Good Explanations Are Hard to Vary

A good explanation can not be modified or molded to fit when new information contradicts it. It predicts situations that are both known and unknown. The domain of its meaning and applicability is not yours to specify.

Contrast that to a bad explanation—like a myth of winter caused by Persophone visiting Hades—which can be altered to fit new observations while resulting in the same prediction. It has no error-correcting mechanisms and the myth can always be constrained or expanded to apply to any situation.

See also:

  • Degrees of Souledness

    People tend to think of objects and living things as having a soul or not having a soul when really it’s a continuous scale of souledness. For example, people reject the idea of eating certain animals like cats but not chickens, we remark about how, after a major cognitive decline due to old age, that person “isn’t all there”. There is a continuous assignment we make as to the degree of souledness in everything we see and interact with.

  • The Quest for Good Explanations Is Error Correcting

    The process of seeking out good explanations is error correcting. It is tolerant of dissent with a healthy dose of skepticism and distrust of authority. It means that explanations are rejected when they are contradicted by better explanations.

  • Writing Makes Ideas Rigid

    Writing is like taking an idea and turning it into a rigid object. When ideas are fluid they become flexible and imprecise, able to fill into whatever context is needed—those “that’s not what I meant” moments and contradictions others allow us to have in conversations.

  • Humans Transform Inhospitable Environments into Support Systems for Themselves

    A popular view of the environment, “Spaceship Earth”, is that the planet provides just the right biosphere to support human life. That is misleading because humans are actually ill suited to living in most places. Take for example living in New York—you would freeze to death come winter if not for shelter, clothing, access to clean water, and food. This is technology that humans created to transform inhospitable environments into systems that support human life.

  • Is Macroeconomics Useful?

    One question I find myself coming back to is whether or not macroeconomics is a useful source of explanations.

  • Multiple Explanations at Different Levels of Emergence Are Not Inconsistent

    A reductionist argument against an explanation might be that it is incorrect because there are multiple explanations of the same phenomena. If good explanations are hard to vary, how could there be multiple explanations? This argument doesn’t take into account that multiple explanations can exist at different levels of emergence and this is not altogether inconsistent.

  • Problems Are Soluble

    All problems are soluble with the right knowledge. That doesn’t mean we know the solution already, but that the pursuit of good explanations will lead to progress towards one. It also doesn’t mean that all problems are solvable—there exists undecidable problems too (like a mathematical proof that proves something is undecidable) but even that provides something soluble (the absence of a solution) and new knowledge can be created (what if this undecidable theorem were true?).

  • Elaboration Leads to Understanding

    An overlooked part of understanding information and not merely memorizing it, is to elaborate on the meaning of something you just learned. When taking notes, it’s easy to end up with a detailed list of things without actually understanding the content. Without connecting the ideas with what you already know, you can’t attach the ideas to any scaffolding that would be needed for generating new ideas later (or even recall them).

  • Knowledge Collapse

    Knowledge collapse is the paradox where increasing access to certain types of knowledge actually harms understanding.

  • Good Explanations Trilema

    You can spot bad explanations similar to the way you can spot bad arguments using the Münchhausen trilemma.

  • Biologists Don’t Make Good Medical Doctors

    Deeply theoretical fields don’t necessarily translate to highly practical fields. Economists don’t typically do well as investors. Just because biologists know a lot about the inner workings of the human body, doesn’t mean they make great medical doctors.

  • Reductionists View High-Level Behavior as Consisting of Lower-Level Behavior Only

    The reductionist view of science is that all high-level behavior consists of the underlying lower-level behavior and should be analyzed into components to fully understand. However, good explanations can be self-contained and sufficient without needing an explanation of every low-level detail. For example, you can have a theory of how water boils that doesn’t need to predict movement of individual atoms.

  • Parochial Errors Happen When You Have a Narrow View

    A parochial error happens when you falsely believe that something in your narrow view of the world applies more broadly than it does. For example, thinking the seasons everywhere around the earth in the same way as your home town because that’s what you personally experience.

  • The Anthropic Principle Says the Universe Is the Way That it Is Because We Exist

    The fact that humans exist with the capacity to observe and theorize about the universe is the explanation for the universe being the way that it is. The physics that creates the preconditions for intelligent life means that intelligent life could only ever observe this kind of universe. If other universes don’t support intelligent life, they will have different physics from our universe and, potentially, our physics is universal to intelligent life.

  • Answer Required, Not Necessarily a Good One

    There are many times in business when an answer is required. A customer asking you a question about your product. An investor asking you about the market. A sales lead asking you about competitors.

  • Mimas Has a Subsurface Ocean

    Astronomers found that Mimas has an ocean underneath it’s surface by observing and modeling it’s orbit. They found a backwards precession in the moon’s orbit meaning the shape of the elliptical orbit rotates backwards. It was previously believed the core of Mimas was solid, but if that were true, the orbit would not have a precession. After additionaly modeling, the only explanation is that it must be filled with water under the surface.