In my job and in some of my freelance assignments I’m often in the position of interviewing experts on subjects in which I have little to no expertise, to put it mildly.
Interviewing an electrical engineer a few years ago, I hit on what’s become my standard “charming” way to remind subjects that they’re talking to a layperson who needs to translate their knowledge for other laypeople: “Talk to me like I’m seven.” When he got into imaginary numbers and vectors to explain an acronym I’d queried, I interrupted to say: “OK, now talk to me like I’m five.”
I often feel as though interview subjects find me stupid because I’m asking what to them are simple questions — sometimes because I know the answer but need their words, sometimes because I don’t understand the first frigging thing about electrical engineering.
So I was delighted to stumble across a post a few months ago called “Embracing My Hubble Moments” by Cassandra Willyard. She was studying science writing when a professor brought an astronomer in to talk to the class. The assignment was to listen to the lecture, ask some questions, call other experts for some quotes, and write a news story.
Dr. Astronomer had made his discoveries using the Hubble Telescope and, as he talked, it slowly dawned on me that this telescope he was talking about, this Hubble, is in space. My mind was officially blown. We put a goddamn telescope in SPACE! Holy. Effing. News peg.
I soon realized, of course, that my hook was more than 15 years old. Yes, I had heard of Hubble. And, yes, I knew it was a telescope. But somehow the fact that it orbits Earth had escaped me. Or maybe I knew and then forgot. This was not the first nor the last time I would be astounded by knowledge that everyone else takes for granted. For me, graduate school was peppered with Hubble moments. As these moments piled up, that delightful rush of discovery — we put a telescope in space! — was replaced by burning shame. What else had I missed?
Another joke I like to make, usually in reference to myself, is: “There are no stupid questions. Just stupid people.” Willyard started to feel that way herself:
On the phone with scientists, I tried to avoid asking too many questions. If they said something I didn’t understand, I would “mmm-hmm” like I did. I’ve often heard teachers say, “there’s no such thing as a dumb question,” but that’s not really true. You don’t want to be the science writer who asks a famous astronomer, “So are you telling me that there’s a telescope in space?!”
In the end, by embracing her Hubble Moments she learned to be a better writer — after all, we all have these Hubble Moments and your readers have no hope of understanding the concepts you’re writing about if you don’t understand them first.
Interviewing a lot of scientists and medical professionals is a great way to reduce your Dunning-Kruger effect — that cognitive bias where you think you know more than you really do about a subject, and in fact the greater your ignorance the more likely you are to believe in your superior understanding.
Confucious and Bertrand Russell were right: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” said the former, and “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” said the latter.
I’m obviously not immune to that bias but I do feel as though I walk around in a perpetual state of humbled Hubbleness. So I love that for 2014 I’ll be reminded to embrace my own Hubble Moments by a wonderful Christmas gift: a Hubble Space Telescope Desk Calendar.
And as Willyard says, no matter how many times you hear it, it remains very cool that there’s a goddamn telescope in SPACE whose pretty pictures are available to become an awe-inspiring calendar.