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I am a PhD student. I feel like I am increasingly experiencing situations where ideas that are explained in a way everyone can understand them are criticized as being too simple to be a major contribution to the field. I feel like people rationalize that if they can fully understand the idea then it is too elementary to be important. For simplicity I will refer to this as the understandability bias. There are obviously many ways to game this (a.k.a. baffling with B.S.) but I want to believe this does not work in the larger academic community and is more local to my experience. How much have any of you out there had similar experiences? Are there things that can be done to cater to the understandability bias without compromising your integrity? Is my sense of integrity unfounded? I promise I am not trying to simply rant and am earnestly looking for people's opinions and experiences. Thank you!

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    I have some idea of what you mean and do think it exists, however this doesn't mean that every simple and superficially appealing idea can be a major contribution to the field. People have thought about many simple ideas before, and either they have at some point been rejected for good reasons, or they are so clear that many in the field have them in mind anyway and wouldn't exactly welcome a newcomer to present them as a brand new breakthrough. So before getting too carried away by your ideas, find out whether there are good reasons why others aren't so enthusiastic. May 20 at 20:00
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    I don't understand any of the tags you added. I'm tempted to replace them all with just terminology, or look for something else that is appropriate.
    – Buffy
    May 20 at 20:34
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    And, yes, even in some talks I've given, I've had hecklers claim that something I wanted to prove was "obvious and trivial, due to [a more general principle]"... but (as I'd thought about earlier) [the more general principle] was wildly false, with elementary (calculus-level) counter-examples. May 20 at 21:05
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    @AzorAhai-him- When explaining your ideas, make them sound overly complex to the point that the listener can't follow and offers support simply because it "sounds smart", rather than based on the merit of the actual ideas. May 20 at 21:55
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    It may help to specify your (general) field -- and perhaps give an example, even a notional one. As it is, I'm tempted to write an answer along the lines of: "your premise is wrong in my field, but it's probably true for those useless jerks in the __ department" -- which is probably a sign that the question should be constrained :-)
    – cag51
    May 20 at 22:12

3 Answers 3

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This is a broader problem than just academia --- in general, human beings are bad at distinguishing the relative value and difficulty of two related activities:

  • (1) Being the originator of an idea, where you figure out a new thing and come to understanding it well enough to explain it to others in a simple way;

  • (2) Being the audience member for a subsequent explanation of the idea, who understands the idea well when it is explained clearly to them.

The first of these activities is more difficult than the second, but many people seem to believe that if they fall into the second category (i.e., I can understand this idea easily when it is explained clearly to me) then they would easily have fallen into the first category (I would have figured this out myself without any prompting even if I never had it explained to me). Consequently, people sometimes erroneously believe that if an idea can be presented to them in a simple and understandable way, then ipso facto, that idea is "trivial". Academics are not immune to this kind of fallacious reasoning, so it leaks into some aspects of academic work. (There is a standard joke in mathematical circles where a conjecture is presented to a mathematician and they say it is false; then when they are convinced it is true by a proof, they then claim the result is trivial.)

It appears from the comments that there are a number of people on this forum who have experienced this kind of thing in academia, either in presentations/talks on a topic, or even in the refereeing process for papers. Paul Garrett reports in the comments that he has had this experience both in presentations and in referee review of his work. I can also report having experienced this type of thing sporadically in academia.** While this phenomenon does occur sometimes in academia, we also have a good safeguard against it: a substantial body of academic literature which (with reasonable accuracy) tells us what is already known in our fields and what is not already known. In principle, if a result is indeed "trivial" or "well known" then it should be possible to locate either that idea or some generalisation of that idea in the published literature. (There are some exceptions for "folk knowledge" in certain disciplines, but even then, it is usually considered to be a valuable contribution to formalise this knowledge with more rigorous work --- e.g., proving folk theorems in applied mathematical disciplines.) The academic literature in a field provides some check on what work is novel/known, substantive/trivial, etc.

As to how to deal with this phenomenon, I think the best method is to rely on the academic literature to assess the novelty and value of possibly-new ideas, and require evidence from people when they assert that a result is "well known". If you are sufficienly dilligent in searching for your ideas in existing literature then you should be able to determine whether your ideas are of sufficient novelty and value to pursue as academic research. If you encounter a situation where your work is dismissed as "trivial" or "well known" when you have good reason to believe that it is novel and valuable, you can just keep shopping it around to new forums/journals to see if you can find someone who appreciates it. Whatever you do, you should not intentionally make your work more complex/opaque merely as a means of making it less understandable, so as to make it appear less trivial. As Nietzsche put it, “Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound.”


** As just one frustrating example, I once submitted a paper with a result that I have never seen before and could not find in the relevant literature (but which was fairly easy to prove). The referee rejected this as trivial and "well known" but didn't cite any literature containing the result (which makes me suspicious). If it is actually well known, why not show me at least one citation of a source where you can find it!

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    Great answer! The Nietzche quote really hits the nail on the head, as does your analysis in the first few paragraphs.
    – Dan Romik
    May 21 at 7:25
  • One thing that is unclear to me about your answer (heh... ironic :P) is that it seems like all your experiences suggest it would be better for yourself and the public to make it seem more complex (because then the paper gets published and others can now use and cite it) and yet you recommend to not intentionally make the work more complex?
    – lucidbrot
    May 21 at 10:17
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    @lucidbrot: Nice observation! However, that's only true if "better" focuses solely on getting a paper accepted and published, irrespective of its form. Like Dan Romik, I get a lot of personnal satisfaction and professional satisfaction from simplifying problems as much as I can, even if this has (sporadic) adverse effects on acceptance of a paper. In any case, repositories like ArXiV exist, so it is possible to publish work without acceptance under peer review if needed.
    – Ben
    May 25 at 20:57
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Yes, I think this bias exists, and in fact I’ve been thinking about it for many years, specifically in the context of research in pure math. I think there are two effects potentially causing it:

  • Explaining your results in more detail leads to longer papers, and journals generally prefer publishing shorter papers to longer papers.

  • In mathematics, once a theorem is given a sufficiently clear explanation, it begins to look obvious, and therefore less impressive.

My interest in this sort of bias stems from the fact that I spend a lot of time and effort trying to make my papers as complete, well-written, and easy to understand as possible. I do this for my own satisfaction and out of a sense that this is ethically and professionally the right thing to do, but I have sometimes been frustrated when I got the feeling that this extra effort I put in did not lead to greater appreciation of my work, and on a couple of occasions might have even led to a lesser appreciation.

I think it’s also useful to point out that this bias is an example of a perverse incentive, that is, a way in which the reward system of the academic world sometimes rewards the wrong things. The point is that perverse incentives exist in almost any industry or area of human activity: e.g., politicians have incentives that encourage them to lie or to support policies they know are bad for the people they represent; employees in poorly run companies have incentives to undermine each other or suck up to the boss rather than do things that actually help the company; etc. So it should come as no great shock that academia and the academic publishing system also suffers from some perverse incentives as well. (In fact, academia has other perverse incentives that lead to practices such as salami publishing.)

So what to do about it? I don’t really know. To be clear, I don’t think this effect is terribly strong in any case, so perhaps there isn’t that much urgency to do anything. As an individual, the best that one can do is to “be the change you wish to see in the world” and simply do your work with the same integrity you would want to see from others. Perhaps a scientific community, if it decides that this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, can think of ways to tweak the incentive structure and/or raise people’s awareness of the issue in order to reduce this effect. I am not aware that this has actually been done by anyone.

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In general, once you understand something, it becomes trivial. A large part of what many academics do (and more so in certain disciplines than in others) is to make things sound more complicated than they really are. Adapt or learn to live with it.

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    Hmmm, a bit slanderous, yes? Actually, as an example, Einstein spent about ten years looking for a simple way to understand and explain special relativity, leading to his 1905 paper.
    – Buffy
    May 21 at 12:33
  • @Buffy you are right. I added the qualifier “many”. May 21 at 13:30

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