Not many people read the post by this name, though I thought it was probably my most important so far. So I’ve decided to preserve it for easy access from the front page. Please comment with any thoughts.
This problem goes back quite a way for me, though I didn’t know it had a name. I am going to take it slow, so this will be a longer than average post. I have been contemplating for a while on the best way to communicate my thoughts on specific topics given that people often have no idea where I am coming from. For example, I can’t tell people about the difference between Dawkins‘ and Gould‘s understanding of evolution without first explaining evolutionary theory itself(which is a huge undertaking) and that is dependent on the listener understanding what makes something scientific as opposed to unscientific (another massive topic), the difference between facts and theories and hypotheses… You get the idea.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky points out in this article (which illustrates the issue I’m discussing, and does so much better than I could hope to-although I’m taking it in a bit of a different direction than he did) members of our species in our ancestral environment didn’t have this problem. If you live in a small band of people, everyone basically has the same background knowledge as you do. If you discover new information, you can just relay that new information to your group and they’ll be able to understand you. To quote the article linked to above:
“In the ancestral environment there were no abstract disciplines with vast bodies of carefully gathered evidence generalized into elegant theories transmitted by written books whose conclusions are a hundred inferential steps removed from universally shared background premises.”
The problem of inferential distance is that if I want to communicate an idea that seems pretty strait forward to me, most people (even most people I know) won’t fully understand what I’m saying. It’s like when most people talk to a mechanic. The mechanic will tell me that there are problems with components A, B, and C. I can follow what he or she is telling me to an extent, but not on a deep enough level to really understand what’s wrong with the car. The mechanic probably has a lot of practice distilling the information down to a level where lay people can understand it, but even with all of that practice most of it goes over most people’s heads. Communicating with doctors is very similar.
We can get by without all becoming mechanics or doctors (or scientists in any given discipline) because we can just trust what they say during the tiny segments of our lives when we’ll be dependent on information that they have. The reason it is a problem for me is that I don’t want you to read what I write and walk away learning only a little bit of a fact and remember it just about as long as you remember what the mechanic tells you about your transmission.
This issue of communication is a problem in the scientific and skeptic communities in general. It’s hard to explain to someone the reason that backwards time travel is impossible or why homeopathy doesn’t and can’t work without explaining so many other things that it is no surprise why most people don’t believe experts when they try to explain it. Giving a fully sufficient explanation is so much larger of an undertaking than is usually acknowledged.
I don’t have a solution to this problem. If there are 30 other things that you need to explain to me before I can understand what you’re trying to tell me, (politics would be a good example for me) there really isn’t an obvious way around this. Short of giving someone a list of books to read, how can we hope to convey complex ideas to each other? Well, what I plan to do is try to site as much information as I can to sources that convey an idea well on a base level. This is harder than it sounds though, because in some areas what I perceive as my level is higher than you would and many areas what you perceive as base level will go way over my head. I’m also going to make an effort to cover more background information when I mention new material.
There is something you can do to help this as well. If I mention something that you don’t fully understand or that I didn’t go into enough depth with, please leave a comment or email me. I will then try to update the article because other people likely have the same questions. The point of this post is to not only point out that the problem of inferential distance is a problem at all, but also to inform my audience that I am going to make more of an effort to try to correct it.
Addendum After Re-Reading:
It seems like I might have come off as all high-and-mighty; like I think no one will understand how complex the stuff I’m talking about is. That’s not the case. For one, the stuff I posted so far hasn’t really gotten into complex things mostly because I’ve been trying to work out this issue first. For another, I notice this problem not only when talking to people about stuff I’m interested in, but also when I’m reading stuff written by other people. When I’m surfing the web and reading content in a field that I’m mostly unfamiliar with, I constantly find myself spending a lot of time looking up the topic I’m reading about because the author either doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to convey what they are talking about or they try and it still didn’t work for me. Hopefully I can do a better job by recognizing the problem and making a serious effort to correct for it.