Distillation & Pedagogy

Distillation is the process of taking a complex subject, and making it easier to understand. Pedagogy is the method and practice of teaching. A good intellectual pipeline requires not just discovering new ideas, but making it easier for newcomers to learn them, stand on the shoulders of giants, and discover even more ideas.

Chris Olah, founder of distill.pub, writes in his essay Research Debt:

Programmers talk about technical debt: there are ways to write software that are faster in the short run but problematic in the long run. Managers talk about institutional debt: institutions can grow quickly at the cost of bad practices creeping in. Both are easy to accumulate but hard to get rid of.

Research can also have debt. It comes in several forms:

  • Poor Exposition – Often, there is no good explanation of important ideas and one has to struggle to understand them. This problem is so pervasive that we take it for granted and don’t appreciate how much better things could be.
  • Undigested Ideas – Most ideas start off rough and hard to understand. They become radically easier as we polish them, developing the right analogies, language, and ways of thinking.
  • Bad abstractions and notation – Abstractions and notation are the user interface of research, shaping how we think and communicate. Unfortunately, we often get stuck with the first formalisms to develop even when they’re bad. For example, an object with extra electrons is negative, and pi is wrong.
  • Noise – Being a researcher is like standing in the middle of a construction site. Countless papers scream for your attention and there’s no easy way to filter or summarize them.Because most work is explained poorly, it takes a lot of energy to understand each piece of work. For many papers, one wants a simple one sentence explanation of it, but needs to fight with it to get that sentence. Because the simplest way to get the attention of interested parties is to get everyone’s attention, we get flooded with work. Because we incentivize people being “prolific,” we get flooded with a lot of work… We think noise is the main way experts experience research debt.

The insidious thing about research debt is that it’s normal. Everyone takes it for granted, and doesn’t realize that things could be different. For example, it’s normal to give very mediocre explanations of research, and people perceive that to be the ceiling of explanation quality. On the rare occasions that truly excellent explanations come along, people see them as one-off miracles rather than a sign that we could systematically be doing better.

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