comment by Quinn (quinn-dougherty) ·
2021-05-10T11:45:24.043Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The audience models of research - thoughts on Craft of Doing Research chapter 2
Writers can't avoid creating some role for themselves and their readers, planned or not
Before considering the role you're creating for your reader, consider the role you're creating for yourself. Your broad options are the following
- I've found some new and interesting information - I have information for you
- I've found a solution to an important practical problem - I can help you fix a problem
- I've found an answer to an important question - I can help you understand something better
The authors recommend assuming one of these three. There is of course a wider gap between information and the neighborhood of problems and questions than there is between problems and questions! Later on in chapter four the authors provide a graph illustrating problems and questions:
Practical problem -> motivates -> Research question -> defines -> Conceptual/research problem. Information, when provided mostly for novelty, however, is not in this cycle. Information can be leveled at problems or questions, plays a role in providing solutions or answers, but can also be for "its own sake".
I'm reminded of a paper/post I started but never finished, on providing a poset-like structure to capabilities. I thought it would be useful if you could give a precise ordering on a set of agents, to assign supervising/overseeing responsibilities. Looking back, providing this poset would just be a cool piece of information, effectively: I wasn't motivated by a question or problem so much as "look at what we can do". Yes, I can post-hoc think of a question or a problem that the research would address, but that was not my prevailing seed of a reason for starting the project. Is the role of the researcher primarily a writing thing, though, applying mostly to the final draft? Perhaps it's appropriate for early stages of the research to involve multi-role drifting, even if it's better for the reader experience if you settle on one role in the end.
Additionally, it occurs to me that maybe "I have information for you" mode just a cheaper version of the question/problem modes. Sometimes I think of something that might lead to cool new information (either a theory or an experiment), and I'm engaged moreso by the potential for novelty than I am by the potential for applications.
I think I'd like to become more problem-driven. To derive possibilities for research from problems, and make sure I'm not just seeking novelty. At the end of the day, I don't think these roles are "equal" I think the problem-driven role is the best one, the one we should aspire to.
[When you adopt one of these three roles, you must] cast your readers in a complementary role by offering them a social contract: _I'll play my part if you play yours ... if you cast them in a role they won't accept, you're likely to lose them entirely... You must report your research in a way that motivates your readers to play the role you have imagined for them.
The three reader roles complementing the three writer roles are
- Entertain me
- Help me solve my practical problem
- Help me understand something better
It's basically stated that your choice of writer role implies a particular reader role, 1 mapping to 1, 2 mapping to 2, and 3 mapping to 3.
Role 1 speaks to an important difficulty in the x-risk, EA, alignment community; which is how not to get drawn into the phenomenal sensation of insight when something isn't going to help you on a problem. At my local EA meetup I sometimes worry that the impact of our speaker events is low, because the audience may not meaningfully update even though they're intellectually engaged. Put another way, intellectual engagement can be goodhartable, the sensation of insight can distract you from your resolve to shatter your bottlenecks and save the world if it becomes an end itself. Should researchers who want to be careful about this avoid the first role entirely? Should the alignment literature look upon the first reader role as a failure mode? We talk about a lot of cool stuff, it can be easy to be drawn in by the cool factor like some of the non-EA rationalists I've met at meetups.
I'm not saying reader role number two absolutely must dominate, because it can diverge from deconfusion [? · GW] which is better captured by reader role number three.
Division of labor between reader and writer, writer roles do not always imply exactly one reader role
Isn't it the case that deconfusion/writer role three research can be disseminated to practical (as opposed to theoretical) -minded people, and then those people turn question-answer into problem-solution? You can write in the question-answer regime, but there may be that (rare) reader who interprets it in the problem-solution regime! This seems to be an extremely good thing that we should find a way to encourage. In general reading the drifts across multiple roles seems like the most engaged kind of reading.