Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What is this and Why is it here

I have had several experiences over the past few years that have solidified my suspicion that direct, spontaneous conversation is a nearly worthless means of communication.


Communication is difficult. The main problem of communication is overcoming the inferential distance between yourself and your target. An inferential gap is the result of a difference in the stock of prior knowledge between two individuals. Imagine being tasked with explaining calculus to a student currently enrolled in remedial algebra.

The process of understanding requires the tackling of single inferential steps in succession, starting from a point which is already understood. The order in which these steps are encountered are of primary importance. It is when you can derive an equation on your own, rather than recite it from memory, that you attain understanding of it.

So what's the problem?


It is difficult for us to ascertain someone's current stock of knowledge on any subject in any reasonable amount of time. Too often I have mistaken a social signal for a meaningful proposition, with awkward results. Often, the knowledge of a specific jargon or vocabulary is not enough to determine an adequate understanding of the relevant field.

When Deepak Chopra says that consciousness is a 'non-local, non-unitary quantum phenomenon', he is dressing his actual propositional content or meaning (consciousness is mysterious) in scientific lingo (he understands quantum physics and is therefore credible). This says nothing about his understanding of theoretical physics, or lack thereof.

If we are to truly communicate, we must determine the state of our target's knowledge and begin our chain of inference at a point that is mutually understood.


Direct, verbal conversation imposes several constraints on this endeavor.

First, conversations are generally unstructured and informal. It is difficult enough to follow a valid chain of logical reasoning when written down, let alone with all the distraction and imprecision that accompanies spontaneous conversation. A conversational argument fails when it becomes a barrage of unordered inferential steps rather than a structured elucidation of inferential steps in ascending order (from simplest to greatest complexity).

In addition, direct verbal communication is more susceptible to signaling/relationship constraints. I was recently at a lunch with close family members where a potential opportunity to communicate my beliefs was curtailed by a desire to avoid controversy and upset the enjoyable atmosphere.

The final constraint is time, which is often limited.


In summary, the constraints of structure, signaling and time are significantly reduced in a written format.

I will be able to write comprehensively enough that people with varying knowledge bases can successfully follow the inferential steps in my arguments.

If I am successful in the above, certain concepts and arguments may require more time than often available in casual conversation. The beauty of the written word is that repeated readings are available and you can stop and begin at your leisure.

I will be able to write honestly without the burden of managing social relationships (please be understanding on this point). I won't disclose any identities but I do plan to write on events that have shaped my understanding of the world, and some of these are personal.


And so, finally, what is this blog and why does it exist?

In this blog I will focus on what is possibly the most important and far reaching subject of all - rationality.

This will lead me to eventually explain (in a non-technical, intuitive sense): Bayesian Epistemology, Probability Theory, Solomonoff Induction, Aumann's Agreement Theorem, Kolmogorov Complexity, Causal Decision Theory, Cognitive Bias, and much more.

Written as such, these topics seem intimidating. However a qualitative understanding is not difficult at all and definitely worth the effort. While it may not seem like it, these subjects are both interesting and of profound practical use in most areas of our lives.

I hope you stick around for future posts, and feel free to leave a question or comment.


  1. I will be evaluating each and every one of your arguments. I will be evaluating each of your premises to see if the conclusion follows necessarily or if they at least have a high degree of probability as an inductive argument. If it happens to be a deductive argument don't think I won't be searching for the validity!

  2. Fascinating! You should pay me if you don't stick to your two posts a week plan...

    While your opinions regarding interpersonal communication are sad (but true), I am very interested to read about the relationships and experiences that have shaped your outlook on life.

    While the pedantic tone of the blog might make me think you are a bit of a pretentious douche if I didn't know you, the vulnerability and honesty that is also evident is great. I'll keep reading as long as you keep writing.

    For more on Aumann's Agreement Theorem, see my blog! um not really...

  3. Finally have the blog up I see. Hey scott it's Nick, and just wanted to let you know that I have you on my blog roll so hopefully I can get some of the traffic generated from my blog over to you.

    Good luck and i'll be keeping my one good eye on you. The only eye that matters. =]

  4. Interesting. I feel however that there is also the factor of people's agenda that goes into communication and directly affects the listener. From my reading/classes, the speaker's agenda is a huge force in how their audience perceives them and what they are talking about.

    Good blog Scotty!

  5. Why are you using your real name rather than a pseudonym (unless "Scott Reed" is a pseudonym). It would seem your goal of avoiding social signalling interference would be better served by a pseudonym.

  6. Because Scott's an honest guy, and wouldn't be afraid to use his real name. After reading this, I'm wondering: does anyone speak regular english?? Sheesh! :) I think you are the advanced calculus instructor, and I'm the remedial algebra student... I am very interested in hearing how your relationships and experiences shaped your views on life. But I also value our "worthless" spontaneous conversations, Scott. I think a good heartfelt talk with lots of feeling beats a dry, intellectual, impersonal interaction any day. Just my humble opinion... I'll be following your blog, though!

  7. TGGP - I set up this blog over a year ago with very different goals in mind, it was actually going to be a blog dedicated to Economics. I kept putting it off and the blog was eventually dead, but I recently decided to start a less academic, more personal blog dedicated to various subjects I found interested tied together by the theme of rationality. I didn't really think about using a pseudonym as I didn't expect people outside of my close friends or relatives to actually read it, although that may have been a bad idea.

    Stacy - Don't get me wrong, there are benefits of heartfelt talks and spontaneous conversation and I enjoy them as well. They largely fulfill a different role than my intent on this blog, though. You can express emotion better in person, for example, with the addition of subtle physical and verbal cues. They are not very good for communicating ideas, however, for the same reasons I state above.

  8. Ok, I see what you mean, this blog is for the purpose of communicating your ideas and beliefs regarding rationality, etc. I'll be watching. Have fun writing :)