The Myth of ‘Dumbing Down’

If you write about your expertise from a place of contempt, maybe you’re not so smart after all.

A man looks up at a series of informational panels.
Alex Grimm / Reuters

One of the pleasures I enjoy as an editor at The Atlantic is bringing the work of scientists and scholars to our pages. From the Object Lessons series on the ordinary lives of everyday things, to the Metropolis Now project on technology and urbanism, to our regular coverage of science, technology, and health, I have had the privilege of editing hundreds of academics, writing on topics as varied as Google’s push into smart cities, the ethics of throwing away your kids’ art, how the microscope changed scientific knowledge, and why Americans love the suburbs.

I’m hardly alone in this effort. Today you can read scholars in their own words all across The Atlantic (including in the new Ideas section, helmed by Yoni Appelbaum, a historian who made the jump from academia to journalism). Those newcomers join an august cohort of Atlantic writers of the past who were also scholars, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Vannevar Bush, and a venerable group of contemporaries who are also academics, from Jonathan Haidt to Anne-Marie Slaughter.

And this publication is hardly alone, either. The internet has made it easier than ever to reach a lot of readers quickly. It has birthed new venues for publication and expanded old ones. At the same time, a sense of urgency of current affairs, from politics to science, technology to the arts, has driven new interest in bringing scholarship to the public directly.

Scholars still have a lot of anxiety about this practice. Many of those relate to the university careers and workplaces: evaluation, tenure, reactions from their peers, hallway jealousy, and so on. These are real worries, and as a scholar and university professor myself, I empathize with many of them.

But not with this one: The worry that they’ll have to “dumb down” their work to reach broader audiences. This is one of the most common concerns I hear from academics. “Do we want to dumb down our work to reach these readers?” I’ve heard them ask among themselves. It’s a wrongheaded anxiety.

Like all experts, academics are used to speaking to a specialized audience. That’s true no matter their discipline, from sociology to geotechnical engineering to classics. When you speak to a niche audience among peers, a lot of understanding comes for free. You can use technical language, make presumptions about prior knowledge, and assume common goals or contexts. When speaking to a general audience, you can’t take those circumstances as a given.

But why would doing otherwise mean “dumbing down” the message? It’s an odd idea when you think about it. The whole reason to reach people who don’t know what you know, as an expert, is so that they might know about it. Giving them reason to care, process, and understand is precisely the point.

The phrase dumbing down got its start in entertainment. During the golden age of Hollywood, in the 1930s, dumbing down became a screenwriter’s shorthand for making an idea simple enough that people with limited education or experience could understand it. Over time, it came to refer to intellectual oversimplification of all kinds, particularly in the interest of making something coarsely popular. In education, it named a worry about curricula and policy: that students were being asked to do less, held to a lower standard than necessary—than they were capable of—and that is necessary to produce an informed citizenry.

In the process, dumbing down has entrenched and spread as a lamentation, often well beyond any justification. It’s easy to scorn things that are popular, and vaunt those that are esoteric. Popular culture has even begun wielding this weapon against itself, equating esotericism in music, television, comics, or any number of other arenas that would have previously been seen to dumb down culture as a defense against the crudeness of popularity.

I suspect that what scholars and other experts really mean when they express worry about dumbing down is that they don’t want to be bothered to make the effort of reframing their work for audiences not already primed to grasp it. It’s hard to do and even harder to do well. That’s a fine position; after all, it’s the full-time job of journalists and nonfiction writers to translate ideas for the general public from their specialized origins. Not all scholars can, or should, try to do this work themselves (although to do so exercises the generosity that comes from service).

But to assume that even to ponder sharing the results of scholarship amounts to dumbing down, by default, is a new low in this term for new lows. Posturing as if it’s a problem with the audience, rather than with the expert who refuses to address that audience, is perverse.

One thing you learn when writing for an audience outside your expertise is that, contrary to the assumption that people might prefer the easiest answers, they are all thoughtful and curious about topics of every kind. After all, people have areas in their own lives in which they are the experts. Everyone is capable of deep understanding.

Up to a point, though: People are also busy, and they need you to help them understand why they should care. Doing that work—showing someone why a topic you know a lot about is interesting and important—is not “dumb”; it’s smart. Especially if, in the next breath, you’re also intoning about how important that knowledge is, as academics sometimes do. If information is vital to human flourishing but withheld by experts, then those experts are either overestimating its importance or hoarding it.

It’s quite hard to do well, too. Imagine a conversation with your mechanic, or your doctor. What do you want from it? You want to understand the nature of the expert’s understanding of a problem in a way that gives you context and explanation, not to mention faith in a proposed solution. And those are circumstances in which you are already invested in the knowledge and the outcome. It’s much harder when readers don’t know what they want to know or why. They need to be lured in. To do that well, the writer needs to care about the reader.

To overcome the myth that dumbing down is the default outcome when descending from the ivory tower into the streets, scholars should keep two things in mind.

First, the nature of writing is different in the scholarly versus the journalistic context. Scholarly writing is crafted first to buff one’s expertise among fellow experts. It’s also done to share knowledge among a community of those experts, of course, but there’s no shaking the fact that publication is an avenue for career advancement. Writers and journalists also have an interest in their careers, of course, but the ethos that motivates their writing is different: Writers write to help people. If you think that’s dumbing down, maybe you’re not so smart after all.

This problem is exacerbated by the scholarly tendency to see writing output as perfunctory compared with the scholarship that drives it. In the lab, or in the field, scholars conduct research and experiments. Scientists might examine life in coral reefs. Engineers might construct new types of polymers. Social scientists might perform ethnographies to observe human practices. In these cases, writing can sometimes feel like a necessary but perfunctory effort, writing as “writing up” rather than as communication. And in the humanities, which deals with abstract ideas and previously recorded knowledge, the writing often is the research—think of philosophy or history, for example. That can tempt scholars to mistake habit for rigor.

Second, unlike other kinds of experts, academics are already in the business of helping people anyway. At academic institutions, scholars are almost always also teachers. A part of the job is to bring their expertise to new generations of students. That effort involves a lot of the same work as writing for the general public anyway: appealing to the curiosity and interests of people unfamiliar with the knowledge you have to share and helping to guide them into familiarity and appreciation.

That suggests a common calling among writers, journalists, and scholars: We all work to advance human knowledge and action through the clarification of argument. Fundamentally, that work is service conducted in the public interest. Such a calling isn’t for everyone, but to shirk it is sure to dumb down the public far more than to embrace it.