Tips and Tricks for Answering Hard Questions

I’ve col­lected some tips and tricks for an­swer­ing hard ques­tions, some of which may be origi­nal, and oth­ers I may have read some­where and for­got­ten the source of. Please feel free to con­tribute more tips and tricks, or ad­di­tional links to the sources or ful­ler ex­pla­na­tions.

Don’t stop at the first good an­swer. We know that hu­man cu­ri­os­ity can be pre­ma­turely sa­ti­ated. Some­times we can quickly rec­og­nize a flaw in an an­swer that ini­tially seemed good, but some­times we can’t, so we should keep look­ing for flaws and/​or bet­ter an­swers.

Ex­plore mul­ti­ple ap­proaches si­mul­ta­neously. A hard ques­tion prob­a­bly has mul­ti­ple ap­proaches that are roughly equally promis­ing, oth­er­wise it wouldn’t be a hard ques­tion (well, un­less it has no promis­ing ap­proaches). If there are sev­eral peo­ple at­tempt­ing to an­swer it, they should ex­plore differ­ent ap­proaches. If you’re try­ing to an­swer it alone, it makes sense to switch ap­proaches (and look for new ap­proaches) once a while.

Trust your in­tu­itions, but don’t waste too much time ar­gu­ing for them. If sev­eral peo­ple are at­tempt­ing to an­swer the same ques­tion and they have differ­ent in­tu­itions about how best to ap­proach it, it seems effi­cient for each to rely on his or her in­tu­ition to choose the ap­proach to ex­plore. It only makes sense to spend a lot of time ar­gu­ing for your own in­tu­ition if you have some rea­son to be­lieve that other peo­ple’s in­tu­itions are much worse than yours.

Go meta. In­stead of at­tack­ing the ques­tion di­rectly, ask “How should I an­swer a ques­tion like this?” It seems that when peo­ple are faced with a ques­tion, even one that has stumped great minds for ages, many just jump in and try to at­tack it with what­ever in­tel­lec­tual tools they have at hand. For re­ally hard ques­tions, we may need to look for, or build, new tools.

Dis­solve the ques­tion. Some­times, the ques­tion is mean­ingless and ask­ing it is just a cog­ni­tive er­ror. If you can de­tect and cor­rect the er­ror then the ques­tion may just go away.

Sleep on it. I find that I tend to have a greater than av­er­age num­ber of in­sights in the pe­riod of time just af­ter I wake up and be­fore I get out of bed. Our brains seem to con­tinue to work while we’re asleep, and it may help to prime it by re­view­ing the prob­lem be­fore go­ing to sleep. (I think Eliezer wrote a post or com­ment to this effect, but I can’t find it now.)

Be ready to rec­og­nize a good an­swer when you see it. The his­tory of sci­ence shows that hu­man knowl­edge does make progress, but some­times only by an older gen­er­a­tion dy­ing off or re­tiring. It seems that we of­ten can’t rec­og­nize a good an­swer even when it’s star­ing us in the face. I wish I knew more about what fac­tors af­fect this abil­ity, but one thing that might help is to avoid ac­quiring a high so­cial sta­tus, or the men­tal state of hav­ing high so­cial sta­tus. (See also, How To Ac­tu­ally Change Your Mind.)