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JoshuaZ comments on Open Thread June 2010, Part 3 - Less Wrong

6 Post author: Kevin 14 June 2010 06:14AM

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Comment author: SilasBarta 13 July 2010 10:22:26PM *  3 points [-]

I remember intro physics being straightforward and intuitive, and I had no trouble explaining it to others. In fact, the first day we had a substitute teacher who just told us to read the first chapter, which was just the basics like scientific notation, algebraic manipulation, unit conversion, etc. I ended up just teaching the others when something didn't make sense.

If there was any pattern to it, it was that I was always able to "drop back a level" to any grounding concept. "Wait, do you understand why dividing a variable by itself cancels it out?" "Do you understand what multiplying by a power of 10 does?"

That is, I could trace back to the beginning of what they found confusing. I don't think I was special in having this ability -- it's just something people don't bother to do, or don't themselves possess the understanding to do, whether it's teaching physics or social skills (for which I have the same complaint as you).

Someone who really understands sociality (i.e., level 2, as mentioned above) can fall back to the questions of why people engage in small talk, and what kind of mentality you should have when doing so. But most people either don't bother to do this, or have only an automatic (level 1) understanding.

Do you ever have trouble explaining physics to others? Do you find any commonality to the barriers you encounter?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 13 July 2010 11:57:24PM 3 points [-]

That is, I could trace back to the beginning of what they found confusing. I don't think I was special in having this ability -- it's just something people don't bother to do, or don't themselves possess the understanding to do, whether it's teaching physics or social skills (for which I have the same complaint as you).

This demonstrates a highly developed theory of mind. In order to do this one needs to both have a good command of material and a good understanding of what people are likely to understand or not understand. This is often very difficult.

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 July 2010 03:29:30PM *  2 points [-]

I thought I should add a pointer one of the replies, because it's another anecdote from when poster noticed the difference (in what "understand" means) on an encounter with another person who had a lower threshold.

Maybe there is a wide variance in "understanding criteria" or "curiosity shut-off point" which has real importance for how people learn.

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 July 2010 12:26:44AM *  2 points [-]

Maybe so, but then this would be the only area where I have a highly-developed theory of mind. If you'll ask the people who have seen me post for a while, the consensus is that this is where I'm most lacking. They don't typically put it in terms of a theory of mind, but one complaint about me can be expressed as, "he doesn't adequately anticipate how others will react to what he does" -- which amounts to the saying I lack a good theory of mind (which is a common characteristic of autistics).

But that gives me an idea: maybe what's unique about me is what I count as a genuine understanding. I don't regard myself as understanding the material until I have "plugged it in" to the rest of my knowledge, so I've made a habit of ensuring that what I know in one area is well-connected to other areas, especially its grounding concepts. I can't, in other words, compartmentalize subjects as easily.

(That would also explain what I hated about literature and, to a lesser extent, history -- I didn't see what they were building off of.)

Comment author: JoshuaZ 14 July 2010 12:32:45AM 0 points [-]

Yes, I had that thought also but wasn't sure how to put it. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised that you had that good a theory of mind for physics issues. Your hypothesis about plugging in seems plausible.

Comment author: SilasBarta 16 July 2010 04:00:20PM *  1 point [-]

Also, it looks like EY already wrote an article about the phenomenon I described: when people learn something in school, they normally don't bother to ground it like I've described, and so don't know what a true (i.e., level 2) understanding looks like.

(Sorry to keep replying to this comment!)

Comment author: Blueberry 16 July 2010 04:41:19PM 1 point [-]

Don't let that stop you from writing about related topics.