Instead of Dumbing Down

If you think the way to communicate with less-educated people is to dumb down your ideas, you’ve been misinformed.

The commenters on last week’s post about Trump voters made me proud. They were almost uniformly civil and thoughtful. They fixed some of my mistakes, and added worthwhile points of their own. But that post also sparked a few discussions on social media, and there I ran into one of my least favorite phrases: dumb down.

It’s a simple notion, and I’m sure you’ve come across it before: The ideas in my brain are just too big for yours, so if we’re going to have a conversation about them, I’ll need to dumb them down, i.e., shrink my thoughts to the size of your brain. What I end up saying will sound stupid to me, and probably won’t quite be true, but that’s your fault, not mine. You should be smarter.

I just said it in as offensive a way as I could, because that’s how I hear it. The term only makes sense inside a frame that I find arrogant and disrespectful. Explaining things can be hard, but in my experience the problem is rarely that people are just too stupid to understand.

There are a handful of exceptional circumstances where the term is appropriate. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a conversation about quantum mechanics that wasn’t dumbed down to a certain extent, often because I was the one who couldn’t have participated otherwise. And if I had to explain the thesis that got me my math Ph.D., we’d be here a long time. (Given how long ago that was, I’m not sure I could still do it.) But not much that happens in the public arena is quantum mechanics or algebraic geometry. The information that you need to take an informed position on a political issue is just not that complicated.

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed — if I did my job perfectly, most of you wouldn’t — but The Weekly Sift is accessible to people at a wide range of educational levels. I know that some kids of my friends read it, probably because they want to understand what their parents are talking about. I don’t quiz them for comprehension, but the questions I get tell me that high school (and sometimes even middle school) students are following the discussion well enough that they keep reading. Maintaining that accessibility hasn’t stopped me from talking about why it’s so hard to see your own privilege, the difference between bigotry and hatred, how the Fed creates money, how liberal reporters can wind up slanting the news in a conservative direction, and a bunch of other fairly complex topics.

Explaining things to people who don’t have the same background you do can be challenging. But if you can’t do it, that’s not entirely your audience’s fault.

My writing style and overall attitude about explaining things was strongly influenced by somebody you probably wouldn’t guess: sports geek Bill James, who is now recognized as the godfather of modern baseball statistics. Back in the 1970s and 80s, he published a book-length Baseball Abstract that would come out every year about the time spring training started. On the surface, the Abstracts were about all the usual spring-training topics: players, teams, and their prospects for the coming year. But woven through that project were all kinds of new ideas about how you figured out who was better than who, and why certain perennial baseball debates actually had objective answers. Along the way, he ended up explaining a lot of statistical and sometimes even epistemological ideas. But most of his readers probably didn’t realize they were getting an education in anything but baseball; they just wanted to know whether a home-run hitter like Mike Schmidt was more or less valuable than a high-batting-average hitter like Pete Rose. (Answer: more.)

But if he needed anything more complicated than a graphing calculator, he’d explain it, sometimes so seamlessly that if you did have the background, you had to take a step back to realize what he’d done. (OMG! He just explained standard deviation, what a mathematical model is, or the difference between uncertainty and risk.) Most of the time, any junior-high student who could read and cared enough about baseball could follow what he was doing. (Mythbusters played a similar role for a more recent generation. Viewers learned that if you have proper scientific technique, you can answer questions rather than just argue about them.)

What James understood is that communicating an idea from one mind to another is more about caring than about IQ or college degrees. The Abstracts worked because James and his readers all cared about baseball. James cared enough to explain things and his readers cared enough to understand them.

When you can’t explain something to somebody, it’s usually not because their brains are too small. More likely, it’s either that

  • you haven’t grounded the conversation in something they care about, so as soon as things get difficult they don’t bother to follow you, or
  • you haven’t won their trust; they don’t believe that you know something valuable and want to communicate it.

Dumbing down doesn’t solve either of those problems. If I don’t know why I should care about, say, systemic racism, then I’m certainly not going to care about a dumbed-down version of systemic racism. And if your dumbed-down explanation comes wrapped in a superior and condescending attitude, then I’m even less likely to trust that you want me to understand something real and true.

Conversely, educational miracles happen when motivation changes. Kids who are flunking Introductory French pick up the language pretty quickly if they get stuck in the French countryside for a few months. During World War II, people with the most unlikely backgrounds acquired all sorts of skills, because the government suddenly needed to teach them and they saw good reasons to learn. (Abstractly, you may not care how diesel engines work, but if your tank breaks down and the enemy is drawing closer, you’re going to want to get it moving again.)

That’s why the first step in explaining is understanding — not just understanding the idea you want to communicate, but understanding the people you want to receive it. Why should they care? Where in their lives does their lack of understanding screw them up, or screw up people they care about? What mysteries that they already wonder about would be solved if they grasped what you want to tell them? How would the knowledge you are offering give them power in situations where they currently feel helpless, or confidence in situations where they feel vulnerable? [An aside: That’s usually the angle to take on racism. A lot of whites believe that not being viewed as racist involves learning an endless list of rules that are constantly changing, so they feel vulnerable whenever they deal with non-whites in any context. If racism is actually simpler than that, and you can explain to them how to navigate those waters safely and confidently, you have something valuable to offer.]

It’s really hard to answer those questions if you can’t make yourself care about the people you’re talking to. If you just think of them as evil or stupid, and you can’t imagine that they have any motives you can empathize with, well, guess what? All your explanations are going to sound like aggressions against them. You want them to understand how evil and stupid they are. News flash: They don’t want to understand that, and you can’t make them. (Remember Sun Tzu: “The worst strategy of all is to besiege walled cities.”)

Once you have a why you can move on to a how: The idea is probably not going to fit into their worldview the same way it fits into yours. They have different experiences and know different things. They may be ignorant of something that is key to how you think about the idea, but so what? Everybody is ignorant about something. Do they really need to adopt your entire worldview to grasp this single point?

The particular bias of educated people is that we rely too much on our vocabularies, and think that other people can’t grasp an idea until they learn all the words we use when we think about it. (Goethe: “When an idea is wanting, a word can always be found to take its place.”) Academic papers usually start by defining a bunch of terms, and only eventually get around to showing what they’re good for. But good popular explanations often turn that around: Through examples, metaphors, and stories, you put an idea in someone’s head, then tell them what it’s called. (Once people see the use of an idea, they’re usually grateful to find out that it has a name.)

In general, it’s a symptom of immature understanding to believe that some bit of knowledge can only be approached via the path I used to learn it. People who fully understand something can approach it from any direction. There are a bunch of Einstein quotes about this, most of them apocryphal. But this one from the great German mathematician David Hilbert (from the generation just before Einstein) is genuine: “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.”

As a graduate student, I remember hearing this (possibly also apocryphal) quote from a nameless professor trying to cover a difficult concept: “I explained it to the class, and no one understood it. So I explained it again, and still no one understood it. Finally, I explained it a third time, and this time I understood it.”

So that’s what I suggest as an alternative to dumbing down: See if you can care about your listeners or readers enough to understand why they should want to know this and what direction they can approach it from. Then work on your own understanding of the subject until you grasp it well enough to approach from that direction yourself. In the short term, that may not be as satisfying as ridiculing their stupidity, but in the long term I think it works better.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Charles Roth  On September 12, 2016 at 9:06 am

    In my experience, too many people try to explain something by starting where *they* (the “teacher”) are. When I teach, I try to “walk back up” the tree of abstractions until I get to the place where the *learner* is. Then we walk down the tree together.

  • Shane Harris  On September 12, 2016 at 9:45 am

    So I agree that it is disrespectful and arrogant in most cases. But there are some times when, after you know that the person has heard the explanation presented in a variety of ways, that you absolutely just hope the person is dumb. You hope because often this is someone you care about and if they are not dumb and still believe what they are still believing that you might be in the presence of actual evil.

    • 1mime  On September 12, 2016 at 10:53 am

      People who are educated, and hold opinions that are not rational (climate change, Donald Trump), are actively choosing to ignore facts. There is no way to reach these people. Their opinions have become emotionally limiting. The change has to come from within them as they are not open to discussing or hearing other points of view.

      • Andrew  On October 3, 2016 at 12:35 am

        the same for hillary/global warming

      • 1mime  On October 3, 2016 at 10:48 am

        Please explain your comment “same for Hillary/global warming

  • Lionel Goulet  On September 12, 2016 at 9:51 am

    I so resonate with this essay. I find in my own teaching that the second or third time I present the class, something goes “click” and I see the material as a whole whereas before it was just connected pieces. Teaching, to me, is a learning experience.

  • Jean Rossner  On September 12, 2016 at 9:52 am

    The essay is so good and helpful; thank you. Facebook is blocking “share,” claiming that it is in some way offensive. Huh??

    • Carol Rose  On September 12, 2016 at 10:34 am

      I tried sharing it to facebook and got the message that this link is blocked for security reasons. Then I tried sharing other articles from Weekly Sift (which I have shared in the past) and they are also blocked for security reasons! I complained to facebook to see what they have to say.

      • Larry Benjamin  On September 12, 2016 at 12:17 pm

        I’ve never had a problem with cutting and pasting the link to the url.

    • weeklysift  On September 12, 2016 at 11:50 am

      This is news to me. I have no explanation.

  • Linda O'Connell  On September 12, 2016 at 11:35 am

    To me this election is not so much about not comprehending but about being too close minded to realize that Trump is all “smoke and mirrors”. People believe him because they think that he can actually bring back high paying, low skill jobs and fulfill all of their other fantasies that aren’t always so charitable. I’m not sure that any amount of explaining otherwise would change their minds since Trump has been masterful at brainwashing them.

    • Larry Benjamin  On September 12, 2016 at 12:22 pm

      I wouldn’t go so far as to call it brainwashing. It’s more that Trump is telling them what they want to hear, and in such a convincing way as to make them believe that he’s capable of delivering on his promises.

      And they don’t seem interested in thinking about the details of how, for example, Trump plans to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, or defeat ISIS, or bring jobs back, etc. It’s as if Trump exudes such confidence and competence, they’re content with his explanation that he’ll work out the details later.

    • 1mime  On September 12, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      For the life of me, I can’t distinguish between “not comprehending” and “being close-minded” where Donald Trump is concerned. You either approve of what you see or you don’t, because there isn’t anything more.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On September 12, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    American films to the contrary (Patton, The Battle of the Bulge and Kelly’s Heros, for instance, all make a point of claiming the Germans used diesel), all American and German tanks ran on gasoline; only the Russians used diesel

    • weeklysift  On September 16, 2016 at 6:55 am

      Good to know. I wondered about that almost enough to check, but didn’t. I should have.

  • Eileen Wilkinson  On September 12, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Great article! I share a lot of articles of yours with my friends, and this is one. I used to do presentations to property owners on landlord/tenant regulations, which can be quite complex. I never had to “dumb it down” to explain things so my audience got it. The other thing is, I treated them and their questions (and challenges) respectfully. All words aside, respect is key to good communication.

  • Corey Fisher  On September 12, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    I think there’s another very big obstacle to explaining things without dumbing down that isn’t mentioned here – time. It’s pretty often that you just don’t have all the time in the world to explain the concept you need, and so you have to cut corners somewhere. This post has some good arguments for what it’s actually addressing, but I’m not convinced that dumbing things down isn’t valuable, just that we should carefully restrict where we use it.

    • weeklysift  On September 16, 2016 at 7:03 am

      I agree, and on rare occasions I’ll over-simplify something on this blog for reasons of space and limited attention. When I do, though, I try to mark it; maybe with a preface like “It doesn’t exactly work this way, but a lot of times I’ve found it useful to think of it like this … ” Or maybe I’ll use the simplified explanation as a metaphor or a mini-fable, without claiming it’s the full story.

  • Kenneth Sutton  On September 12, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    I have similar concerns when editors get started on the reading level of newspapers and magazines. A sixth-grade reading level is not a problem. False balance, lack of fact-checking, corporate ownership, fear of offending advertisers, lazy research: those are all problems that lead to ignorant, inoffensive, inaccurate pablum.

    • 1mime  On September 12, 2016 at 4:52 pm

      To your excellent list, add fear of confronting bullies.

    • weeklysift  On September 16, 2016 at 7:05 am

      Erudite prose can also be a smokescreen for the kinds of flaws you list.

  • Moz in Oz  On September 12, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    My favourite Rutherford quote is apposite in this case: “If you can’t explain your research to the cleaning lady, it’s not worth doing ” (forgive him the sexism, he died in 1937). Meaning that if you can’t explain your research in laymans terms, you probably don’t understand it yourself.

    My feeling is that if it’s worth having the discussion, it’s worth taking the time to have it properly. And often if you actually listen to the people you’re trying to persuade you discover that they have a comprehensible worldview, and if you’re lucky there’s a way to put your point within it.

    Albeit I work with someone who is passionately opposed to Hilary Clinton and uses a string of far right Trump talking points to justify it (she’s unwell, lies, criminal… even pointing out that he was simply wrong in his claim that Hillary started the Mexican wall didn’t dent his ardour). He didn’t reason himself into that position, and I doubt he can be reasoned out of it. He hates and fears women in general, let alone women with power over him, and helping him get over that is beyond my expertise.

    • Porlock Junior  On September 14, 2016 at 7:00 am

      Jonathan Swift had it right:

      Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired…
      (from Wikiquotes)

    • weeklysift  On September 16, 2016 at 7:09 am

      When somebody puts forward an unjustified or poorly thought out opinion, often it’s useful to draw them out. Keep asking “Why do you believe that?” and “How is that different from this comparable situation?”

      • Moz in Oz  On September 19, 2016 at 10:46 pm

        (Un)fortunately I work with him, rather than seeing him voluntarily, and I have already spent far too much work time listening to him. Wasting more time on the issue is not something my boss is likely to favour. And even a single question is likely to be met with a 10-minute tirade. He struggles to (mostly) contain his views on same-sex marriage despite knowing that my sister is in such a marriage. I think out of fear that actually saying at work that a specific individual should be killed would get him into trouble.

        And he is remarkably good at “that’s nonsense, I will not consider it”, “you must provide proof for that assertion”, “everyone knows wikipedia/ news is garbage” and “my statement is self-evidently true and needs no supporting evidence”. He has, for example, said that “obviously rape by Muslims is very different from rape by whites”*, and gone on to explain that the sensible solution is to exterminate all Muslims. When I asked why he thought that he said that it is so obvious that he is unable to deal with anyone so stupid as to require an explanation.

        * his words, we’ve had that discussion more than once. He’s not racist, clearly, since Islam is not a race.

  • Wm. Gilboe  On September 13, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    All good points.
    Effective communication I believe usually requires both parties effort. Each party responsible for some reasonable degree of receptiveness, and patience.
    However, given the widespread lack of critical thinking skills within our population, I find it often becomes exhausting trying to work around or compensate for the intellectual laziness that we’re so often confronted with. I find it particularly frustrating when these attributes are found in college “educated” people. Takes two to tango.

  • Andrew  On October 3, 2016 at 12:42 am

    Some days you are the bug, some days the windshield. Or to get biblical, some days you are Christ, some days the Samaritan woman at the well.

  • Virginia  On January 29, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    Since no two brains are structurally identical I still remain awed by the fact that we sometimes can see eye to eye on any given issue. Given this perspective, it seems imperative that we truly listen to one another in order to foster open communication.. It gives a greater measure of patience in order to sift through and try to make sense of the wall of info I that we are sometimes presented with. Frankly I am constantly amazed that so many of us are still willing to remain open to new perspectives and to honor the fact that those attempting to discuss issues actually want to communicate and have faith that the process may yield some common ground.maybe I’m naive in thinking that we can get somewhere with our open dialogue but I sure am glad so many of us have been willing and will continue to try.

    • Larry Benjamin  On January 29, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      Disagreement between reasonable and mutually respectful people is nearly always productive. But it’s impossible for me to have a respectful dialog with someone who doesn’t think I should exist.


  • […] Instead of Dumbing Down – The information that you need to take an informed position on a political issue is just not that complicated. Explaining things to people who don’t have the same background you do … But … […]

  • By So Clear | The Weekly Sift on September 12, 2016 at 11:43 am

    […] week’s featured post is “Instead of Dumbing Down“. It’s basically my explanation of how to explain […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: