|Hieroglyps. [Image: Wikipedia Commons.]|
Two years ago, I gave a talk at the University of Toronto, at the institute for the history and philosophy of science. At the time, I didn’t think much about it. But in hindsight, it changed my life, at least my work-life.
I spoke about the topic of my first book. It’s a talk I have given dozens of times, and though I adapted my slides for the Toronto audience, there was nothing remarkable about it. The oddity was the format of the talk. I would speak for half an hour. After this, someone else would summarize the topic for 15 minutes. Then there would be 15 minutes discussion.
Fine, I said, sounds like fun.
A few weeks before my visit, I was contacted by a postdoc who said he’d be doing the summary. He asked for my slides, and further reading material, and if there was anything else he should know. I sent him references.
But when his turn came to speak, he did not, as I expected, summarize the argument I had delivered. Instead he reported what he had dug up about my philosophy of science, my attitude towards metaphysics, realism, and what I might mean with “explanation” or “theory” and other philosophically loaded words.
He got it largely right, though I cannot today recall the details. I only recall I didn’t have much to say about what struck me as a peculiar exercise, dedicated not to understanding my research, but to understanding me.
It was awkward, too, because I have always disliked philosophers’ dissection of scientists’ lives. Their obsessive analyses of who Schrödinger, Einstein, or Bohr talked to when, about what, in which period of what marriage, never made a lot of sense to me. It reeked too much of hero-worship, looked too much like post-mortem psychoanalysis, equally helpful to understand Einstein’s work as cutting his brain into slices.
In the months that followed the Toronto talk, though, I began reading my own blogposts with that postdoc’s interpretation in mind. And I realized that in many cases it was essential information to understand what I was trying to get across. In the past year, I have therefore made more effort to repeat background, or at least link to previous pieces, to provide that necessary context. Context which – of course! – I thought is obvious. Because certainly we all agree what a theory is. Right?
But having written a public weblog for more than 12 years makes me a comparably simple subject of study. I have, over the years, provided explanations for just exactly what I mean when I say “scientific method” or “true” or “real”. So at least you could find out if only you wanted to. Not that I expect anyone who comes here for a 1,000 word essay to study an 800,000 word archive. Still, at least that archive exists. The same, however, isn’t the case for most scientists.
I was reminded of this at a recent workshop where I spoke with another woman about her attempts to make sense of one of her senior colleague’s papers.
I don’t want to name names, but it’s someone whose research you’ll be familiar with if you follow the popular science media. His papers are chronically hard to understand. And I know it isn’t just me who struggles, because I heard a lot of people in the field make dismissive comments about his work. On the occasion which the woman told me about, apparently he got frustrated with his own inability to explain himself, resulting in rather aggressive responses to her questions.
He’s not the only one frustrated. I could tell you many stories of renown physicists who told me, or wrote to me, about their struggles to get people to listen to them. Being white and male, it seems, doesn’t help. Neither do titles, honors, or award-winning popular science books.
And if you look at the ideas they are trying to get across, there’s a pattern.
These are people who have – in some cases over decades – built their own theoretical frameworks, developed personal philosophies of science, invented their own, idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves. Along the way, they have become incomprehensible for anyone else. But they didn’t notice.
Typically, they have written multiple papers circling around a key insight which they never quite manage to bring into focus. They’re constantly trying and constantly failing. And while they usually have done parts of their work with other people, the co-authors are clearly side-characters in a single-fighter story.
So they have their potentially brilliant insights out there, for anyone to see. And yet, no one has the patience to look at their life’s work. No one makes an effort to decipher their code. In brief, no one understands them.
Of course they’re frustrated. Just as frustrated as I am that no one understands me. Not even the people who agree with me. Especially not those, actually. It’s so frustrating.
The issue, I think, is symptomatic of our times, not only in science, but in society at large. Look at any social media site. You will see people going to great lengths explaining themselves just to end up frustrated and – not seldom – aggressive. They are aggressive because no one listens to what they are trying so hard to say. Indeed, all too often, no one even tries. Why bother if misunderstanding is such an easy win? If you cannot explain yourself, that’s your fault. If you do not understand me, that’s also your fault.
And so, what I took away from my Toronto talk is that communication is much more difficult than we usually acknowledge. It takes a lot of patience, both from the sender and the receiver, to accurately decode a message. You need all that context to make sense of someone else’s ideas. I now see why philosophers spend so much time dissecting the lives of other people. And instead of talking so much, I have come to think, I should listen a little more. Who knows, I might finally understand something.