How do you tell if what someone is saying is smart?

If you genuinely understand something — really, truly understand it — then it doesn’t seem complicated and you can explain it rather simply.

The tradeoff between being expert and being popular doesn’t actually exist. People who truly understand their subject should have no trouble writing for a popular audience. And, in fact, their writing will probably better than that of the professional popularizers.

Aaron is right in that there isn’t a tradeoff. You don’t have to choose between being popular and being an expert. He’s wrong in thinking that if you are an expert, you can explain your field.

The ability to explain a thing is just that, an ability. It requires empathy, patience. Requires an ability to communicate, and to be understood. To think as someone else for a moment, and to distill for them. It’s not a skill everyone possesses.

There’s a reason why out of all the scientists in their fields men like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawkings, Richard Dawkins, and yes, Stephen Levitt, are popular. Reasons why long after they’re gone, we’ll still be quoting them. Still be using their words as a lens through which we see their field.

They’re rare.

They possessed that unique mix of intelligence and talent; able to make the complex facets of their world seem like simple facets of ours. They can distill down the minor debates, the major controversies and the specialized logic into something an outsider can grab ahold of; something we can understand.

“Smart” is a strange word to start with. It’s a shortcut word to mean “intelligent”, only that’s not actually what it means. And even “intelligent” is weighted. Something can be intelligent and be wrong. So can someone.

There is no shortcut in deciding whether what someone is saying is “smart”, or “intelligent”, or “right”. No easy way to tell if the person really knows what they’re talking about, or knows just enough to sound like they do.

Replacing one false positive (jargon) with another (understandable) is silly.