The knotty business of knowledge, complexity and language
Russell Smith at the Globe & Mail in Canada writes about the many curious aspects of our culture(s) such as “Who would have thought reality TV could spawn so much junk”. His latest, “Complex ideas can’t always be made simple” offers reflections on how well a competition for PhD students in Australia works. The students are given three minutes to crunch down their theses into a kind of elevator pitch for their work, to be presented to an audience of non-specialists, and the best speaker wins $5,000. Most of them are quite impressive, says Smith. See for yourself: the 2011 Three Minute Thesis Competition, September 2011
“This looks like a brilliant and progressive idea,” he writes. “It attacks the ivory tower; it builds bridges between specialists and the intelligent laypeople whose tax dollars fund universities; it encourages the development of teaching and performance skills among people who are going to be teachers for the rest of their lives. Universities have long been criticized for spending too much money on obscure research and not doing enough to teach teaching.”
But it doesn’t always work, he argues, in large part because of the differences between the humanities and the sciences.
He addresses the relationship between complexity and knowledge, one we too often skirt. Smith is talking about the social sciences and the jargon of social theory, explaining that “the idea is generally that we can’t see the ideological and economic structures that we live in unless we change our language – for language is a pillar of that very structure. Furthermore, the veneration of clarity or simplicity is itself an ideological position, one that limits thinkers to conventional thoughts.”
I’m a strong proponent of plain English, particularly in education and the workplace, where jargon and complex language often veil a lack of clear thinking. But a distinction needs to be made by people who push for plain English. Complex ideas often cannot be reduced down to simple ideas, or suffer if they do; plain English is needed because simple and elegant language can help us explore complexity, not annihilate it.
Embracing complexity: an inheritance that doesn’t diminish
If there is one kind of wealth I would like to leave to the next generation it is the ability to seek out complexity, to understand it, to appreciate rather than fear it, and ultimately to be able to express it. I would like them to have this ability whether they apply it to physics, politics or the affairs of the human heart. These are the riches that make us truly human.
I’m heading off now to the Lucerne International Film Festival to represent my son’s film, “10,000 Miles“, about traveling from Lhasa in Tibet to Shanghai with three other young men (and about young people there). It is a Selection at the festival (he’s in China and can’t make it). I asked him to send me questions and answers for the FAQ session that is scheduled after the film’s European premiere tonight.
Most are about the technical aspects of the film or details about their travels. I’m particularly happy about the last one, which leaves us with the idea that these travels are the start of a much longer voyage, for all of us.
Liam, who is fluent in Mandarin, has traveled extensively in Tibet, on several occasions.
Q: What do you think about the Tibet-China issue?
A: It is far too complicated to answer in a couple short questions and I woud avoid doing this because it is one of the issues that people most love to jump to conclusions about. To really understand it takes knowing a lot of history, languages and culture; it isn’t as simple a topic as it is often made out to be.
Film’s trailer, posted by the festival