Second outing: Lost in translation

This post first appeared in November 2007, and generated a fair bit of dialogue. In the meanwhile, of course, we have found ourselves amid the mother of all recessions. In part, the crisis illustrates how silos of specialist information can create risks, beyond the comprehension of those in charge of managing and mitigating it.

I hope this second outing will generate some more dialogue.


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. Comprehension finds itself inextricably lodged in the cracks, some feel chasms, between disciplines and specialisations.

Examples abound. 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 and no assets!).

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 forces us to lead more stylized lives, listening to sound bytes than engaging in 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.

Several issues are 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?

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 the IT indistry politely calls the instruction to RTFM*.

The burden of clarification appears to lie either with the specialist or with the ordinary consumer of information, a model that is neither sustainable nor scalable.

Is this problem real?

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.

Lost in Translation (c) Cathy Guisewite

(c) Cathy Guisewite, November 2, 2007

My money is on the latter. In my experience, people often 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 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.

What might be a sustainable solution?

Ben Casnocha, who is at University at the moment currently on a sabbatical from University, 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.

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. And of course, funded.

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 do we gain?

Why, a better understanding! Isn’t that what we are chasing, after all?


* Stands for: Read The F***ing Manual!

Related reading:

I strongly recommend the posts by Paul Sunstone, Harini Calamur, Nita Kulkarni, Paul Kedrosky and Ben Casnocha linked above.

In addition, a recent post on managing information symmetries

4 thoughts on “Second outing: Lost in translation

  1. And the problem is now compounded further, what with non-experts masquerading as experts and with everyone an expert on everything.

    I will click on each link and read this post again. Bookmarking it 🙂




  2. Shefaly:

    “…..seeking answers in sound-bytes so we can appear more knowledgeable than we really are.”

    I would put my money on this too.

    A simple rule of thumb could be to tweak your communication based on your audience. An economist/investment banker talking about the sub-prime crisis at, say, Euromoney, will use specialised terms and jargon. The same person, on a TV channel, may try to simplify and explain things better because she may be aware that the audience in this case is heterogeneous, with the majority having little or no knowledge of economics or finance. Similarly for a reconstructive surgeon – an article in a magazine about the costs and benefits of reconstructive surgery may be less ‘specialist’ than a piece in a medical journal. Which might explain the ‘puzzling’ behaviour of the editors of the Economic Times. In India, a salmon-pink paper is a business and financial news specialist, just as the FT is in the UK. Most of its readers are assumed to have more than a passing familiarity with the issues discussed – or, as you so rightly said, at least curiosity enough to learn more in case something eludes them. For the rest, there’s always the business section of the regular papers, as well as TV!

    Having said that, I broadly agree with more multi- and cross-disciplinary exposure, if not training.

    Nice follow-up to the Information Asymmetrics post, btw. And apologies for the length of the comment.


    Quirky Indian


  3. Excellent topic, Shefaly! I haven’t dropped by in too long, and I’m glad I did.
    You are, I believe, talking about a subject that can easily be morphed into something else: cross-disciplinary, vs. “putting it in layman’s terms.”
    A truly cross-disciplinary individual, someone who can take, for instance, a complicated biological concept and translate it into a highly technical networking concept, is hard (and good) to come by. These are the individuals who enable society to make dramatic technological leaps in some cases. In contrast, people who are able to translate complex specialist material into concepts easily understood by everyday people regardless of background are more abundant, albeit still valuable (these would be the scientists and other specialists who also enjoy runs as best-selling authors that the general public eats up).
    In my mind, someone like Michael Crichton was a pretty good multi-disciplinarian, someone who really understood the technical concepts behind a large number of disparate fields of knowledge, but an amazing translator into layman’s terms. I can’t, off the top of my head, come up with a world-class cross-disciplinarian. Perhaps my standards are too rigorous though?


  4. Cross training is a good thing as it helps development of multiple skill sets. This also leads to greater fungibility of resources. However, this may not be possible in setups where an extremely high level of specialization is required.

    Here more focus and indepth knoweldge is required. Thus in a retail unit, the same persom may know a little of sales, a little of finace and a little of operations. People from each of these disciplines may know about the other disciplines.

    However, this may not be the case in a hospital, where neurosurgeons, endocrinologists and cardiac surgeons all have very specialized tasks.


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