Talking to laypeople (or the inference gap)

Einstein once famously said that if you can’t explain it to your grandmother then you don’t understand it yourself. I’m too lazy to look it up but I’m pretty sure that when he said that he was talking about how no one really understood Quantum Mechanics because no one could explain it to anyone who didn’t know a lot of maths.

It’s been 100 years and now we understand Quantum Mechanics.

You may have noticed people still fail to teach it even to other scientists.

I think what Einstein missed in his analysis was exactly the sheer amount of time it would take to teach the really advanced topics to anyone. Many fields of knowledge, science most of all, have been built throughout the centuries. Human knowledge has been waxing by the day and it always builds upon previous knowledge.

So you can imagine just how frustrating it is when you discover the true behaviour of subatomic structures and you try explaining it to a journalist and their headline is “Quantum collapse: proof that souls exist!”

There is a reason why scientists, especially the ones working on fringe science, on discovering the new things, are so unwilling to talk to people outside their areas of expertise about their field. They have a hard time explaining to each other what their work is about, they’re creating new words to even be able to communicate those concepts. And then some silly journalist wants a nice soundbite about some recent discovery on QED and expects to be able to actually understand it and pass that knowledge on. And they get angry if you tell them they couldn’t possibly understand that.

But of course they couldn’t, they haven’t studied what they needed to!

Yudkowsky sometimes entertains the idea that maybe if Science was some Secret Conspiracy with an Initiation and Grandmasters and Secret Rituals more people would be interested in it. I can certainly see his point. People seem to think that since all of scientific knowledge is free it’s worthless and also should be easy to understand. If it had any value people would charge for it, no? It wouldn’t be available to everyone.

The thing is, it isn’t available to everyone. It takes dedication and discipline and study and hard work and years of practice before you can actually do science. And when that happens, you have a lot of knowledge. You’re starting to grok concepts that are too far removed from our daily intuitions created to deal with food running in the savannah. And this gigantic body of knowledge you built throughout your years of study since you were a freshman is what’s called an inference gap between you and anyone who hasn’t studied the same things you have. It isn’t directly measurable in any strict sense, but it’s intuitively the distance between the knowledge needed to understand a concept and the knowledge possessed by the person who wants to learn it. It’s what they have to understand before they can understand the matter at hand.

To understand General Relativity you need to learn basic maths, basic geometry, calculus, differential geometry and mechanics. Each of these fields can be further expanded and elaborated upon, showing exactly what needs to be learned. It’s complicated enough that the textbooks needed to learn all of that can be piled up and serve as a table for four. Perhaps more than four.

It’s impossible to make a layperson truly understand what you’re working on, if it’s too removed from our daily reality, without having to teach them everything you had to learn before. Yes, you can certainly teach Quantum Mechanics to your grandmother, but only after she has already learned linear algebra.

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