The Sad Truth of Inferential Distance

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Some people wonder why it takes several dozen or more essays to explain my point. Why can’t I just explain why God does not exist or give a complete account for morality in a couple of sentences, or just one essay? Why do they need to read so much? The answer is because of the problem of large inferential distance which I first encountered in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay “Expecting Short Inferential Distances”. I will now, ironically, explain the concept of inferential distance in just one essay.

To start explaining, I begin with an analogy: Imagine trying to explain to a young-earth creationist why evolution is viewed as so obviously true. I don’t do this to say that you’re the obviously wrong creationist and I’m the noble biologist out to explain science to you that you just don’t get because you’re stupid. That’s not an accurate description of where we stand (nor is it an accurate description of where creationists stand). It’s just a good example to explain my point — bear with me.


Anyways, imagine trying to explain to a young-earth creationist why evolution is viewed as so obviously true.

It isn’t so easy. No matter how true evolution is, and how friggin obvious it is to biologists, there just is no one single sentence that would make a young-earth creationist go “Ah ha! I get it! I see the error of my ways! How could I have been so wrong for so long?”. Not even a paragraph can do it, even if it is about something as monumental as how the genetic similarity of animals as confirmed by DNA sequencing clearly creates a neat tree of ancestry.

…Not even a long essay can do it. …Not even a few dozen long essays can do it. …Not even an entire website, containing over one hundred such long essays in defense of evolution, natural selection, and common descent, including many that from my perspective completely skewer any hope of young-earth creationism being considered a serious position, is able to convince a young-earth creationist to change his or her mind.

We might wonder why this is?


How Do We Argue Evolution?

Many people would hypothesize that such young-earth creationists are “impervious to evidence”, “unwilling to see reason”, “too stubborn to understand”, “too stupid to understand”, or “not even care about what is true”. This is perhaps an accurate description of quite many creationists, but not all of them. And some of the other creationists are impervious/unwilling/stubborn/stupid/uncaring for a reason that they can probably be argued out of, even if only in principle.

In fact, I know an intelligent young earth creationist who is just simply mislead by what evolution is, what the evidence for evolution is, or how evolution functions. And I think that there is a path to him changing his views, with a lot of argumentation.

But it would take a lot of argumentation: first we would have to debate whether it is circular to believe in the Bible because the Bible says so, then debate why the Bible should not be considered good evidence about biological fact, then debate why we can accept evidence that contradicts the literal Bible, then debate how this evidence should be understood, then debate why we should go with the most likely hypothesis even if we can’t be absolutely certain, then debate the scientific method, then debate the age of the earth, then debate what evolution is and entails, then debate why biologists believe in evolution, then debate why each and every of many dozen alleged problems of evolution are fallacious or misleading, then clear up a few philosophical misconceptions, and then we might emerge on the other side with an agreement about evolution.

There’s no way to short-cut this. There’s no way that we could get to the bottom of this without perhaps months of discussion. This is why creationists and biologists don’t agree — it isn’t stupidity, it’s just so much prerequisite material needs to be cleared up before we can even begin to discuss the merits of evolution as an explanation for the evidence.


What is Inferential Distance?

Biologists talking to other biologists can easily justify evolution by saying “it’s the simplest explanation” and then providing a few paragraphs of research. But to the layperson, they have close to no idea what it means for an explanation to be simple, or what biologists look for in explanations, why we should care about whether our explanations are simple, or why being the simplest explanation is enough to conclusively justify a theory. They might just see “simplest explanation” as a word that is thrown around, like “magnetism” or “conduction”. They don’t see the massive amount of concepts bundled into the four word phrase.

On the other hand, it’s easy to explain to people why they need to buy a new pair of shoes: both people clearly share the same conception of “shoe” with no disagreement; both people understand clearly that broken shoes are not socially accepted and know what it means for a shoe to be “broken” and what it means to be “socially accepted”. It’s obvious to just point to someone “Dude, your shoes are broken, you should buy a new pair”. It’s not obvious to just point out to someone “Dude, evolution is the simplest explanation, you should no longer be a creationist”.


This is the idea of inferential distance: in many cases, people don’t share the same understanding of concepts or agree in previous lines of argument, and these previous steps need to be addressed before we can get to debate the current step. Often, there are many such steps, and we end up with the extended debate between the creationist and the biologist.

The size of the inferential distance is thus how many steps need to be discussed before we can get to the matter at hand — the size is very small between biologists discussing evolution, but quite large between the creationist and biologist.

And thus the problem of large inferential distance: I need to write many essays one-at-a-time and gain agreement on many concepts one at a time before I can even hope to, for example, convince someone why they should become a vegetarian. The idea of having a reason to be vegetarian sounds not just wrong but outright crazy to some people… that’s because, I would argue, the inferential distance.


Why Inferential Distance?

After learning about how large inferential distance can be, I was shocked.

My first theory of explanations was taken after Albert Einstein, who famously said “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” I thought that I would just study something so hard that I would truly grasp it, and then come up with a few paragraphs so clear and lucid that anyone who read it would just grasp it immediately. My argument for atheism would be so clear and convincing that anyone who walked away from it would either become an atheist too.

But then I found that clear and convincing essay in Richard Carrier’s “Why I Am not a Christian” (titled after the famous Bertrand Russel essay), yet the smart Christians I linked this to didn’t convert. They just babbled some counterarguments that didn’t make sense, yet explaining why these counter-arguments didn’t make sense also didn’t yield mutual agreement, just more senseless counterarguments.


Thus my second theory of explanations: I was naïve, many people just don’t care about the truth or want to understand their ally like I do. Other people were just hopelessly irrational and incapable of understanding the truth, even if given the most clear explanation physically possible. There would just be no helping these people, and I will instead focus my efforts on convincing those who are self-described rational truth-seekers like me.

But this didn’t sit well — it seemed too easy to just dismiss large swaths of the population, including some of my very intelligent 4.0 GPA friends, as not just woefully incompetent but actually incapable of understanding the truth, even if it were communicated to them. It also made me wonder why these people couldn’t just dismiss me for exactly the same reason.


Thus my third and current theory of explanations: after learning inferential distance, I realized that I had been naïve again — no-one was absolutely hopeless, there was just a lot of prerequisite material to go over before we could get to the big questions like whether Obama or Ron Paul is better for the country, or whether abortion should be legal. I also recognized that these prerequisites could go either way, and maybe I could be swayed to be a pro-life Christian Ron Paul supporter… though I doubted it. …I would just need to set aside a month or a year to discuss with these people and find out.

But upon further thought, I realized this idea of inferential distance was the whole reason education existed the way it is: we go through almost two dozen years of schooling, spending several thousand hours of study-time on learning how the world works. This is because multivariate calculus cannot be communicated in one lucid paragraph, but requires instruction in derivatives, which requires instruction in limits, which requires instruction in algebra, which requires instruction in multiplication, with many concepts in between.

Inferential distance is a real thing — there are some positions which are true, but will take months if not years of discussing material to come to understand, even if the process is as efficient and clear as possible. There’s no way out, no short-cut, no get-out-of-inferential-distance-free card. Those lazy “tl;dr” people just won’t learn, and will be left behind forever.

So I suppose Albert Einstein was right. You indeed don’t truly understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother. But this explanation might take months of discussion, so it probably isn’t a practical test of your skills as an explainer or understander.


But How Can the Distance Be So Large?

Now that we know about inferential distance, I’d like to end with a discussion of how it got to be so large. Why do we live in a world where things take years to explain? This answer is ironically simple and easy to explain: there’s been a long history of knowledge, and it’s all built upon itself.

It takes a lot to truly understand something, because we’ve had thousand of years to learn so much. Back in the times of the Middle Ages, it was easy to understand why the sky is sometimes bluish, because so little was understood about the sky. It would have been easy to become an expert, if only the sum of human knowledge was so easily communicated via the internet, all else being equal. But now to get a complete account, you have to learn about how eyes perceive color, how light works, how refraction works, the composure of the atmosphere, and Rayleigh scattering, each of which involve many subconcepts. Even if you could master one concept in a week, it would take a few months to get it all.


Now imagine it for a more complex topic, like morality, cosmology, or artificial intelligence. It will take years to fully explain it, and there just is no other way to go about it. The good news is that it can be explained, you can master it, if you try and dedicate your life to it. The sad truth is that it will take so much time. There is a sad truth of inferential distance.

We don’t just stand on the shoulder of giants, we stand on a long series of giants standing on giants, standing on giants, standing on giants, standing on giants, standing on giants.

And if you don’t know what the first giant demonstrated to be true, you will have to start learning all the way from the bottom until you can get to the current field.

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7 Comments (RSS)

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  1. Garren says:

    I’m definitely feeling the distance as I try to write a response to the “evolution is just ridiculous” talk that’s next in this apologetics series. Figure the best I can do is give some sense of what young Earth creationism looks like from the outside and give some small reason to question it from the inside. But that’s just putting up the posts on two sides of the bridge isn’t there yet.

  2. The best hope I see for a tidy response is the one I see in “A Commonsense Argument for Evolution”, appealing to the insanity of postulating a conspiracy theory on the magnitude that creationists do. But, as you know, that alone is just a mere step on the way to really “getting it”, let alone getting it enough to provisionally adopt evolution.

    I look forward to your essay, though. I’ve really been enjoying the series so far.

  3. joseph says:

    If it helps the breaking point for me was something like:

    1. The bible is literal, except where it is stated to be metaphorical, or references to earlier metaphors are being made.
    2. Evolution can’t happen
    3. Noah needed every species on the Ark.
    4. For that to happen we needed more miracles than are ever mentioned.

    Despite this, I didn’t immediatley ditch my faith, partly due to age, having friends in the faith, fear of annihilation etc. Letting logic go wasn’t too hard, as basically excepting miracles was basically a case of “your logic will not work here”. Having said that, it was a question when i quietly asked it to myself, I knew I couldn’t answer. So there was a different way of dealing with the problem in public, and in private.

  4. Garren says:

    I took some advice from here. Thanks!

  5. TheScienceGimp says:

    Hey Peter,

    “But it would take a lot of argumentation: first we would have to debate whether it is circular to believe in the Bible because the Bible say….”. That entire paragraph essentially detailed how I, (Biology graduate) was able to explain to my girlfriend at the time (quite literally ~months to a year), why evolution was true.

    Anyway fantastic expansion and explanation of inferential distances with a perfect example.

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