17 October 2015

No matter how good we are at explaining, we cannot directly ground all concepts for everybody.

In a video interview, Richard Feynman explained how he thinks about physics. One question asked him to explain how electro-magnetic forces work. He explained that they exist in the form they do. There is no simpler explanation to the electro-magnetic forces than that, he said.

Can we say electro-magnetic forces worked like an everyday object? He gives a counter example. Both magnetic forces and rubber bands can attract things together. He argues that such explanation is more confusing than helpful. That rubber bands depend on electro-magnetic forces to stay together and attract. But these forces are exactly the things we were trying to understand in the first place. We are back where we started from. We have created a vicious circle of reasoning, and we trying to step on top of our head.

A circular explanation never reaches solid ground, and is ineffective in explaining the purpose.


If we want to help the other person understand we can take a detour. Instead of giving a direct answer, we can teach them solid physics and mathematics first. Once they have understood the basics, we can introduce the concept.

Without science foundation, the other side has no common ground with the nature of magnetism. Any explanation would be futile, or even worse - misleading and backfiring in the future. It is up to us to find out what they know or don’t know already that can relate to the idea and use it to explain it. We need to adjust our message, and in the case when there is no common ground… we have to build it.

We can only keep a handful of things in our working memory at a time. This limits which things we can explain without the other side losing interest. Still, keeping them interested along the way, makes our job of explaining so much more interesting. We still need to use clear and non-misleading examples and logic. But we also need to provide incentives for other person to put the effort.

For concepts like this, taking shortcuts in explanation will make them appear magical. There will always be a hole their comprehension. It is inevitable that we will need to cover this hole with a trust-me-this-is-how-it-works. We can gradually fill parts of the hole with clear, grounded explanation. But we need to be careful not to create a lot of small and hard to fill holes.

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