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Dan Luu had a pretty good thread over on Twitter about communicating nuance at a high level. My favorite part of it is this tweet:

As noted previously, most internet commenters can't follow constructions as simple as an AND, and I don't want to be in the business of trying to convey what I'd like to convey to people who won't bother to understand an AND since I'd rather convey nuance

Hard agree. I already have low expectations of other people in general, so it's unsurprising that we shouldn't expect most people to be good at boolean algebra.

The topic of the thread stems from the realization that high level communications need to be as simple as possible. Any kind of nuance or complicated step is best handled at the individual level or small groups. Nuance is difficult to scale. This is a bit similar to the principle that "The larger the audience, the more careful you have to be with your words."

At the individual level, you can easily confirm the recipient's understanding and answer follow-up questions if needed. If you're instructing a small group or say a lecture class, it can still be manageable, assuming the people you're listening to are interested and focused on what you're saying (which they will be, if it's on the exam or such). Those who aren't paying attention will likely lose any nuance.

Anything larger than that though, and things start to break down. At this point, delegation starts becoming a necessity: You communicate any complicated or nuanced instruction to a small group of people and rely on them to propagate the information to the wider target audience. But of course the tradeoff is that each additional level of delegation introduces loss to the communications; the larger the target audience, the more delegation levels you need, and the more chance that you lose some of the nuance along the way.


I would guess this is part of the reason why a lot of science-based news (climate change, Covid, etc) are easily subjected to fake news or conspiracy theories. Scientific information tends to have a lot of nuance, probabilities, edge cases, terminology with specific meanings/scope, etc that may not be communicated well to the public at large. It can make it easier for conspiracy theories to pick apart theories and attack them at their weakest points out of context.


This is also part of the reason why there seems to be a lot of chaos around government-imposed Covid policies during the pandemic. The instructions are often very nuanced or complicated and need to be communicated quickly to as many people as possible. And because the prevailing conditions or the science can sometimes change very rapidly, these communications often need to be done or updated in a very short time frame!

Often the advice will be coming from medical or technical people and will include things like probabilities and risk assessments, but these are also things the average person is bad at, so that only makes things worse.

This reminds me of the PH government's overly complicated "alert level" system for managing Covid19 restrictions. There's basically a whole bunch of rules that change with each alert level, and they attempt to summarize them in "simple" charts like these:

alert_levels.jpg
alert_levels.jpg

It was actually even more complicated before that! And because everything is so complicated and things can change often, typically even the people enforcing the rules are something unsure or can get things wrong.

What just ends up happening (from what I observe) is that people don't bother reading these complicated charts (I'm certainly not inclined to!) and whenever the alert levels change, they will ask around about the current restrictions and whether they can or cannot do what they want to do. (Every time someone linked me to the above chart I just followed up with another question instead of reading it lol.)


Ultimately, the best solution to this kind of thing is to keep your high-level message as simple as possible. This is why the most enduring well-followed pieces of advice during the pandemic have been the simplest ones: wash your hands, wear masks, keep your distance; these are the things people are familiar with by now because they're simple, easy to follow, and they don't change every couple of weeks.

Tue, Feb. 1, 2022, 6:59 p.m. / / blog / #communication / Syndicated: mastodon twitter / 717 words

Last modified at: Feb. 1, 2022, 7:48 p.m. Source file