Talking Around the Answer
Ever see a really smart scientist on the news just unable to answer a question? They'll hem and haw, maybe even look nervous, and talk around the answer. It's not that they don't know the answer, it's that they're caught between a rock and a really squishy place on National News.
The squishy part is the big, uneducated, uninformed audience that probably can't process anything too complicated so leaving chunks out is okay as long as they get the gist. But the rock is the educated, informed audience that will hold that expert accountable later saying, 'Oh, yeah? Well what about this detail you completely failed to mention?'
They know the answer is complicated, and they need to simplify that answer, but they still need to be accurate. Anytime you simplify an answer or a problem, you're leaving large chunks of detail out. It's the very nature of modeling – a model needs to be simpler than the thing it's modeling or it kind of becomes useless as a model and becomes the actual thing.
So the expert dithers. Adds enough detail to let the informed audience know he knows what he's talking about while losing his uninformed audience. And he doesn't quite manage to add enough detail to satisfy the informed audience because, hey, they already know so how are they going to be satisfied unless you add some new details?
There are rare people like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson who manage this trick. Carl Sagan did it by talking slowly and with great profundity (read that in a Carl Sagan voice, 'greaaat proFUNDity'). He would often answer, 'I would truly like to believe your premise but there simply are not enough facts to allow me to answer coherently.'
I remember seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson in Portland when someone asked him a question about something new, and he answered (in a somewhat roundabout way), 'I haven't had time to really look at that yet, and I don't like to comment on things I don't have a good answer for.'
In either case they avoided dithering. They pretty much refused to answer questions on a public stage that they hadn't already prepared an answer for, that they hadn't figured out a way to give a simple answer to a complicated problem.
Too often we just want to shoot from the hip which means an unsatisfying answer, not just to the person asking it but from the person answering. I try, oh I try, to take a lead from Dr. Sagan, or from my old colleague Chris von See who had a remarkable guru quality in his reserved answer (he later told me he was counting to 10 to avoid calling people idiots to their face).
I try, but I still talk around the problem and over explain… Sorry about that.