What if there was a magic superpower that simultaneously enabled you to:
- Demolish bad arguments
- Judge startup ideas
- Make scientific breakthroughs
- Solve climate change
- Understand “God”
- Be emotionally mature
- Teach concepts better
- Draw better
- Be creative
- Make small talk
- Improve discourse
- Be invisible
Amazingly, your brain does have a superpower that gives you all these powers. It’s called…
To activate the power of specificity, all you have to do is ask yourself the question, “What’s an example of that?” Or more bluntly, “Can I be more specific?” And then you unleash a ton of power in a surprisingly broad variety of domains.
It's an open secret in the rationality community how powerful this skill is of being specific. Eliezer captured the essence of it in his 2012 post, Be Specific. In it, he comments on the difficulty of teaching people specificity skills for the first time:
When I’m talking to anyone outside the local LessWrong community, I find that a very large amount of my conversation involves repeatedly asking them to be more specific.
He also describes how CFAR's Applied Rationality Workshops teach the power of specificity by osmosis. I can vouch that my personal experience as a workshop attendee fits this description:
Attendees picked [specificity] up from all the instructors having to repeatedly ask the attendees to be more specific, and then having to ask them again, while being specific themselves, until the attendees picked up the rhythm by example and feedback.
I hope you're curious to unpack my list of claims about what specificity lets you do, because I’m dead serious about all of it! Except being invisible; I was kidding about that one.
So without further ado, let’s get into the specifics.
Next post: The Power to Demolish Bad Arguments
I'm excited to read and follow this sequence! Eliezer's Be Specific post is one of my favorites. And I just find myself thinking about specificity all the time. Yesterday I was at a poker meetup and my friend was giving a presentation. I was trying to take notes and come up with useful feedback. The big thing that kept coming up was, you guessed it - be specific! Same with if I'm ever giving someone feedback on writing or something.
My initial thoughts are that the two big difficulties with specificity are:
1) Often times if can be weirdly difficult to come up with examples. Me personally, there are many times where I want to communicate some good examples, and I feel like it should be reasonably easy to come up with some, but my brain just draws blanks and doesn't cooperate. And I feel like I see this in others as well.
2) Illusion of transparency. We think our non-specific statement was good enough, and don't realize that the other person is really wanting some specific examples. I feel like this usually doesn't happen at the conscious level. We don't actually think: "Hm, did I explain that well enough? Should I stop and try to get more specific? Nah, I don't think so, I think it was fine. Let's move on then." We just... sort of... keep... going.
3) I'm a huge fan of providing some sort of visual along with text. Picture, video, animation, whatever. I think a big reason for this is because the visual helps with specificity.
Thanks! Nice to hear that you were also craving some specificity content.
Hmm, I think it would be interesting if you could be on the lookout for an example of it being weirdly difficult to come up with an example! Most of the time I'd describe it as "noticeably difficult/annoying" to come up with an example, but not weirdly difficult... unless of course the claim is problematic.
On the flip side, I realize that whenever I'm making the mental effort to come up with a specific example, I'm probably wielding a lot of power to shape the discussion. Everyone else (including myself going forward) is going to be too lazy to generate their own new specifics, so they'll be discussing my chosen specific example for a long time.
I agree. On a related note, I think LW would benefit from more visuals in general because I believe it makes reading on the web easier and more pleasurable for most people. It's the same justification as for the now-accepted practice of breaking text into small paragraphs.
I haven't even started reading this fully yet but I got so excited reading the first couple sentences of parts 1-3 that I had to leave a comment (I've saved it to Pocket for in depth weekend reading).
This is exactly the type of content I have been looking for. I feel like often when I am talking with people outside of the LessWrong community I have "man with the hammer everything looks like a nail" syndrome. In other words, I use logical arguments that are lacking in persuasive power.
Looking forward to adding this to my mental models, thanks so much for sharing this information.
The internet and the world is so awesome!
Haha thanks for your comment! Yeah, when I got the idea to write this, it was the same thought: I need there to be a reference page on the internet where I can link people to every time I pull out my specificity hammer on them.
As far as I know, being specific is like half (most? (technically all?)) of the core of rational thinking and living. Looking forward to more out of this, based on what's posted so far!
Is this sequence going to become a sequence in the lesswrong content library at some point? I kind of like having things in the library page so I can go back and read the whole thing later but I noticed it's not there yet.
The ladder of abstraction goes up as well as down.
We spend a lot of time trying to descend it, being more specific (especially if we’re Paul Graham), but at times its better to be more abstract! Canonical example: Newton. The apple falling from the tree, and the Earth orbiting the sun, are specific examples, but the genius is identifying that the same forces are manipulating them on vastly different scales. (It’s also vital not to get stuck believing that the apple is flat, but that’s not important right now).
Dan Dennett has the idea of “greedy reductionism”. Dennett claims, more or less, that people have souls but the souls are made of tiny robots, ie. “neurons” and “souls” are both legitimate concepts. “Souls are JUST tiny robots and don’t really exist” he calls greedy reductionism: proverbially, not seeing the forest for the trees.
Trying to argue better, as in “ladder of inference” or double crux, is very likely to involve moving up and down the ladder of abstraction, between general concepts and specific observations.
Another example of going up/down the ladder/lattice of abstraction, is also given by Paul Graham. In his essay "General and Surprising", he noted how valuable insights are generally-applicable, usually meaning abstract. However, he noted that it's often more attainable to say something more specific about already-known-to-be-important-things (as long as that more specific thing is new).
More specifically, being specific seems like it would catch more mistakes/laziness/haziness in reasoning. In contrast, being more general seems better for having new ideas, rather than getting them to specifically match reality well.