Jeremy Côté

Nuance and Hidden Details

If I showed you two shades of red, there’s a good chance you would answer that they are both red. It’s only if I showed you both shades side by side that you might switch up your answer to be more specific. Even then, you might not even notice the difference.

And yet, there is a difference between the two colours. If I show you blood red and mahogany, they are both different flavours of red. There’s a difference, but that difference might not be noticeable to many people.

This is something I’ve been thinking about in the context of what we do as our work and how much others know about it. When we do our work, there are details that only we know. Nobody else will notice them, but we will.

The question becomes, “How do we get others to appreciate this nuance?”

It’s not an easy thing to do. After all, people aren’t going to spend a bunch of time learning the details of your work. We prefer getting the bite-sized version, even if it’s incomplete. The problem, of course, is that some people then extrapolate from that small window into someone’s work and draw inappropriate conclusions.

In my own life, I’ve seen this play out with respect to my education. I am a physics student, and my friends and family know that, but they don’t have a great idea of what I do. It’s not their own fault either. I take responsibility for any mistaken ideas they have about what I do, because I should be communicating with them.

For example, when someone hears the word “physics”, I’m sure a few thoughts pop into their head. Words like “rocket scientist”, “black holes”, “galaxies”, “space”, and “astronaut” may come to mind. I’ve even had a few of these thrown out to me before, despite not being associated with many space-related activities. I suspect that, to an outsider looking in, physics could easily be summed up by these hot topics that one sees in the news and in popular culture. These end up becoming the face of physics. As a consequence, a lot of the nuance and details are merged together and forgotten.

My point here isn’t to identify physics as a victim of this lack of nuance. Rather, I want to highlight how all areas of life suffer from this. As soon as we aren’t experts in the subject, we lose the nuance available to us.

On the one hand, this is a bit of a survival mechanism. Without being able to blur the details, we would always find ourselves lost and searching for the next detail. We wouldn’t be able to get a working knowledge of a subject because we would be too preoccupied with making sure all the holes in our knowledge were filled in. By being able to ignore some of the nuance, we allow ourselves some breathing room to understand a subject without becoming world experts.

On the other hand, losing the nuance means that we make generalizations that aren’t fair, and we get an incomplete view of a subject. It means our view is only valid in a limited domain, and must be modified if one wants to get more specific. This is similar to how a lot of equations in physics need to be modified when taking into account quantum mechanics or relativity.

Becoming an expert in a subject is difficult. Becoming an expert in everything is impossible. As such, it’s okay to build a working knowledge in some areas where you don’t know everything. That’s fine. However, the crucial part is knowing the difference between your conception of a subject and the more nuanced view. If you make the mistake of assuming you know everything about a subject, you’re losing the nuance available. But, if you can have the presence of mind to realize that your view needs to be modified as you go deeper into a subject, then having an incomplete view isn’t so bad.

The key isn’t to spend an enormous amount of time figuring everything out. It’s to accept that your view of the world is fragmented and incomplete. There are areas of life in which you possess a lot of knowledge, and others where you are severely lacking. Being humble about this is the first step to not losing sight of the nuance that is available in every single situation.

I know that I am missing a lot of nuance in other subjects, so I try to be open-minded in the areas that I know nothing about. It’s why I enjoy reading books. The act of reading opens up a path to getting a more nuanced view of the world, which is something that can benefit all of us.

Let’s strive to seek more nuance in all aspects of life, but also to be aware that it actually exists. Painting a situation as straightforward is probably leaving out a bunch of important details.