On Saying the Obvious

Re­lated to: Gen­er­al­iz­ing from One Ex­am­ple, Con­nect­ing Your Beliefs (a call for help), Be­ware the Unsurprised

The idea of this ar­ti­cle is some­thing I’ve talked about a cou­ple of times in com­ments. It seems to re­quire more at­ten­tion.

As a gen­eral rule, what is ob­vi­ous to some peo­ple may not be ob­vi­ous to oth­ers. Is this ob­vi­ous to you? Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t, and you thought it was be­cause of hind­sight bias.

Imag­ine a sub­stan­tive Less Wrong com­ment. It’s in­sight­ful, po­lite, easy to un­der­stand, and oth­er­wise good. Ideally, you up­vote this com­ment. Now imag­ine the same com­ment, only with “ob­vi­ously” in front. This shouldn’t change much, but it does. This word seems to change the com­ment in mul­ti­far­i­ous bad ways that I’d rather not try to list.

Un­char­i­ta­bly, I might re­duce this whole phe­nomenon to an ex­am­ple of a mind pro­jec­tion fal­lacy. The im­plicit de­duc­tion goes like this: “I found <con­cept> ob­vi­ous. Thus, <con­cept> is in­her­ently ob­vi­ous.” The prob­lem is that ob­vi­ous­ness, like prob­a­bil­ity, is in the mind.

The stigma of “ob­vi­ous” ideas has an­other prob­lem in pre­vent­ing things from be­ing said at all. I don’t know how com­mon this is, but I’ve ac­tu­ally been afraid of say­ing things that I thought were ob­vi­ous, even though ig­nor­ing this fear and just post­ing has yet to re­sult in a poorly-re­ceived com­ment. (That is, in fact, why I’m writ­ing this.)

Even tau­tolo­gies, which are always ob­vi­ous in ret­ro­spect, can be hard to spot. How many of us would have ex­plic­itly re­al­ized the weak an­thropic prin­ci­ple with­out Nick Bostrom’s help?

And what about im­pli­ca­tions of be­liefs you already hold? Th­ese should be ob­vi­ous, and some­times are, but our brains are no­to­ri­ously bad at putting two and two to­gether. Luke’s ex­am­ple was not re­al­iz­ing that an in­tel­li­gence ex­plo­sion was im­mi­nent un­til he read the I.J. Good para­graph. I’m glad he pro­vided that ex­am­ple, as it has saved me the trou­ble of mak­ing one.

This is not (to para­phrase Eliezer) a thun­der­bolt of in­sight. I bring it up be­cause I pro­pose a few com­mu­nity norms based on the idea:

  • Don’t be afraid of say­ing some­thing be­cause it’s “ob­vi­ous”. It’s like how your teach­ers always said there are no stupid ques­tions.

  • Don’t bur­den your awe­some ideas with “ob­vi­ous but it needs to be said”.

  • Don’t vote down a com­ment be­cause it says some­thing “ob­vi­ous” un­less you’ve thought about it for a while. Also, don’t shun “ob­vi­ous” ideas.

  • Don’t call an idea ob­vi­ous as though ob­vi­ous­ness were an in­her­ent prop­erty of the idea. Fram­ing it as a per­son­ally ob­vi­ous thing can be a more ac­cu­rate way of say­ing what you’re try­ing to say, but it’s hard to do this with­out look­ing ar­ro­gant. (I sus­pect this is ac­tu­ally one of the rea­sons we im­plic­itly treat ob­vi­ous­ness as im­per­sonal.)

I’m not sure if these are good ideas, but I think im­ple­ment­ing them would de­crease the vol­ume of thoughts we can­not think and things we can’t say.