For me personally, a long career in a particular public service sector has made me surprisingly efficient at smilingly, politely ignoring what people say and digging out information from an unwilling audience. When someone drops a blanket 'You must fulfil condition Y to truly understand foo' statement,I respond by seeing it as an interrogatory challenge :-)

When people try to push me off with a 'I can't explain' or 'You need more experience' type of response, I usually deflect it by nodding, smiling broadly, and saying something along the lines of "I'm very smart, interested in your thought process, and have the patience to sit here while you figure out how to say what it is you want to say,' or 'The best way for me to get experience is to learn from someone with it.'. I find in these situations a little bit of an ego jab also works wonders in getting people to enunciate their opinions - YMMV. Refer to your local Zen Master for tips and tricks.

Also, asking leading but open questions can help people articulate their rationalisations in a way that they hadn't considered before. I like to raise contrary-hypotheses - 'What would need to be different about the real world for this theory not to work?' / 'If I/You were wrong about X, how would we be able to tell?'.

People who have a great depth of expertise in an area will often be cozignant of other people in that ideaspace who they mildly or strongly disagree with, and sometimes by getting people to differentiate between themselves and other thinkers, they might be able to articulate their points a little

If I'm in a teaching situation, I'll usually try and find a gaming metaphor that will fit. "International share transfer pricing is the end boss of tax law. You're still halfway through the main quest and you don't have all the items you need yet'. More generally, I fall back on car driving / plane flying / SCUBA diving analogies, as they're all pretty unviersally understood, even in the abstract.

One final alternative - and I use this on precociously inquiring children more than adults - is to deflect into academia/ "Gee, that's an interesting question about black holes, what does your Encyclopaedia of Space say?"

Non-communicable Evidence

by adamzerner 1 min read17th Nov 201549 comments


In this video, Douglas Crockford (JavaScript MASTER) says:

So I think programming would not be possible without System I; without the gut. Now, I have absolutely no evidence to support that statement, but my gut tells me it's true, so I believe it.



I don't think he has "absolutely no evidence". In worlds where DOUGLAS CROCKFORD has a gut feeling about something related to programming, how often does that gut feeling end up being correct? Probably a lot more than 50% of the time. So according to Bayes, his gut feeling is definitely evidence.

The problem isn't that he lacks evidence. It's that he lacks communicable evidence. He can't say "I believe A because X, Y and Z." The best he could do is say, "just trust me, I have a feeling about this".

Well, "just trust me, I have a feeling about this" does qualify as evidence if you have a good track record, but my point is that he can't communicate the rest of the evidence his brain used to produce the resulting belief.



How do you handle a situation where you're having a conversation with someone and they say, "I can't explain why I believe X; I just do."

Well, as far as updating beliefs, I think the best you could do is update on the track record of the person. I don't see any way around it. For example, you should update your beliefs when you hear Douglas Crockford say that he has a gut feeling about something related to programming. But I don't see how you could do any further updating of your beliefs. You can't actually see the evidence he used, so you can't use it to update your beliefs. If you do, the Bayes Police will come find you.

Perhaps it's also worth trying to dig the evidence out of the other persons subconscious.

  • If the person has a good track record, maybe you could say, "Hmm, you have a good track record so I'm sad to hear that you're struggling to recall why it is you believe what you do. I'd be happy to wait for you to spend some time trying to dig it up."
  • Maybe there are some techniques that can be used to "dig evidence out of one's subconscious". I don't know of any, but maybe they exist.



Ok, now let's talk about what you shouldn't do. You shouldn't say, "Well if you can't provide any evidence, you shouldn't believe what you do." The problem with that statement is that it assumes that the person has "no evidence". This was addressed in Section 1. It's akin to saying, "Well Douglas Crockford, you're telling me that you believe X and you have a fantastic track record, but I don't know anything about why you believe it, so I'm not going to update my beliefs at all, and you shouldn't either."

Brains are weird and fantastic thingys. They process information and produce outputs in the form of beliefs (amongst other things). Sometimes they're nice and they say, "Ok Adam - here is what you believe, and here is why you believe it". Other times they're not so nice and the conversation goes like this:

Brain: Ok Adam, here is what you think.

Adam: Awesome, thanks! But wait - why do I think that?

Brain: Fuck you, I'm not telling.

Adam: Fuck me? Fuck you!

Brain: Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?!!!

Just because brains could be mean doesn't mean they should be discounted.