I like listening to experts even when – maybe especially when — I don’t know much about the topic they’re discussing. There’s something in their grasp of their specific area of knowledge, and their ability to communicate it to non-experts, that I admire.
On a drive home from Ottawa recently, I needed something to listen to. I was tired of the playlists on my smartphone, the pop music radio stations weren’t doing it for me, so I checked out CBC and found myself enraptured by a gardening expert responding to callers’ questions.
I’m not a gardener, nor do I aspire to be. The closest I come to actual gardening is lugging bags of soil and mulch from the car after Dianne’s annual visit to the gardening centre.
But I was taken by how readily the master gardener responded to the issues the callers raised. Not once was he stumped by questions about pesky insects or various types of leaf mould. Very impressive. And his manner of speaking was captivating: conversational, not at all pedantic or condescending or impatient, but informative and engaging, even for an eavesdropper like me.
I feel the same way when I listen to the CBC’s Quirks and Quarks on Saturday afternoons. If I know very little about gardening, I know even less about physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, geology. I had a chemistry set as a kid, but I can’t say I learned very much. I mostly ignored the guidebook that came with the set and monkeyed around mixing different chemicals and heating them up to see what would happen. What happened, of course, was a set of ruined beakers and test tubes thanks to the sticky black globs the Bunsen burner and I created.
But I find fascinating the research the scientists are called upon to explain. I marvel at how they minimize the specialist language, the discipline-specific jargon, and clearly communicate their findings to non-experts such as myself. And they make me care about species I’ve never heard of that dwell on remote Pacific islands I’ve never heard of. Their passion alone convinces me of the importance of their research.
I chalk up their engaging communication skills to the number of times they’ve taught an introductory course in their field, maybe written a textbook, and the number of grant proposals they’ve no doubt submitted. As a retired educator, often tasked with explaining things like political economy, semiotics, and intertextuality to university students who were not always riveted by such material, I envy these scientists’ ability to captivate someone like me.
I undertook some freelance magazine writing for a time. Assigned a story on birdwatching, something I knew nothing about, I found myself invited to the OK Big Day, a 24-hour birding competition in which participants raced all over B.C.’s Okanagan Valley in SUVs identifying as many species as they could. I joined one of the teams and my schooling began. For instance, it’s more reliable to identify a species by its call rather than its appearance, as some species look alike, but don’t sound alike. Birds that migrate thousands of miles will return precisely to the same spot year after year, as a tiny hummingbird demonstrated for us. And it’s a great skill to be able to drive an SUV along a narrow, winding logging road while looking up in the sky for that species you’re missing. What I initially thought was a boring pastime for elderly nerds turned out to be quite fascinating.
On the other hand, I also enjoy listening to those experts on topics I do know something about, who can take my understanding and appreciation to a deeper level. As a sportswriter, I covered a lot of hockey and football, and learned enough to report and write competently about them. But I’m not sure I provided much actual insight about the sports themselves.
I’m especially appreciative of the good analysts on baseball broadcasts, typically former major leaguers. I never played baseball, nor did I cover it very often. It’s a game I enjoy watching, though, and I recognize how much there is to it, all the subtleties. This really hit home when I was called upon to coach my son’s minor-league team for a few summers and was struck by how situational the sport is. Try explaining to a seven-year-old outfielder where to throw the ball when there is a runner or two on base. “It depends” doesn’t help the kid much.
Of course, I’m still trying to understand when it’s best to ask a baserunner to steal second. I gather that it depends.