Interpreting science

I made reference last night to "read[ing] Academician" while I was ranting about the government's grand plan to replace OTC decongestants that actually work with a substance whose primary function is to make them look tough on meth. I do a wide variety of translation work, and when I tell people that they always assume it has to do with the slew of other languages I speak. It does sometimes, but in point of fact, the vast majority of what I think of as "translation" work is not from language to language but from context to context.

One of my specialties -- in all languages, including my native one -- is taking a technical thing and making it understandable to non-technical people. Most people figure the stumbling block on that one is that you have to learn the technical thing before you understand it well enough to interpret, but that's never been much of an issue for me. There's some things that make for classes too boring for me to plow through, but I am not aware of having yet run into any academic subject that I started reading up on and felt like I simply could not grasp it at all. I've done it when dealing with crazy people and motivations, but the academic version is a feeling I am only familiar with from other peoples' descriptions. It sounds goddamn miserable, and I find myself sincerely wanting to fix it.

You'd figure that you just need to apply some sort of algorithmic "stupidification" to the whole thing, but that doesn't work. There are a lot of subjects where you can lower the overall complexity by a lot, but still need a select few of the more intricate details at key points to hold the explanation together. Plus, ignorance is not the same as stupidity -- there's a fair chunk of your audience that will be offended if you talk to them like a third-grader. Just as a bonus there's also a segment who'll get angry that you've brought the subject down to a grade-school level and they still don't get it, and will then take that out on you.

Amateur pedagogy: Not for the faint of heart.

The real tricky part of context-to-context translation is figuring out what dialect the audience speaks. If you're going from "technical" to "non-technical", you have to remember that you're looking at that from the POV of the author of the original piece. It's entirely possible for a quantum physicist to be a "non-technical" audience for a paper on music theory, and vice versa. "Technical" isn't confined to scholarly works, either. A critical essay on some aspect of a particular TV show will mean very little to someone who doesn't watch it, doubly so if it's peppered with the kind of jargon intended for an internal fandom audience.

This is not to say that I have to do wholesale conversion every time. Academic disciplines are related much like languages are. Pretty much all formal scientific papers follow the same very general rules of format and tone, much as the assorted languages of Europe use alphabets and are written left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Music theory and quantum physics, as referenced above, share a common basis in mathematics, although the subsequent evolution of both has made them mutually unintelligible. Psychology and cultural anthropology, to give a lesser spread, share surprisingly little technical vocabulary and diverge radically on the exact usefulness of statistics, but they share a common "grammar" in their participatory experiments, and their collected write ups of personal experiences. If music theory and quantum physics are Italian and Ukrainian, then psychology and cultural anthro are more like French and Spanish.

You also need a decent grasp of the culture of any discipline you work with, particularly the one you're translating out of. Scientific papers are supposed to be dispassionate, but these are human beings we're talking about here -- a paper which at first glance holds all the emotional investment of the 1993 Weehauken telephone listings can reveal itself as surprisingly reverent, cheeky, or biting when you understand what things are traditionally verboten in write-ups in any given field, and how close you can get to the forbidden topics before someone makes you edit yourself for snark. People who have only a passing familiarity with the kind of lab reports you turn in for high school biology classes probably looked at the Eccles paper from last night and saw nothing strange about the lengthy section in the middle that consists entirely of, "something was done; nothing happened" over and over again. This is standard procedure for beginning lab science classes, where most of what they're trying to teach you is how to document what you did well enough for someone to repeat it later. To a large extent it does carry through to things like experimental chemistry papers, where "nothing happened" is sometimes an important clue to figuring out the pattern behind the times when "something happened".

The Eccles paper, however, is a metanalysis. The entire point of a metanalysis is that you've gotten together a big pile of studies that other people have written up on whatever you're interested in so that you can count how many of them got positive or negative results, and how significant they were. You do them after you've conducted a preliminary sweep of a subject and discovered that there's already a lot of research out there. Typically, that section of the paper is just a brief rundown of where you got your material from -- because usually when you do a metanalysis, you're swimming in random crap spewed by anyone who could get a research grant, and your biggest problem is combing through and weeding out company shills, Chinese plagiarists, and anybody whose work was so embarrassingly shoddy it would put your error bars through the roof. You don't need to list where you didn't get any research from; it would take too long and look very silly. It would be like starting off your vacation slides with a list of all the places you didn't go.

No cultural context: Boring thing full of numbers with a lot of citations at the end.
With cultural context: Dawning realization that this dude wrote and published an entire paper specifically to point out that nobody knew what the fuck.

In layman's terms, this is a public essay on what happened when he set out to investigate the average thread count of any and all cotton fabrics used in constructing the Emperor's new clothes. I love it when I find these things. It's like being able to read stuff printed in invisible ink.

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