Monday, January 18, 2016

Breaking the knowledge barrier: Steven Pinker versus Albert Einstein on the “curse of knowledge”

The “curse of knowledge” concept and its limitations
When a professor, accomplished in his discipline, proves unable to explain it, someone is bound to declare that the scholar has forgot what it’s like to be ignorant—that he forgot because of his great learning. But I doubt many who make this excuse are truly convinced that it’s true: who regards mediocrity in their field, even at elementary levels of instruction, a recommendation for a teacher. Even introductory students prefer the full professor to the graduate teaching assistant. Just idolatry of status? Probably not, as we don’t seem to find even a minority faction favoring the mediocre as their instructors. The canard’s initial plausibility is due to the evidence, both scientific and casual, that known information can be impossible to ignore. An example, familiar to lawyers, is the futility of instructing jurors to ignore evidence. When we, like the jurors, are called upon to imagine or recall its lack, the additional knowledge can harm our performance.

Steven Pinker notices that writers face exactly this difficulty. (The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014)) This is the “curse of knowledge,” and writers with the greatest knowledge are especially cursed. Pinker isn’t the first to decry failure to write from the readers’ point of view or even to conclude it’s the major impediment to good writing. The “writing from the reader’s perspective” approach was pioneered by George D. Gopen. Pinker’s “curse” takes the insight a half step too far by neglecting the ways greater subject-matter knowledge is the remedy for the writer’s natural egocentrism. The remedial effect of subject-matter knowledge explains why students prefer eminent professors and why the greatest scientists are often the most effective expositors of basic subject matter.

Albert Einstein’s classic-prose style
For insight into the literary power bestowed by deep knowledge, consider Einstein’s writing style, described by C. P. Snow:
All of [the three early papers] are written in a style unlike any other theoretical physicist’s. They contain very little mathematics. There is a good deal of verbal commentary. The conclusions, the bizarre conclusions, emerge as though with the greatest of ease: the reasoning is unbreakable. It looks as though he had reached the conclusions by pure thought unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done.
Einstein didn’t betray the standard he expressed when he wrote that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. This is the precept Pinker fails to confront.

A certain kind of expert lends false credence to the curse-of-knowledge. Typically this sort of expert has a prodigious memory without corresponding development of reasoning powers. A prodigious memory is possibly an impediment to developing reasoning powers (presidential candidate Ted Cruz provides an example); Einstein complained of finding it difficult to memorize facts and names.

Puzzle and resolution
We’re presented a puzzle: how to reconcile superiority of experts as teachers of basic subject matter with the demonstrated inferiority of the knowledgeable in predicting the knowledge store of the unknowledgeable?

Favorably countervailing effects must be stronger than the detriment to explain why the professor is a better teacher than the most talented graduate student – despite the graduate student’s better recollection of his undergraduate struggles. Countervailing effects explain why Einstein and Russell are better explainers of relativity theory than the college professors. Expertise has two opposed effects. 1) Experts become less able to predict what the novice will learn. 2) Experts, once informed of what the novice believes, are better at identifying what the novice lacks. A simple example: a lesson taught to a young child by an older child and by a grammarian in use of “I” rather than “me” in a compound subject. An older student will be less surprised by the error than will a grammarian, but the grammarian will understand what the younger child lacks, which is an understanding that the compounding of the subject doesn’t change case. Although the young child won’t understand the reasoning, tacit help may be fashioned through examples.

The knowledgeable teacher is bad at predicting what the student knows, but knows what’s lacking in the student’s knowledge. The understanding the knowledgeable teacher leverages, the expert who writes in his field must impart. The expert must compensate for weak concrete grasp of readers’ information by strong abstract grasp of what is absent in the readers’ understanding. Formally, this is expressed in subordination of near-mode to far-mode, the distinctive feature of classic prose. Pinker’s version of the “curse of knowledge” deprioritizes further research and thought in writing a clearer legal brief. More research and more thought is often the route to a clearer legal brief. Deeper understanding is often the only remedy for unclarity.

Pinker in tension with the classic-prose style
Contrast with the solution Pinker favors based on the curse of knowledge: feedback from representative readers. Feedback is valuable for testing the soundness of argument, but for this, the writer requires other experts, not typical readers, and in legal brief writing, the writer rarely has the opportunity for feedback from the target audience—a judge.

The classic-prose style truly isn’t congenial to fiddling based on stylistic feedback. This style isn’t ideally directed to a particular audience. It contains its own devices to achieve universality. 

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