Knowing Too Little, Knowing Too Much

(Commenter nueww has asked me to comment on the flurry of blog posts around an interview with Lance Dixon that recently went up on the SLAC website. I’m not going to comment on it until I have a chance to talk with Lance, beyond saying that this is a remarkable amount of attention paid to a fairly workaday organizational puff piece.)

I’ve been in Oregon this week, giving talks at Oregon State and at the University of Oregon. After my talk at Brown in front of some of the world’s top experts in my subfield, I’ve had to adapt quite a bit for these talks. Oregon State doesn’t have any particle theorists at all, while at the University of Oregon I gave a seminar for their Institute of Theoretical Science, which contains a mix of researchers ranging from particle theorists to theoretical chemists.

Guess which talk was harder to give?

If you guessed the UofO talk, you’re right. At Oregon State, I had a pretty good idea of everyone’s background. I knew these were people who would be pretty familiar with quantum mechanics, but probably wouldn’t have heard of Feynman diagrams. From that, I could build a strategy, and end up giving a pretty good talk.

At the University of Oregon, if I aimed for the particle physicists in the audience, I’d lose the chemists. So I should aim for the chemists, right?

That has its problems too. I’ve talked about some of them: the risk that the experts in your audience feel talked-down to, that you don’t cover the more important parts of your work. But there’s another problem, one that I noticed when I tried to prepare this talk: knowing too little can lead to misunderstandings, but so can knowing too much.

What would happen if I geared the talk completely to the chemists? Well, I’d end up being very vague about key details of what I did. And for the chemists, that would be fine: they’d get a flavor of what I do, and they’d understand not to read any more into it. People are pretty good at putting something in the “I don’t understand this completely” box, as long as it’s reasonably clearly labeled.

That vagueness, though, would be a disaster for the physicists in the audience. It’s not just that they wouldn’t get the full story: unless I was very careful, they’d end up actively misled. The same vague descriptions that the chemists would accept as “flavor”, the physicists would actively try to read for meaning. And with the relevant technical terms replaced with terms the chemists would recognize, they would end up with an understanding that would be actively wrong.

In the end, I ended up giving a talk mostly geared to the physicists, but with some background and vagueness to give the chemists some value. I don’t feel like I did as good of a job as I would like, and neither group really got as much out of the talk as I wanted them to. It’s tricky talking for a mixed audience, and it’s something I’m still learning how to do.

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