Post summary:

Proper understanding of any domain is flanked by two failure modes:

  1. People who fail to learn (the autodidact’s cold start problem, failure to understand)
  2. Instructors who fail to teach (the curse of knowledge, failure to explain)

I am trying to navigate both of these in NYC government and politics, while also writing about advanced topics in those domains. It is my “ayy lmao.

I might start referring to the phenomenon of navigating these obstacles as “The Standard Disclaimer” and putting it at the top of some posts where I also link to this post.

The point of The Standard Disclaimer is to say: “I want to teach you, and I want you to understand. For a self-governing people, more learners need to tackle the cold start problem, and more teachers the curse of knowledge, in the political realm. But not all posts can be aimed at, or explained for, beginners. If you don’t understand, don’t be discouraged—that is regular, and I see you. Ask for clarification, explore, be patient, do not speak in abstraction to cover over lack of concrete knowledge.”

ayy lmao


Successful understanding in any field of knowledge is assailed by two large failure modes, one from the neophyte/student/primary-learner’s direction, the other from the veteran/teacher/practitioner’s direction. Sometimes they apply together, sometimes separately, and to different degrees in either case.

Students face the autodidact’s cold start problem. Like someone trying to apprehend a frictionless item, they are unable to get enough of a grip on a body of knowledge to observe it. They don’t know where to start, they are overwhelmed by the field’s (seemingly) unending variety, and they do not possess the skill to select a teacher for themselves. The result: they do not learn. They remain ignorant, and possibly more frustrated than before, becoming even less likely to learn their chosen subject in the future. If there are social/status incentives to appear knowledgeable about a subject like this, they will bullshit and refuse to cultivate actual knowledge.1

Instructors face the curse of knowledge. They forget what it is like to know nothing about their field, and they cannot replicate the more narrow epistemic context of their students2 and operate within it.3 They explain things in a way that assumes too much knowledge, they do not properly motivate their lessons by connecting them to practice (assuming it must be obvious), they cannot distinguish between a student naming something and understanding it,4 and they come to blame their students for intellectual inability, rather than examine their own inability to teach.5

Although every domain faces these twin problems, New York government and politics get hit with both especially hard. I think about these failure modes all the time—not just when designing my syllabus and contemplating my own teaching methods for The Foundations of New York, but when I write and tweet anything about NYC politics.

Most political reportage is functionally beyond the reach of almost everyone (most people recognize words like “governor,” but don’t actually know what this person does), and almost no one possesses the time/resources/motivation to burst through their own cold start problem and rise to the high amount of context needed to understand it. I’m trying to address both of these problems at the same time.

Some of my means of doing this, which I’ve been working on, are something like:

  • Call out explicitly that politics is very technical, and that by default no one should expect to understand it easily (although social status games mean a lot of people resort to bullshitting the appearance of knowledge); you can’t get a good grip on it via osmosis. You have to actively endeavor to apprehend it. I also note the nature of my intended audience, and their knowledge level. I did all of this in a recent post analyzing a New York land use reform panel.6 This reduces the amount of people who think something like “why don’t I understand this,” by calibrating their expectations of what they would reasonably understand. It raises the temperature of the cold start.
  • Continually revising and experimenting with the way I present my introduction to NYC law and government when students don’t understand my explanations. If they don’t understand, it is my job to help them understand. If they can’t see a way to apply what I’ve taught, that is my failing, not theirs.
  • Introducing new subjects, or reviewing old ones, through the lens of concreteness briefs.7

Notes

  1. They will adopt anti-concreteness as a rule, and will come to be threatened by those who actually know what they’re talking about. 

  2. One of the best explanations of “narrowing an epistemic context,” aka “meeting students where they are,” is this video of the physicist Richard Feynman telling an interviewer why he (Feynman) can’t explain to the interviewer how magnets work on a fundamental level. Basically: unless the interviewer became a student of physics, he would only be able to understand magnetism in extremely simple terms. He doesn’t have the concepts, vocabulary, or understand for Feynman to give him the answer he wants. 

  3. This is why some of the best teachers in an area are often those who are just a few lessons ahead—they still fully remember what it is like to not understand, and they can deploy the lessons they just learned that helped them. 

  4. On the Feyman technique of knowledge validation: “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?”

    Put more succinctly: learn more than the name of the bird

  5. I wrote some notes to would-be instructors of politics in Thoughts on The Pedagogy of Politics. 

  6. From Understanding NYC’s land use, and how to fix it to enable housing production: “The report is difficult to parse because, for many people, there are too many unknown things to look up all at once. It’s a professional document that’s easy to digest only after many (perhaps tens) of hours of learning. The panel discussion about this report is even more difficult in this regard, because most panelists are speaking in a technical manner to a sophisticated audience; they reduce the names of laws and city agencies to quick-spoken acronyms, and it can be very unclear what the relationship between city and state law is if you don’t already know. If you were a lay member of the public expecting to comprehend the panel discussion, you would probably not. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because I don’t think the audience was lay people—it was an audience interested in, and versed in, land use policy. But if you’re learning about land use and want a helping hand (especially if you’re in The Foundations of New York), I think reading a transcript of the panel discussion is much easier than just listening to it (I recommend doing both at the same time). You can look up foreign acronyms, pull out quotes to ask about, and more easily match up speakers and ideas.” 

  7. These are short overviews of the information needed for parties to successfully begin communicating about political topics. They are not primarily persuasive; they are meant to introduce proper epistemological methodology.