Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Dumbing Down vs. Simplicity


There is quite a little discussion going on at one of the web developer email discussion lists that I subscribe to.

The topic?

"How to Talk Down to a Client"

I have very strong opinions about this topic. But before I proceed, let me first explain what an "email discussion list" is, so there is no confusion on the part of any of my readers (nobody knows everything!)...

An email discussion list is an online service whereby you receive in your email inbox messages on various topics, written by various members of the list.

You receive questions by individuals, questions that are addressed to the group as a whole. Then certain group members respond, or pose their own questions.

Each topic, question, announcement is called a "thread". When you reply to a "thread", you must stick to that thread, and not go off on a tangent of irrelevant material, which is called going OT (Off Topic).

If you have a question to ask the group, or a reply you feel could contribute to a specific topic, you can send an email to the discussion list address, and it gets forwarded to all the group members.

Now...what just happened here?

I assumed that not everyone would necessarily know what I meant by "email discussion list", so I defined it.

Is this "dumbing down" to the "lowest common denominator"...or is it simply the practice of simplifiying and clarifying?

Dumb means "stupid."

"Dumbing down" would be taking something smart or correct, and changing (distorting) it to make it stupid or wrong.

If I provided a poorly worded, factually inaccurate explanation of my term, that would be dumb.

Or if I tried to make a complex item sound like it was not actually as complex as it truly is, that would be deceptive and "dumb" for me to do.

But if my explanation is complete, accurate, and easy for almost anyone to understand, then it's not "dumbing down" but "simplifying" or "clarifying."


I'm reading, just to stretch my mind with difficult writing and complex thought, the book, The Analysis of the Self by Heinz Kohut, M.D.

It's Monograph No. 4 of The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, published by International Universities Press, Inc., copyright 1971.

I read advanced level psychoanalytic material just for fun sometimes, hoping I'll get something out of it. I'm very interested in narcissism, masochism, and aggression, for various professional reasons.

My reason for bringing this up is this: the text is so dense and technical, in some sections, I can barely understand more than a sentence per page. I love it.

Every once in a while, there is suddenly a Simple Explanation in Layman's Terms, and whole chapters of the book become illuminated by the little sentence, definition, analogy, or whatever.

"Swings from the therapeutic activation of the idealized parent imago (idealizing transference) to a transient hyper-cathexis of the grandiose self are among the most common occurences in the analysis of narcissistic personalities." (p.67)

I barely understand that sentence.

He seems to be saying that at one moment the self-obsessed person respects his doctor as a trusted father figure, then may suddenly turn around and act like a spoiled brat who respects no authority other than his own selfish wishes and imagined needs.

My Definition of "Dumbing Down"

Simple explanations are not "dumbing down".

Putting esoteric (that which is "hidden" or not well known to the average person) concepts into layman's language is not "dumbing down".

"Dumbing down" is speaking with an arrogantly mocking tone, in exaggeratedly childish terms, to a person in order to make that person feel inferior, ashamed, or angry.

"Dumbing down" could also refer to telling people what you know that they already know, and implying that they don't know it, which could be insulting to them.

"Dumbing down" could also refer to discussing something at a primitive, overly simple level, as though that is the only level at which it functions and can be discussed, and thus never proceeding beyond it.

Like explaining atomic structure at a third grade level to PhD. nuclear physicists. Staying too simple for too long to an advanced audience, causing impatience and disinterest.

Here now is my response to this topic "How to Talk Down to a Client" in that web developer email discussion list...

RE: How To Talk Down to a Client

Only stupid people talk "down" to anyone, even
children deserve better than "down" ("dumb downed")

I even object to all forms of "baby talk" goo
goo ga ga crap, it's discredited by child

If you really understand something, you can put it
into simple terms as well as advanced terms.

If you only know how to describe it in highly
technical language, then you're stupid, and don't
actually know it like you assume you do.

Einstein, Plato, Freud, Tim Berners-Lee, etc. knew how
to put concepts into very simple terms anyone could

No matter how smart you supposedly are, when you hear
a technical thing described in simple analogies and
down home illustrations ("a web server is like a
...."), you can be amazed at how you now understand it
a little better.

You can start elementary levelish and rapidly proceed
to more complex aspects, depending on your audience,
by defining terms and relating new ideas to already
known ideas, as you go along.

If tech people are impatient with simple explanations,
they're living in an ivory tower of ignorance. If you
really love something, you like hearing it described
in a multitude of ways, from childish to metaphysical.

When it doubt, flesh it out, ie, make it super easy to

The smart people, who don't "need" simple
explanations, will still learn something---how to
explain what they know in simple terms.


Describe things in simple terms.

Proceed slowly and logically to more advanced details, depending on the comprehension level of your audience.

Don't assume how ignorant or intelligent your audience is. Find out somehow.

When you're not sure about the comprehension level of your audience, keep it clear and simple, but clever or unique.

Start with easy basics, in a creative style (unique analogies or historical insights not well known even to "experts"), then slowly build up to more difficult technical aspects.

The uneducated will appreciate the simplicity.

The advanced will delight in the creativity and originality.

You may be able to please both ends of the spectrum that way.

Important Reminder:
Really smart people don't mind simple, clear descriptions of complex long as it doesn't oversimplify, i.e., present something as being more simple than it really is.

Probably nothing is totally simple, with no complex aspect or element whatsoever.

And there is probably nothing that is all complexity, with no simplicity at all.

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