On talking about history to a lay audience
Updated: Oct 30, 2019
In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.
Compared with most scholars and scientists, historians are in quite an easy position when we are faced with having to explain our research to a lay audience. Apart from some specialized brands of history – usually interdisciplinary explorations – even articles published in influential historical journals tend to limit professional jargon. In fact, many publications make sure to include it within their author guidelines to instruct prospective submitters to avoid jargon as much as they can in favour of clarity. As a proponent and defender of the popularization of history I find this to be a good thing. I want people to be able to understand what we are talking about, and despite the benefits of having a professional language to allow the professionals to discuss topics with useful shortcuts, we should take a few steps back and translate our thoughts to more commonly language when we address a wider audience.
When presenting jargon to a lay audience, you are not only being unkind and unprofessional in your duty as an educator (which I think is a duty of all scientists and scholars to some extent) but I am also inclined to think that you are trying to intentionally smuggle your agenda through by masking it in confusing words. Alternatively, you are trying to save face and hide the fact that in all actuality you have nothing substantial to talk about. We rely on the audience to give us the benefit of a doubt and find an agreeable way to interpret what we say, despite of what we actually say. Usually this works too, especially within the narrow confines of academia, because people want to listen in good faith. They may even think they’re too stupid to understand, and let you off the hook. This way, no matter what is said, the façade of professionalism remains.
Yudkowsky considers this issue in his essay “Rationality and the English Language”¹ and includes within a highly relevant quote by George Orwell:
”When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy . . . A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself . . . What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”²
Using jargon, stock phrases, and vague statements begging the question can create multiple interpretations, when we should strive for our words to be undersood as we intended. It is better to be literal and simplistic than to sound authorative or deep, even if we wish to retain our professionalism or want to avoid conciseness in fear of being patronizing to the audience. Rather than making up convoluted sentences that take time to unpack, or hiding the things you don’t know by saying it was ‘complex’ or an ‘emergent phenomenon’, we should strive for clarity and be ready to admit to that we do not know all the details. Self-aggrandizing and trying to hoodwink an audience is unflattering.
¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 282–285.
² George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (April 1946)