Write a Thousand Roads to Rome

Epistemological Status: Pretty sure I’m on to something here, also very sure I’m restating the obvious, utterly confident that restating the obvious is the point.

Sometimes a piece of writing gets two very different responses. Half the commenters say something like “this is really obvious and a waste of time to write” and half of them say something like “this is revolutionary and an amazing insight I never would have reached on my own, thank you!” I think these posts that get this reaction are vital, possibly even more useful in some ways than a post breaking new ground.

First, a preamble describing how my brain is finicky.

When I was first learning Calculus in college, I had a hard time conceptually understanding what a derivative was. I could do the operation most of the time, but didn’t know what that operation represented or what real thing those symbols on the page described. Someone suggested it was the rate of change and the second derivative was the rate of change in the rate of change, but that didn’t mean anything to me. Someone else suggested it was velocity and the second derivative was acceleration, but I was honestly not great at physics either. I think someone suggested something about stock prices or economics, but I didn’t have enough econ knowledge at the time to remember what exactly they said.

Then my professor recognized one of the equations I’d been messing around with on some scrap paper as describing the attack bonus from a game, and pointed out that the derivative of that would be how much better the character would get each level and the second derivative would be useful if characters got stronger at different rates.

“Oh, like an onion knight from Final Fantasy?” I asked.

The professor just gave a confused expression, but the concept had already clicked for me and later that week I was using derivatives at my gaming sessions as well as suddenly doing much better in my physics classes. The moral of the story is that if you want me to understand something, the best way is usually to relate it to a roleplaying game. I’m not the only one who thinks like this- a close friend of mine had no idea why I was worried about intelligence explosions until I reminded him of the Intellect Potion exploit in Morrowind. Yes, this is a silly way for a brain to work, but I think we all agree brains don’t necessarily work in sensible ways.

Next, a suggestion that most brains are finicky.

SlateStarCodex’s What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It? is a gift that keeps on giving. The first example is that you can be completely unable to smell, and not realize this until asked to write about how a peach smells. What makes that relevant here is that they must have been asked about smells before and they offered up an answer copied from people around them, but the particular way that question got asked this time caught them short and they realized they couldn’t smell.

The idea of learning styles is a fad that came and went in a flash, but the useful parts struck a chord with lots of people. My brother remembers things best if he listens to them and repeats them aloud. I remember things best if I learn them as part of a story and then write them down on an index card. My roommate remembers things best if they draw a picture or diagram of some kind. These kinds of mental differences are really common, and there is no single best format for information to be presented in.

A written article revealing revolutionary insights will never get absorbed by my brother until the audiobook comes out. If I want him to know a thing, then writing better articles with better insights isn’t actually what I need to do; I need to read the ones I have aloud.

Are we raising the sanity waterline, or are we building a sanity waterspout?

If a few people in your society are literate, then they can copy the holy books to pass down knowledge for future generations and maybe even do a little written debate with each other in the margins. If more people in your society are literate, then you can start using a printing press for newspapers and leaflets. If most people in your society are literate, you get wikipedia. Some skills have incredible compounding effects when more people in a society have them; pick your favourite three rationalist techniques, and imagine a society where those skills are as common as literacy is in America today. I suspect that an alternate universe where every adult knew that arguments aren’t soldiers, that beliefs should pay rent, and that nobody is perfect but everything is commensurable would be doing really well compared to us, even if it cost them some new breakthroughs!

Actually, I don’t think writing these restatements costs you that many new concepts. Writing out an explanation of an idea one already holds is easier for many people than coming up with a new idea, and I find the process of breaking down a notion to explain it to someone else often improves my own understanding of the original concept. Small changes or additions to an idea can result in something new; Nobody is Perfect, Everything is Commensurable is at least half derived from Money: the Unit of Caring, but the other half seems to have done good work by providing contrast. I’ve never had a math professor who had made an original discovery in mathmatics but many of them taught me useful things, and Khan Academy isn’t going to be writing new proofs anytime soon but they’re still doing valuable work by providing another way for people to learn the things that already are known. There isn’t a clean tradeoff between restatements and new concepts because these use different skills.

I’m not suggesting that repeating things using different words is always better than describing a new insight; I’d rather have one Eliezer Yudkowsky working on the big problems than a hundred slightly more rational Screwtapes, because sometimes what matters is the highest intellectual peak your society can reach even if it’s just one person. For a lot of problems today what matters is the peak and you want to boost one or two people to those lofty heights. (I think of these as “sanity waterspout” problems.) That said, if I want to learn multivariate calculus or basic game theory there will be at least a dozen different ways of learning it, from a video with pictures to a terse few pages of a textbook to some goofy edutainment videogame. This is a good thing, and I wish rationality was more like this. Think of your favourite technique: how many different formats can it be found in? Alternately, think of your favourite format for learning something: how many techniques and concepts can be found in it?

For every concept we want more people to understand, we should want it explained in more ways. If we want everyone to be a little more rational, then we need to put concepts into mediums that everyone can understand.