Intuition Is Adaptable

Or, why “X is counterintuitive” is just a way of saying “I haven’t seen any sufficiently intuitive explanations of X”.

As a kid, I was a huge science nerd. In particular, I loved Stephen Hawking’s work. He had a TV show at some point, which I watched whenever I got the chance. One of the first books I remember reading was “A Brief History of Time”.

The main reason I loved reading his writing is that it didn’t seem very complicated to me. Not in the way Richard Feynman’s work seems un-complicated—Feynman just seems like he’s dicking around all the time and happens to love dicking around in physics specifically, so much so that he got a Nobel Prize in it. (I’m aware this isn’t remotely what happened, but that’s the sense you get from reading his writing.) Instead, I found Stephen Hawking’s writing to be un-complicated in the way that I later found Eliezer Yudkowsky’s and Daniel Kahneman’s writings to be un-complicated: it just makes sense.

The best physical example of Stephen Hawking’s influence on kid-me is a sheet of sticky paper that’s still stuck to the wall of the library in my parents’ house, on which I wrote an explanation of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

You’d think I was joking, but…

The easy way to explain this is just to say that I was a genius, or if you don’t feel like giving me that much credit, you can say that I was able to do a lot of book-learning because I had no social life. (This assessment isn’t wrong, by the way.)

But I’m actually going to give myself even less credit than that. I don’t think I’m a genius, and I also don’t think that the extra time I gained by skipping recess to read the encyclopedia (I already told you I was a nerd, get off my back) actually contributed in any meaningful way to my comprehension of “A Brief History of Time”. I don’t think it had anything to do with me at all; rather, it was almost entirely a property of the authors.

Which authors are particularly poignant to you has a decent amount to do with you: I know a girl who thinks that Jen Sincero’s book You Are A Badass is the best book on the planet; I read the first paragraph and immediately put it back down again. But all other things being equal, a human brain is a human brain, and an intuitive explanation is an intuitive explanation.

Assuming you’ve got some very basic algebra, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’s Theorem will almost certainly make sense to you. (Whether or not you care is a function of your preferences in reading material, separate from whether or not you could understand it if you did care.) Even if you suck at math. I know, because at the time that I read the Explanation, I sucked at math. (I’ve since gotten much better through deliberate effort.) There are books in every discipline that make things make sense to people, that clarify cloudy issues, that provide intuitive explanations.

This is very good news for those of us who think we are just bad at something, and we have no way to get better. I grew up thinking I was bad at math, since I hate algebra and I hate trig and I’d always give up before I finished a problem and it was generally just the dullest drek on the planet. And yet, I have no difficulty calculating conditional probabilities with Bayes Theorem. All I had to do was read a good enough explanation. If you think you’re irreparably bad at something, don’t give up on it, just keep reading.

This is moderately poor news for those of us who are in the habit of writing explanations, though, because we can’t blame our readers’ lack of comprehension on the difficulty of the subject matter. It may partially be about the subject matter—neither all subjects nor all readers are created equal—but there is always some way that we could be better writers, better explainers, and thus have our explanations make more sense.

Personally, I choose to take this as a challenge. If no subject is imperceptibly counterintuitive, no subject is outside my domain, if I’m good enough. I just need to get stronger.

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