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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Understanding vs. Communication

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Jason Kottke asserts in the title of a blog post the following: "If you can't explain something in simple terms, you don't understand it." With one reservation, I am inclined to agree with the sentiment, given the ample evidence provided from the teaching of Richard Feynman and the methods Apple uses to evaluate its own engineers. For example, Kottke quotes the following from Feynman's Lost Lecture:
Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, "Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics." Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But he came back a few days later to say, "I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don't really understand it."
Well, if someone like Richard Feynman is saying this, and one of the world's most successful businessmen concurs, what else is there to say?

This: Feynman has gauged his audience. He has come up with a reasonable estimate of what his audience will regard as "simple." This is no mean feat, and, through my scientific training, I am acquainted with more than a handful of people, including myself, who have had difficulty doing this and, consequently, had to learn how to communicate their knowledge more effectively. Entire books have been written on the subject of effective communication because what Feynman makes look so easy is hardly a trivial matter. (Judging audience context is hardly the only skill, either, but it is most relevant to crafting a simple explanation: e.g., What can I take for granted that they know? How motivated are they about this subject?)

This is not to say that this isn't a good rule-of-thumb for judging a person's understanding of a subject: It's just that the applicability of the rule to an individual has to account for how well that individual understands (a) judging an audience and (b) expressing himself.

The title is excellent -- for those who know that the person whose knowledge they are evaluating has good communication skills. But it has to be held in context: A poor explanation might simply show that someone needs work on communication skills, particularly if that person is young or is a novice in his field. I have been guilty of thinking someone else doesn't know what they're talking about, when the problem was really ignorance of another sort: of communication skills.

-- CAV

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