luca_de_biase's picture [5]
Journalist; Editor, Nova 24, of Il Sole 24 Ore

The Importance Of Context

In a thriller novel, the explanation comes at the end. In a newspaper article, it usually comes at the beginning. In an executive summary meant to be read by the top management, the explanation, comes at the beginning of the memo. And for a scientific paper, a summary, with findings and hypothesis is presented at the beginning. There is not a single aesthetics of explanations. True: their beauty, deepness, elegance, always rely on the beauty, deepness and elegance of the question to which they answer: but the way the answer is introduced depends on conventional wisdom in different disciplines. 

What changes the structure of the questioning-answering conventions?

The major difference is probably in the importance of context. 

In entertainment, in a novel or in a movie, the context is the world of meanings that is created by storytellers. Questions appear as surprising twists in the context description. And, mastering the whole thing, the storyteller lets the reader enjoy an entertaining experience by explaining everything at the end. In science, in the news, in a company, the context is in a world of meanings that is already present to the mind of the reader, the storyteller doesn't master the whole thing, everybody feels to be part of the story, and the correct approach is to explain everything as soon as possible, and then to share all the specific findings to help everybody evaluate the quality of the explanation.

But what happens when a really great scientific or economic breakthrough needs to be proposed and shared? What happens when an important new notion that will change the paradigm of its discipline is to be explained? And what happens when something even changes the world of meanings in which the discipline is accustomed to develop?

When Nicolaus Copernicus wrote his masterpiece, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, he had to make a choice. After having dedicated his work to Pope Paul III, he started the first book introducing a vision of the universe, based on his heliocentric idea. He continued writing three books about mathematics, descriptions of stars, movements of the Sun and the Moon. Only at the end did he explained his new system and how to calculate the movements of all astronomical objects in a heliocentric model.

That was a deep, elegant and beautiful explanation of an historic change. It was an explanation that had to create a new vision of everything, of a new paradigm.