Simple but important ideas

Somewhat related:

The Center for Communicating Science, together with Alan Alda, is sponsoring what they call the Flame Challenge: Answer the question – “What is a flame?” – in a way that an 11-year-old would find intelligible "and maybe even fun."

As a curious 11-year-old, Alan Alda asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” She replied: “It’s oxidation.” Alda went on to win fame as an actor and writer, became an advocate for clear communication of science, and helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He never stop

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In my current mood I would guess that non explanations such as "oxidation" are to some extent are responsible for the Romantic reaction against the scientific endeavor. It can be hard to take joy in the merely real if those explaining the merely real aren't very good at it.

Simple but important ideas

by John_Maxwell 1 min read21st Mar 201220 comments


Important ideas don't always require long explanations. Here's a famous example:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind… Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

This is a single paragraph on the third page of a 50 page report. Maybe someone who's good at parsing 60s era academic English can tell us if the rest is any good.

It seems like anyone who has an idea they want people to take seriously has to write a bunch about it. This is most apparent in popular nonfiction books, which are often bloated far beyond what it takes to communicate the core ideas.

To correct this "presentation length bias", we can fight it from both ends:

  • Remember that important ideas don't have to be in an important place, be said by an important person, or be an important length.
  • Alert readers to important ideas that don't look important (e.g. "This is a simple idea, but it seems important:"). Do this especially if it's someone else's idea, since people are going to be reluctant to label their own ideas as important.
If we get rid of this bias, the biggest win may be that people work harder to present important ideas concisely, since it won't cost them prestige anymore.