A recent episode of QI introduced me to the “curse of knowledge”. It was not a phrase or an experiment I’d been aware of, but I recognize the concept. It’s when we assume everyone else understands what we’re talking about, when they don’t. Or, perhaps, when we think we’re better at communicating than we in fact are.
QI reprized the 1990 research by Elizabeth Newton, where subjects had to tap out the rhythm of a song for others to guess (did anyone else’s dad insist on playing this game in the car?). From the Harvard Business Review: “Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%.” Some attribute this to a lack of empathy — an inability to put ourselves in the shoes of the listener. (Cue one of my favorite Billy Connolly gags: “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away — and you’ve got their shoes.”)
So: the Curse of Knowledge means that we overestimate how well we can convey information. Many of us in scholarly communications are exposed to its symptoms on a regular basis — asking researchers about their work, and then trying to keep up with what they tell us. It’s flattering, really, when the expert in the field assumes you are smart enough to be familiar with the concepts they bounce off as they extrapolate. You can always go and read up on it later (I often resort to writing down phonetic representations of what academics are saying to me, though this approach has its limitations; I once jotted down an aide-memoire for ‘Talcott Parsons’ which, when I returned to my notes, autocorrect had helpfully re-rendered as ‘Talcum Powder’). And I’ve vouched before for the ability of academics to pitch it more accessibly when talking to audiences that are clearly outside the circle of expertise — people are brilliant at explaining their research to children (or in Upgoer Five sessions at conferences, where the challenge is to explain your science in the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language).
I think the Curse of Knowledge I see most commonly doesn’t arise from overestimating our own ability to convey information, or even from overestimating our audience’s existing knowledge on the topic. It’s more nuanced than that. To some extent, it’s a function of an urge to respect others, not to patronize them and talk down to them. In an age of microaggressions, academics know they must be careful not to treat non-academics as “lesser mortals”. The challenge is particularly acute not on the outer edges of the circle — we are happy to class children as being on the “boundary of ignorance” and thus use plain language when speaking to them. It’s when communicating with the people in the inner zones that we struggle to let ourselves speak in plain language. People in what I am grandiosely calling the Zone of Comprehension and Realm of Familiarity, in particular, fall under the shadow of our “cone of concern”. (I know, I missed my calling as a sociological nomenclator).
The “concern” in my “cone of concern” is a two-way affair. It is concern for the people you are talking to — not wanting to talk down to them, or to be perceived as underestimating or devaluing their knowledge. But it is also concern for yourself: if these people have even a small amount of knowledge, they might also have power, or influence, or connections. You must make sure they recognize your expertise — you don’t want them underestimating the complexity of your thinking and writing off your academic potential. So you default back to the “prestige verbiage” or “high academic gothic”. Some of those listening will keep up. Some will tune out. Some may start wondering if there is anything meaningful underneath the jargon. Now, of course, academics have a long history of using specialist language. I fully agree that there is a time and a place for it: in communications between people both known to be at the center of the circle of knowledge, it’s useful shorthand (saving you expounding commonly used terms) and enables precision and nuance in the discussion of complex ideas. But it also creates an unnecessary barrier between lay people and scholars. It creates tribal in-groups, signaled by their common language, and alienates outsiders. Language can be divisive.
We are breeding generations of researchers who feel compelled to use complicated language in the belief that it impresses peer reviewers, or is a requirement for publication
Language can also be excluding in other ways. I have recently been writing plain language summaries for SDG-related research and in some cases I’ve been frustrated by the quality of the texts I am working from. This is peer-reviewed content that has somehow got right through to the point of publication without being corrected. (Huge intersection here, I know, with the issue of papermills, artificially generated content and so on, but the texts I was working from were certainly written by real authors). One of the main reasons the text reads so poorly was that the authors were trying so hard to speak academese. We are breeding generations of researchers who feel compelled to use complicated language in the belief (mistaken? I’m not sure) that it impresses peer reviewers, or even is a requirement for publication. In many cases the authors are not English speakers, which is both an excuse (a reason why the published article may not read perfectly to a native speaker) but also a very good example of the problem (it’s hard enough to write in another language without having to try and adopt an ‘academic dialect’ within that).
Language is pivotal to the successful communication of research, both within and beyond academia. Language is a diversity issue, with unnecessarily complex language excluding people (both authors and readers). It’s an impact issue, making a huge difference to the cognitive accessibility of research recommendations in areas like health and climate. It’s a cultural issue, leading to discord and suspicion between groups that really need each other. Complicated language is a barrier, not only between the center and the edge of the circle of knowledge, but between all the rings. Even if someone has a bit of relevant insight, simpler communication is more effective. And if you’re communicating with people in different spheres altogether (e.g., policy makers, educators) then it’s even more important. It not only helps those people understand and act on research; it also demonstrates your credibility — in my experience, the more confident and established the researcher, the more comfortable they are using simple language to explain their work. Not that I include him “in my experience”, but Einstein himself insisted that “If you can’t make it simple, you don’t understand it well enough.” In the end, poor communication may not be about the Curse of Knowledge — it may be about having the courage to make it simple.