In this short clip (below), Feynman articulates the difference between knowing the name of something and understanding it.
See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.
In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that's all right. It's a good idea to try to see the difference, and it's a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.
There is a first grade science book which, in the first lesson of the first grade, begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science, because it starts off with the wrong idea of what science is. There is a picture of a dog–a windable toy dog–and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says “What makes it move?” Later on, there is a picture of a real dog and the question, “What makes it move?” Then there is a picture of a motorbike and the question, “What makes it move?” and so on.
I thought at first they were getting ready to tell what science was going to be about–physics, biology, chemistry–but that wasn't it. The answer was in the teacher's edition of the book: the answer I was trying to learn is that “energy makes it move.”
Now, energy is a very subtle concept. It is very, very difficult to get right. What I mean is that it is not easy to understand energy well enough to use it right, so that you can deduce something correctly using the energy idea–it is beyond the first grade. It would be equally well to say that “God makes it move,” or “spirit makes it move,” or “movability makes it move.” (In fact, one could equally well say “energy makes it stop.”)
Look at it this way: that’s only the definition of energy; it should be reversed. We might say when something can move that it has energy in it, but not what makes it move is energy. This is a very subtle difference. It's the same with this inertia proposition.
Perhaps I can make the difference a little clearer this way: If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.
What a good way to begin a science course! Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That's good. The question is fine. The answer is a little unfortunate, because what they were trying to do is teach a definition of what is energy. But nothing whatever is learned.
I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad.
There is a way to test whether you understand the idea or only know the definition. It's called the Feynman Technique and it looks like this:
Test it this way: you say, “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.” Without using the word “energy,” tell me what you know now about the dog's motion.” You cannot. So you learned nothing about science. That may be all right. You may not want to learn something about science right away. You have to learn definitions. But for the very first lesson, is that not possibly destructive?
We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?
And what a find this turned out to be. Lamott's advice is down to earth, real, and void of any pretentiousness. In fact, it's one of the best books I've ever come across on writing.
Getting started is often the hardest part of writing.
The very first thing I tell my new students … is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out. Year after year my students are bursting with stories to tell, and they start writing projects with excitement and maybe even joy— finally their voices will be heard, and they are going to get to devote themselves to this one thing they’ve longed to do since childhood. But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.
You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind— a scene, a locale, a character, whatever— and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched– like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk.
Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive.
To be a good writer you need reverence and awe.
In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?
Let's think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.
There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness.
Drama is how the writer holds the attention of the reader through an arc.
The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff—just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give? Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. So, in fact, will the audience. And eventually the audience will become impatient, disappointed, and unhappy. There must be movement.
You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you as you move toward the other side of the pond, needing only the barest of connections— such as rhythm, tone, or mood.
Commenting on Alice Adams' short story formula of ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending, Lammott writes:
You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot— the drama, the actions, the tension— will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?
A formula can be a great way to get started. And it feels so great finally to dive into the water; maybe you splash around and flail for a while, but at least you’re in. Then you start doing whatever stroke you can remember how to do, and you get this scared feeling inside you— of how hard it is and how far there is to go— but still you’re in, and you’re afloat, and you’re moving.
The act of writing is its own reward.
But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do— the actual act of writing— turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.
I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.
Lamott uses index cards to not only help her remember things in an otherwise busy world but as an aid to creativity.
I like to think that Henry James said his classic line, “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” while looking for his glasses, and that they were on top of his head. We have so much to remember these days. So we make all these lists, filled with hope that they will remind us of all the important things to do and buy and mail, all the important calls we need to make, all the ideas we have for short stories or articles. And yet by the time you get around to everything on any one list, you’re already behind on another. Still, I believe in lists and I believe in taking notes, and I believe in index cards for doing both.
Now, I have a number of writer friends who do not take notes out there in the world, who say it’s like not taking notes in class but listening instead. I think that if you have the kind of mind that retains important and creative thoughts— that is, if your mind still works— you’re very lucky and you should not be surprised if the rest of us do not want to be around you. I actually have one writer friend— whom I think I will probably be getting rid of soon— who said to me recently that if you don’t remember it when you get home, it probably wasn’t that important. And I felt eight years old again, with something important to say that had suddenly hopped down one of the rabbit holes in my mind, while an adult nearby was saying priggishly, “Well ! It must not have been very important then.”
So you have to decide how you feel about this. You may have a perfectly good memory and be able to remember three hours later what you came up with while walking on the mountain or waiting at the dentist’s. And then again, you may not.
My index-card life is not efficient or well organized. Hostile, aggressive students insist on asking what I do with all my index cards. And all I can say is that I have them, I took notes on them, and the act of having written something down gives me a fifty-fifty shot at having it filed away now in my memory. If I’m working on a book or an article, and I’ve taken some notes on index cards, I keep them with that material, paperclip them to a page of rough draft where that idea or image might bring things to life. Or I stack them on my desk along with the pages for the particular chapter or article I’m working on, so I can look at them. When I get stuck or lost or the jungle drums start beating in my head, proclaiming that the jig is about to be up and I don’t know what I’m doing and the well has run dry, I’ll look through my index cards. I try to see if there’s a short assignment on any of them that will get me writing again, give me a small sense of confidence, help me put down one damn word after another, which is, let’s face it, what writing finally boils down to.
She cautions that perfectionism is not only counter-productive but blocks playfulness and thus creativity.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping -stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground— you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.
Writing is about “learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on”
Now, if you ask me, what’s going on is that we’re all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at one another. Otherwise we’d all just be barking away like Pekingese: “Ah! Stuck in the shit! And it’s your fault, you did this …” Writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein. But you can’t do that if you’re not respectful. If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you’re going to get them wrong.
And, in the end, writing makes you a better reader.
One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original. You notice how a writer paints in a mesmerizing character or era for you, without your having the sense of being given a whole lot of information, and when you realize how artfully this has happened, you may actually put the book down for a moment and savor it, just taste it.
She concludes that “writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.”
They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life : they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
If you know that something is the case, then this proposition can be stated from anywhere. In fact such knowledge aspires to a view from nowhere. That is, it aspires to a view that gets at the true nature of things because it isn't conditioned by the circumstances of the viewer. It can be transmitted throught speech or writing without loss of meaning, and expounded by a generic self that need not have any prerequisite experiences. Occupations based on universal, propositional knowledge are more prestigious, but they are also the kind that face competition from the whole world as book learning becomes more widely disseminated in the global economy. Practical know-how, on the other hand, is always tied to the experience of a particular person. It can't be downloaded, it can only be lived.
If you think of the education system for a minute you understand that we're trying to efficiently teach people to know things but not understand them. In this sense, we take a partial view of knowledge.
We take a very partial view of knowledge when we regard it as the sort of thing that can be gotten while suspended aloft in a basket. This is to separate knowing from doing, treating students like disembodied brains in jars, the better to become philosophers in baskets—these ridiculous images are merely exaggerations of the conception of knowledge that enjoys the greatest prestige.
To regard universal knowledge as the whole of knowledge is to take no account of embodiment and purposiveness, those features of thinkers who are always in particular situations.
Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that Pluto was a planet. For decades we were convinced that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur.
We're bombarded with studies that seemingly prove this or that. Caffeine is good for you one day and bad for you the next. What we think we know and understand about the world is constantly changing. Nothing is immune. While big ideas are overturned infrequently, little ideas churn regularly.
As scientific knowledge grows, we end up rethinking old knowledge. Abresman calls this “a churning of knowledge.” But understanding that facts change (and how they change) helps us cope in a world of constant uncertainty. We can never be too sure of what we know.
In introducing this idea, Abresam writes:
Knowledge is like radioactivity. If you look at a single atom of uranium, whether it’s going to decay — breaking down and unleashing its energy — is highly unpredictable. It might decay in the next second, or you might have to sit and stare at it for thousands, or perhaps even millions, of years before it breaks apart.
But when you take a chunk of uranium, itself made up of trillions upon trillions of atoms, suddenly the unpredictable becomes predictable. We know how uranium atoms work in the aggregate. As a group of atoms, uranium is highly regular. When we combine particles together, a rule of probability known as the law of large numbers takes over, and even the behavior of a tiny piece of uranium becomes understandable. If we are patient enough, half of a chunk of uranium will break down in 704 million years, like clock-work. This number — 704 million years — is a measurable amount of time, and it is known as the half-life of uranium.
It turns out that facts, when viewed as a large body of knowledge, are just as predictable. Facts, in the aggregate, have half-lives: We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject’s knowledge to be overturned. There is science that explores the rates at which new facts are created, new technologies developed, and even how facts spread. How knowledge changes can be understood scientifically.
This is a powerful idea. We don’t have to be at sea in a world of changing knowledge. Instead, we can understand how facts grow and change in the aggregate, just like radioactive materials. This book is a guide to the startling notion that our knowledge — even what each of us has in our head — changes in understandable and systematic ways.
If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the result of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.
About this Einstein had said, “Evolution has shown that at any given moment out of all conceivable constructions a single one has always proved itself absolutely superior to the rest,” and let it go at that.
… But there it was, the whole history of science, a clear story of continuously new and changing explanations of old facts. The time spans of permanence seemed completely random, he could see no order in them. Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else.
A few pages later, Pirsig continues:
The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. That, more than anything else, is what science is all about. But historically science has done exactly the opposite. Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones.
With that, lets dig into how this looks. Arbesman offers a example:
A few years ago a team of scientists at a hospital in Paris decided to actually measure this (churning of knowledge). They decided to look at fields that they specialized in: cirrhosis and hepatitis, two areas that focus on liver diseases. They took nearly five hundred articles in these fields from more than fifty years and gave them to a battery of experts to examine.
Each expert was charged with saying whether the paper was factual, out-of-date, or disproved, according to more recent findings. Through doing this they were able to create a simple chart (see below) that showed the amount of factual content that had persisted over the previous decades. They found something striking: a clear decay in the number of papers that were still valid.
Furthermore, they got a clear measurement of the half-life of facts in these fields by looking at where the curve crosses 50 percent on this chart: 45 years. Essentially, information is like radioactive material: Medical knowledge about cirrhosis or hepatitis takes about forty-five years for half of it to be disproven or become out-of-date.
Old knowledge, however, isn't a waste. It's not like we have to start from scratch. “Rather,” writes Arbesman, “the accumulation of knowledge can then lead us to a fuller and more accurate picture of the world around us.”
Isaac Asimov, in a wonderful essay, uses the Earth's curvature to help explain this:
When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.
When our knowledge in a field is immature, discoveries come easily and often explain the main ideas. “But there are uncountably more discoveries, although far rarer, in the tail of this distribution of discovery. As we delve deeper, whether it's intro discovering the diversity of life in the oceans or the shape of the earth, we begin to truly understand the world around us.”
So what we're really dealing with the long tail of discovery. Our search for what's way out at the end of that tail, while it might not be as important or as Earth-shattering as the blockbuster discoveries, can be just as exciting and surprising. Each new little piece can teach us something about what we thought was possible in the world and help us to asymptotically approach a more complete understanding of our surroundings.
In an interview with the Economist, Arbesman was asked which scientific fields decay the slowest-and fastest-and what causes that difference.
Well it depends, because these rates tend to change over time. For example, when medicine transitioned from an art to a science, its half-life was much more rapid than it is now. That said, medicine still has a very short half-life; in fact it is one of the areas where knowledge changes the fastest. One of the slowest is mathematics, because when you prove something in mathematics it is pretty much a settled matter unless someone finds an error in one of your proofs.
One thing we have seen is that the social sciences have a much faster rate of decay than the physical sciences, because in the social sciences there is a lot more “noise” at the experimental level. For instance, in physics, if you want to understand the arc of a parabola, you shoot a cannon 100 times and see where the cannonballs land. And when you do that, you are likely to find a really nice cluster around a single location. But if you are making measurements that have to do with people, things are a lot messier, because people respond to a lot of different things, and that means the effect sizes are going to be smaller.
Arbesman concludes his economist interview:
I want to show people how knowledge changes. But at the same time I want to say, now that you know how knowledge changes, you have to be on guard, so you are not shocked when your children (are) coming home to tell you that dinosaurs have feathers. You have to look things up more often and recognise that most of the stuff you learned when you were younger is not at the cutting edge. We are coming a lot closer to a true understanding of the world; we know a lot more about the universe than we did even just a few decades ago. It is not the case that just because knowledge is constantly being overturned we do not know anything. But too often, we fail to acknowledge change.
Some fields are starting to recognise this. Medicine, for example, has got really good at encouraging its practitioners to stay current. A lot of medical students are taught that everything they learn is going to be obsolete soon after they graduate. There is even a website called “up to date” that constantly updates medical textbooks. In that sense we could all stand to learn from medicine; we constantly have to make an effort to explore the world anew—even if that means just looking at Wikipedia more often. And I am not just talking about dinosaurs and outer space. You see this same phenomenon with knowledge about nutrition or childcare—the stuff that has to do with how we live our lives.
Even when we find new information that contradicts what we thought we knew, we're likely to be slow to change our minds. “A prevailing theory or paradigm is not overthrown by the accumulation of contrary evidence,” writes Richard Zeckhauser, “but rather by a new paradigm that, for whatever reasons, begins to be accepted by scientists.”
In this view, scientific scholars are subject to status quo persistence. Far from being objective decoders of the empirical evidence, scientists have decided preferences about the scientific beliefs they hold. From a psychological perspective, this preference for beliefs can be seen as a reaction to the tensions caused by cognitive dissonance.
A lot of scientific advancement happens only when the old guard dies off. Many years ago Max Planck offered this insight: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
While we have the best intentions and our minds change slowly, a lot of what we think we know is actually just a temporary knowledge to be updated in the future by more complete knowledge. I think this is why Nassim Taleb argues that we should read Seneca and not worry about someone like Jonah Lehrer bringing us sexy narratives of the latest discoveries. It turns out most of these discoveries are based on very little data and, while they may add to our cumulative knowledge, they are not likely to be around in 10 years.
The Half-life of Facts is a good read that help puts what we think we understand about the world into perspective.
People function through their use of two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of and knowledge how.
…Knowledge how [is] what psychologists call procedural knowledge.
…Procedural knowledge is difficult or impossible to write down and difficult to teach. It is best taught by demonstration and best learned through practice. Even the best teachers cannot usually describe what they are doing. Procedural knowledge is largely subconscious.
The current educational regime is based on a certain view about what kind of knowledge is important: “knowing that,” as opposed to “knowing how.” This corresponds roughly to universal knowledge versus the kind that comes from individual experience. If you know that something is the case, then this proposition can be stated from anywhere. In fact such knowledge aspires to a view from nowhere. That is, it aspires to a view that gets at the true nature of things because it isn’t conditioned by the circumstances of the viewer. It can be transmitted through speech or writing without loss of meaning, and expounded by a generic self that need not have any prerequisite experiences. Occupations based on universal, propositional knowledge are more prestigious, but they are also the kind that face competition from the whole world as book learning becomes more widely disseminated in the global economy. Practical know-how, on the other hand, is always tied to the experience of a particular person. It can’t be downloaded, it can only be lived.
Some incomplete thoughts:
Knowledge of is knowing some fact. The world is full of people who ‘know’ stuff. These are the people that can recite facts. They know what something is called. They know the ten ways to write. They know calculus. But they often have difficulty understanding these things at a deeper level. Often, they are domain dependent. That is, they know something only in the context in which they learned it and experience difficulty applying it outside of that context.
We often end up knowing what something is called without really understanding. This is the illusion of knowledge.
As Charlie Munger says “You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”
This is a fascinating expert from “How Managers Express Their Creativity” by Herbert Simon that deals with information flow within grounds and organizations. Simon compares successful scientific research with successful stock-market investing. Both scientists and investors are looking for mis-priced bets.
In this respect, successful scientific research has much in common with successful stock-market investment. Information is only valuable if others do not have it or do not believe it strongly enough to act on it. The investor pits his knowledge, beliefs and guesses against the knowledge, beliefs and guesses of others.
In neither domain—science or the stock market—is the professional looking for a “fair bet.” On the contrary, he or she is looking for a situation where superior knowledge—knowledge not yet available to others—can be made, with some reasonable assurance, to pay off. Sometimes that superior knowledge comes from persistence in acquiring more “chunks” than most others have. Sometimes it comes from the accidents that have already been mentioned. But whatever its source, it seldom completely eliminates the element of risk. Investors and scientists require a “contrarian” streak that gives them the confidence to pit their knowledge and judgment against the common wisdom of their colleagues.
If you're interested in learning more about Herbert Simon, I recommend reading Models of My Life. I've also written about Simon before (here, and here).