.

Paul Sunstone at CafΓ© Philos calls this frustration in communication the irony of our times. He argues that specialization is fragmenting each of our societies into expert little niches that often do not understand one another.

It is possible that the information overload almost requires to lead more stylized lives, thus listening to sound bytes rather than critical analysis.

Harini Calamur brings up the annoying presumption of newspaper editors that abstruse, specialist terms are comprehensible to the wider readership. She wonders if India’s leading business broadsheet, the Economic Times, has slashed its research budget. The counter, she suggests, is that readers should all send the editors at ET links to Google so that the need for clarification gets through.

Nita goes further deeper and discusses prejudices held against humanities graduates; the ensuing discussion on her post delves into why early specialisation in secondary school could be contributing to narrower and narrower education, as well as less and less cross-disciplinary understanding.

On a hopeful note, Paul Kedrosky mentions noticing an upward trend in business channels on television in the US asking their specialists to explain their business jargon. His only gripe is that the guests should be warned in advance, so that they do not look shell-shocked.

I see many issues brewing here.

The first is naturally if it is good to rely on experts. Apparently not always. In simpler words, never ask a barber if you need a haircut.

But there are others too. Why are we concerned about understanding specialists? Is this a real problem? What is the best way to fix it – instant or slow-burn systemic? Whose responsibility is it then – the one who is explaining or the one who wishes to understand – to fill the gaps? Is there an ideal type of person for disentangling specialist mysteries for ordinary people?

There is only so much I can explore in a blog post but I hope the ‘comments’ section will bring more insights.

I must start with a clarification. My education is multidisciplinary spanning both sciences and humanities, with a great degree of self-learning thrown in for good measure. So I have been a lot at the ‘asking’ end, and as a debt to the universe, now increasingly at the ‘explaining’ end of things.

Is there a problem, or is there a need for specialists to be understood by others?

Paul Sunstone argues that there is such a need, as people of one specialisation are increasingly using products made by other specialists.

I wonder if this really is any different from how the world has always been? In old days, a butcher sold meat, a cobbler made shoes and bought meat from the butcher, who bought his shoes from the cobbler. None needed to know how the other did his work. But I could also demolish my own argument by saying that the products we use now are more complex and require us to be more savvy. But surely the answer lies in design specialists aiming to make products more intuitive, not in users becoming more adept at what we politely called the instruction to RTFM* in the IT industry.

So is this a real problem?

May be. We do not know. It is entirely possible that the information overload is making people more curious in general. It is probably more likely that the overload requiring us to lead more stylised lives**, which we wish to simplify by seeking answers in sound-bytes so we can appear more knowledgeable than we really are.

My money is on the latter. In my experience, many a time, people ask questions without realising that the answer is neither simple nor laconic. These questions usually begin with ‘how’ or ‘why’. The answer is rarely 2 lines. Then as the truth emerges, I can see them yawning, physically leaning away and realising that they really did not care that much, after all.

If you doubt any of this, try explaining – honestly, briefly – the sub-prime crisis to someone and what it means for them, without using jargon. Let me know how you get on.

Whose responsibility is it then – the one who is explaining or the one who wishes to understand – to fill the gaps? Is there an ideal type of person for disentangling specialist mysteries for ordinary people?

In other words, does the solution lie in, for instance, cornering specialists mid-interview? Paul Kedrosky’s post suggests this is becoming increasingly popular. I am not sure this is appropriate. Financial shows are hardly being watched by totally illiterate people who cannot comprehend the issues being discussed.

Or does the solution lie in running to Google like Harini suggests? That, by the way, would be the self-help option that I prefer. If I wish to understand something, I owe it to myself to find out more. But then again, some others I know have different views.

Both these possible options however put the responsibility on either the specialist or the ordinary consumer of information.

Assuming however that lack of understanding is a genuine issue, neither of these is a systemic answer, nor is either of them a sustainable or scalable solution to the problem.

Ben Casnocha, who is at University at the moment, recently wrote about the value of people who can bridge the gap between disciplines. I do not know what he is studying but it will sure be interesting to know how his views on this issue and his life choices evolve. A similar argument is made by Jonathan Guthrie in the FT, who suggests there is a need for intermediaries, who can translate between disciplines. Not unlike an interpreter at a UN conference perhaps?

In my view, the systemic solution lies in encouraging multi- and cross- disciplinary training. Not for all, but definitely for some, who are so inclined.

Am I contradicting myself on that it is “apparently not always” good to rely on experts? Not really. It is a nuanced difference, not a contradiction.

I am not in favour of narrow expertise, the kind that does not interact with other disciplines, the kind that does not face innocent curiosity nor thorough scrutiny of the methods of other disciplines. There are arguments to be made in medical specialisations such as should a neurosurgeon care about cosmetic surgery? I cannot comment on it – I do not know enough and I do not know any surgeons who can talk about both specialisations.

However I am in favour of those who wish to become experts across the boundaries of narrow disciplines. For instance, those who can translate laboratory science into commercial opportunities. Or those, who can apply principles of evolutionary psychology to explaining market transactions and fundamentals of economics. It is just that much richer an understanding of things and that much closer to real problem-solving than narrow disciplinary training prepares us for.

I believe such multidisciplinary adventurers and interpreters should be encouraged, celebrated, supported and listened to.

This sounds easier than it is in practice. At least in the UK, cross- and multi- disciplinary endeavours find little or no research or education funding. In other words, there are few systemic incentives for such intermediaries and interpreters. So those, who are keen, like me, put our money where our mouths are. Which further means that those of us, who become successful interpreters of this kind, then exploit the market to address the information asymmetries. Why not? After all, we did put our money where our mouths were, did we not? And we rightly expect and exact appropriate returns.

The harder way of course is to learn in the school of life. It just takes that wee bit longer and real life mistakes, although a great teacher, often cost a lot more money.

If you have experienced, or benefited from, any such cross-disciplinary translation and interpretation, do share your experience. I am sure this discussion is ripe for developing.

What can we possibly lose? Nothing.

What can we possibly gain? A better understanding! Isn’t that what we are after, after all?

—————–

* Stands for: Read The Fucking Manual!

** I have linked to the cartoon but not stuck it here because I cannot find direct attribution on LL website.

19 Replies to “Lost in translation?”

  1. Shefaly,

    Nice post. Your last question tempted me to write a comment because I always try to combine two different disciplines- Law and Finance- in my subject matter. I really enjoyed studied Corporate Law, Taxation and stuff like that. It’s very been helpful for me in the field of Finance. Accounting in the US can be learned to a large extent if a person is keen on wading through lots of regulation and FASB readings…things that many accounting/finance people don’t like doing because they like to only play with numbers. This is where I have an upper hand. I enjoy reading numbers as well as reading long passages. My legal background has also honed my research capabilities to a great extent.

    I would love to write more, but I’m afraid that the laptop battery is running out and so is time. It’s quite late here.

  2. Shefaly,

    Nice post. Your last question tempted me to write a comment because I always try to combine two different disciplines- Law and Finance- in my subject matter. I really enjoyed studied Corporate Law, Taxation and stuff like that. It’s very been helpful for me in the field of Finance. Accounting in the US can be learned to a large extent if a person is keen on wading through lots of regulation and FASB readings…things that many accounting/finance people don’t like doing because they like to only play with numbers. This is where I have an upper hand. I enjoy reading numbers as well as reading long passages. My legal background has also honed my research capabilities to a great extent.

    I would love to write more, but I’m afraid that the laptop battery is running out and so is time. It’s quite late here.

  3. Ruhi: Thanks for your note!

    That is exactly the kind of cross-disciplinary training and skills that help the real world much better. Sadly few if any are willing to fund such endeavours.

    It is great to know you are making strides in the direction where the world seriously lacks in resources. Thanks again.

  4. Ruhi: Thanks for your note!

    That is exactly the kind of cross-disciplinary training and skills that help the real world much better. Sadly few if any are willing to fund such endeavours.

    It is great to know you are making strides in the direction where the world seriously lacks in resources. Thanks again.

  5. This was an interesting read Shefaly and I do so want to make an intelligent comment but the questions you ask are too far-reaching.
    All I know is that if someone needs expert knowledge badly enough he/she will find ways and means.
    For example after I started to blog, what made me uneasy me was the tech stuff but a certain minimum is required to get along. And most of the places I went to which tried to explain (Engtech’s blog) ended up confusing me further because he presumed a minimum knowledge of the jargon and methods he used. But I struggled and it took me much longer than it would take say another person but I got what I needed. Some things I never did understand fully and I admit I gave up because I did not need them urgently.
    But I must add that I found Ruhi’s tech posts excellent, and easy to understand and have bookedmarked most of them. She manages to translate really well and I give full marks to her clarity of thought…

  6. This was an interesting read Shefaly and I do so want to make an intelligent comment but the questions you ask are too far-reaching.
    All I know is that if someone needs expert knowledge badly enough he/she will find ways and means.
    For example after I started to blog, what made me uneasy me was the tech stuff but a certain minimum is required to get along. And most of the places I went to which tried to explain (Engtech’s blog) ended up confusing me further because he presumed a minimum knowledge of the jargon and methods he used. But I struggled and it took me much longer than it would take say another person but I got what I needed. Some things I never did understand fully and I admit I gave up because I did not need them urgently.
    But I must add that I found Ruhi’s tech posts excellent, and easy to understand and have bookedmarked most of them. She manages to translate really well and I give full marks to her clarity of thought…

  7. Your argument is very logical. It seems that the whole way universities are established is contrary to the idea of cross-disciplinary education, and has been almost since specialisation became possible. On the internet, more people from completely different backgrounds are talking to each other for instance, I am here- ten years ago, I would not have had access to this kind of discussion anywhere, which already seems hard to imagine), but mostly in an informal way. It takes a person of vision to see what is missing the way you do, because the systems in place have built-in blind spots, so I hope you can use that to good personal advantage πŸ™‚

  8. Your argument is very logical. It seems that the whole way universities are established is contrary to the idea of cross-disciplinary education, and has been almost since specialisation became possible. On the internet, more people from completely different backgrounds are talking to each other for instance, I am here- ten years ago, I would not have had access to this kind of discussion anywhere, which already seems hard to imagine), but mostly in an informal way. It takes a person of vision to see what is missing the way you do, because the systems in place have built-in blind spots, so I hope you can use that to good personal advantage πŸ™‚

  9. I am not sure that the media wants people who can explain things in a simple straight forward fashion. It helps to befuddle and complicate issues, so that the viewer keeps watching. Very often, i get reminded of Star Trek … when the crew starts shouting techno babble to show that they are reacting to an emergency πŸ™‚

    In addition to inter disciplinary studies … a crash course on ‘simple communication’ would really help.

    And finally, A long time ago, i had asked a leading scientist to appear on a show that could broadly be described as ‘tell me why’ – the show was aimed at children 10-12. the question was simple — why is the sun yellow in the morning & orange at sunset. And, he told me, with a smile, ask prof y – he is an expert on the sun … my specialty is the moon…..:)

  10. I am not sure that the media wants people who can explain things in a simple straight forward fashion. It helps to befuddle and complicate issues, so that the viewer keeps watching. Very often, i get reminded of Star Trek … when the crew starts shouting techno babble to show that they are reacting to an emergency πŸ™‚

    In addition to inter disciplinary studies … a crash course on ‘simple communication’ would really help.

    And finally, A long time ago, i had asked a leading scientist to appear on a show that could broadly be described as ‘tell me why’ – the show was aimed at children 10-12. the question was simple — why is the sun yellow in the morning & orange at sunset. And, he told me, with a smile, ask prof y – he is an expert on the sun … my specialty is the moon…..:)

  11. Looks like my comment is filled with small typos. I must have been really sleepy while typing it.

    I really enjoyed studying* Corporate Law, Taxation and stuff like that.
    I enjoy playing with* numbers as well as reading long passages.

    Nita, Thank you for the appreciation. I try to make it as simple as I can, because I was quite non-techy myself and I learned everything on my own as it was not really my domain. Most of the people who read my posts are also not very techy. It’s so funny that someone in my blog accused me of getting too techy and writing “inflammatory posts” and “taking potshots at companies” (in a recent Microsoft/Linux/Apple cartoons post).

  12. Looks like my comment is filled with small typos. I must have been really sleepy while typing it.

    I really enjoyed studying* Corporate Law, Taxation and stuff like that.
    I enjoy playing with* numbers as well as reading long passages.

    Nita, Thank you for the appreciation. I try to make it as simple as I can, because I was quite non-techy myself and I learned everything on my own as it was not really my domain. Most of the people who read my posts are also not very techy. It’s so funny that someone in my blog accused me of getting too techy and writing “inflammatory posts” and “taking potshots at companies” (in a recent Microsoft/Linux/Apple cartoons post).

  13. @ Nita: Thanks for your note. In the post, I said that I prefer the self-help option too, but it really is not a systemic solution; it still does not help the larger ‘conversation’ that Paul Sunstone mentions in his post to which I refer. That systemic solution takes a whole lot of commitment from many publics and to some extent, the asymmetries are deliberate, I think, as Harini suggests.

    @ Alice: Thanks! You are too kind. Isn’t that amazing about the web? Some ideas then though were ahead of their time because the monetisation or ‘value’ propositions were incomplete. Did you ever use a website called sixdegrees.com? The idea was not dissimilar to LinkedIn but the purposefulness was missing and now so is the site. In Web 1.0, I was never too keen on idle IRC chats with strangers. Now I am only too happy to have conversations with fellow bloggers because there is an ‘offline’ component to it too – in the form of their own content/ blogs etc being available. The former version was idle bar chat, the latter – IMO – is the possibility of a better connection and possible real-world friendship.

    I believe that it took someone visionary to translate the power of technology into a monetisable, potentially profit-making business. The kind that we need more of, to make sense of things. πŸ™‚

    @ Harini: Thanks. I guess that is a possible motive, but I do not know if that applies as a continued possible motivation in a world where everyone can Google everything and mostly find some reliable, authoritative answers.

    Simple communication, I think, is also subjective. Within subjects, people use shorthand which simplifies their conversations. But outside the boundaries of these subjects, the verisame lingo becomes ‘jargon’ and impossible difficult at times.

    I like the joke though – sums up most people’s concept of doctoral work and specialisation: knowing more and more about less and less, till you know everything about nothing! πŸ™‚

    @ Amit: Thanks. In theory, I do understand what you are saying. I think my point is probably broader and more dialectic-oriented than focusing on ecological literacy alone. What say?

    @ Ruhi: I think we all got your points so no worries. Yes, I am curious too. What is that about people going ballistic over cartoons??

  14. @ Nita: Thanks for your note. In the post, I said that I prefer the self-help option too, but it really is not a systemic solution; it still does not help the larger ‘conversation’ that Paul Sunstone mentions in his post to which I refer. That systemic solution takes a whole lot of commitment from many publics and to some extent, the asymmetries are deliberate, I think, as Harini suggests.

    @ Alice: Thanks! You are too kind. Isn’t that amazing about the web? Some ideas then though were ahead of their time because the monetisation or ‘value’ propositions were incomplete. Did you ever use a website called sixdegrees.com? The idea was not dissimilar to LinkedIn but the purposefulness was missing and now so is the site. In Web 1.0, I was never too keen on idle IRC chats with strangers. Now I am only too happy to have conversations with fellow bloggers because there is an ‘offline’ component to it too – in the form of their own content/ blogs etc being available. The former version was idle bar chat, the latter – IMO – is the possibility of a better connection and possible real-world friendship.

    I believe that it took someone visionary to translate the power of technology into a monetisable, potentially profit-making business. The kind that we need more of, to make sense of things. πŸ™‚

    @ Harini: Thanks. I guess that is a possible motive, but I do not know if that applies as a continued possible motivation in a world where everyone can Google everything and mostly find some reliable, authoritative answers.

    Simple communication, I think, is also subjective. Within subjects, people use shorthand which simplifies their conversations. But outside the boundaries of these subjects, the verisame lingo becomes ‘jargon’ and impossible difficult at times.

    I like the joke though – sums up most people’s concept of doctoral work and specialisation: knowing more and more about less and less, till you know everything about nothing! πŸ™‚

    @ Amit: Thanks. In theory, I do understand what you are saying. I think my point is probably broader and more dialectic-oriented than focusing on ecological literacy alone. What say?

    @ Ruhi: I think we all got your points so no worries. Yes, I am curious too. What is that about people going ballistic over cartoons??

  15. Great post, Shefaly. In my chosen health profession, we do try to approach a case in an interdisciplinary manner; that is, nursing, physican, social work, physical therapy, occupational therapy, patient/family, pharmacy, etc. Each has a field of expertise, but our patients are multidimensional. Often we conduct interdisciplinary or “treatment team” meetings.
    I cannot speak for other fields, though, but they would do well to emulate this model.
    Basic education –Bachelor of Arts or Sciences, allow for many elective courses, don’t they? – I still hold dearly literature, political science, comparative religion, and music electives (which have nothing to do with my chosen major) I chose years ago. There is a value in stretching ourselves outside our career niches. Volunteerism and civic involvement can also make one more well rounded.
    “Preaching to the choir” type volunteer discussion classes I moderate at times bores me silly. I love interacting with people who have nothing in common with me, or those who disagree.
    Also, to stretch my worldview farther, I am actually taking a continuing-ed type course to learn electronics and alternative energies that will be our future. Have written of my adventures with this elsewhere—but know that I have been electrocuted (mild) in pursuit of intellectual diversity πŸ™‚
    But I wholly agree that as we grow more and more specialised in this world, the need for interdisciplinary understanding is necessary!
    Am reminded of a wonderful poem, April Inventory, W. D. Snodgrass, which ends with the lines:
    There is a loveliness exists,
    Preserves us, not for specialists.

  16. Great post, Shefaly. In my chosen health profession, we do try to approach a case in an interdisciplinary manner; that is, nursing, physican, social work, physical therapy, occupational therapy, patient/family, pharmacy, etc. Each has a field of expertise, but our patients are multidimensional. Often we conduct interdisciplinary or “treatment team” meetings.
    I cannot speak for other fields, though, but they would do well to emulate this model.
    Basic education –Bachelor of Arts or Sciences, allow for many elective courses, don’t they? – I still hold dearly literature, political science, comparative religion, and music electives (which have nothing to do with my chosen major) I chose years ago. There is a value in stretching ourselves outside our career niches. Volunteerism and civic involvement can also make one more well rounded.
    “Preaching to the choir” type volunteer discussion classes I moderate at times bores me silly. I love interacting with people who have nothing in common with me, or those who disagree.
    Also, to stretch my worldview farther, I am actually taking a continuing-ed type course to learn electronics and alternative energies that will be our future. Have written of my adventures with this elsewhere—but know that I have been electrocuted (mild) in pursuit of intellectual diversity πŸ™‚
    But I wholly agree that as we grow more and more specialised in this world, the need for interdisciplinary understanding is necessary!
    Am reminded of a wonderful poem, April Inventory, W. D. Snodgrass, which ends with the lines:
    There is a loveliness exists,
    Preserves us, not for specialists.

What do YOU think?