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ACP

Explaining complex topics to people without the background?

22 posts in this topic

This is something that I have always not known how to deal with.

 

In the past, it was questions like, "Explain what Yugioh is and what you do when you play Yugioh?" More recently, it's having to explain to someone who's not a mathematician what kind of mathematics research I've done. Today for example, someone asked me what abstract algebra was (who was a history major) and I hardly even knew where to begin.

 

It seems impossible to sum up a complex topic like this in 5 minutes or less. I feel like if I make it overly vague and nonspecific, I sound like someone who doesn't know what he's talking about, but the more detailed I get, the more likely that I just lose the other person entirely.

 

For those who are an expert in some complex field, could you perhaps post a summary of how you'd describe your work to a person with no background in it?

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I try to err on the side of being vague. It's difficult because I would never describe my work to colleagues or to other people in my field that way. But if I tried to use the correct terminology I would have to define approximately 50% of the words I use to describe it. It's also useful to relate your research to everyday applications so that person might understand the big picture of why you do whatever it is you do.

 

For instance, I study genetic interactions in fruit fly populations, but I aways explain to people that the reason my research is funded is because the general principles apply to genetic disorders like diabetes. My research has almost nothing to do with diabetes. The genes and organs I study are not the same genes involved as those in diabetes. But most people know what diabetes is, so it's a convenient example.

 

The other difficult thing about this process is determining what level of vagueness is most appropriate. For me, a biochemist or a doctor probably has a better idea of what I am doing, so I would want to be a little more specific when talking to those people. But the good thing about being vague is that people can always ask you follow up questions for specific clarification if they are interested and/or have some inkling of an idea of what you are talking about.

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"There is no feasible way to explain this in a period of time fitting for this situation, as it is built on several layers of concepts and definitions."

 

I'm pretty sure that you just can't explain abstract algebra to someone with no background in the time- and rule frame of a "normal conversation", and it's probably just best to be open about that. And if they are genuinely curious and interested in learning, rather than just asking to be polite, then you can get detailed about it.

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36 minutes ago, Me. said:

"There is no feasible way to explain this in a period of time fitting for this situation, as it is built on several layers of concepts and definitions."

Yeah the problem is that when you're at a job interview and Peggy from HR who majored in liberal arts asks, "Tell me about the research that you've done," I don't think she wants to hear that she's too stupid to comprehend it.

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instead of trying to tell them what abstract algebra is, try telling them what you do with abstract algebra, maybe just a quick anecdote about the last time you did something neat involving abstract algebra. this way, you can dodge the (silly) question entirely while still giving the interviewer what they're looking for, which i figure is a quick look into the work you do, from your own perspective

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Just now, ACP said:

Yeah the problem is that when you're at a job interview and Peggy from HR who majored in liberal arts asks, "Tell me about the research that you've done," I don't think she wants to hear that she's too stupid to comprehend it.

Not necessarily too stupid, just too ignorant.

 

But I still think there is no feasible way to explain it to Peggy from HR who majored in liberal arts. You could try to simplify it down a lot, but then your explanation holds no meaning. I guess maybe it's not the optimal answer in the sense that it will maximize the probability that you get the job? But it's the truthful explanation and probably the one that will give the fairest and most accurate view of your work.

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Just now, mmf said:

instead of trying to tell them what abstract algebra is, try telling them what you do with abstract algebra, maybe just a quick anecdote about the last time you did something neat involving abstract algebra. this way, you can dodge the (silly) question entirely while still giving the interviewer what they're looking for, which i figure is a quick look into the work you do, from your own perspective

 

You haven't taken a course in abstract algebra... have you?

 

It's not a bad idea and potentially applicable depending on what exactly Allen's research is, but chances are it's just not possible. And that reminds me, @ACP what are your publications? Are the available to read online?

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40 minutes ago, mmf said:

instead of trying to tell them what abstract algebra is, try telling them what you do with abstract algebra, maybe just a quick anecdote about the last time you did something neat involving abstract algebra. this way, you can dodge the (silly) question entirely while still giving the interviewer what they're looking for, which i figure is a quick look into the work you do, from your own perspective

It's not that simple. You don't really do anything with abstract algebra. That's what the word "abstract" means.

 

38 minutes ago, Me. said:

Not necessarily too stupid, just too ignorant.

 

But I still think there is no feasible way to explain it to Peggy from HR who majored in liberal arts. You could try to simplify it down a lot, but then your explanation holds no meaning. I guess maybe it's not the optimal answer in the sense that it will maximize the probability that you get the job? But it's the truthful explanation and probably the one that will give the fairest and most accurate view of your work.

The problem is that to be truthful and say "there's no way you could understand it" lacks any actual explanation. You're being a dick to the interviewer either way when you dodge their question.

 

And no, my work is not available to read online yet. But in 1-2 months, it will be.

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I guess you could try to go something along the lines of that abstract algebra is about finding common structures/properties between different fields of study and solve problems in all such fields simultaneously by using said properties.

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7 minutes ago, Me. said:

I guess you could try to go something along the lines of that abstract algebra is about finding common structures/properties between different fields of study and solve problems in all such fields simultaneously by using said properties.

That seems more like a description of category theory than abstract algebra. But my intent with this thread wasn't really to get into a semantics argument about what abstract algebra is, and more of a discussion on how to effectively communicate with people. I don't want people to be totally lost when I describe what it is that I do. I'd assume that other people here have had to tackle this kind of problem before.

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Just now, ACP said:

That seems more like a description of category theory than abstract algebra. But my intent with this thread wasn't really to get into a semantics argument about what abstract algebra is, and more of a discussion on how to effectively communicate with people. I don't want people to be totally lost when I describe what it is that I do.

 

If you have to communicate something to someone that is not capable of understanding what you need to communicate, maybe you could try communicating something similar but less complex? I do think category theory might be a good approximation of abstract algebra (with an axoimatic viewpoint) because you're generalizing algebraic structures that appears in multiple areas, although yes I agree that you're not actually (or at least only rarely) using abstract algebra as a tool to prove the same result across multiple areas in a way that holds a meaning in all of them (I probably phrased that very poorly and I'm not sure I get the point across).

 

Alternatively, you could go through the basic ideas of set theory (in an intuitive way) and explain the ideas of applying binary operations on elements in a set, to set a framework that might make it easier to give an understandable but short description.

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This may not be applicable to you, but I try to give an overview using the most casual language possible and give an overview of things that would take too long to get into deep detail about. I find that people understand things easier if you talk to them using very relaxed language whenever possible.

 

Using beginner's examples can also help.

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Posted (edited)

Whenever I encounter a professional philosopher who is untrained in mathematics (which is basically every unpublished philosopher), I typically translate mathematical proofs into a loose approximation of basic English, without any symbols. I use pronouns to hide variables once they've been introduced, but the trick is hiding the initial variable introductions with proper nouns.

 

I like to give arbitrary variables proper names to avoid spooking people. Usually this ends up meaning I use words like `Suzy' and 'Sharon' instead of `x' and `y'. This is only a minor sleight of hand, and I often get told it's awkward to read, but it's typically the closest I get to communicating something mathematical to a non-mathematician that otherwise thinks they know things.

 

In Allen's case, I tend to think that an even more curmudgeonly version of that would be useful. People with no knowledge of rigor like to delude themselves into thinking they can capture the intuition behind complex ideas by entertaining a single, specific, non-general instance of it, even if it's of a more universal claim and that example would not otherwise generalize well.

 

Need a set with three members? Talk about Mary, Sue, Linda and their rotary club. Need a property? Talk about the color of their hair. Need a binary relation? Talk about the difference in height between each pair of them.

 

Give the example and tell them "It's like that". They'll nod their heads in agreement at your colorful characterization, either thinking (wrongly) that they understand your general theorem or just wanting to save face to avoid looking unintelligent. (It's usually the former and rarely the latter.)

 

People also like to be told that they know things, so iyou should lead into complex points with phrases like "as I'm sure you know" or "as we all see" and pleasantries to that effect. This is especially helpful if there's an obvious gap between you and the other person. It makes it look like you're on the same page, and appearance is all that matters here.

Edited by Edgar
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i think whats really crazy is someone wanting to know what abstract algebra is. i say slow them down right there and say that it torments the people that have to know it enough as it is and they're lucky to not have to know.

 

like this explanation i read of how to answer children when they ask about babies  

 

" Mamma," said the eager child, "where do little children come from?" "My child," replied his mother without hesitation, "women pass them with pains that sometimes cost their life." Let fools laugh and silly people be shocked; but let the wise inquire if it is possible to find a wiser answer and one which would better serve its purpose. In the first place the thought of a need of nature with which the child is well acquainted turns his thoughts from the idea of a mysterious process. The accompanying ideas of pain and death cover it with a veil of sadness which deadens the imagination and suppresses curiosity; everything leads the mind to the results, not the causes, of child-birth. "

 

you need to cut them off  right away .

 

also i get the feeling that the ability to explain and teach complex stuff is just a skill that looks good. i dont blame ppl for doing it if it comes easy. but unless you're gonna be a teacher its not really needed. i'd just avoid it, especially if its about a terrible topic like abstract algebra that NO ONE except the unfortunate math ppl should have to know about. 

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

I don't have any history of significance to help directly but it may be help others to see your current summary/explanation of abstract algebra.

Edited by Dank Memeston
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57 minutes ago, Satchmo said:

This may not be applicable to you, but I try to give an overview using the most casual language possible and give an overview of things that would take too long to get into deep detail about. I find that people understand things easier if you talk to them using very relaxed language whenever possible.

 

Using beginner's examples can also help.

i love beginner examples 

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I disagree with some posters here.

 

It's actually a real thing, in job interview questions, at least in the CS field, to ask something like "Explain Object Oriented Programming to your grandmother" or "Explain Object Oriented Programming to your kid".

 

You can Google it if you want.

 

Look how people suggest answering that, and use similar principles for abstract algebra.

 

There's literally a Reddit for Explain Like I'm Five, and it's a skill, and a market need.

 

For those here who don't understand why this is important, to analogize, people know you can code (do math), based on your project/grades/papers, whatever, but they really care about your social skills, can you explain, convey to both management or customers, or even others designers, program managers, etc. what you are doing.

 

I mean think about it, even if you're in academia, how will you talk to your Dean, chair, etc. or some other professor (from history).

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Another way to think about this, is the CEO of the company, think Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, is the elevator with you or in your cafeteria line, what is your elevator pitch, when he asks you what do you work on?

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Thank you for being the only person who actually understands where I'm coming from, @victor. I'll google these things per your suggestion and come back later with my thoughts.

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In Victor's example though people at least have some context about the questions they ask so even if you slip in jargon they will understand your point. I can talk to the CEO of my company about my job because they have an underlying background in what you are doing.  Whenever people ask me what i do i just gauge there knowledge of the underlying topic and work from there.

Below i have an example conversation which i probably have a similar iteration to maybe once a week. Path one the person knows nothing about the topic so all you can do is generalize. In path two you can tell they have some level of interest and can being to explain more in depth about what you do that gives a general sense. 

 

me: I work for AMD

then you evaluate based on response.

 

Path 1: them: what/who is that's?

Path 1: me :  Intel's biggest competitor I design computers and graphic's cards.

 

Path 2: them Really?! i like their graphics cards.

Path 2: me: There are multiple stages in designing CPUs/Graphics i work in pre silicon, which is before they manufacture the chip. i verify the designers work.

 

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Another way of thinking about it is finding the lowest common denominator of understanding and then explaining the level below to that person about what you do using analogies so they feel like they gained insight they previously did not have.

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I am probably butchering it (I gave a brief wiki look) but maybe something like this:

The math most people are used to works with the single object (like your bank account) but in abstract algebra we get to manipulate sets and spaces! We not only get to look at your bank account but ALL THE BANK ACCOUNTS, we look at banks, cities, countries, corporations. Instead of the lone object we manipulate we work with big sets of objects and see how they interact.

 

Tie in what you know with something that people generally already know. It takes a lot of practice to connect with someone and be there with them.

 

-When I teach integration my favourite example is showing how if you draw a circle you can draw a bunch of smaller concentric circles inside. Then take each circle and stretch them out into strings. There will be one large string that is the circumference of your circle then a slightly smaller string until you hit a little dot. This shape forms a right angle triangle. From here most people know how to find the area of the circle because your base is the radius and your height is the circumference. If you do B*H/2 you get 2pieR^2. In this example it is assumed people know the area of a triangle (and if they dont you can explain it through cutting a square in half) and that they have decent spacial senses.

If you want some insight in great ways to teach/explain math give joy of x a read.

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