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 Café 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.

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