Near and far skills

bycousin_it 10y19th Oct 200934 comments


Robin Hanson has repeatedly pointed out the difference between near and far modes of thinking, and Alicorn has repeatedly pointed out the difference between procedural and propositional knowledge. Just occurred to me that it's pretty much the same difference. I will now proceed to play some obvious riffs on the theme.

Do you ever feel yourself to be an expert on some topic just from reading about it a lot? Every young enthusiastic programmer just entering the workforce feels like that. (I certainly did.) Every wannabe entrepreneur who hangs out on Hacker News and has read enough Paul Graham essays feels they can take on the world by just applying those valuable insights. (I certainly did.) It's soooo fun to feel knowledgeable, maybe even project it outward by giving Internet advice to newbies. The public relations department of my brain doesn't seem to care that I have no actual experience: reading stuff is quite enough to change my self-image.

The problem is, excessively liking propositional knowledge over procedural is a bias that harms us every day. Though some information is directly useful, most of it is worthless. A couple days ago I had to give advice to a classmate of mine who wants to start his own "thing" but isn't sure. See, he has this theory that one should accumulate propositional knowledge until one reaches critical mass, at which point the successful venture happens by itself. Being the wise and experienced mentor that I am (hah... on my second "thing", without much success), I told him outright that his theory was bullshit. Propositional knowledge doesn't spontaneously turn into procedural.

(Digression: come to think, I'm not even sure why we need the kinds of propositional knowledge that we tend to accumulate. It reeks of a superstimulus. I know more about programming that I'll ever need for work or play, but don't remember the birthdays of all my acquaintances, which would obviously be more useful. Memorizing birthdays just isn't as exciting as reading about comonads or whatever.)

At this point I sincerely wish I had a recipe for overcoming this bias. Like pjeby, he always has a recipe. Well, I don't. Maybe perceiving the bias will turn out to be enough; maybe some kind of social software thing can help cure it on a mass scale, like is trying to cure Bowling Alone; or maybe each of us will have to apply force, the oldskool way. It's too early to say.

Thank me for never mentioning the example of riding a bicycle.