Please Assume I Don’t Know Things, But Believe Me If I Say I Do

I’ve been noticing that lately in arguments I have in real life and on the internet, I am less and less in a position of trying to find out the truth, and more and more in the position of trying to defend a side. This is making me unhappy for two reasons. Firstly, because it makes arguments a lot less informative and a lot less enjoyable. I used to love talking about politics. That seems crazy to me now. Secondly, because I think it might be a sign of getting old. Although I know plenty of people who are younger than me and less willing to change their positions, I think this transition in individual people is, like the increased difficulty I am feeling with picking up new languages, something that comes on with age.

Anyway, I am looking for ways to combat this tendency, and so I have been reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “How to Actually Change Your Mind“. It’s a mixed bag in some respects, mostly in that I don’t know if reading it is actually going to help me get better at changing my mind. But then again, that’s simply a difficult task to achieve for a book. Anyway, the book is a part of a vast wiki, and looking through it I accidentally found a very simple and succinct answer to my earlier meandering questions about Occam’s Razor. Apparently, the explanation for why we use Occam’s Razor is so obvious that it’s hardly even worth saying. It stems from the result in logic that P(A ∩ B) ≤ P(A) (probability of both A and B is always less than or equal to the probability of A). Thus any additional assumption makes a hypothesis less likely. And there’s even a formalized solution to how to test potential hypotheses based on this called Solomonoff Induction. I know a lot of people who have degrees in math or computer science. I know even more people who have taken some formal logic courses. Presumably the fact that Occam’s Razor was based on a simple law of logic was obvious to them. And some of them read this blog. And yet, nobody told me of this blindingly simple explanation. because they think – hey, zolltan’s pretty smart, he probably knows, or can come up with something that obvious. Well I didn’t.

But that’s not even the worst example (and this is embarrassing to admit). I managed to get a Ph.D. in physics without really being able to visualize Maxwell’s equations. I ended up learning them as rules, basically. And when I realized (some time last year) how intuitive they were to visualize – that they are pictures of electric fields and magnetic fields, it was a complete epiphany. For example the differential form of Gauus’ Law:

\nabla \cdot \mathbf{E} = \frac {\rho} {\varepsilon_0}

is just the statement that whenever you have a bump in an electric field map, it’s because there’s a charge there. And again, this is so obvious it’s completely embarrassing that there was a time when I was studying physics and didn’t get it. And yet I didn’t.

And I wish somebody had told me. Not because I didn’t like realizing it on my own – I liked it a lot. If someone had told me, I would not have had that pleasure of epiphany. But, for example, not being able to visualize Maxwell’s Equations made me really bad at electromagnetism. I fear that there are many things that people take for granted that I would know how to think about because they’re simple, but I don’t and what if I never learn at all? What if I’m like Blind Willie Witherspoon, playing an umbrella for 30 years? As Blind Willie says in the best part of the clip – that’s cut off – “That’s not funny.”

So tell me things even if you think I might know them already. On the other hand, maybe you shouldn’t, because a lot of people greatly dislike being told things they already know better than the person telling them. There’s a term called “mansplaining” and it’s one of the terms of social justice discourse that frustrates me a lot. But the idea originated from Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me”, where when she told a man that she’d written a book about Eadweard Muybridge, he started expounding on how that was all well and good, but she should check out this very important book on Muybridge, that he then went on to describe to her … which of course was the book Solnit herself had written. Obviously, it’s frustrating if your knowledge of things you are very knowledgeable about is completely dismissed. But its reverse, if knowledge you don’t have is assumed, is also bad.

Luckily, I’m a man, so you don’t have to fear that you’re gonna be mansplaining things to me. Okay, let me not be flippant. Let me instead say that the way I would like to be treated is for a person talking to me to assume a low amount of knowledge but a high amount of understanding – but to adjust quickly. Like if you’re telling me something I already know, I think I should be fine to interrupt you with “okay, I already know that, go on” and you should trust me. Of course that might mean I might stop you mid-sentence. But that gets us into a slightly different, albeit related, issue about communication differences among the sexes…

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2 Responses to Please Assume I Don’t Know Things, But Believe Me If I Say I Do

  1. enebeneres says:

    Very interesting blog! And honestly, I never thought of the justification of the Occam’s Razor by such a simple and well-known equation! Unfortunately, I still cannot visualize Maxwell’s laws and did not understand your explanations here (maybe I should have spent more time on it). Let us talk about it! I will try to understand.
    There is also an interesting topic of how much assumptions (or even guesses) is Ok take planning your action (any action). You simply cannot rely only to the proven and well-known things. The life is not science.

  2. Mila says:

    И мне было очень интересно (несмотря на то, что я не поняла ни первого, ни второго примера). Но тема мне близка!

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