How Specificity Works

post by Liron · 2019-09-03T12:11:36.216Z · score: 88 (44 votes) · LW · GW · 48 comments

Contents

    This is Part II of the Specificity Sequence
  The Ladder of Abstraction
  How To Slide Downward
    "A stage presentation of publicly-available educational material, hand-produced and performed by a professor who works at your educational institution, which you watch by locating yourself in a set building at a set meeting time, and which proceeds in a fixed order and at a fixed rate like broadcast television pre-YouTube."
  Ground Your Terms
    "The bright orange heat and light that appears when I strike a match, and can sometimes be transferred to other things it touches, and keeps appearing as long as there is wood and air around it."
  Effort and Risk Asymmetry
None
48 comments

This is Part II of the Specificity Sequence [LW · GW]

You saw what mayhem we brought forth when we activated the first power of specificity, the power to demolish bad arguments [LW · GW], and hopefully your curiosity is piqued to see what’ll happen when we activate all the other powers.

But first, let’s pause here to ask: How does specificity work?

Consider this dialogue between Steve and one of his pals:

Steve: Information should be free!
Steve's Pal: Whoa, this is thought-provoking stuff. Ok, so, would you say you're advocating for digital socialism, or more like digital libertarianism?

Oh jeez. Not only is Steve's pal not pushing for Steve to be more specific, the pal is an enabler who pushes Steve to be less specific. They're climbing the ladder of abstraction the wrong way.

The Ladder of Abstraction

When you want to nail down a claim, the operative word is “down”: you want to bring the discussion down the ladder of abstraction:

If Steve says, “Information should be free!” and I'm trying to understand what he means, here's what I'd say:

Liron: Ok, why do you think I shouldn’t have had to pay Amazon for my paperback copy of To Kill A Mockingbird?

This way, I'm nosediving all the way down to the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction. Down here, the conversation becomes grounded in the concrete language of everyday experience, with substantive statements like “Amazon charged my credit card $6.99 and kicked back $1.15 to Harper Lee’s estate.”

And how about that free shipping, Steve?

Having this kind of grounded discussion is usually more productive than having a flingfest of the higher level ballpit-words “information”, “freedom”, “socialism”, and “libertarianism”.

As Steve and I are hanging out on the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction, talking through specific examples of information getting exchanged freely vs. non-freely, we’ll be able to notice if certain features seem to remain constant across our chosen examples. For instance, we might discuss various hypothetical authors who yearn to write books for a living, and observe that all such authors can still have some plausible mechanism to earn money (running ads on their blogs?), even without directly charging for the privilege of reading their books.

After loading our brains with specific examples, we can then abstract over these examples, climb our way back up the ladder of abstraction, and put forth a generalized claim about whether “information should be free”. Since we've been careful to think about specific example scenarios that our claim applies to, we'll be putting forth a coherent and meaningful proposition - a claim that others can study under the magnifying lens of specificity, not an empty claim that gets demolished [LW · GW].

So when someone makes an abstract assertion like "information should be free", the best thing you can do is hold their hand and guide them down the ladder of abstraction. I know it’s tempting to skip that process and just attack or admire their original abstract claim. But show me two people discussing a topic in purely abstract terms, and I'll show you two people who are talking past each other.

How To Slide Downward

How do you take a concept and slide it down the ladder of abstraction to obtain a more specific concept? What mental operation must your brain perform?

In Replace the Symbol with the Substance [LW · GW], Eliezer explains how to do it with baseball terms:

You have to visualize. You have to make your mind’s eye see the details, as though looking for the first time.
Is that a “bat”? No, it’s a long, round, tapering, wooden rod, narrowing at one end so that a human can grasp and swing it.
Is that a “ball”? No, it’s a leather-covered spheroid with a symmetrical stitching pattern, hard but not metal-hard, which someone can grasp and throw, or strike with the wooden rod, or catch.
Are those “bases”? No, they’re fixed positions on a game field, that players try to run to as quickly as possible because of their safety within the game’s artificial rules.

Or let's say we're discussing our country's education system. Eliezer would slide it down the ladder of abstraction like this:

Why are you going to “school”? To get an “education” ending in a “degree”. Blank out the forbidden words and all their obvious synonyms, visualize the actual details, and you’re much more likely to notice that “school” currently seems to consist of sitting next to bored teenagers listening to material you already know, that a “degree” is a piece of paper with some writing on it, and that “education” is forgetting the material as soon as you’re tested on it.

Let’s try it ourselves with the concept of a school “lecture”. What do we get when we slide it down the ladder of abstraction?

"A stage presentation of publicly-available educational material, hand-produced and performed by a professor who works at your educational institution, which you watch by locating yourself in a set building at a set meeting time, and which proceeds in a fixed order and at a fixed rate like broadcast television pre-YouTube."

Wow. When you hear it that way, it raises a lot of questions:

If people had never heard the word “lecture”, if people were always forced to talk about lectures via a specific description of what a lecture is… well, then they would have killed off lectures by now.

I believe the college lecture is only alive today because the word “lecture” is a protective abstraction-bubble.

I grabbed this out of Steve’s ball pit

If you crack open the protective shell of “lecture” and press your nose close enough, you breathe in the stinky innards: “a stage presentation of publicly-available educational material”.

If everyone involved with the university system — administrators, professors, parents, students — were themselves cracking open the shell and taking a whiff of “lecture”, they would have noticed when the expiration date passed (the day YouTube went mainstream) and taken out the trash.

Instead, we’ve landed in a weird place where the concept of a “stage presentation of publicly-available educational material” is ridiculous on its face, while our ears still tell us that the concept of a school “lecture” sounds pretty good.

Ground Your Terms

You probably know that to have a clear discussion (or just a clear thought), you need to define your terms. How do you define a term?

S. I. Hayakawa illustrates an attempt to define the term “red” by connecting it to concepts higher up the ladder of abstraction (h/t Eliezer [LW · GW]):

“What is meant by the word red?”
“It’s a color.”
“What’s a color?”
“Why, it’s a quality things have.”
“What’s a quality?”

This approach of defining something by sliding it up the ladder of abstraction doesn’t feel productive. It might help define “red”, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient to define “red”.

Similarly, when I asked Steve to define what “exploiting workers” means in regard to Uber, and he put forth “to use selfishly for one’s own ends”, we found ourselves no closer to understanding what the heck his point was supposed to be.

So how can we nail down “red”? How can we slide it down the ladder of abstraction? Hayakawa illustrates:

“What is meant by the word red?”
“Well, the next time you see some cars stopped at an intersection, look at the traffic light facing them. Also, you might go to the fire department and see how their trucks are painted.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is a good enough definition to satisfy someone who previously didn’t know what “red” means. Whenever we define a concept in this manner, by sliding it down the ladder of abstraction, we can call it grounding the concept.

Grounding is easy enough to do. Just follow Eliezer’s instructions from the previous section:

You have to visualize. You have to make your mind’s eye see the details, as though looking for the first time.

For example: What is fire?

If you know chemistry, you might define it as “rapid oxidation accompanied by heat and, usually, light”. But if you don’t know chemistry, what would you say? Most people would give up.

Don’t worry, just follow the instructions to ground it. Close your eyes and describe what you see:

"The bright orange heat and light that appears when I strike a match, and can sometimes be transferred to other things it touches, and keeps appearing as long as there is wood and air around it."

Concepts have many definitions, and not all of them are groundings. But in daily life, grounding a term is usually as good as precisely defining it, if not better. So when a term is confusing, just slide that sucker down the ladder of abstraction.

Effort and Risk Asymmetry

If you observe your own stream of consciousness in a discussion, you might feel it being gently buoyed up the ladder of abstraction. You might start a discussion with a few specific statements about firetrucks, but before you know it you're talking about redness and colors in general.

Why is that? If the most productive kind of discussion is grounded and concrete, then why do so many people seem to relish the experience of pontificating and arguing abstractly?

Eliezer says in The 5-Second Level [LW · GW]:

Over-abstraction happens because it’s easy to be abstract. It’s easier to say “red is a color” than to pause your thoughts for long enough to come up with the example of a stop sign. Abstraction is a path of least resistance, a form of mental laziness.

It seems our brain stores each concept with an easily-navigable pointer upward to its category (like red→color), but doesn’t store easily-navigable pointers downward to specific examples (like red→firetruck). I’m not sure what larger aspect of the brain's architecture accounts for this, but here's one observation about why the two operations are asymmetrical:

When you slide a concept up, you remove information. When you slide it down, you add information, and that requires you to make an arbitrary choice with more degrees of freedom. I think there's a sense in which going up the ladder of abstraction is safer, while going down is riskier: your underconstrained choice of specifics may leak information about you that your elephant in the brain is keen to monitor and filter.

Eliezer's description of how he intentionally sticks his neck out in arguments has always stayed with me (source [LW · GW]), and I suspect it's related to why we find abstraction appealing:

I stick my neck out so that it can be chopped off if I'm wrong, and when I stick my neck out it stays stuck out, and if I have to withdraw it I'll do so as a visible concession.  I may parry[...] but I at least endeavor not to dodge. Where I plant my standard, I have sent an invitation to capture that banner; and I'll stand by that invitation.

When you say something abstract, like "information should be free", the space of possible things you can mean is vast. You're not sticking your neck out, you're not affixing your neck to a precise location in claim-space, so you never have to fear that an opponent's sword might slash there.

Plus, as a bonus, vague statements make you sound smarter. You're signaling more intelligence and sophistication talking about "digital libertarianism" than about "buying a paperback on Amazon". That's why abstraction is appealing.

The upshot is that you'll have to make a sustained conscious effort to acquire the skill and habit of activating your specificity powers. But it'll be worth it.

Next post: The Power to Judge Startup Ideas [LW · GW]

48 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-04T12:23:07.890Z · score: 14 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I feel deeply uncomfortable with this sequence. Most of the thinkers I know who I perceive as really getting at the truth can move both ways on the abstraction ladder, and in particular often move up the ladder of abstraction for purposes of generativity: If I'm talking about my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, it's very unclear how I would go about changing how that works, because it's price is a product of the broader system.

This is a similar problem I have with for instance double Crux. Oftentimes it goes down levels of abstraction to reach a diaagreement, but oftentimes the real disagreement is " What level of abstraction will most likely lead to a solution".

I understand that the first question before "what is the solution?" is "is there a problem?' and that as the specificity sequence, this is trying to get at the former. However, I worry that by teaching moves that tell people to focus on the trees, without addressing the Forest, and recognizing the times when specificity or abstraction is important, you're giving people a hammer that can make people better arguers and worse reasoners.

comment by jimrandomh · 2019-09-06T00:59:09.206Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect the true skill is neither going up nor down the ladder of abstraction, it's "taking the ladder of abstraction as object". From that perspective, this post (and most of the posts it's linking to) are teaching the skill, but in a weird indirect way: by making claims about the ladder of abstraction, they force you to notice and think about it, and practice doing this is valuable independent of the specific claim.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-09-06T03:23:07.292Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"The moment we eliminate identification we become conscious of abstracting, and permanently and instinctively remember that the object is not the event, that the label is not the object and that a statement about a statement is not the first statement." -Alfred Korzybski

emphasis mine.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T03:49:24.083Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect that all three are useful, however O think you're right the taking it as object is a prerequisite and probably most valuable of the three.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T02:55:51.606Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I dunno, I'd probably rather have a conversation with someone who is in the habit of going down the ladder of abstraction a lot, than someone who has the skill of taking the ladder of abstraction as object, if I were only allowed to choose one.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T03:51:00.612Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Someone who is not aware of what they're doing, but unthinkingly goes down the ladder, is exactly what caused me worry in the first response.

Specificity is a tool, not a generalized desired state.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T13:38:22.203Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Someone who is not aware of what they're doing, but unthinkingly goes down the ladder, is exactly what caused me worry in the first response.

What's an example of that?

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T13:52:00.130Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The same examples I gave above? This comment is a third example.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T13:59:56.562Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure I've seen your specific chosen example of someone who unthinkingly goes down the ladder of abstraction.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T14:02:18.823Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's a comment with examples about books and about communicatimg thinking vs feeling. Maybe you missed it?

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T14:20:07.475Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, for this one...

I was in with rationalists where someone asked what people considered "thinking vs. feeling". The whole idea here was to explore the different ways people held concepts in order to understand each other better. However, one of the rationalists kept insisting that we first define what we meant by thinking and feeling, so that we didn't end up with language disagreements. However, the whole point was to explore those disagreements in order to understand people's experience.

If the goal of your conversation is to understand "what people consider 'thinking' vs. 'feeling'", this fellow asking for a definition isn't an example of going down the ladder of abstraction. Similarly, I didn't take my discussion with Steve down the ladder of abstraction when I asked Steve to provide a definition of "exploitation".

If the fellow had asked the group to provide an example of thinking and an example of "feeling", rather than definitions, that would be an example of going down the ladder of abstraction. And that's a good move IMO.


comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T14:27:41.686Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That makes sense, but it seems to require the ability to take the ladder of abstraction as object? Otherwise you couldn't tell the difference between asking for a specific definition and asking for a specific example, and which goes down the ladder of abstraction vs. a vague directive to always be more specific.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T14:29:25.379Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe it would help to give specific examples of what you see "taking the ladder of abstraction as object" as to see if we're discussing the same thing.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T14:44:24.174Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Your conscious mind doesn't have to explicitly represent an understanding of something in order for you to use that thing productively. For example, most people don't have a linguist's understanding of language, but get a whole lot of mileage from speaking sentences.

A fellow who asks for examples of "feeling" and "thinking" is productively adding to the discussion, even if he doesn't realize there's such a thing as the "ladder of abstraction" and he's currently climbing it down.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T14:52:45.602Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm saying a fellow who can't take meta and meta-meta as object won't know when he's going down the ladder of abstraction. For instance of you say "I have a headache" and I ask you for an example of other times you had headaches, I'm not meaningfully going down the ladder of abstraction, whereas if I ask you where it hurts, I am.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T14:56:19.885Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's true. But I wonder why you're "worried" or "feel deeply uncomfortable" about "someone who is not aware of what they're doing, but unthinkingly goes down the ladder". To me, that seems like a pretty harmless and uncommon mistake. So I'd still appreciate if you could give one example of how that's plausibly harmful.

Also, asking for examples of other times when you had headaches probably brings out more specifics and does meaningfully go down the ladder of abstraction.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T15:00:11.026Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The failure mode happens quite often to me. People go down the ladder of abstraction often miss the point of staying at the higher level, derailing the conversation. The TRIZ prism is instructive here in why this is bad, and this failure mode of asking for specific solutions when explorong meta solutions happens quite a bit. The other example of a person asking for definitions is another example already given.

I'll note that this is a "Rock and hard place" situation, but so far O haven't seen you acknowledge that there is in fact a hard place.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T15:11:31.176Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
The failure mode happens quite often to me

What's one specific example???

The other example of a person asking for definitions is another example already given.

I explained how your example of the fellow asking for definitions actually wasn't an example of someone going down the ladder of abstraction. So from my perspective, you still haven't given a single example of this thing that supposedly "happens quite often".

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T15:55:24.700Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I want to take a step back and go up the ladder of abstraction, as I feel we're a bit too "in the weeds" at the moment.

Here's my ITT of you, let me know if this feels accurate:

Most conversations have a chronic problem of "too much abstraction". Often times, if people would just be specific about they're claims, they would realize that they're just too vague, or they don't have a real plan, or there's no real disagreement, or their grievances are false.

If we could start being aware when we're too abstract in our thinking, and develop the habit of constantly being more specific, we could improve dialogue. Furthermore, this problem is SOO widespread, that even if people didn't understand that they were doing, just developing the habit of being more specific without any foundation would be an improvement on the status quo.

------

Does that land for you?

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T16:07:48.611Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yep!

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T16:44:08.895Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Would you be willing to ITT me? If not, I can try to write up a similar high level summary of my position.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T17:46:33.110Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Sure.

It's pretty common for someone to derail a discussion by going down a rabbit hole such as asking everyone to precisely define all terms, or asking for a lot of detail and follow-up questions about some small part of the larger discussion.
Oftentimes, a good move in a discussion is to take it up the ladder of abstraction and refer back to the high-level goals of the discussion.

How's that?

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T18:18:37.388Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Great! The one part that's missing is another big goal of abstraction that Ive mentioned, which is to allow abstract framings of a problem that suggest solutions.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T19:56:03.467Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Cool. So my crux is: Going down a rabbit hole is its own failure mode, it's not the same thing as going down the ladder of abstraction. If people listen to my advice to be more specific, I'm not worried about unleashing more rabbit-holers.

That's why I was wondering if you have other examples where specificity is harmful besides the known failure mode of people going down a rabbit hole.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T21:11:52.795Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I found a few examples on LW, but don't really want to call out anyone specifically. Here's another example:

At the EA hotel, talking about specific problems/demographics of the EA community, we were talking in general terms, trying to describe a particular demographic. At some point someone was like "hold on what are we discussing here, can we explain specifically what we would expect to see?"

This was actually a good move, but it was too early. Specifically, we were still fruitfully changing and exploring our model, finding the most useful way to actually think about this particular dynamic in the EA community. By forcing us to go specific at this time, we ended up "locked in" to the specific frame we were at when we went more specific, and it took about 20 minutes of conversational maneuvering to get back to the "exploration" phase. At that point, we eventually did settle on a better frame that seemed useful to everyone, and let the conversation naturally lead to examples and specificity.

I recognize that both of the above examples are a bit general, I'm having trouble finding specific examples that aren't a bit controversial or would point too much towards blaming a specific person if they saw me write.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T21:30:34.189Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So the push for specificity helped clarify people's thinking, but the discussion got derailed because no one said "let's consider another possibility for the claim we want to make".

I don't think that means anyone was failing by being too specific. There seems to be a separate kind of failure mode in the domain of exloratory-discussion steering efficiency.

But I'm happy with the quality of the examples you're providing to facilitate our discussion.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T21:38:23.102Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
So the push for specificity helped clarify people's thinking,

Sort of, it helped solidify a not yet solidified frame, which was a waste of time, because the frame was rapidly changing.


"let's consider another possibility for the claim we want to make".

I said this, but the person I was talking to had a strong aesthetic need for specificity and wouldn't let it go.\

I don't think that means anyone was failing by being too specific.

I think there was failingin asking for specificity at the wrong time.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T21:57:07.785Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe we can agree to say this:

In One's Own Thinking: When you have any kind of thought or belief, try making it specific when you get a chance. You'll probably get some value out of the exercise. You neglect the exercise at your peril.

In Discourse: If you're putting forth a claim, then it's worth trying to provide specifics for it. If you're not yet making a claim, but more like exploring ideas, then specifics are not yet mandatory.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T22:04:03.573Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think there's a similar danger in trying to be too specific in ones' own thinking. I can't quite articulate it yet, but the idea of "holding a question" in this article feels internally to me like a very different stance then one where I'm requesting specificity from myself, and I find it highly valuable.

There's something about the move of specificity that doesn't allow for "space", which occurs both internally and in conversation.

comment by Raemon · 2019-09-23T22:18:50.076Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Just wanted to say I appreciated this exchange in both directions.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-06T15:37:08.216Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, and them right after that you agreed that in other circumstances, asking for the definition is the right move for going down the ladder of abstraction... So, this was an example for someone applying specificity unthinkingly instead of understanding the ladder of abstraction and when it's useful.

Another example is at a conference, discussing different types of forecasting, being derailed by someone asking how the specific algorithms we were talking about would be used, not realizing that we hadn't explored the abstract solution space of forecasting enough yet to answer that, and that it would derail the conversation.

I can keep giving examples like this btw, and we can go through them one by one, or we can use abstraction and talk about them as a group phenomena.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-06T16:06:20.160Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Another example is at a conference, discussing different types of forecasting, being derailed by someone asking how the specific algorithms we were talking about would be used, not realizing that we hadn't explored the abstract solution space of forecasting enough yet to answer that, and that it would derail the conversation.

I'd be interested to understand the discussion in more detail and whether over-zealous specificity is really a cause of harm here. Because it seems to me like spending a minute to get a sense of how specifically a certain algorithm might be used could add value to the discussion.

I can keep giving examples like this btw, and we can go through them one by one, or we can use abstraction and talk about them as a group phenomena.

I consider the above example to be the only valid example you've given, and it's still an unclear one to me, so I think the best next step is either to clarify and improve on this one example or to provide another better example.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-04T12:41:24.508Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW
Most of the thinkers I know who I perceive as really getting at the truth can move both ways on the abstraction ladder, and in particular often move up the ladder of abstraction for purposes of generativity

Yeah, but that's an easier skill that more people have, so I'm writing this sequence about the harder skill that fewer people have.

If I'm talking about my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, it's very unclear how I would go about changing how that works, because it's price is a product of the broader system.

I see you've chosen to explain your point by way of an example of how you'd have difficulty coming up with an example. If you would make this meta-example of yours more specific by also naming an example of the higher-level point you might desire to make, then I'll be able to respond productively :)

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-04T14:09:37.033Z · score: 6 (7 votes) · LW · GW
Yeah, but that's an easier skill that more people have.

This seems obviously false to me. Coming up with good abstractions is nuanced and most people suck at it. I have put a lot of work into it, and consider myself decent compared to the average person, but still suck at it.

I see you've chosen to explain your point by way of an example of how you'd have difficulty coming up with an example. If you would make this meta-example of yours more specific by also naming an example of the higher-level point you might desire to make, then I'll be able to respond productively :)

I don't get what you're trying to say here, because it's not... specific enough. Can YOU give an example of how you would like me to give an example.


Edit:

What I've written reads as fairly antagonistic to me, so I want to make a few things clear:

1. I believe that specificity is an incredibly useful skill, and am sort of known among my friend group for saying "can you give me an example of that?"

2. I think everything you've written so far has framed useful skills that will actually help.

3. I respect you personally and recognize that you're a deep thinker and have thought about this a lot.

What I'm really uncomfortable about is the tone and perceived axioms of the sequence, like:

  • People are being abstract because they're being lazy.
  • The right move is to always get more specific.
  • Talking in the abstract means that you're using sloppy reasoning.
  • A lack of acknowledgement that this is simply one skill, and that moving upwards correctly is another.
comment by Liron · 2019-09-04T15:14:54.086Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for being so non-antagonistic (and nice). This is really what makes LW special.

Coming up with good abstractions is nuanced and most people suck at it. I have put a lot of work into it, and consider myself decent compared to the average person, but still suck at it.

I believe you, I just think that, quantitatively speaking, failures of specificity are currently more common and unnoticed than failures of abstraction. If this seems like a crux for us, I think a good next step to resolve it would be for you to provide a specific example of the kind of abstraction challenges you're referring to.

I don't get what you're trying to say here, because it's not... specific enough. Can YOU give an example of how you would like me to give an example.

We're so far from the object level right now 😂

Ok you originally wrote:

Most of the thinkers I know who I perceive as really getting at the truth can move both ways on the abstraction ladder, and in particular often move up the ladder of abstraction for purposes of generativity: If I'm talking about my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, it's very unclear how I would go about changing how that works, because it's price is a product of the broader system.

An example of that would be that you're talking about my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the abstract point you want to make is that "the government should provide a grant program for authors where they get paid an hourly wage during the time they're writing the book and no royalties". Then you would simply tell me that in this example, my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon would only have cost me the cost of shipping (which could potentially be free with my Amazon Prime membership).

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-04T15:58:43.874Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Ahh I see. So I think a confusion here is that I often think that framing the problem in the abstract often happens BEFORE a specific solution is reached.

One model I really like for this is the TRIZ Prism for problem solving. The idea is you start with a *specific problem* which you then frame as an *abstract problem*, which then allows you to brainstorm an *abstract solution* which then frames a specific solution. So, we might start with a specific thing like "Authors aren't getting enough for their books" and then BEFORE I come up with a solution, I might say "one way to frame this is Marx's idea of needing to own the means of production".

Now, this doesn't suggest a specific solution, and if you ask me for "specifically, what solution are you suggesting?" my response is "Well I don't know yet, I just want to explore this frame and see what comes out of it, and what abstract solutions we can arrive at at this level of abstraction." It would be important, AFTER a few abstract solutions are explored, to go back to specifics and ask how that would look in this specific situation. However, the skill of NOT going specific too soon is important here. Hopefully that gives you a specific example of why I don't want to provide a specific example in this specific example :)

Another related idea around abstraction vs. specificity is the idea of always having to "define your terms up front." I remember a particular conversation I was in with rationalists where someone asked what people considered "thinking vs. feeling". The whole idea here was to explore the different ways people held concepts in order to understand each other better. However, one of the rationalists kept insisting that we first define what we meant by thinking and feeling, so that we didn't end up with language disagreements. However, the whole point was to explore those disagreements in order to understand people's experience. This is different from the example above, but its' another great example of where a specificity move (define your terms) is actually getting in the way of a generative conversation.

comment by lionhearted · 2019-09-17T02:17:21.618Z · score: 13 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hi Liron,

(1) I love this post and how you're thinking. I don't like many things and I want to offer you my highest compliments. There's many points of clarity in here that are super super valuable. Thank you.

(2) I've got something that I think might be really really important for you about a flaw in your reasoning. Not like "hey this is an important comment" but like — really really important for your thinking. Can I suggest reading this comment I'm making closely and processing the implication?

Take your point:

"A stage presentation of publicly-available educational material, hand-produced and performed by a professor who works at your educational institution, which you watch by locating yourself in a set building at a set meeting time, and which proceeds in a fixed order and at a fixed rate like broadcast television pre-YouTube."

This is, I suppose, correct enough to work with.

But I strongly suspect you're reasoning from first principles about the current state of things based on a certain set of unspoken premises of what's valuable and missing orthogonal tracks of valid and correct reasoning, specifically, historical context of how we got here that's off the mainstream understanding of the topic.

To break that down,

A. You're reasoning from first principles,

B. Current state of things,

C. Unspoken premises about what's valuable,

D. Missing orthogonal tracks,

E. Which are valid and correct reasoning,

F. Specifically, historical context,

G. No, not that historical context. The historical context that nobody's thinking about, that you only get through very careful thought.

I suspect you'd grant A, B, C are uncontroversial and at least true-ish. "D" you'd probably grant (there's a lot of tracks of reasoning we don't bother with, either because they're irrelevant or unhelpful). "E" is the key statement the thing swings on. "F" is the one you'd be like "no actually I do that", and I'm like no — take a look at "G".

Specifically, look at who went to university and why, and when that changed, and why.

Lectures used to make sense, and indeed, still make sense. If we ever wind up meeting in person, ask me about the story of the friend of mine who went from American public school to a Swiss boarding school when his father moved abroad. You don't even need to remind me of the context, I'll tell the story and it's both funny and insightful.

Pardon me for being vague! There's probably a reason. I certainly ain't going to spell it out. Nietzsche is too hardcore, and I certainly don't stand by what he says or anything, but his "insights ... follies" thing is worth Googling. It's the third part of his sentence that's the key part.

I don't like that the world is this way! It is, however, this way. This is a small thing but might be useful to you. This is probably kinda important — pardon me for being subtle, I just wrote it for you since there's a lot of great thinking here that's been quite valuable for me. This is just kinda "ah, thank you, this is valuable — but you know, you're like 95% correct, you're just missing ________" — what's the blank line there? (Just process it in your head, don't reply or anything, sheesh.)

It's what I'm trying to point out. Thanks for the post. This might be important btw, at least, once I got cleared up on this my thinking improved in lots of obvious and non-obvious ways. Oh, one last thing - do me a favor and don't try to convert my subtext thing here into text publicly? If I wanted to do that, I would've just done that. Even this isn't subtle enough, it's kinda "subtle like a hammer." The more subtle version would be the one sentence "Specifically, look..." — again, we're talking about whether lectures have any value, in what context, etc, as an illustration of a larger point.

Anyway, that's the best I could come up with. The world is a strange place. Awesome post and great reasoning, thanks again.

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-09-17T03:59:34.217Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for trying to communicate something hard to communicate. This can be really frustrating leading to people often not trying, so thanks for trying.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-17T03:12:37.604Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hey lionhearted, thanks for your kind words!

This is just kinda "ah, thank you, this is valuable — but you know, you're like 95% correct, you're just missing ________" — what's the blank line there?

Hm, colleges and lectures have various justifications for existing that are valid 5% of the time, that seems obvious enough, even if I didn't acknowledge it in the post... I guess I'll try to privately puzzle out your intended subtext.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-09-16T22:58:32.195Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Promoted to curated: I like the whole sequence, and think it's elaborating and extending on existing writing on the site in a really valuable way, and this post seemed like the best place to start, as well as one that is just robustly good in a variety of ways.

I particularly appreciate the concreteness of the whole sequence, and the extensive use of examples and small exercise-like things.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-17T00:46:09.698Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

^ The Power to Compliment Effectively

Thanks, appreciate it!

comment by Slider · 2019-09-04T02:18:34.934Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Making lecture specific seems to dissolve it only because here we are thinking that univertiy is a place were people try to learn. However if we are more specific about where lectures occur it might make more sense to characterise it as indoctrination, shared cultural experience or management of expectations.

If we did employ each individual learned being able to take on material in individualised order and pace then it would be harder to verify who knows what. Part of education is that employers can take on trust that newly arriving employees are work-compatible or atleast work-trainable. That compatibility might include technical capacity or knowledge posession but it might also include things like suggestibility, willigness to endure boredom or willigness and capability to adjust to externally imposed schedules

Any claim with "only because" is very bold and almost certainly wrong. The main thrust here is that it's not knowledge efficient at all. But another kind of deduction would say that because it is not knowledge efficient it MUST have another reason keeping it alive. Just having the word seems like an incredibly weak reason and it being the only availbe reason doesn't mean that unavailable reasons are outruled. I think the phenomenon would survive even if the word was not forced. But I do think that dispencing with the word makes it handy to look at the "ugly" reasons that are causing the phenomenon. Saying something abstract like "We are using education as a means to stabilize our society so that young people do not express themselfs in too novel ways" seems ridicolous but the concrete things that take place are less suspectible to being denied.

comment by Liron · 2019-09-04T03:22:49.014Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah I'm familiar with _The Case Against Education_. But signalling is commonly built on symbols rather than substance. If people weren't so ready to accept abstractions like "lecture", then society would get into less-wasteful signalling equilibria.

comment by Slider · 2019-09-04T04:18:34.223Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was not familiar with a book by that name but I guess the geist is in similar vein.

I think the issue is more orthagonal. I think there might be a deep and vast difference in opinion what the relevant mechanics are which falls out of the scope fof the post. Even what the hypothetical world were people did not have access to words like "lecture" would be like is pretty ambigious. But I think losing the cover of doing evil in the name of good would be (partially) counterbalanced by evilseekers being forced to pay tribute to an image of goodness which does some amount of actual good.

comment by Pattern · 2019-09-05T01:47:18.237Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
I think losing the cover of doing evil in the name of good would be (partially) counterbalanced by evilseekers being forced to pay tribute to an image of goodness which does some amount of actual good.

My disagreement with lectures isn't about what lectures are - just that they don't get as good results as alternatives.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-09-03T17:52:36.925Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Edit note: Centered and increased the size of some of the images. Happy to revert, but it seemed an improvement to me. 

comment by leggi · 2019-09-04T17:41:40.644Z · score: -1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

.... If Steve says, “Information should be free!” and I'm trying to understand what he means,

here's what I'd say: ....


What do you mean by information?

Edited to add: It seems a good idea to me to try and clarify what Steve means - being more specific rather than jumping to 'bottom rungs', likely influenced by personal biases.


And personally, I believe knowledge is better shared that sold ;)