The Problem of Knowledge

When we have a comprehensive understanding of a topic we often think that we would also be the best person to teach that topic. If you know a lot about physical training and diet then your friends might ask you frequently how to get fit or lose weight. Whatever your job is, people will ask what you do for a living and usually follow up with a question asking what your job entails. In a lot of cases we will do well explaining something we understand to someone who doesn’t but more often we have forgotten what it is like to be completely ignorant of said topic. We have been familiar with this topic for so long that we have forgotten what it is like to start from scratch. This makes it incredibly hard to teach someone; especially if you talk regularly with people who have a similar level of knowledge when compared to yourself. When you are surrounded with people who know what you are talking about for years then you will be comfortable using the familiar language that, although best describes the topic, may make no sense to the person listening. For example, if you know a lot about training, specifically bodybuilding, and someone asks you what the best way to build muscle is, you might say, “Increase training volume over time and eat in a 200-500 calorie surplus while keeping your proteins and fats steady and increasing carbohydrates for the surplus”. For people who discuss training regularly this makes perfect sense because they already have a firm grasp of the fundamentals. But for someone who is being exposed to the world of training for the first time in his or her life this will make little sense. They don’t even know what movements to perform, how to perform them, what training volume actually is and how to figure out how many calories they should be eating. If we use another example of someone who knows a lot about philosophy and someone asks them, “what is a priori?” and that person replies “A priori knowledge or justification is independent of experience, as with mathematics (3 + 2 = 5), tautologies (“All bachelors are unmarried”), and deduction from pure reason (e.g., ontological proofs)” (example taken from Wikipedia). To someone with philosophical experience this may make perfect sense but for most of us we are left asking what are tautologies? What is deduction and pure reason? And what are ontological proofs?

The biggest issue with the problem of knowledge is that we just don’t know when we are guilty of explaining things far beyond the listener’s comprehension. We might even think that to explain a topic we know well as basic as possible would be to question the intelligence of the listener and not give them enough credit. But this is not the case. If we explain things in the simplest way then it makes it hard to misunderstand what we are trying to communicate. It also gives the listener more opportunity to ask questions and learn more. Most people are not likely to say, “hey can you please explain that more simply for me because I don’t know as much as you?” they are more than likely just going to smile and nod and take nothing away from the conversation. However, if we explain something simple enough that anyone with zero experience can understand then we invite the listener to ask more questions. If the listener grasps a small concept that we have explained then they are more likely to want to know more. People will also almost always let us know when they know more about a topic if they get the impression that we think they have limited understanding. Ego very rarely lets someone explain something to you that you know as much or more than them about a topic. In these situations, very quickly, the person listening will say what they know and flex a little of their knowledge about that topic so you know that they know. 

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. – Albert Einstein

Should we explain everything to people as though they know nothing about that topic? As you may have guessed the answer is yes and no. In Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style he calls this “The Curse of Knowledge: A difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know what you know”. Pinker gives examples of how children have an inability to imagine what another person sees from their point of view. If a child is looking at some items on a table and a person across the room is also looking at the same items but has something blocking them from seeing the full contents of the table then the child cannot understand this, and assumes that the other person can see everything like they can. Although we grow out of much of this the remnants still remain.

So how do we go about explaining topics we understand well to people with no understanding? I have spoken about this a few times before but it is always good to reiterate (even if just for myself). Don’t use complicated words or specialised language that only people well versed in a topic will understand. If I am talking about training and throw out terms like MRV (maximum recoverable volume), MEV (minimum effective volume) and MAV (maximum adaptive volume) only a fraction of a percentage of people will understand what these terms are. They are specialised. Instead of saying MRV I might first make sure that the person I am talking to understands what volume is and then talk about the maximum amount of volume one can train with and still recover from without overdoing it, impairing improvement or getting worse.

Yes, it is more proficient to use the term MRV but it is only more proficient to use this term with people who actually understand it. If you use it with people who do not understand it then it is actually inefficient because you either have to explain everything from scratch again or the person you are explaining it to pretends to understand and causes themselves harm in the long term due to ignorance.

If we are to avoid the curse of knowledge when explaining things we know a lot about then we should assume the person we are talking to has no prior knowledge of this subject at all. But we should also assume that they can easily learn as much as us. This puts us in a position to explain things simply while also respecting the person we are talking to.

Steven Pinker, 2014. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century



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