Aim to explain, not persuade

by lsusr1 min read31st Oct 20206 comments



I love Less Wrong's Frontpage comment guidelines. I especially love the first guideline "Aim to explain, not persuade". The guideline averts arguments, improves my persuasiveness and enhances my intellectual triage.

Intellectual Triage

It is easy to tell if a field is garbage when you are an expert in the field. But it is a waste of time to become an expert in a garbage field. You should figure out if a field is garbage before you decide whether to become an expert in it.

Till one knows better, it's hard to distinguish something that's hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that's hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand.

How to Do Philosophy by Paul Graham

It is often impossible for a non-expert to determine whether an expert is telling the truth. But it is easy for a non-expert to determine whether an expert is attempting to tell a coherent truth. Coherent truth is specific, falsifiable, unambiguous and precise.

The opposite of coherence is bullshit. Bullshit is vague, unfalsifiable, ambiguous and generic. You can cut through bullshit by communicating via positive statements. Don't waste your time cutting holes in an argument that was never intended to hold water. Instead, ask "How do you know?" and "What do you mean by ?". If you cannot quickly climb down to self-evident reality then your interlocutor is not worth your attention.

In other words, "aim to explain, not persuade".

Truth and falsehood are parity inversions of the same meme. If someone convinces you of a falsehood then you can repair the damage with a checksum and a single bit flip. Bullshit is worse than falsehoods because if you eat bullshit then it will gunk up your epistemic failsafes.

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Truth of statements has nothing to do with clarity of their meaning. Explaining is about meaning, not truth. Asserting truth of a statement is persuasion, but giving evidence for it explains something other than the statement, so it's not about explaining the statement.

Clarity of meaning is a prerequisite to truth because ambiguity is neither true nor false.

Many constructions (such as hypotheticals and mathematical structures) are not intended to be judged by some canonical notion of truth. The constructions themselves can be communicated when we are not yet discussing truth of statements about them. And then it's truth of the statements, not of the constructions.


Don't was your time -> Don't waste your time