How to get people to produce more great exposition? Some strategies and their assumptions

Some of the recent posts in the distillation & pedagogy tag here on LessWrong, such as “Call For Distillers” and the AI Safety Distillation Contest, have been bugging me, and this post is my attempt to introspect about why.

Here are four strategies for achieving the goal of creating more great expository pieces:[1]

  1. Encourage people to produce more expository pieces and let people know that producing explanations is a valid path. In my interpretation, the “Call For Distillers” post mainly uses this strategy.

  2. Give people money in exchange for producing explanations. The AI Safety Distillation Contest is maybe half about this strategy and half about the previous strategy.

  3. Get people who are already good at producing explanations to mentor other people. I think the Distill Research Journal is mainly using this strategy.

  4. Treat exposition as a scientific field of inquiry: try to open up the black box of what makes an explanation good and come up with techniques or “building blocks” of good explanations. Tim Gowers is the best example I know of, with his blog posts, YouTube videos, and the Tricki.

Each of these strategies comes with a set of assumptions that makes it the best strategy for achieving the goal:

  1. Encouragement is a good strategy if the main problem is that people don’t know that exposition is a thing they can do. But if used as the main strategy, it also has the assumption that many people already have the skill of producing great exposition, or that they will be able to learn it on their own.

  2. Throwing money at the problem is a good strategy if people lack the time or resources to spend on creating explanations. As with the encouragement strategy, if this is the main strategy one employs then there is an assumption that many people are already good at producing exposition or can learn on their own. Alternatively, even if few people are great at exposition, throwing money can still look good as long as the funders can identify the few great expositors.

  3. Mentorship is a good strategy if most people don’t know how to produce great explanations and it is difficult to learn how to do this on one’s own, but many people want to and have the capacity to learn the skill given help.

  4. “Exposition as science” is a good strategy if no one really knows how to produce great explanations. The less people know about how to produce great explanations, or the fewer the number of people who are capable of producing great explanations (but still assuming that eventually many people can learn this skill),[2] the better this strategy looks.

Going back to what has been bugging me about the recent posts, here’s my attempt to articulate it: the strategies these posts employ reveal assumptions they have, and I think those assumptions are wrong. In particular, I believe that exposition is a skill for which taste matters a lot, that basically nobody knows how to produce good explanations at all (and even those who can sometimes produce good explanations cannot do so reliably or can only do so with great effort), and that it is difficult to learn the skill on one’s own. This makes me worried about the encouragement and “throw money” strategies being the main strategies: both are important, but if we don’t also employ other strategies, then we will end up with a bunch of mediocre explanations.[3]

In addition to using encouragement and “throw money” as “side” strategies, I am also in favor of mentorship (also as a “side” strategy). One reason is that mentorship is realistic about the skills/​taste aspect of producing great explanations. But my worry with mentorship is that if it is used as the main strategy then it is not very scalable, and also mentorship tends to keep insights about what makes explanations good boxed up (even to themselves) and inaccessible to others outside a small circle (see “Do Scientists Already Know This Stuff?” and “Unteachable Excellence” for some similar points). In other words, mentorship is more illegible and elitist than I would like.

This leaves the “exposition as science” strategy, which I believe is the best main strategy to use, along with the other three strategies. I have not said much concretely about what kinds of work this strategy would involve. I hope to do this in a future post.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Justis Mills for giving substantive feedback on a draft of this post (as part of LessWrong’s “get feedback” feature). Thanks also to Vipul Naik for reviewing this post.

  1. ^

    This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Also these strategies are not mutually exclusive. However I will talk about people employing some strategy as the “main” strategy.

  2. ^

    My guess is that “ability to write good explanations” works kind of like “ability to write mathematical proofs”. Even bright high school students write terrible math proofs, but they can attend a proof-writing (or other undergraduate math) course or work through a few math textbooks to reliably acquire this skill. Right now bright high school students also mostly write terrible explanations, and there is no straightforward path to acquiring the ability to write good explanations, but eventually I think such a path can be created.

  3. ^

    I hope to explain my reasoning for the points made in this paragraph in one or more future posts.