Wednesday 7 April 2021

The curse of knowledge: are you being "helpful" or just patronising?

Everyone has been accused of being patronising at some point in their lives. Patronising, by the way, is when you...

Ok, so this is a terrible joke but it does point to a problem: when do you explain something to someone?

The curse of knowledge happens in conversations when you mistakingly believe that they know what you know. It is more likely to happen in situations when jargon is involved but it is not always so easy to spot when you are doing it.

The curse of knowledge, however, is always present. It is happening right now as I am this writing this. I am making an assumption about your knowledge. To do this, I have a likely reader in mind, someone who I think knows the definition of patronising and can read English, for example. The problem is out of the (many millions) of people who read my blog, it is likely that someone will not understand the definition of patronising. What is even more likely, is that I have a slightly different definition to you. 

In any conversation, the chances of a misunderstanding in this way are a result of two things: me not explaining something and you not asking me to explain what I mean. The former can happen because I assume you know how I am defining something or I don't want to appear patronising. The latter happens because you are afraid to ask and don't want to look stupid. 

Alternatively - and the one I believe is the cause of most misunderstandings - you have a different definition to me and we both assume our definitions are the same. This happens all the time with debates about "capitalism" or "socialism" and is particularly pernicious with misleading words. 

So why do we get annoyed by someone explaining something to us that we already know? What we are accusing them of, is thinking it is highly likely we will know. 

The person explaining, however, could in fact think it is quite likely that you do know, but they just want to make sure. This all implies though that there is some level of certainty of the other person's knowledge above which we won't bother explaining e.g. I won't explain X if I am 80% sure the other person knows. Of course, we don't actually think in probabilities and this tolerance level will change depending on the situation. I would want to be 99.99% sure the other person knows which colour wire to cut if I were talking someone through a bomb defusal, even if afterwards the person accuses me of being patronising (it's a cross I am willing to bear).

This level is quite important because the higher we set it, the more likely we are to make the mistake of explaining to someone something that they already know. The flip side is that it becomes less likely that we do not explain something and the person ends up not knowing. This is akin to false positives and false negatives from hypothesis testing in statistics. What level we set may be arbitrary but it has real trade-offs: decreasing the chances of false positives increase the chances of false negatives and vice versa. It is also a big part of how science works and something I think people should know more about.* 

But what about situations where someone just wants to helpfully explain and make fewer false positives. If the person gets annoyed at you explaining it to them, is there annoyance really justified? If you are not being actively condescending by rubbing it in saying they "should really know the answer what", what's the harm?

Well I think there is some harm caused by this. Invariably you will make judgement calls about what to explain and when, you can't explain everything to everyone (it would take forever) and a lot of this reasoning is subconscious. Consider, for example, mansplaining. Men may think that they do not treat men and women differently when it comes to explaining things, but it is extremely difficult for a person to know for sure. 

I don't think there is a simple solution to this. However, I do think rather than explaining the "correct" definition per se, it is probably better to offer personal definitions. For example, saying "my understanding" of something is very different from saying "this is what X means". At the same time, we should be politely asking people how they are defining something more often. Hopefully, this will let us avoid the curse of knowledge without being overly patronising.

*You may have heard of p=0.05 before which is often the arbitrary level set in hypothesis testing. There is nothing special about p=0.05, we can set it lower at p=0.01 and we would get fewer false-positive and more false negatives. If we set it higher, say at p =0.10, the opposite occurs. But it is not just a simple probability and has quite a specific meaning which is often misinterpreted. We explain hypothesis testing and why it often goes wrong in our new book.

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